In Brief : The Underwater Welder

Sometimes, you log in to Amazon for the one moment a graphic novel on your wish list has dropped 75% in price. And in that moment, you buy The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire. Though Lemire dwells often in the superhero realm, Welder is the story of an ordinary man facing his past in order to face his future. It is an exploration of pressure crystallized on the black and white page.

The Artwork

The Underwater Welder is a story in ink mixed with grayscale watercolor. Damon Lindelof compares the story to an episode of the Twilight Zone in his introduction. The gray palette certainly helps, and enables some of the artistic effects, many of which are designed to nearly freeze a moment in time and allow the reader to think:

There are instances in the book where Lemire breaks a still shot into six panels. As a reader, I loved this effect as it forced me to survey the scene with particular interest. Creative application of such simple concepts add depth to a moment.

There are recurring liquid moments – perhaps a necessity in an underwater novel. Among these, there are plip panels which feature a drop falling into a puddle. They are distributed throughout, but they unify the storytelling voice and highlight moments within the broader context.

What often moves a story from quaint to profound, and what is perhaps my favorite overall feature of the art, is the author’s apparent trust in the moment he created. Beautiful visual stories let the human intellect do a little bit of the work. Storytellers who leave nothing to the imagination often steal from their own work because they remove their readers/viewers from the process. Lemire lets seconds linger in simplicity in such a way that invite engagement. He brings numerous moments to a standstill without telling the reader what to think.

The Story

The Underwater Welder tells the story of Jack Joseph, a father-to-be who works beneath an offshore oil rig as a welder. His father Pete, also a diver, died on Halloween when Jack was only 10. Jack is wrestling with generational chains, working to reconcile the past as he faces his own future.

The story, like the art, is simple enough as to be broadly appealing and applicable. Jack Joseph is utterly ordinary, which makes him accessible. But in the details, Lemire establishes a reason to care for his characters, to invest in their circumstance, and to anticipate the resolution.

Early on, Jack has something of a supernatural underwater encounter that stuns and confuses him at first, nearly killing him. With each passing hour, the encounter entrances him and compels him to return to the water.

Where the story goes all Twilight Zone is in the third and fourth episodes. Jack lives out an eerie extended moment derived especially as a revelation for his life. The noise is removed and he is alone with himself. Without spoiling too much, Jack is trapped by the gift of exploring the his father’s death and his present pain. It is marvelously drawn and presented. It was worth the full price of admission… which makes the 75% off even more celebratory!

In the back half, as Jack fights the generational pull to become his perception of his father, the story and artwork move seamlessly in circuit from young Jack to old Jack to old Pete. Lives are intertwined and in the knotted mess, Jack is figuring out what went wrong, what is still yet right, and where his future lies.

The second half of the story rolls downhill at a lively pace. I loved the conclusion, not because it was unforeseeable, but because it had heart. It had gravity and lent itself to contemplation. Jack Joseph’s life was colored by the complicated life and death of his father. Jack Joseph’s life was about to become the brush that would color his own child’s beginning. This is the tapestry of humanity, and it is worth exploring in all its ordinary glory.

Ultimately, The Underwater Welder is a story about the revelatory power of pressure. Pressure can crush things, leaving only pieces. Pressure can also chip away the brokenness to reveal integrity. Jack’s story, and the destiny of his family, lie in the human response to immense pressure.

A Worthwhile Read

Even as a graphic novel, The Underwater Welder is a welcome moment apart from the noise of life to explore and ponder the complexities of the human soul, a chance to consider the effect of sin that lingers from one generation to the next, an opportunity to weigh the significance of the father/son relationship, and an entertaining and visually engaging read to boot.

Jeff Lemire has set the table for a number of interesting conversations. Grab a cup of coffee and jump in.

 

 

In Brief : The Road

As I’ve read various everyman reviews for Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel, The Road, I’ve realized that it can be a polarizing story. There are those who see it as a marvelous tale of sacrificial love and hope. There are others who can’t stand the abandonment of punctuation and the repetitively repetitive nature of it all.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic story of survival featuring a nameless man and his nameless son in an ashen and dreary world. Without crops, animals, or even the sun, the world is on the brink of extinction. The two travel the road in search of life and survivors, though trust is also in short supply as many have turned to crime and cannibalism.

The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2007, so it must get something right. But to be honest, I can sympathize with the detractors. Since I finished it this weekend, I’ve come to call it the best worst book I’ve read in a long time. My thoughts are all over the map here, and I could write for days… but since the title says In Brief… 

The Best

Cormac McCarthy drew me in deep with his mastery of English vocabulary. In a world that is gray and barren, he unearths a great variety of words to communicate grayness and barrenness. He draws on language to reveal depths of despair and courage, and for that I am in awe. His prose is elegant.

