Not much love for horror movies.

Let’s face it – as far as cinematic genres go, horror movies tend not to get much critical acclaim as art.

There are, to be fair, some good reasons for artistic dismissal. A hefty percentage of horror flicks are fairly sloppily made excuses to satisfy a viewer’s bloodlust and desire to objectify women. Particularly today, when the ‘torture porn’ genre seems to rule the roost, folks can be forgiven for not thinking there’s much creative or artistic value in the genre.

Yet horror films need not subsist on graphic torture and sexual objectification. The art of horror is the art of exploring the unknown; the side of life that we run from; the shadows around us, and inside us.

What richer source of creative artistry could one ask for?

So today, we look at 8 horror movies that step up the creativity, and defy the unfortunately low artistic expectations surrounding the genre. We’ve chosen some less-than-common ones, so hopefully you can discover some new gems you haven’t yet seen!

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#8 – Let the Right One In (2008)

Let the Right One In came out of Sweden in 2008, in the heart of the contemporary vampire craze – yet this is a vampire film like no other. We follow 12-year-old Oskar, a bullied and isolated boy growing up in a snowy suburb of Stockholm, as he befriends the ‘young’ vampire next door.

The story, based on a 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, includes common vampire tropes, yet with a fresh adolescent-tinged spin. Victimhood and villainy are conflated with realistic perspective – it’s never easy to pinpoint one or the other through the movie. And after all, aren’t we all somehow both victims and villains in middle school? Vampiric fiction has always been pierced with currents of sexuality; in Let the Right One In , we experience these currents through the lens of children entering puberty, still trying to come to terms with their own bodies and emotions, let alone the supernatural.

Beyond the hauntingly cold Swedish scenery, what really sets this film apart aesthetically is the incredible acting. Casting for Let the Right One In involved a year-long process, traveling all over Sweden, and the two leads, Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar) and Lina Leandersson (Eli, the vampire) seem born for their respective roles. Hedebrant evokes with finesse the muted emotions of the frail and tormented, while Leandersson crafts an unforgettable portrayal of the old vampiric soul in an ever-young body, the murderous spirit within a child’s innocence.

Be sure to catch this one in the original, with subtitles. There was a decent 2010 American remake, Let Me In , but the original Swedish film is the one to watch.

#7 – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)

Tucker & Dale vs Evil is, simply, one of the funniest horror movies I’ve ever seen. A group of college kids go for a camping trip deep in the woods, and encounter a pair of hillbillies heading out to their forest cabin. Mayhem and chaos and terror ensue, but hardly in the ways you’d expect.

Tucker & Dale vs Evil pay tribute to all of the genre conventions you’d expect from a cabin-in-the-woods type horror film, and flips them upside down without outright mocking them (which is always a cheap way to get meta-laughs). There’s real love for the genre here, and we feel we’re laughing with horror conventions, rather than at them.

The bouts of mayhem are everything you’d want or expect from a campy slasher. The film’s got its blood and jumps and cringes covered – and above and beyond that, it’s got laughter, feeling, and sympathy. Throughout, it crafts a surprisingly poignant evocation of acceptance, friendship, and compassion.

#6 – ParaNorman (2012)

ParaNorman is a stop-motion family horror-comedy film, in which we follow young outcast Norman, a boy who can see ghosts and communicate with the dead, as he tries to save his town from a zombie awakening and a malevolent witch.

ParaNorman is another horror-based film that inverts genre conventions, playing with the tropes we know and love, while allowing us to look deeper into them – and see ourselves, and the assumptions we make in constructing narratives around us. What might be the resolution of a typical horror film (“the monsters are just trying to live – and perhaps we are the actual monsters!”) becomes a second-act inversion in ParaNorman , creating the space to dig deeper into issues of judgment, fear, and assumptive defensiveness.

The visual aesthetic of ParaNorman is stunning. The stop-motion filming creates a colorful, visceral, and absorbing environment we immediately sink into. This is the first film to use a 3D color printer to mold all of the faces and expressions used on the characters, allowing for fine control of character expression and facial communication.

