Book Review: The Passion According to G.H.

A review of Clarice's Lispector's novel, The Passion According to G.H. 
Kafka’s Metamorphosis comes to mind when I read Clarice Lispector’s book The Passion According to G.H.  It may just be that a bug figures prominently in both books.

In Kafka’s story a man wakes up as a dung beetle, and his family, at the horror of what he has become, refuse to acknowledge his existence as a bug and Gregor dies of starvation. In Lispector’s story a woman confronts a cockroach she wants to kill and in the process of eliminating this invader, she co-identifies with the insect.  In both stories, there is a radical representation of an “other” entirely alien from what we would call “human.”  The bug of Lispector and the bug of Kafka repulses us. The bug repulses G.H. She is an otherwise  Mrs. Dalloway-kind-of-character. She is haughty and refined.

The novel begins with her epiphanic face-to-face standoff with a cockroach which she half-smashes in her doorway, watching it writhe in its final death throes. And after its white ooze has vacated its exoskeleton, she takes the carcass of the creature and consumes it in a kind of immanent form of communion.

With the consumption of the body of Christ in the form of bread at a Eucharistic celebration, there is supposed to be a kind of transcendent moment that touches the divine, for G.H. there is nothing like transcendence in her consuming of the cockroach. This is pure immanence, baby. In G.H.’s immanent vision — and to call it a vision is really a misnomer —  there is no transcendent moment for G.H.

Actually, she cannot describe the communion she has with the roach in words.  She is at that moment of consumption gone beyond instinctual drive to kill the roach and beyond her repulsion of the creature’s ancient and irreducibly alien existence and has reached for herself a state of immanence, which if described by language would deny the act as being, in of itself, immanent — which means, by the way, “within itself.”

At the moment of this strange climax, G.H. has pulled herself out of her own bootstraps and reached, in the nearest way possible, a kind of creaturely existence.  Unlike Gregor in Kafka’s moribund tale, who is transformed into a bug against his will and killed because his immanence is intolerable to the humans he lives with, G.H. chooses to find immanence in an uncharacteristic way.

Going to her maid’s room to tidy up the space, she catches sight of the bug and an instinctual rage propels her to exterminate the creature, to dominate it, to stand-over-and-above-it. Her action is similar to what Sartre does intellectually in Nausea, when he addresses the tree stump in a Parisian park and declares that he can stand above the rootness of the tree.  But for G.H., coming face to face with the cockroach’s mouth, with its eyes like a girl about to be married, pondering its multiple layer of cretinous skin, she herself becomes like a stupid beast. She also goes further than what Sartre proposes; Sartre manages his nausea by leaving the stump triumphant. Sartre says, “Ha. Stump. I am better than you!”  G.H. wants to see what is on the other side of the human/animal divide. She wants to reach what Baudelaire longed for in his prose poem about what would the conscientiousness of a beast be like. In the poem, Baudelaire dreams of being like the animal bête because it is oblivious to cares and to concerns. Baudelaire may be referring to his mistress in misogynist terms here, but the brute fact that the creature does not have to choose, I guess, is the implication.  While for Sartre, the ability to choose, to stand-over-and-above the brute creature is the existentialist definition of what it means to be human; it is the ability to define the essence of our being by freedom of choice that marks existentialist thought so well — some would say happily — especially if you find it repulsive to be one with the creature like G.H. and Baudelaire.

I read some of the passages from The Passion to a friend who had never heard of Lispector.  And he basically told me that he is repulsed by cockroaches and would never have done what G.H. did. Most of us are like my friend here. Most of us, including myself, have never stooped to the eye level of the cockroach to identify with it and then, literally, to embody it.  Perhaps for G.H., the ability of choice, that marks us as human, smacks of painful consciousness, an experience she is trying to escape from as if she is trying to be without being, to see without seeing, or to ingest without ritual. Like the medieval flagellant who exposes his body to the whip to feel pain, so does G.H. wish to eradicate her consciousness.  The encounter with the roach is an attempt to eradicate the trappings of culture and consciousness.  But why?  She says that she wants to desist as opposed to exist. To exist means “to stand outside of.”  To desist means “to stand from” as if to stand neutrally.  And she says that the animal insists. The animal stands from within.
photo credit: thenewhereheretics