The dialogue between the man and his son is often cold and distant like the world they traverse – serving a thematic purpose – and is apparently drawn from McCarthy’s own personal relationships.

Given the dire situation, there is no shortage of suspense as they come upon decrepit dwelling after dwelling. The man’s deliberate drive to find sustenance in sketchy places alongside the boy’s hesitation and fear at what else they might find create a fantastic tension both in the story and in their relationship.

Providing contrast and complexity in the characters, the man looks upon every surviving human with skepticism, the boy with compassion. This creates an internal/emotional tension that nicely expands the situational elements.

The Road contains the elements of greatness… which is why it is the best worst book that I’ve read in some time.

The Worst

The artist in me wants to believe that McCarthy left out the punctuation used in the top half of the line (quotations & apostrophes) in order to highlight the glass being half. Half full? Half empty? I suppose that’s a matter of perspective.

The writer in me wants to believe that he left it out in order to blur the lines between the man, his son, and anyone or anything else they happen to encounter. Why attribute words to particular persons when all are simply seeking survival in a blurry world?

The reader in me thinks his prose is strong enough that the lack of punctuation is annoying. McCarthy’s writing doesn’t require tricks. If a device must be overlooked in order to enjoy the book, it’s not worth including.

The characters, while complex, are also quite flat. Just like the world they inhabit, the characters encounter little growth or change (which, I know, is probably the point). I might have enjoyed this aspect more if McCarthy had explored the past a little more or further utilized their dialogue/dreams/flashbacks/thoughts to a greater extent.

I was losing heart in the middle of the book. I really didn’t want to finish. But I read a few reviews (without spoilers) that said, I’m so glad I stuck with it to the end. And so I persisted.

Love and Courage Without Hope

McCarthy’s man embodies sacrifice and survival. He lives for the boy’s wellness. The barren world places them in a situation where flight is not a viable option (from the situation or the accompanying suffering), and so the beauty of his love is that it gives all in the face of insurmountable odds.

McCarthy’s boy is the image of cautious trust, wanting to see goodness yet painfully aware of the reality of evil. He possesses an appropriate and surprising childlike faith, both in his father as protector and provider, and in an uninformed notion of God as a grounded source of black and white amid the world presented as eternally gray.

But while I applaud the complicated relationship of father and son, I diverge from the multitudes in the misguided notion that there is any lasting hope on The Road. McCarthy gives no room for ultimate hope. There is no food. No sunshine. No possibility of growing or cultivating livelihood. Mentions of an eternal reality are hollow at best. Everyone will die, and soon. The only revealed mission of every living human is to consume what remains.

The Road is hopeless. The man’s love has no ultimate relevance because it serves only to prolong both his and the boy’s pain in a world which boasts not even the slightest glimpse of light. The boy’s trust is charming but McCarthy gives no reason to believe he’s accomplished anything but finding a bigger family to die alongside.

Through his apocalypse, McCarthy lifts the veil of worldly distraction and comfort, and exposes the emaciated core of a materialistic worldview. On The Road, it doesn’t matter where we came from or how we got here, because ultimately we’re not going anywhere and so it doesn’t matter which way we go. Love merely serves to make the hopeless tolerable.

If the story meant to convey hope, the least the man could have done was tell the boy about love, beauty, and the colorful world he once knew. Instead, he suppressed it all as dangerous. He prepared the boy for an eternally ashen existence of militant survival.

I might like to ask Cormac McCarthy why he would bother to compose such aesthetic prose to tell the story of a man who refused to allow his son to even imagine color.

There is a journey. But without an anchor upon which to rest questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny, The Road leaves us only to eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

Best worst book.

 

Homeschool Dad : On Chess

Having finished the first year, I’ve been preparing our portfolios for review and giving thought to next year’s curriculum and objectives. It makes sense, then, that I’ve also been reflecting on the year’s highs and lows and evaluating potential changes.

One last-minute subject that I never would have intended to teach were it not for a couple of well-timed blog posts is chess. I’ve long appreciated the game, even if I’ve never spent intentional time considering strategies. I can honestly say I learned alongside the kiddos, and that at this point it is only a matter of time before they far exceed my capabilities.

For a text, I chose two books. The Batsford Book of Chess for Children (book links to Amazon) by Sabrina Chevannes was the favorite. Chevannes introduces the game using the framework of a conversation between a comic brother and sister, top-notch color graphics, and enough humor to engage the kiddos. (Star Wars references are helpful!) Our students (age 9, 9, and 7 at the outset) loved it, understood it, and looked forward to it weekly.