Though a family film, ParaNorman creates rich characters with emotional depth, if easy-to-digest archetypical appearances. A subtle revelation of one character’s sexual orientation creates what could possibly be the first openly gay character in an animated children’s film; an openly gay character, moreover, who doesn’t conform to trite stereotypes.

Whatever your age, ParaNorman is a beautiful film you’ll love.

#5 – Funny Games (2007)

Funny Games is not a pleasant film to watch.

You will cringe. You will wince. You will be exasperated. And yet you will (probably) come away recognizing Funny Games as one of the most under-your-skin and evocative horror movies you’ve seen.

Funny Games follows a family of three (plus dog) arriving at their lake house for a nice relaxing vacation. They’re soon approached by ostensibly civil young neighbors, Peter and Paul. Tension mounts, and the ‘funny games’ ensue, with Peter and Paul playing cruelly with fear, lives, and audience expectations.

Funny Games is not the sort of exploitative cringe-inducer that creates an environment where the audience eggs on the bloody torture-porn by the bathtub-full. Rather, the villains twist conventions and social ‘rules’ until we, as the audience, beg for it to stop. Though the film has its share of violence, it’s the social boundary-crossing that really makes us cringe. Writer and director Michael Haneke turns the film’s gaze back onto us, forcing his audience to look at their complicit role in a culture of violence and sadism.

Funny Games was initially a 1997 Austrian film; the same writer/director, Haneke, created a new English version in 2007. Though the two are nearly identical, watch the 2007 English version to really sink into the immediacy of the characters and situations.

#4 – Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome is a sci-fi/horror film by the inimitable David Cronenberg. The movie portrays a television executive, Max Renn, whose quest to broadcast ever more extreme violence and sexuality to his hungry audience leads him to ‘Videodrome’ – the seemingly ultimate expression of humanity’s underbelly, in video format. Through the film, Max’s reality bends and warps around Videodrome, as the lines between reality and hallucination meld and intersect.
Cronenberg is the master of body horror , which explores our collective fears surrounding bodily transformation and physical infection. In Videodrome , Cronenberg explores the psychological and physical extremes of a cultural addiction to extreme media; the realm where virtual reality and bodily reality literally combine.

In many ways, Videodrome feels ahead of its time. The situation Cronenberg depicts – a world whose underbelly hungers for the most extreme of violent media, a world hyperconnected to its technological infrastructure of virtual existence – is more than a little reminiscent of our modern internet-connected culture, where the average person of any age spends at least hours every day looking at a screen, and where an outrageous percentage of the web is dedicated to pornography of all stripes).

Cronenberg is not always the easiest director to engage; as with many of his films, Videodrome at times dips into surreal territory, eschewing any simple narrative. Though it might not be the easiest to digest, this is certainly a horror flick to watch – at least once.

#3 – Trollhunter (2010)

Trollhunter isn’t an easy film to classify. Part horror, part mockumentary, part satire, part comedy. It all comes together to create a fun, fresh package.

We follow three film students as they set out into the Norwegian wilderness to film a documentary about an apparent bear poacher. What they find is a worn, deadpan, rugged hunter – on the chase of trolls, and employed by the Norwegian Wildlife Board.

Trollhunter situates the dark world of fairy tales and mythology within the context of modern bureaucratic government. Our trollhunter, Finn, is as much wearied and horrified by the stifling horrors of paperwork and legal logistics and governmental supervisors, as he is by the building-sized trolls he encounters.

Trollhunter crafts a novel perspective to engage the creature-feature horror genre. The troll encounters create enough shock, suspense, and terror to satisfy horror expectations, while filtering everything through an ultradry humor. The Norwegian setting, at times coldly bleak and at times terrifyingly magnificent, creates an absorbing atmosphere that brings it all together with memorable flavor.

#2 – Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods is one of those movies that might be better the less you know about it before watching. So if you’re the sort of person that enjoys watching those movies knowing nothing, stop reading this. Really. If you like horror movies, you’ll love this one, so you can safely stop reading this section.

You’re sure you want to read on?