Google Maps and the Christ Haunted Way to Jackson, Mississippi

Read about a backroads car trip from New Orleans, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi.
Figure 1: The route I took on a recent backroads car trip from New Orleans to Jackson
    Obsession with the world’s best search engine and an itch to travel led me to plan a trip for myself earlier this summer with Google Maps.  With Google’s clever map service I can actually get satellite imagery of my own backyard, sans the barking dog, by typing in an address and presto -- after a couple of seconds, an overhead satellite image appears on the screen. Like electrons swirling in a vacuum, maps are possibilities, discovery.  Looking from above like a god over a cosmic machine, I can see the earth’s surface, tops of houses, beaches along rivers, even the shadows cast by buildings. The ripples of water over a lake. Matchbox cars parked on the sides of the streets. If you peer closely, even mailboxes. The odd thing is, I noticed, after playing around for an hour or two -- the streets are empty, hardly a person in sight, which causes me to believe that the planet is vacant.  Where are the people? Inside, hooked up to high-speed internet? Well, why not? It is delicious information accessible to the layman. It feels intrusive, yet enticingly fun; almost too powerful for the ordinary person. Without even being there, without the aid of an airplane, from a chair, I can pan over a river that follows a paved two-lane road. When I click on the Hybrid button it indicates in startling yellow that this is Highway 17 (See figure 1). Wow.  Well. That’s awesome. I check out my friend Tony’s apartment.
   I can’t peer into his window with Google, but it’s pretty darn close. There are limitations to this voyeuristic peeping tom engine. Limitations. Restraint. I am restricted to the US and a little bit of Canada and Mexico and an outline of the rest of the world. As of this printing, you can’t get a bird’s eye view of the Louvre or the Great Wall. And, even in the ole US of A, you can’t see everything crystal clear. There are coordinates that Google won’t allow you to see. Either the satellites didn’t take pictures of these regions or Google technicians haven’t gotten to it. Or maybe Uncle Sam wrote them a letter, saying -- whoah now, you can’t be showing the tops of those oil refineries or those top secret coordinates. When I scroll over those areas with my mouse, it’s all a gray ambiguity but I can outline the details of every housetop in the French Quarter in New Orleans and survey the breach in the levee caused by Katrina along the industrial canal. I enjoyed the aesthetic of taking note of the design of the roofs, a strange patchwork of L’s and Z’s built on a solid uniformed grid. Strange.
    It is interesting what Google purveys to the common user and what it shuts out; maybe it’s arbitrary. Some of the satellite images are discolored and difficult to zoom into, but urban areas are crisp and easily zoomable. I can get a great shot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Lower Manhattan. I can even zoom over the roof of my own house. While I’m in it! It becomes a tad solipsistic: here I am with a laptop computer outside a coffee shop wirelessly tapping into the world wide web, looking from above, exactly where I stand. As I get a bird’s eye view of where I stand here, I stand before me, looking straight out into the parking lot. I look up into the sky to catch a glimpse of the satellite that took my picture. All I see is blue sky, clouds on the edge of the horizon. No sight of the all-seeing eye. I found out later Google Maps is not a real-time camera. The images are created by still Landsat satellite images.
    And most practically, I was able to map out a trip to Jackson, Mississippi without using interstates.
    I wanted a Christ-haunted trip through the old south. The back lanes of rural Mississippi. I wanted to see the white starched steeples of every church even before I drove by. So I packed some notebooks, a pencil, my Power Book G4, a flashlight, trail mix, a few books and a bathing suit in case I wanted to swim in the Bogue Chitto River or the Pearl and I set off in mom’s car. I was on a mission to find the South I had read about, her regal lords and ladies, whitewashed churches, myths and images of Eudora Welty, Beth Henley, Lewis Nordan, Walker Percy. Even O’Connor (not born in Mississippi, but I am sure that her characters populate its hamlets).
    And in reality, there they were. I saw ‘em. On Sunday I was there. And saw. Looked. Wrote. Every town I drove through was like a queer recursive. In Tylertown. Georgetown. Monticello. Florence. Pearl. Lexie.