Chess for Children by Murray Chandler became our supplementary text. This bare-boned presentation rests on the same level as Batsford. Though a little cluttered and monochrome, there are tremendous paper exercises throughout this book that proved useful.

For a schedule, we chose Mondays for lessons, and three days throughout the week for individual games. While one of the kiddos would read aloud to me, the other two would face off. As the year rolled on, we added notation to their games so that they could practice writing, reading, and reliving games.

Once we finished the text, we began reviewing tournament matches as a way of introducing opening strategies. Thanks to chessgames.com, we were able to visit a number of classic master matches and see how a variety of players utilized particular opening moves. The kiddos particularly enjoyed meeting Bobby Fischer and his King’s Indian.

Perhaps the nerdy dad highlight of the year was the first time the kiddos responded to an aggressive bishop capture with a boisterous OH!, or a queen sacrifice with a loud WHAT?!? as if they had just watched Randy Johnson blow up a bird.

To sum up, teach them chess. Teach them to think abstractly and strategically. Rejoice when they work together as a team to defeat you. Be afraid when you realize your now-8yr old daughter traps your queen – on purpose. Celebrate when they challenge random college students to games and win. Delight in the development of a wholly different portion of their amazing brains!

In Brief: Pinocchio

Our literary quest through the homeschool year ended with a massive flourish as we enjoyed Carlo Lorenzini’s (better known as Collodi, his adopted surname which doubles as the name of his hometown) classic Pinocchio. 

From a schooling perspective, our typical approach with any classic is to read the book, view the most popular version on film, and then write a reflection piece detailing the similarities, differences, and our personal preferences. In the case of Pinocchio, my children and I unanimously preferred the Collodi version.

My daughter preferred the suspense of the 1883 classic. My sons preferred the broader variety in the story and the detail with which Collodi brought the puppet and secondary characters to life. Personally, I preferred the depth of Pinocchio’s transformation which was utterly (and regrettably) absent in the mammoth Disney offering.

The Page vs. The Silver Screen

If there are complaints about the original tale of the beloved puppet, typically they revolve around his biting and nasty character, or the lethal peril which he faces after every increasingly disappointing decision. In all honesty, Pinocchio is as much the villain of the novel as any other. But it is the depth of the marionette’s depravity that makes his repentance all the more glorious.

The movie presents Pinocchio as the whimsical boy whose one bad decision leads to a series of unfortunate events. The viewer is led to sympathize with Pinocchio as a victim. His brokenness is shallow. So, then, is his eventual transformation into a real boy. What was the point of it all? I guess when you wish upon a star, your mild misadventure will end in all your dreams coming true?

Collodi’s Pinocchio makes repeated willfully disobedient decisions, each a slap in the face to those who have loved him most. He abuses the sacrificial gifts of his father who fashioned him from a talking piece of wood. He rejects the redemptive efforts of the blue fairy who repeatedly comes to his aid. At every turn, he laments his situation, pleading for help and half-heartedly feigning sadness. He loves complaining and being the recipient of the world’s pity. It’s easy to dislike Gepetto’s puppet.

Even when he turns completely into an ass (the most egregious omission from the movie), he doesn’t break. Even when he is then sold into the big top to perform tricks, he does not repent. Even when he’s lamed after failing at the tricks and sold to a trader who intends to kill him, skin him, and turn him into a drum, he’s not ready to change.

It’s only when that trader throws him into the sea with a millstone around his neck that the Pinocchio of the page changes. Critics of the book complain that Pinocchio so vividly describes the fifty-minute ordeal under the sea where fish consume his donkey flesh, leaving only the wooden skeleton behind. But it is this death that leads to Pinocchio’s true repentance.

Upon being pulled from the sea by the man (who then realized he wasn’t getting his drum!), Pinocchio repents. He changes. He seeks after his father Gepetto who had been swallowed by a great fish while searching for his son. He cares for the ailing blue fairy, sacrificing every earthly penny to restore her to health.

And it is at the end of this journey that Pinocchio becomes a real boy.

Sometimes the best part of good news is first knowing the bad news. Where Disney, sadly, offers cheap grace and a couple of catchy songs, Collodi walked his main character through the valley of the shadow of death. My children and I both appreciated the depth of Collodi’s story, which only left us wanting more of the film.

The Takeaway

More than a morality tale, Pinocchio tells the story of a living creature who was little more than dust, who was crafted into the image of his maker, destroyed his own conscience (yes, Collodi’s Pinocchio kills the cricket at the first suggestion that his actions were foolish), swallowed the most dastardly lies, and discarded the most valuable treasures, believing that his way would be more fruitful.

The real Pinocchio shows the consequence of foolishness as the main character chases fleeting pleasures and transforms fully into a donkey, just as it was promised he would.

