Klavan On The Culture

Klavan On The Culture

Beowulf and Memorial Day

May 24th, 2015 - 9:15 am

A Deplorable Incident of Drago-phobia!

This 2010 essay of mine on Beowulf — the oldest epic poem in English (and great stuff if you’ve never read it) — is available in the excellent collection Thrillers: 100 Must ReadsI reprint it here in honor of Memorial Day, with humble thanks to all those who gave and give their lives to keep us safe and free.

Great works of literature often peel away the mask of our piety to expose the raw life underneath. So it is with Beowulf, a brooding, blood-soaked celebration of warrior manhood.

We in the modern West have been so powerful, so dominant, so safe in our homes for so long that we slip too easily into the illusion that we live at peace. We are never at peace, not really. When we go to the ballet or walk in the park or stop to smell a rose or read a book, we only do so by the good graces of the fighters who stand ready to kill and die to defend us. Soldiers on our borders, police officers on our streets—only the threat of their physical force keeps those who would murder, rob, or enslave us at bay. Every moment of tranquility and freedom implies the warrior who protects it. The world of Beowulf is the real world.

And what a wonderful poem it is, a tale and a tone of such ferocious, melancholy virility that it shocks the sometimes overdelicate modern mind. It’s the story of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf and his battles with monsters. It begins when Beowulf travels from Geatland in what is now Sweden to Denmark to come to the aid of King Hrothgar in his towering mead hall Herot. The Danes are being plagued by the swamp monster Grendel, “that shadow of death,” who hunts their warriors in darkness, “lying in waiting, hidden in mist, invisibly following them from the edge of the marsh, always there, unseen.” Beowulf is such a tough Geat, so bent on winning fame for his courage and prowess, that he disdains to use a sword to kill the beast and wrestles him bare-handed, ripping his arm off by main strength. Grendel slouches home to his swamp to die, thus sparking the rage of his mother, who comes for her revenge.

There’s plenty more—including digressive tales of war, betrayal, and tragedy—all set on misty fens and under murky waters and in broken, crumbling towers and halls that seem the earliest inspiration for the setting of many of today’s video games. Which is fitting, because really you have to turn to those games to find anything in modern art that so boldly elevates and celebrates the warrior and his drive to “win glory and a hero’s fame” in battle.

If you want to see how completely more “sophisticated” modern artists have lost the ability to understand those virtues and their ever-present necessity, take a look at the 2007 CGI film Beowulf by director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Note how entirely it subverts and corrupts the vision of the original. In the film, the warriors are drunken thugs and Grendel is King Hrothgar’s bastard child. This implies not only a measure of responsibility on the part of the Danes for their own slaughter, but also a tiresome Freudian psychomachy underlying the action. In the poem, conversely, Grendel is the child of “those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God.” He is roused from his slumber by the music and rejoicing in Herot, especially a poet’s song of the world’s genesis. The implication in the poem is far more insightful and unflinching than that in the film. The poem’s Grendel is a primal force of evil spawned by sinful human nature itself and now perennially at war with the creation. The guilt is not sexual and personal but general in terms of mankind’s instinct toward fraternal violence.

That general guilt gives Beowulf ’s heroism its context. It tells us that evil is woven into human nature, but that individual men may choose to stand against it. The film Beowulf descends into moral equivalence and relativism as Beowulf, in his turn, is seduced by Grendel’s mother, a slinky CGI version of the likewise slinky Angelina Jolie. “I know that, underneath your glamour, you’re as much a monster as my son, Grendel,” she tells him. Which is blithering nonsense. In the poem, she’s the monster and he’s the guy who’s got to kill her so that men may live in peace. That may not be nuanced or urbane or pseudo-deep, but it’s actually more honest, more like life as it is lived. The evils of this sad world are not always susceptible to analysis or negotiation. Some monsters are really monsters and just have to be taken down. That’s why poets write—or used to write— epics honoring the warriors who do the job.

And that’s why it’s fair to trace the thriller novel’s pedigree back to Beowulf and to include the epic in a list of thriller must-reads. It may not be a thriller in the modern sense of the word, but it holds the kernel of the idea that gives our genre one of its key reasons for being. In modern fiction, only genre novels—crime, horror, fantasy, sci-fi—regularly dramatize the existence of evil, the need for courage, and the glamour of physical strength and fighting skill. It’s an essential and too often neglected role of the arts to portray these things. If they don’t, it becomes too easy for us to forget them, too easy for us to be self-satisfied with our lives of compassion and peaceful loving kindness without paying tribute to the warriors who make those lives possible.