    I started out on Highway 437. It’s called Lee Road by the locals because supposedly General Lee marched down it with his troops. I stopped at the corner store to fill the gas tank. As is usual with corner stores, there is a dumpy matron positioned behind a counter who serves you without a smile, suspiciously eyeing any stranger who walks in; I wasn’t a regular so I didn’t get a cordial “hello,” just a stare. I was in and out of there but I did notice on the way out the cover of the Times-Picayune: Local Gas Stations Fudge Tax Rates. Through no fault of their own, it seemed, local corner gas stations were overcharging tax on goods without realizing it. 
    From seven in the morning until three in the afternoon everyone was in church. Every time I drove by it was a different stage of worship: the gathering at the steps; the Sunday waltz inside the main doors, the big-bosomed belles pulling themselves out of their cars in time for service. By half-past one I was still seeing the same scene, becoming a little afraid that I would be caught inside this never-ending reel of praise and worship. On Sunday along Highway 27, the only “hopping” places are the churches. If you aren’t in church you’re reminded of Jesus on every corner. Jesus saves. Jesus the Lord of All. Have you read your bible today? Jesus over Tunica. Get right with Jesus. It is a constant reminder inscribed on every inscribable pulp, branch, and tree. Names of the churches stick in my mind: Abundant Life Church. Starlight Church. New Life. Living Word. King Solomon’s Church (White and small with a big propane tank out front with a graveyard on the side). Cornerstone Church. New Bethel. Saint Paul the Apostle (that was the one Catholic church I spotted). Some churches were plain white clapboard edifices while others were veritable theaters, replete with jeweled studded bas-reliefs on the sides which at night lit up in neon like the downtown cineplex. All the Baptist churches had similar architecture. Reddish brown buildings with a simple white steeple. The differing characteristics were the size and the extent of the stained glass windows. In one town, the largest Baptist church I saw, boasted tall windows detailing the life of Jesus in stained glass. Graven images, I thought. But no. These windows are didactic, not worshipful.
    Also status. The name of the pastor printed in large letters on the front. People ask, “Which church do you got to?” At the Catholic church, the priest processes out with a handful of children at his side, the electric organ bubbling away orthodox tunes while boys sitting next to me snicker and yawn. At Greater Starlight Church there is a menagerie of color and light, the pastor not processing out but skipping, jumping. Not chaotic. It is very organized. As if everyone knows their role. The older folk get into it much more, while some of the younger people fold their arms. In one church there is a coffee shop just outside the sanctuary so you can get your joe on the way out, just before picking up the kids at Children’s church. Clever. One church proclaims: Make your family apart of our family. Doughnuts and jam available in the parish hall after Mass. Signup sheets for vacation bible school.
    I swear I was waiting to see Manly Pointer come out of the church with his hard-top bible and disingenuous grin, gin underneath the flaps of his books. But I didn’t seem him. Nor Hulga. Everything looked clean and decent. But I didn’t check the contents of folks’ bibles. The dilapidated Hard Times junkyard was certainly O’Connoresque. As well as the propinquity of the bars to the churches. The downtowns were unchanged; old store fronts. Some closed up with boards while others still open for business. 
    Walking the streets of Jackson on a Sunday afternoon confirmed my suspicion the South is still alive. A car stopped at an intersection I wanted to cross. The window rolled down. A beefy African American woman eyed me down. “Wanna come to my place?”
    “Ummm. No. Have a good day,” I said.
    I walked around her car. And walked through the park. I realized the city was mostly dead. Everything was closed on a Sunday. But the park was full of people. And the few cars circulating traffic were ladies looking for a quick fix. I was not really in the mood to pay out cash for a quickie, especially with a beefy lady. And none of the blokes in the park looked that attractive. So, I found my mom’s car and fled Jackson and headed for the burbs. Ate Chinese food. Found the interstate and avoided the Christ Haunted route.