The real Pinocchio shows that a cheap turn will not suffice. Talk is cheap if the heart remains darkened. Only the death of wicked selfishness can lead to the kind of change that would satisfy his heart’s greatest desire.

Pinocchio then shows the power of a transformed life as it radiates with true love, self-sacrifice, generosity, and joy.

Personally, I believe my children preferred Collodi’s story because it echoes the greatest story. Likewise, I think many dislike the original because it provides an all-too-familiar look into the depths of our own souls and makes clear that the road to true transformation comes through death to self.

The cost of becoming what we were created to be is quite severe. More than we would or could pay on our own. Am I allowed to say that Collodi’s Pinocchio made me praise my Savior?

 

 

The Imaginative Edgar Cuthwellis : Alice #1

I can still remember the season in which my wife, over a series of nights spanning several months, would lay in bed with the kiddos, devising a story extemporaneously that featured our brood as the main characters. (As I recall, there was a healthy infusion of Star Wars phrasing employed at the time…) The children were delighted to be made a part of the story, and they would rush halfway down the stairs to tell me of their latest adventures.

Stories improvised in a moment often take exciting twists and turns, the kinds of maneuvers that keep children wide-eyed and wondering. It should not come as a surprise, then, to know that Alice in Wonderland began as a series of on-the-spot tales devised for a group of children by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

Lutwidge became Ludovic became Lewis.
Charles became Carroll.

Or so says the diary of C.L. Dodgson from February 11, 1856.

(A transposition of the name Charles Lutwidge was also considered, but who knows if he’d be nearly as famous had he gone with the name Edgar Cuthwellis.)

The Liddell children were the first audience of the adventures in Wonderland. Alice Liddell served as the muse for the adventures and received the first written copies of the tales. For 20 years, Alice (Liddell) Hargreaves held the original autographs of Wonderland, complete with Carroll’s ink illustrations. Only after 120,000 copies were in print did he request permission to share the originals with the world. What a special treasure to have held for so long!

Atop his gift for clever and fanciful tales, Dodgson was a mathematician (a big fan of Euclid, he was), a logician, a theologian, and a gifted photographer. The word genius is thrown around quite often in Carroll’s biographical sketches. He was an outstanding student and teacher. Yet it was fiction that would dominate his earliest legacy.

It is necessary to acknowledge, even as I am still reading and processing, the somewhat questionable side of Charles Dodgson. Admittedly, I approach my summer reads without much preparatory research. After all, part of the point of the summer read is to do the research in community! As such, I have only begun to read the essays concerning Dodgson’s “artistic and emotional obsession” with little girls.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re sitting exactly where I was at the beginning of the week! Yes, there is an underbelly to Lewis Carroll that is debated and oft-discussed among those who have endeavored to study the man behind Wonderland. Having only read the classic nonsense stories in my younger days, I have wavered between fascination and disappointment this week! And yet the summer will roll on.

I’m no biographer of Lewis Carroll, nor am I a scholar of the Victorian era or the “child-worship” that is attributed thereto. But I enjoy a journey, and I’m ready to engage. I’m thankful for my nerdy Norton Critical Edition. 

Thus far, I’m hooked. I want to know the man and the method behind Wonderland. I’m thankful to know that the stories were all but made up in a moment expressly for the enjoyment of children – and a particular Alice. I’m hoping to find greater clarity regarding the story behind the story.

If nothing else, this week has been a constant reminder that no man is holy unto himself. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – even those who spend their lives in service of his Kingdom. Dodgson himself expressed such a thought in numerous journal entries and letters.

I hope you’re ready to jump in! I hope you enjoy the classic nonsense! If you’re local and you’re reading along, I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about this summer!

 

(Check out more about Summer Reading : Alice)

Flappers and Fancy: Gulliver #9

If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read through Chapter IV of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels.

This week was slow for reading. Our schedule (and a couple nights of illness) didn’t allow for the same time in the story. That makes me sad. It happens, though. I’ll catch up with the kiddos tonight, and then we’ll be off for voyage #3. I hope you’ve been able to enjoy your time in Gulliver. I know our family has found reasons to smile throughout. Even our three-year-old asks for it by name (I’m not sure he knows what’s what, but that doesn’t stop him from asking for “Gover”).

Satire knows no rest. At least, not in the world of Lemuel Gulliver. A mere ten days after arriving home from two extraordinarily strange journeys, he is invited yet again to sail the seas. Two months later, he is adrift. If I’m being honest, though the first two voyages are perhaps the most well known, it is the final two which stand as my favorites. They are, in many ways, the most absurd. And yet, at the same time, they offer us an even larger mirror through which to view humanity – sometimes in particularly relevant ways.