Ok – don’t worry, we’ll still keep it sparse on spoilers.

The Cabin in the Woods is the ultimate postmodern horror film, crafted with a meta-fictional self-awareness that recognizes and pokes fun at genre conventions without degrading into bland mockery or pedantic film theory. The Cabin in the Woods is the rare film that can engage postmodern self-awareness and still be a fun movie. And oh boy, is this movie fun.

Plot-wise, we join five college-aged kids as they head up to a cabin in the woods for a vacation of raucous revelry. But nothing’s as it seems, and there are some sinister forces at work. Let’s leave it at that for the plot – yes, it sounds like a thousand other horror flicks, and no, this one is not like any you’ve seen before.

If I’ve been a little vague here, it’s just so that you’ll enjoy the movie more. So go watch it.

#1 – Pontypool (2009)

Pontypool is one of the most unique perspectives on the ‘zombie apocalypse’ sub-genre.

The film joins shock-jock radio host, Grant Mazzy, on what seems at first to be just another cold morning in Pontypool, Ontario. We soon discover, from the calls coming in, that a strange situation is developing in the quiet Pontypool community – hordes of people are acting savagely, and chaos and paranoia quickly settle in. The sickness, whatever it is, seems to be spreading not through bites or the air – but through language itself.

The linguistic bent of the film alone sets it apart from other zombie flicks. Language itself is infected, and our interpretive faculties and meaning-making tendencies are themselves our greatest weakness. Lovers of post-structuralism or linguistic theory will have a field day.

Beyond its philosophical inquiries, Pontypool excels in creating a palpable atmosphere. Almost all of the film is confined to a single radio studio, and mostly to a single room. Yet dynamic shots and careful introductions of folks calling in to the station leave us never feeling cramped or bored – though we might feel tense and terrified in isolation. As with any great horror movie, Pontypool excels thanks to what it doesn’t show or tell us, leaving things to our own imagination.

As soon as I finished Pontypool , I wanted to start it over and watch it again. And if that’s not a sign of a great movie, I’m not sure what is.

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At the start of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!

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#5: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , Jules Verne – 1870

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of those books so deeply entrenched in the milieu of Western popular culture that we’re all probably at least nebulously aware of it, though far less likely to have ever read it.

I myself was in the latter camp – I was never really sure what it was about, though I knew it involved submarines and some squid; I wasn’t sure if it was written first in English, or translated; and I wasn’t sure (and this would often nag at me) how deep ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’ really is.

So let’s start there:

The book follows Professor Pierre Aronnax as he joins the mysteriously tragic Captain Nemo on a voyage in the submarine Nautilus , during which they encounter undersea wonders and aquatic adventures – including, though certainly not limited to, the occasional squid. The book was written in 1870 by author Jules Verne, originally in French. A league is about 3 miles; the title of the book does not refer to how deep they were, but rather how far they traveled, winding around the globe, while under water. 20,000 leagues straight down from the surface of the sea would actually take you straight through the Earth itself and nearly a quarter of the way to the moon after popping out the other side.

The book follows a sort of episodic journey, in which each new adventure feels like ‘the next thing’ the crew encounters. Though Captain Nemo provides a steadily deepening character exploration that ties the episodes together, the novel still has a strong serial feel to it. It’s science fiction at it’s earliest best, bringing together adventure, sensory splendor, and scientific speculation – all with a dash of philosophical inquiry.

If you’re a fan of sci-fi and want to connect with the genre’s roots, or if you’re in the mood for an old-school adventurous voyage, check this one out!

#4: The Divine Conspiracy , Dallas Willard – 1998

The Divine Conspiracy is a book by American philosopher and Christian scholar Dallas Willard. In it, Willard traces a picture of contemporary ‘consumer’ Christianity, and the reality of life-infused discipleship available instead. The ‘Conspiracy’ in the title refers not to ‘conspiracy theories’ as we tend to think of them (especially when in the same sentence as religion), but rather as the all-connected and all-connecting reality that Willard sees possible through one’s spiritual life. Willard challenges the idea that the teachings of Jesus are somehow ‘nice, but impossible’ or ‘not realistic for the modern world.’