Can We Make Sense Out Of the Virginia Tech Carnage?

What is it about the explosive, violent shootings at Virginia Tech that disturb us so much? I know I stopped what I was doing and paid attention to the news when I heard the headlines on the television talking about a school shooting. It isn’t the fact that a person would act out so violently; this should be no surprise to a world bathed in the blood of genocide and ethnic cleansing, two world wars in one century, the war in Korea, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and current war in Iraq: for the record of human atrocity is long and riddled with violence and bloodshed, from the cruel crucifixions of the Romans to the harsh internment of the gulags. Human violence is not alien to us.
     Rather, it is sadly, very human. What makes the Virginia Tech killings so disturbing, however, is that it has been inextricably stripped of meaning — the fact that Cho Seung-Hui, acting alone, walked through a university dormitory and classroom building without visual affect, as one witness commented, his face was stoic and numb and unleashed round after round of bullets with a Glock 19 handgun into his former girlfriend, her boyfriend, and 29 other people, wounding dozens more and leaving thousands and thousands of people terrified.

The killer, apparently in a psychotic state because of the breakup with his girlfriend, leaves us bereft with a way to make sense of this violence. The act is stripped of meaning and we ourselves are devoid of a way to absorb it, much less understand it. We are left unable to situate this kind of senseless atrocity into any form of meaningful dialogue because the killer has left us with nothing, killing himself, erasing his own history and closing off any hope of restoration. Despite his own personal past, left as a series of clues to help us understand, he himself has left us nothing, except, as one person commented after hearing about the shootings, undulations in a vacuum.
     Sure, people will begin to put pieces together, as is being done, to begin to explain what happened, he himself, at the moment he began to shoot without anger or fear, without hatred or even angst, not even speaking to his victims, as he mowed them down, at the moment of carnage there was absolutely no reasonable sense, nothing to trace one’s finger to an origin that would be explicable or tangible, only overwhelming grief and desolation for those who survived and all of us, drawn together by family and friends and concern for one another.

     We may never have an adequate explanation for these shootings, no matter how much can be gleaned from the evidence, just as the shootings at Columbine and the terrorists attack on September 11th, have left a wound our nation’s consciousness, there is something irrevocably lost in our ability to make sense of this tragedy.
     So, this leaves us with an urge to movement to reach out with compassion to the injured and to the mourning, to make way for their stories as they begin to speak out and seek ways to heal; it is our responsibility to allow for this to happen, to allow healing to take place where it can and to find adequate ways to perhaps prevent this kind of carnage from ever happening again. What we need to do know is to stop for a moment and ponder John Donne, when he said, “No Man is an island entire of himself …. Any man’s death diminishes me for I am apart of mankind.”


Book Review: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Cherry-Headed Conures perched on a branch
Mark Bittner, the Cherry-headed Conure lover from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, California, attributes the American poet Gary Snyder as an influence in his own life, writing, and spirituality — and, apparently, Buddhist spirituality — all bound up in his love for parrots.
     According to his book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (which was also made into a documentary of the same name), Bittner writes about how since he was a young boy, he considered himself different, “and was never going to have a ‘normal’ life” (5). His early adulthood was a nomadic existence; he was an exotic excommunicant, in a way, living with his sister for awhile, then in a friend’s van, never holding a steady job or aspiring for clear career goals. He describes himself as “on a path.” He writes, “I was twenty-two years old and leading the life of a 'dharma bum,' a term coined by the poet Gary Snyder that means ‘a homeless seeker of truth’” (5). Although Bittner does not cite where exactly Snyder wrote about a dharma bum being “a homeless seeker of truth,” I first figured that it comes from Snyder’s book Mountains and Rivers; in this book he weaves a very long poem that builds upon the Buddha’s teaching as an aimless seeker of truth. Upon further probing into Buddhism and dharma spirituality, I discovered that this phrase, “a homeless seeker of truth” was first actually attributed to Sidhhartha Guatama, or the Bhudda. He is called the Saddhu, “the homeless seeker of truth” according to a slim book I found on Bhuddist spirituality entitled, Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism by Rebecca McClen Novick.


Reference Video Guide: Anatomy of a Call Number

In this video guide, my colleagues and I at the Saint Joseph Seminary College Père Rouquette Library in Saint Benedict, Louisiana break down the anatomy of a call number.

"Anatomy of a Call Number" Library Instructional Video


"Taking it Where They're At": The Origins of an “Anatomy of a Call Number”