The floating island of Laputa, unusual as it may be, doesn’t hold a candle to the natives in terms of absurdity. Two particular features scream with modern application… flappers and fancy.

Flappers

Laputans are known to drift mid-conversation into a world of their own self-important imaginations. (We know nothing of such problems here in the sophistication of the 21st century!) What happens when an island is entirely inhabited by humans incapable of sustained focus on other humans?

Flappers.

Flappers, or Climenoles in the native Laputan tongue, follow the natives, carrying a pea-filled bladder strung from a stick which is used to flap people on the ears and mouth (and occasionally the eyes) in order to reset their span of attention and welcome their inflated minds back to earth. Swift is believed to be jabbing at London’s Royal Society, a learned group of scientists established sixty-six years prior to the publication of Gulliver which still exists today. While Swift may have had a target in mind, I think it’s safe to say his commentary extends comfortably into our modern context.

It would seem that these Laputans do have the capacity to dial in and focus… just not for another human. They are content to chase their own thought processes, their own calculations, their own discoveries. But along the way, it is the inclusion of another member of the species that requires an extra jolt. In other words, it is in relationship that they most desperately fail. In communication.

Think about the last person you met, for the first time for the last time. (Sorry, Spaceballs was on last week). What was their name? I am excessively guilty of this. I meet a person. I get their name. I immediately forget their name and go back to thinking about myself. What do I want to say next? How can I make this person like me? How can I get rid of this person? (Hint: forgetting their name helps) So often in conversation, my mind drifts to the next thing I’m going to say – and in the process I stop attending to the living, breathing human in front of me. This is probably why I need 2-5 quality interactions (preferably at my house, for some reason) before I remember anything of value.

Personally? I could use a flapper. How about you?

 

Fancy 

Another key feature of the Laputans is their apparent inability to bring their brilliant encounters in the clouds down to earth in any practical way. For example, they are renown for their mathematical prowess, yet they cannot use simple geometry to craft a shirt. The illustrated version pictures limp third sleeves, baggy proportions (and horrid colors?!). All the intellect in the skies over Balnibarbi is useless without practical application. Somehow, their servants are able to carve food into geometric shapes – a clearly useful skill – but they cannot properly clothe themselves.

This is probably something of an extension of the whole flapper business. But here I am convicted of a very basic principle… a killer reading list, a puffed-up noggin, and a top-notch vocabulary (anybody knock out the vocab assessment on facebook this week?) are useless if the knowledge attained never finds its way into practical application. At the same time, I would emphasize that I view this as no reason to avoid study, but rather as a clarion call to pursue studies that produce practical fruit in our lives.

As I write this, I am preparing for my summer run of camp preaching. I’ll be speaking 23x in 26 days. I am thankful that 19 of those occasions allow for me to overlap material, but there is still a ton of preparation involved, which means (for me) a boatload of reading. Regardless of my audience, I choose to challenge myself deeply in preparation. I will read biblical and systematic theologies, scholarly papers and books, commentaries and novels… to teach children. (for the first 10 messages, anyway!)

Now granted, I will never share 97% of what I read, but I’m always feeding the conversation inside my head in order to gain a better understanding. I chase knowledge to the exclusion of everything around me, at times beyond my own comprehension, just so I can stand in front of a group of kiddos and say “Jesus loves you” with an extra measure of confidence.

If I’m not careful, I pay closer attention to the conversation in my head than the one in my living room. If I’m not careful, I spend so much time reading that I forget to apply the most simple expression of truth to my own life. If I’m not careful, I confuse more than I instruct, failing to pass on the wisdom I’m called to impart.

This Laputan business is not stuck on another continent, in another century. This is my life.

I laugh at the flappers. I think about sending flappers to friends and family. But who needs the flappers more? Could it be *gasp* me?

I laugh at the thought of a three-armed shirt. But how often do I misapply the knowledge I am fed?

More and more, I’m thankful for the light Mr. Gulliver is shining!

 

In the Shadow of a Giant: Gulliver #8

If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read through Chapter V of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.

The more I think about our journeys with Gulliver thus far, the more I’ve realized how I struggle to sympathize with the giant. Maybe it says something about my view of humanity. Even though I know we are supposed to assume the vantage point of Gulliver throughout the voyages, I just couldn’t be Gulliver the Man-mountain. I couldn’t allow myself to make everyone else the butt of the joke while I stood above them. My foolish heart is all-too-prone to prideful outbursts to allow for such an exercise. I was more drawn to the eyepiece of the Lilliputians. Maybe it says something about my view of humanity. Maybe the historical popularity of the Lilliputian story (almost to the exclusion of the next three episodes) says something about humanity.