This is one of those rare books that is written with such clear insight, such depth of wisdom, and such lucidity of expression that it can resonate its impact throughout a lifetime, whether read once or many times.

For those interested in Christian scholarship and spiritual inquiry, this book is one of the richest out there. Willard offers an interpretive explication of the Sermon on the Mount remarkable in its accessibility, power, and clarity. With gentle strength, Willard points out the pitfalls of both the Right and Left of Christian thought (respectively championing the ideas that either a) faith in Christ is the only matter of importance, and b) that social work, whether connected or not to spiritual faith, is the only matter of importance). Instead, Willard offers discipleship Christianity as the all-inclusive, connected, and divine alternative.

For those who don’t identify with Christian or Abrahamic spirituality, The Divine Conspiracy still offers kernels of wisdom and insight. Willard discusses the distinction between believing something (which will lead us to naturally act through and in light of the truth of that ‘something’), and believing we should believe something (which will have us try to appear as though we believe that ‘something’). In the human struggle between principles and image, deepening one’s understanding of that distinction is always valuable. Willard also explicates the nature of discipleship, noting that it’s an inherent part of our humanity to always each be disciples of someone, or some group.

For those interested in contemporary Christian thought, this book is a must; for all of us, it offers inimitable wisdom and insight into how we live our modern lives – and how to choose to create the lives we want.

#3: 1984 , George Orwell – 1949

1984 is, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World , a reigning king of dystopian literature. Written in 1949, Orwell looks forward 39 years to a bleak future of totalitarian oppression.

The governmentally entrenched ruling class of 1984 ’s Oceania perpetuate the public-crushing power structures through systematic programs of omnipresent surveillance, historical revisionism, linguistic coercion, and swiftly brutal punishment for dissenters.

Orwell’s novel traces the story of Winston Smith, an Outer Party (think ‘middle class’) editor at the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his work week revising past publications and legitimizing deception. Though Winston, like everyone, presents an appearance of alignment and happiness, he’s increasingly tormented by his dissatisfaction with the status quo. We follow Winston as he seeks to understand the society he lives in, and seeks out any companionship or camaraderie in his dissension.

Though written over half a century ago, 1984 is troublingly poignant today. In the world of NSA global monitoring, constant metadata recording, and CCTV near-ubiquity, the world where “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” seems disturbingly familiar. In a world where the United States government will readily classify you as a threat in accordance with the books you read, words you speak, or people you associate with, the idea of ‘thoughtcrime’ doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

1984 is one of those books we’ve probably all read in one high school class or another; and like so many of those high-school reads, it’s a book that deserves a second look (or more). As we navigate the questions of modern privacy and political rights, 1984 offers a rich fictional foil to inform our ideas and perspectives – so dust off your old copy, and give it another turn!

#2: Mere Christianity , C. S. Lewis – 1952

In 1942, while Britain was entrenched in the seething chaos of World War 2, BBC Radio reached out to C. S. Lewis to give a series of radio talks focused on the heart of Christian thought and ethics. The talks continued from 1942 through 1944, addressed to a nation facing one of its darkest hours. In 1952, after Lewis edited a few parts to be more appropriate for the written word, these talks were collectively published as Mere Christianity .

In his talks, Lewis put forward a case for the ‘basic tenets,’ so to speak, of Christianity. Not wanting to involve himself in theological disputes among sects, Lewis spoke only about the nature, wisdom, and value of ‘mere’ Christianity – those aspects of Christianity that all Christians agree on.

Lewis offers an intellectual case for Christianity, combining a historical perspective with a theological argument from morality. The argument from morality was the theological argument most persuasive in Lewis’s own conversion from atheism (a conversion to Christianity effected largely by the influence of Lewis’s dear friend, J. R. R. Tolkein of hobbit fame).

Lewis goes on to describe the Christian morality, exploring the virtues and vices – and the tension between them. Lewis focuses particular attention on the sin of pride, which he holds to be at the root of all other sins. With humility and gentleness, Lewis navigates each issue in ways immediately open to relation and compassionate understanding.
Mere Christianity is a classic in the field of Christian apologetics – and, like The Divine Conspiracy , offers wisdom and insight valuable to anyone, regardless of spiritual background.