A real challenge at our small seminary college library is getting students from their rooms (and their computers) to the stacks. I don't think this is just a 21st century problem. I think this is a problem that has plagued libraries for a long time. Students avoid the library. This was true in the days of paper as well as in the days of 0's and 1's.
     Maybe the particular challenge for libraries today is that often, students feel that the library is obsolete (as well as the print materials it holds) and would rather do all the research from the comfort of their dormitory room: where one can access the library catalog, review online databases, or more generally, scan the web for trenchant articles on a particular topic. While it is more than possible to find resources that one needs without ever stepping foot in a library, what is missing in this “grab and bag” approach to research is the skill to effectively find what you are looking for; most students think they know how to find the most accurate and authoritative source for their research without understanding the fundamental of library research. Because as librarians we know that the current trend tends to keep students from interaction with librarians and the library, I felt the need to take an approach of “where they’re at” to give students the skills to become better researchers.
     When a student does come into the library with a call number in hand, especially new college students, usually what I get is the “deer in headlights” look. At the reference desk at our small seminary college library, looking for that book that they desperately need for the next day’s assignment, they are lost in the stacks. Or, on a tangential note, when the power goes out, and all we have is “paper,” the students have no idea how to browse Dewey to find what they want. It is a joyful day when our director gets to take out her trusty Sears List of Subject headings to instruct a student “how to find a book”.
    Students do not know how to use the Sears book of Subject headings because they do not have the information literacy to navigate the Web (studies have shown that students do not know how to use online databases, or even worse, they do not know what they are). And there is not a librarian at their computer desk to show them, even if they can instant message a librarian or send an e-mail. Because of this physical absence from the library, and also absence from guided research, and the delusion students have of their own research acumen, I have noticed, working as a library assistant, that students do not understand basic principles of how a library is organized. Or, if they do, the librarian language to describe how the library operates differs from the students’ own understanding of how a library operates. Phrases like “Dewey Decimal System” and “library catalog” are sometimes lost on them. A student would look at me, and ask, “I just want to know where the philosophy books are”. Can you get me this article?
    And, even professors, do not always know how to use the library’s resources to supplement their own courses. I attribute this to what I call, the “Barnes and Noble” mentality. It is a product of the erroneous mentality that the library patron is a customer and the library is supposed to fill instantly the customer's needs.
There is a resistance, oftentimes, in gaining lifelong learning and information literacy skills. So, thinking about this problem, I brainstormed ideas to use where they’re at (at their computer consoles) to reach students as a guide to get what they need but at the same time introduce students to tools to enable them to become better, life-long, researchers. One way to do this was to use a schema I devised, “the Anatomy of a Call Number” and to duplicate it and propagate as many ways as I could for student use: as a photocopied handout, on the web, on iTunes, on Facebook, and even as a QuickTime movie.
    Because I noticed students were lost to the geography of a call number, I came up with a graphic to introduce students to how to read a call number and understand it. This is not a novel idea. Many libraries have on their websites Call Number tutorials that guide a user on the basics of library organization. And the notion, “an anatomy of a call number,” is not novel to our specific library. But, I noticed, many of the tutorials I found on the web were not designed for college students nor where they clean and easy to follow. I needed a “one page” graphic that I could then break down into subsequent parts.
    I was first inspired by Aristotle. In his book the Categories, he lays down principles of organizing knowledge into hierarchical degrees. From general to specific. And also specific to general. Aristotle thought that you could organize all knowledge from the most general to the most specific, deductive reasoning, or by specific to general, inductive reasoning. By using the rudiments of deductive logic, Aristotle claimed, for example, one could go from the most general categories, like “living things” down to animals, then to mammals, then to whales, then to giraffes, to dogs, and cats, and humans. One could also inductively surmise that knowledge about Faith and Reason is also related to the broader picture of Theology and by extension belief. This system proved to be a highly successful manner in the West to organize knowledge, even to the present system of organizing animals into Phyla and Species. In a similar manner, a library organizes itself based upon this Aristotelian means of nomenclature and organization.
    Because our program is geared to philosophy and to the humanities, I thought using a philosopher that students had already studied in their curricula to illustrate how the library organizes itself was a useful way to not only reach where they are at, but also to show how the library acts as an interdisciplinary mediator between academic disciplines. Once, the students could grasp that what they are learning in their philosophy courses was related to the way in which the library organized its knowledge, I figured this would increase their interest in the library and also teach them how to apply the theoretical concepts that they have learned in the classroom.
    Because we use the Dewey Decimal System at our small college library, I came up with a one sheet handout that I called “Anatomy of a Call Number”. It shows how the alpha-numeric “call number” is not merely an arbitrary placeholder. It represents the placement of the books within an hierarchy of knowledge. To show this, I broke down one call number,
    (The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck) to show how the call number reflects The Grapes of Wrath not only as a novel shelved next to the other Steinbeck novels, but how it is placed within Contemporary fiction (813.54), which is placed within 813 (American Fiction), which is placed with 810 (American Literature) which is placed within 800 (Literature). Placing these handouts at the reference desk, and taping them to the stacks, the idea was that it would aid students in teaching them basic library literacy at the point-of-contact-level. While helping students “find a book” we could use the handout to illustrate how the call number in the catalog corresponds, hopefully, to the placement of the book on the shelf. And, most importantly, we could relate the act of locating the book on the shelf, to the philosophical quest for knowledge, something they were already learning in their coursework.
    While the handout worked, to some extent, the library staff looked for more ways to introduce library literacy skills to students, “where they’re at”. Like I said, in the beginning, students are in their dormitory rooms, using their computers. Or they are using library computers. Because we have an online OPAC, students usually look up the books they would like to use for their research, then they come to the library, to get their material, and then they leave. Realizing this, we decided to use the Internet and the local school intranet as a way to stream library resources directly to their rooms.
     Obviously, the library web page seems to be an advantageous place to post information literacy resources, like our “Anatomy of a Call Number”. But, we thought, the students do not check the library’s web page like they check their MySpace or Facebook profiles or listen to iTunes. So, we started to stream the library to those online locations and applications on the Internet and on our local intranet.
     We first set up an iTunes application in the library that was connected to the school intranet. iTunes has a feature called “Sharing” where a user can rip music and audio files onto his or her computer, download them into their iTunes file organizer and set up a sharing folder that other users, who are also using the same Internet access point (in our case, our seminary college campus) can also listen to and use without actually possessing the actual files on their computers.
      iTunes makes it fairly easy to not only store PDFs, files, and audio files, but also to stream these electronic resources right into students' rooms. Through a very easy interface and set-up, we started a Rouquette Library streaming share that anyone on the local intranet, using iTunes, would see on their own screens, and could access. This includes audiobooks that students in our curriculum would use, as well, as library resources, including the original “Anatomy of a Call Number”. We are even in the process of making the original analog document into a QuickTime movie that breaks down the call number into its anatomical parts.
We also realized that we could stream library resources through other internet hotspots that students frequent, like Facebook. By setting up an account on Facebook, the library has been able to stream library resources to students, where they are.
      So, the handout I had created, “An Anatomy of a Call Number” has gone through various permutations from a one-page handout to a multimedia presentation to a quick time movie, as you can see in our Poster Session.