I point this out to say I recognize that I then put forward something of an inconsistency when I so easily assume Gulliver’s vantage point on Brobdingnag. I am inclined to sympathize with the small. I’m not sure where everyone else is at this point, but I’m actually enjoying Brobdingnag more, because the goal of the voyage is to hold up that big ‘ol mirror to show Gulliver (and, by extension, you and me) how silly we and self-centered we can be.

Consider for a moment Gulliver’s reaction to the giant king’s perspective on England in Chapter III.

“This prince took a Pleasure in conversing with me, enquiring into the manners, religion, laws, government, and learning of Europe… after an hearty fit of laughing, asked me whether I were a Whig or a Tory… and thus he continued on, while my colour came and went several times, with indignation to hear our noble country… so contemptuously treated.” 

Gulliver’s country, his way of living, were called into question in a mocking tone. Like any of us, he was offended… at first. He couldn’t bear the thought of his very existence being ridiculed in the hands of a giant. Gulliver takes pride in his sight, his ability to engage wisdom and reason. And now, in the shadow of a giant, it is all fair game for laughter.

BUT… Gulliver has a quick change of heart.

“I began to doubt whether I were injured or no. For, after having been accustomed several months to… these people… the horror I had first conceived from their bulk and aspect was so far worn off, that if I had then beheld a company of English Lords and Laides… acting their several parts in the most courtly manner… I should have been strongly tempted to laugh as much at them as the King and his Grandees did at me.” 

Why the swift (pun intended) change of heart? Why the near instant reconsideration? Gulliver explains with comments peppered throughout this situation.

“as I was not in a condition to resent injuries…” (because of his small stature, what good would come of being offended?)

“(as) I observed every object upon which I cast my eyes to be of proportional magnitude…” (not only the people, but this world was bigger than he)

“So that I really began to imagine my self dwindled many degrees below my usual size.” 

Lemuel Gulliver, through this voyage to the peninsula of the giants, had the chance to see himself as small. And the smaller he became in relation to everyone and everything, he found freedom. Freedom to laugh at himself, his culture, his history, his future. He found freedom to let go of injury when someone was picking near his heart. He found freedom to live beneath his neighbor (whereas in Lilliput, he was of the utmost significance and far above even the greatest of their nation). Even if just for awhile.

Again, there are no footnotes of epic significance in this story. Other than to clarify explicit references made in the chapters, the story stands alone, and Gulliver is made quite small.

I believe Lilliput, if read through the eyes of the Man-mountain, serves to lower our defenses and prepare us to be examined on Brobdingnag. Through those same eyes, we now get to feel small, exploited, mocked, and mistreated. But, through the efforts of a young nurse named Glumdalclitch, Gulliver also experiences the kind of love that guards the weak… even if imperfectly.

Oh, that we would all feel so small as to be humble…
… and so loved as to be lifted up.

 

 

 

I Miss Being a Man-Mountain: Gulliver #7

If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read Chapters I-II of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.

Another week, and with it another voyage alongside Lemuel Gulliver. Having glanced through the story of Brobdingnag at the footnotes, I’ve noticed one significant difference in this second tale: his time in Brobdingnag seems less about Swift picking on particular English contemporaries, perhaps to spend more time considering Gulliver himself? The footnotes contain definitions and clarifications, but far fewer name references. On the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu, Gulliver was a magnificent Man-Mountain, observing and analyzing from his elevated perspective. He spoke from a position of dignity, respect, and valor. As such, his opinions carried a certain weight.

Times change.

Now, on the island of Brobdingnag, Gulliver himself is in the position of being quite small. He has quickly become the lesser creature, already compared to a weasel! Of all the details in the opening chapters, I was drawn to Gulliver’s comparison to his own experiences on Lilliput:

“I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second voyage against the advice of all my friends and relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the world: where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my hand, and perform those other actions which will be recorded for ever in the chronicles of that empire, while posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by millions. I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for, as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me?” 

Gulliver recalls with fondness how great it was to be big, significant in the eyes of all who looked upon. It was good to be the Man-Mountain! And now, the tables have turned and Gulliver finds himself at the mercy of these larger creatures. But notice the irony of his own statement! He takes it for granted that human creatures are more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk! As I understand the narrative, Gulliver considers himself throughout his adventures to be the standard in humanity. In other words, he is normal. Lilliputians are small, Brobdingnagians are large. He remains normal. And I suppose it is possible to maintain that perspective, but it’s hard to avoid the obvious fact that, in the eyes of the Lilliputians, Gulliver would have been the more savage and cruel creature – proportionate with his bulk.