[Game of Thrones spoilers.]

I put the “liked” in quotes because, in fact, I could barely watch the scene, having developed so much protective affection for Sansa Stark and conceived such a visceral hatred of the squirrely sadist Ramsay Bolton who attacked her. I should also, just to be precise, put the “rape” in quotes since I imagine, in the medieval-style world of Game of Thrones, that was not technically a rape at all but merely a husband enjoying his wedding night privileges as he saw fit. But frankly, to hell with him; it was rape in my book.

And I should clarify, since those attacking the scene keep using words like “explicit” and referring to the show’s overuse of nudity: there was no nudity in the scene and it was not explicit at all; it happened offscreen.

But bottom line for me: While I’m sure this will be misread as blaming the victim, the rape flowed naturally out of all the characters’ actions and natures. What did you think a creep like Bolton would do to his bride? And did you really think Littlefinger cared for Sansa when he convinced the traumatized and innocent girl to barter herself away? And when Sansa agreed to Littlefinger’s plan, wasn’t she agreeing to buy revenge and power with her body and virginity? Game of Thrones is all about revenge and power and what people will do to get them. And the answer is: Anything.

The scene was attacked on one side by feminists, for… well, whatever silly reasons their fluffy little heads came up with. One girl at Salon whined that the camera focused on a male character’s reaction instead of the victim’s!  Absurd. That was to keep from showing us the rape and also because the director knew we were all looking to that male for rescue — it made the scene infinitely more painful to experience as he stood there helpless.

Anyway, it always makes me snicker right cruelly whenever someone on the left declares himself offended by a work of art. Art should shock you! they say. Art should challenge you! they say. But by you they mean you, not them; they have no need or desire to be shocked or challenged out of their pristinely moral positions. So, as with Ramsay, so with the feminists: to hell with them.

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Conservative Culture At Work!

It was my understanding when I agreed to do a blog that all the commenters would agree with me and all the female commenters would be beautiful. Sadly, only the second of these has turned out to be the case. When, a day or so ago, I put up a post explaining that Mad Max: Fury Road was a not-very-good movie and had been greeted with ecstasy by critics because of its feminist bent, several benighted and also misguided souls took it upon themselves to contradict me. I know, right? Crazy! But there it is. So with the kindly thought that it might be instructive and improving to these lost lambs to learn how they are mistaken, I offer a few responses.

First, to those who made comments to the effect that I was “thinking too much” and “politicizing everything,” let me assure you that I was thinking only exactly as much as necessary and, in fact, politicizing nothing at all. My point was not that Mad Max was not very good because it was feminist. I enjoy fantasy pictures! My point was that the story was poorly constructed, the central character ill-drawn, the action repetitive and the resolution absurd — and that the critics have overlooked this for political reasons. It was they who were being political, not I.

Second, several commenters rejected my idea that outlooks that are dishonest in general may produce honest stories because stories are individual and specific. My point was that while it’s absurd to say, for instance, “American women are oppressed,” a specific American woman may well be oppressed (just ask my wife!), and if you told a good story about her your stupid feminist philosophy might produce something worthwhile in spite of itself. Socialism is despicable nonsense but Germinal is a great novel — and indeed, its searing honesty ends by exposing the horror of its socialist philosophy, for which Zola was roundly criticized by the left despite his socialist credentials.

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Mad Max: Fury Road is not a good movie and the ecstasy with which the critics received it was dishonest. Tastes differ, of course, but I think in this case the critics are just lying for political reasons.

“It’s enough to renew your faith in the movies,” said Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone urged us to overlook the fact the picture doesn’t make sense and “Just go with it.” He praised director George Miller (who also directed the terrific original Mad Max and its sequel) as an “indisputable visionary genius.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said this: “It’s all great fun, and quite rousing as well — a large-scale genre movie that is at once unpretentious and unafraid to bring home a message…. It’s about revolution.”

I believe they said these untrue things because this not-very-good movie is feminist.