There is no ‘Reel’ Mordred:

The Evil Child/Good Child Dyad in Excalibur, The Sixth Sense, and The Good Son

 In the following blog post, I try to link the story of Arthur's bastard son Mordred, who in the Arthurian Legend, comes back to seize control of Camelot from his father, as an example of the "bad seed" trope in contemporary film and fiction.
        It is easy to see how much the Mordred story is edited, conflated, or even omitted in popular Arthurian retellings. Most film versions omit Mordred as in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone (1963) or Camelot (1967) or they conflate his story, like in Knightriders (1981), where he is Morgan, a bad-guy motorcycle nut, his name a mixture of Morgan Le Fay and Mordred. And of the Arthurian films that do include him, he is either: 1.) Arthur’s nephew or a knight "gone bad" as in First Knight (1995) or 2.) the incest taboo is breeched and Mordred is recognized as Arthur’s illegitimate son, as in Excalibur (1981) or the TV mini-series version of Mists of Avalon (2000) (Torregrossa 200-201). In films without mention of the incest plot, the incest taboo is sublimated into a villainous character who desires, at any price, to storm Camelot, to take Guinevere as either a wife or slave and to kill Arthur. Either Mordred is conflated into an evil nemesis that vies for Arthur’s throne, or he is seen as a son, but, universally as a bad seed. This bad seed element is what I am interested in here as an outcrop of a problematic good child/bad child dyad that popular tellings of the Arthurian tale have generated.
This illustrates at what length the story, even Malory, to some extent, avoids discussing the crux of the Mordred story, the “bad seed” part: which is basically a story of taboo desire between a brother, (Arthur) and a sister (Morgauswe) and the product of this desire, an evil child, (Mordred). The boundary is transgressed and the child born from the brother/sister pairing is marked as impure — hence, perhaps the name Mordred: a distortion of “morte,” the Romance derivative of the Latin word, “mortus,” in English, “death.”