The comparisons continue as he observes the giants. He describes their complexion with a touch of horror, their eyes with a note of humor. He describes the accommodations they provide as being rough and coarse – their finest linens seeming as sackcloth. With every colorful description, Gulliver is further casting light upon his own nature through the eyes of a Lilliputian. At times, he does recognize what he is doing, referring back to his friends on the tiny island. As I read the story, with these details, and observe the lack of contemporary references in footnotes, I can’t help but believe Brobdingnag exists (at least in these early chapters), to provide a commentary on the story we’ve just completed, shedding light on the narrator himself!

 

On Pride and Surrender

Gulliver taps into something very human in these words from the Christian perspective – though I understand this was certainly not Swift’s intention! I couldn’t help but think of the very natural progression in the young Christian. Original sin reveals that pride lies at the core of the human heart. The desire to rule, to be a self-significant Man-Mountain, is rampant and among our most basic realities. For the Christian, the transition from being ruler of my own roost to being a subject in the Kingdom of Christ is humbling, and, if I’m to be honest, troubling. Coming to grips with the effects of depravity, lingering sin, and eternal shortcomings is nothing short of life-altering. Surrender is a painful endeavor, particularly because surrender highlights my inability where I once saw myself as wholly sufficient and the possessor of elevated opinions.

The apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church, though, provide help. Too many Christians believe in free will without giving any consideration to what Martin Luther called the bondage of the will. Yes, we are free creatures and we decide here and there as our little hearts desire. But under the light of Romans 6, it becomes clear that our freedom is in bondage to one master or Another. Apart from Christ, we are slaves to sin. Our free hearts desire sin, and so we pursue sin. In Christ, we are slaves to righteousness. Our free hearts desire righteousness, and so we pursue righteousness. Romans 7 then goes on to describe the internal struggle that results from the lingering nature of sin amidst our pursuit of that which God describes as right and good.

I find Romans 6 & 7 helpful because they remind me that even when I was a Man-Mountain, sovereign in my own eyes, utterly free in my sin, I was not so large. I was responsible, but not sovereign. I was prostrating myself, albeit in ignorance, to a damning master. This truth serves both to humble my heart which is oh-so-prone to pride, and to magnify the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ – Jesus who loved me though I stood as his enemy. Jesus who loved me in order that I might cease to be the Man-Mountain and instead strive to stand among the least in the eternal Kingdom of my Lord.

And so as I consider the matter of surrender to the Lord, I realize that it’s not a matter of choosing surrender over personal sovereignty – crying with the saints rather than laughing with the sinners (sorry, Billy Joel). Rather, it is a matter of humble surrender to a good Master over ignorant surrender to a deadly one.

At times, like our friend Gulliver, I miss being the Man-Mountain. But then I remember that being the Man-Mountain was eternally less than I had believed it to be.

 

 

 

Irregular: Gulliver #6

If you are following along in the Summer Read, we’ve now finished the first voyage in Gulliver’s Travels.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), in his well-researched publication on the writings of Jonathan Swift, discussed his opinions on Gulliver, ranging from high praise for the first two voyages to utter disdain for the final voyage (building suspense!). I found his description of the voyages to be striking:

“No word drops from Gulliver’s pen in vain. Where his work ceases for a moment to satirize the vices of mankind in general, it becomes a stricture upon the parties, politics, and courts of Britain; where it abandons the subject of censure, it presents a lively picture of the vices and follies of the fashionable world, or of the vain pursuits of philosophy, while the parts of the narrative which refer to the traveller’s own adventures form a humorous and striking parody of the manner of old voyagers.”

Layers. First and foremost, Swift is known for his satire. Satire is defined by the good folks at Bing as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” In other words, Gulliver is picking at humanity. Peel that layer and he’s picking at politics. Peel that layer and he’s picking at fashion, philosophy, even the adventure novel itself – particularly Robinson Crusoe. (published 1719, seven years before Gulliver) Swift is regarded by many as being among the greatest satirists of all time, alongside Twain, Rabelais, etc.

And speaking of varied layers, J. Paul Hunter makes the case that Gulliver is not a novel at all. Hunter matches the style of Gulliver to a parody, a comedic imitation. Swift, apparently, is also the Alfred Matthew Yankovic of his generation? He uses the “adventure novel” as the springboard, so the resemblance to that style will be striking, even if the details draw out a certain level of absurdity. In the end, he uses this platform to hold up a mirror to his world.  

Why do I bring this up now?

There is a randomness to Gulliver‘s Travels. He moves from one day to the next, one topic to the next, one kingdom to the next in a manner that can be unsettling. In a matter of pages, he leaves one island, greets another, plans his escape, returns home with a boatload of miniature animals, gains wealth, settles family affairs, and is again on the sea. This after spending nearly equal space discussing the contents of his pockets (which, in and of itself, was a jab at one of the oft-mocked blunders of Robinson Crusoe) in Chapter II.