Now, I’m not a feminist. I’m an individualist who believes each person should do what he or she wants to do and is able to do without fear or favor. I believe that, in such a free world, more men will choose to do manly things and more women womanly things but that strikes me as a feature not a bug, since gender differences seem to me among the great beauties of life. Identity politics, on the other hand, is a misery imposed on us by the powerful in order to divide us so they can consolidate their power.

But while I consider feminism a dishonest and oppressive philosophy, I believe good feminist stories can be told. This is because even a philosophy that is a lie in general may be the truth in a specific, individual case and stories are individual and specific. Dishonest outlooks can produce honest stories. The left has been living off this fact for decades.

So while ideologically corrupt critics are going wild over Fury Road because it’s feminist, I’m not criticizing it because I’m anti-feminist. I’m criticizing it because it’s not very good. Its title character is ill-defined. His mission is emotionally muddy. The non-stop car chase action becomes tiresome about 45 minutes in (though I did find myself wondering wistfully if there was a video game to go with it!). The finale is unbelievable even in context. The color palette, I admit, is beautiful but if you’re watching an enormous action sequence and thinking about the color palette…  well, you get the idea.

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Brilliant! If John Boehner were always this honest and direct, he’d be Ted Cruz. But then he’d hate himself!

Still, I love this. Shameless, heartless, soulless Democrats use the deaths of those killed in this week’s Amtrak crash to score political points — really, how do they sleep at night? Then, a “journalist” dutifully megaphones the nonsense — and really, how do they sleep at night? And for once, instead of cringing and shuffling and shutting down, a Republican gives the minions of corruption exactly what they deserve. More! More!

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Werewolf Cop is “Awesome”

May 13th, 2015 - 7:03 am

An American literature teacher from Wheaton College delivered an excellent review to my new novel Werewolf Cop in the Providence Journal this week. Urging readers to ignore the “terrible” title (where is the irony???), Sam Coale wrote:

Forget the terrible generic title of this horrific, hallucinatory, haunting and harrowing tale by the author who’s won the Edgar Award twice. This “police procedural” suddenly turns toward the supernatural in such a suspenseful yarn I couldn’t put it down, mesmerized, horrified and actually frightened…

Klavan’s novel is so taut and tense, and he grounds the supernatural goings-on so carefully in a cop’s investigations, that you’re seductively led into the Black Forest of the soul and beyond… This horror story is awesome.

You can read the whole review here. And you can get your copy of the novel here.

Pamela Geller Acted Morally

May 10th, 2015 - 9:53 am

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Pundits from the editors of the New York Times to Bill O’Reilly have denounced anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller for her Garland, Texas, Draw Mohammed cartoon contest. The contest, as everyone knows, was attacked by two Islamic terrorists who could have murdered many, including friends of mine, if they had not been shot dead by a heroic Texas lawman.

“Jesus would not have sponsored that event,” said O’Reilly, perhaps forgetting that Jesus was himself murdered for his harsh, public criticism of a religion. (He ought to read Killing Jesus!) ”The goal of every decent person in the world should be to defeat the jihad. And in order to do that you have to rally the world to the side of good — our side. The emotional displays, like insulting the Prophet Muhammad, make it more difficult to rally law-abiding Muslims.”

I am well convinced of O’Reilly’s full, honest and courageous commitment to American liberty but I think it should give him pause to find himself in agreement with the New York Times editors, who have no such commitment. The editors said of the jihadis, “Their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.”

Now the argument that Geller’s event was mean and therefore a poor anti-jihad strategy is at least somewhat better than blaming Geller for the attempted violence. When I hear an editor or headline writer or commentator suggest that Geller somehow caused the attacks, I simply shoot him dead and then have him arrested for provoking me.

But the Times-O’Reilly argument is flawed because it effectively privileges violent Islam and dismisses Islamists as mindless beasts who can only react to provocation with murder. The Times, whose reviewer gave an absolutely ecstatic review to the Mormon-mocking musical “Book of Mormon,” routinely celebrates those artists who insult Christianity and even supports their receiving government funds for their attacks. They have also repeatedly called for Christians to be forced to participate in gay weddings which violate their religious consciences. They are no friend to religion, only enemies of the west and its belief in individual freedom for the common man.

I would never lump O’Reilly with tyrannical leftist knuckleheads like the Times editors. But I didn’t. O’Reilly did and, as a good and honest guy, he ought to think about that.