     In most cultures, a child made impure by a violation of the incest taboo does not bode well for the tribe. It marks death. From a Structuralist point of view, all cultures, in some form or another, have an incest taboo, for it separates us from the animals and makes us uniquely human — our rage or our sex drive is not mere animalistic fecundity, but we tend to inscribe meaning to our actions which precipitates limitation (Bataille 83). Most cultures include a narrative to limit transgression and also to speak about possible violations of the boundary as a cautionary tale. In other words: Don’t sleep with your sister because it will bring a taint on your house. Stories like this are powerful and interwoven into cultural narratives because the taboo is so strong, we need stories of its transgression to release some of the pent-up energy generated by its suppression.
     But how we tell the story is what is of importance.
     The story of Arthur’s son, Mordred, fits into this basic narrative of incest, not only as a historical figure but as a raw narrative-type fitted into whichever form of the Arthurian strand the artist wishes to take, whether he casts Mordred as a nephew or a son, or an evil traitor, the simple ingredients of the primordial story are preserved. The raw form of Mordred as an evil son, an irreducibly evil son, apparently, has become fodder for a retelling of the Arthurian myth that chooses to emphasize the mythological structure of the story rather than the anthropological structure. From an anthropological standpoint, the Mordred narrative tells of a transgression of a culturally inscribed taboo that needs to be dealt with within the society.
      This anthropological, scientific viewpoint has been challenged by the mythopoetic, or Jungian view touted first by Joseph Campbell. In this view, Mordred or any character in the Arthurian narrative is a creation of mythic imagination, not necessarily rooted in historical reality. While, there may be cause to suggest that a person such as Arthur or Guinevere did, in fact, exist in some form of the distant past, the cause of their presence in history is not inherent in their facticity, per se, but in the raw mythological power that they exert on the human imagination.
Mordred, while the facts of his historical existence are in doubt, exerts a powerful influence on the popular imagination, especially in films that utilize the rhetoric of the Men’s Movement of the 1980s by such figures as Robert Bly and Sam Keen. The Men’s Movement addresses the so-called “crisis in masculinity” that was used as a counter-attack to second-wave feminism, that stated that there is something innate about woman and that womanhood ought to be celebrated and recognized, as inherently bound up with a woman’s own sense of self and power, represented in works like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Men, by their own, admission, deny women of this acceptance of their womanhood by disavowing their political rights and metaphysical dignity
       The Men’s Movement, or Mythopoesis, as it is sometimes called, countered this, especially in the works of Robert Bly, by saying that there is also something innate about men, but men have not been allowed to express their true feelings like women and are therefore just as much oppressed as women. Bly warned that men should not associate themselves too readily with women, lest they ally themselves with their interests, and only please their mothers and their wives (2). Writers like Bly argued that men should not only get in touch with their more sensitive, nurturing side, or their true selves, but their wild side, or their warrior side as an expression of authentic masculinity. This not only spawned a pate of men’s clubs and book tours celebrating men and men’s interests but also films have expropriated this mythopoetic rhetoric, often times to an inevitable disaster.
     In Films, like Excalibur,, First Knight, The Sixth Sense, The Good Son, and the Star Wars films, the Mordred myth has been expropriated into a mythopoesis that reduces the problem into a good child/evil child dyad. If there is something to be saved in men today, the men’s movement suggests, it is our boys who are in the direst need of help. This emphasis on boys in need of help, seen in books by Michael Gurian and James Pollack, with titles like, The Wonder of Boys or Raising Cain: Saving the Emotional Lives of Boys. This frenzy (or panic) to save our boys from the clutches of soft feminism creates, ineluctably, what I call the Mordred problem, spawned in part by this duality that our children are either good or evil, right or wrong, soft or hard, gay or straight, legitimate or illegitimate, with the emphasis that right, good, hard, straight, and legitimate are the privileged labels. Mordred is a type of the “bad seed,” the bad label, or the evil child and his inverse, the good child, or the virtuous child.
      Reinhard Kuhn, in his book Corruption in Paradise: The Child in Western Literature says that the evil child in literature stems from our fascination with innocence in the child and this innocence is corrupted by society (40-41). He says that evil children in books and films demonstrate “an insatiable appetite for even the most vulgar of such menacing children, and the viewing public has assured a similar success for the many films dealing with the same topic” (43-44). Kuhn remarks that the result of our fascination with corruption of childhood innocence has garnered a proliferation “of evil children on such a scale that one might fear it is they who will inherit the earth” (44).
      The Mordred-myth generates such evil children bent on destroying the father figure, the mother figure — in fact, the entire family. The incest theme is usually downplayed in these films and the villainy of the child is emphasized. These films tap into the archetype of the evil child that seems to fascinate modern audiences. It also presents us with a problematic binary. Especially when seen in context with the recent rhetoric of a “crisis of masculinity” that deems anything not of the moral norm as suspect and thus should be expunged.