I typically waffle between two feelings while I’m reading the story. On one level, I feel the biting human commentary, which will only grow stronger by that fourth appalling journey (oh, the suspense!). On another level, I am thankful for footnotes because I feel like I’ve missed a joke. If you feel the same, you’re not alone! But it is the nature of this story to dwell in unpredictability and loose ends – all in the name of social commentary.

As an example, I’d like to share a few of the helpful footnotes:

Chapter I: Robinson Crusoe is also a third son.
Chapter I: Lilliputians reminiscent of pygmies who attacked Hercules.
Chapter I: Abundant urination stories reminiscent of Gargantua by Rabelais.
Chapter II: Emperor’s resemblance thought to describe George I.
Chapter III: Flimnap thought to be Sir Robert Walpole, head of the Whigs
Chapter IV: High heels = Tory/High Church; Low heels = Whig/Low Church
Chapter IV: Big-Endians = Catholics; Little-Endians = Protestants
Chapter V: Visit from Blefuscudians references Bolingbroke’s visit to the French Court in 1712.
Chapter VI: Firefighting probably reflects Swift’s relationship with Queen Anne.
Chapter VII: Visit mocks the Whig Committee of Secrecy.

These are just a few of the many, many contemporary references that season our story. There are more than 80 explanatory footnotes in the nerd version of Lilliput! Layer after layer after layer, Swift draws in various relevant figures and literary works to create a blended story. Where he is truly viewed as a master is in doing so with any sort of appeal. A story doesn’t thrive for nearly three centuries without manufacturing a certain broad and fascinating attraction. Historians can pick the story apart, children can wonder at the absurd circumstances, and we all reside somewhere in between.

Personally, I appreciate the broad mirror he holds up to humanity, even if I often miss the specific historical irony.

Sir Walter Scott goes on to say of Daniel Defoe (author of Crusoe), and subsequently Swift as well:

“He was well aware that the course of human life is as irregular and capricious as the process of natural vegetation.” 

Maybe irregularity can relate a story to our hearts differently than epic regularity (another term from Scott) because our thoughts and lives, at times, seem to be random. I suppose I would be excited if the zigzag chain of thinking that permeates my typical day spilled out onto a page sounding like Gulliver’s Travels. 

For now, I’ll have to settle for reading the next voyage. Bring on Brobdingnag!

 

 

 

An Ode to Make You Blush: Gulliver #5

Many have responded to Gulliver over the years. In addition to a number of essays and letters of correspondence in the nerd version are a handful of poems inspired by the tales. Lest you think the publications of the day were all prim and proper, this gem is found – word for word – amidst the bunchI have to admit, the style has a strong resemblance to the poems of Alexander Pope also found in the volume. I dare not speculate such a thing! But I felt this one was worth a good laugh.

(If you’ve not read Chapter V in Gulliver’s Travelsyou might not get the joke!)

A Lilliputian Ode on the ENGINE with which Captain Gulliver extinguish’d the Flames in the Royal Palace.
(published anonymously May/June 1727)

I.

Engine strong,
Thick and long!
With Surprize,
Have our Eyes,
View’d its Size;
And its Nose,
Like a Rose;
And its Beard,
Much rever’d!
How it stood,
When the Flood,
Pouring down,
Sav’d the Town!
Ev’n the Queen,
Who has seen
How it plays,
In Amaze
Fury quits;
And has Fits
Of Delight,
Since the Sight.
‘Tis a Thing
Makes the King
Sometimes glad,
Sometimes sad;
Pray Heav’n he run not mad

II.

O how strange
Is the Change
In the Crowd!
Wives are loud
In its Praise;
And with Bays
Want to spread
Its high Head!
Maids, with Joys,
Hear the Boys
Talk it o’er,
And adore!
Husbands now
Jealous grow;
And a-Nights
Are in Frights!
All Day long,
Every Tongue
Says or sings
Wondrous Things.
Titty Tit, (this is a name under which Pope published poems on Gulliver)
Master Wit,
Tries in vain,
Lofty Strain,
To set forth
Its Magnitude and Worth!

III.

Mountain-Man,
He who can
Reach thy Fame,
And proclaim
Stature odd,
Is a GOD.
O descend,
As a Friend,
To our State;
And beget
Such a Race
In this Place.
Female blest,
By thee prest;
Whose fierce Fire
Of Desire
Thy great Tool
Can but cool!
But ’tis such,
That too much
We intreat!
Ah! hard Fate.
One Flame out,
‘Tis past doubt,
That thy Parts
Have rais’d one in our Hearts.