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Cartoon by Bosche Fawstin.

Had a good talk with John Gambling at 970 the Answer in New York about the Garland, Texas jihadi attack in response to Pamela Geller’s Mohammed cartoon contest. A lot of people, even on the right, have blamed Geller for what could have been disastrous violence. I don’t see it that way at all. It has nothing to do with whether I agree with Geller or not or whether I think she was being polite or kind or wise. I just don’t believe there’s a “but” after the first amendment. The idea that her Mohammed cartoon contest caused the violence is a logical nonsense, like saying a girl’s short skirt caused a rape. The cause was the will of the violent men who tried to attack her and, beyond that, their ideology.

The interview is here. My talk with John begins around 15:50.

Evan Sayet is Mean to Dead Jihadis

May 6th, 2015 - 10:01 am

Nothing spells laughter like a dead terrorist, and leave it to my buddy comedian Evan Sayet to milk the hilarity for all it’s worth. You remember of course how on Sunday two Islamic bad guys attacked Pamela Geller’s defiant free speech event featuring cartoons of Muhammed; and how the two jihadis, dressed in body armor and carrying semi-automatic rifles, were gunned down by a Garland, Texas traffic cop with a pistol. Because… Texas. Well, The Daily Caller reports that Evan responded to the brutal police killing of these fine upstanding Mohammedan citizens with the following Tweet:

“My favorite drawings at the Muhammad cartoon festival in Texas were the two chalk outlines out front.”

Which, if nothing else, proves Evan is almost as good a shot as the cop – in his fashion.

There followed the usual sententious response from our friends — and the jihadis’ friends — on the left:

“Death is never funny.  Even when it’s necessary.”

Wait, who made up that rule? And how come no one told me about it?

Evan, of course, immediately apologized. No, I’m joking. He told the clowns to get lost.

All of which earns the man a plug for his upcoming comedy tour. Click on the poster above for tickets and information. And then go. Also follow the man at @EvanSayet.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

May 3rd, 2015 - 1:51 pm

I lived in Manhattan in 1977, during the “Summer of Sam.” After decades of leftist governance, the city was a cesspool. The Son of Sam serial killer, who terrorized the boroughs, caught the public imagination, at least in part, because he was emblematic of a metropolis awash in crime. You were wary leaving your home at night. You did not go into the parks after dark; they belonged to the bad guys. The FALN — Puerto Rican terrorists whom Bill Clinton would later scurrilously pardon — were bringing business to a halt with bombs and bomb threats. And when, on my birthday, the city suffered a blackout, people — mostly black people — seized the moment to burn and loot their neighborhoods.

Conservative Mayor Rudy Giuliani transformed that city in the ’90s. It was Giuliani’s policies — including the policy called “broken window policing” enforced by commissioner William Bratton — that turned the cesspool into something very like America the Beautiful’s ”alabaster cities… undimmed by human tears.” The young professionals and artists who enjoy the town today don’t appreciate the change. At the time, it seemed a miracle of nearly Biblical proportions. 

It was not only New York that nearly died in the seventies. In the wider world, too, the thugs were on the march. The fall of the Communist slave state called the Soviet Union may seem inevitable now, but in that decade its imperialistic Brezhnev Doctrine was in the ascendant. A massive Soviet naval buildup. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet coups in Yemen and Nicaragua. A Vietnamese incursion into Thailand. Barack Obama’s pals the Cubans acting as Soviet proxies in Angola, Ethiopia, Central and East Africa. And of course the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All while the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, lectured Americans about our “inordinate fear of Communism.”

Carter’s prideful sanctimony also helped free the bottled demon of Islamism in the Middle East. When Carter withdrew U.S. support for the sometimes brutal but pro-American shah of Iran, the result was an Islamic revolution followed by a hostage crisis that humiliated America for 444 days. It was just the beginning of Islam’s awful rise.

Conservative President Ronald Reagan turned back that rising tide of tyranny. His aggressive stance against the Soviet Union and his willingness to use the profits of capitalism to outspend ever-stagnant socialism brought the evil Soviet empire to its knees. His patriotic optimism trumped the seventies’ leftist breast-beating. And his tax cuts set a broken American economy into motion again. All of which led to an American quarter century of unprecedented prosperity and peace, including that Reagan-created triumph that the media like to call “The Clinton Years.”

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