#1: The Prophet , Kahlil Gibran – 1923

The Prophet is a collection of prose poetry by Kahlil Gibran, in which a prophet Almustafa discusses life and the human condition with townsfolk before leaving the city.

Each chapter of the book takes up a different topic, prompted by one of the townsfolk listening. Topics range from beauty, friendship, children, and love, to laws, work, commerce, and death.

In each section, Gibran speaks through his prophet with a voice of universal love and compassionate perspicacity. Gibran’s eloquent lyricism exemplifies the beautiful freedom possible in prose poetry. The lilting beauty of lines and phrases melt into each other, carrying the reader along on a sustained and powerful voyage of introspection and love. The Prophet is one of those books in which nearly every line is quotable.

Indeed, The Prophet is one of the most-loved and most-read literary works in world history. It’s been in continuous publication since 1923 (currently its 163rd English printing), and has been translated into over 40 languages. By some estimates, The Prophet has sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

Pick up a copy, and sink into the joys of Gibran’s words – whether for the first, or fiftieth, time.

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What is a practice?

For musicians, practice is a way of life – a constant companion on our musical journey. Amongst creative colleagues, I’ve noticed the same obstacles and difficulties when it comes to practice. Whether it’s yoga, dance, hitting the gym, or meditation all cultivated practices seem to generate the same issues.

The first step towards smooth sailing is a clear understanding of what we’re engaging.

So: what exactly is a practice?

Practice – n. The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.

Practice is inherently a personal process.

A musician practices certain scales or patterns, or trains their listening in private. A dancer might practice foot positions, series of movements, or improvisation. A writer will wake up every morning and hit her writing desk for an hour, putting down on paper whatever comes into her head.

For performers, it’s important to distinguish between rehearsal and practice. A rehearsal is a preparation for a performance of some sort, whereas a practice is solitary, regular, and ongoing in your life.

Most of us have some sort of practice in our lives – perhaps artistic or express, perhaps fitness-oriented or recreational. Whatever your practice, it’s likely that, at some point in your journey, you’ve encountered some of these difficulties:

Lack of focus
Developing injury
Losing interest
Criticizing yourself
Developing bad habits
Wasting time
Lack of motivation
Feeling uninspired

Despite the oft-heard platitude, practice does not make perfect – it makes permanent! It’s important for us to be mindful of what we’re reinforcing through practice.

So, take some time to define your practice and create something that is both sustainable and full of personal growth. These questions were written to inspire balance, sustainability, and growth in your practice.

So let’s dig into them, and may your practice be lasting, nurturing, and fun!

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Question 1: What experience am I creating?

Remember – practice makes permanent. Whatever attitude and posture you bring to your practice session will remain with you through your session, into your day and into the rest of your life.

Perhaps you are creating an experience of intense passion through your music, or an experience of extraordinary peace through your yoga practice.

Whatever it is, the point is not to hyper-focus on one thing that never changes, but to be clear on what it is in this moment, today, for this practice session . Be clear with yourself, and set your intention for each individual practice session.

Question #2: How do I get my body ready for this?

Whatever you are about to do in your practice – whether it’s play the piano, make a painting, or sit still in focused meditation for 30 minutes – you want to allow yourself a certain amount of time to get your body on board.

This could be breathing techniques, body movement, or stretching. Before you begin to ask your body to perform for you, make sure it has what it needs to do it!

Answering this question might have you set the length of practice session, the time of day that you practice, where you practice, whether you’re on an empty or full stomach, and so on.

Question #3: Who or what inspires you?

You have your body all warmed up and now it is time to inspire yourself!

Who are artists and leaders who inspire you?

Listen to their sounds, look at their paintings, read their articles, etc. This time is free time, play time. After you’ve read someting great, or watched something great, begin to be free in your practice for just a little bit of time.

For instance, set a time for 10 minutes and freely move your body with no particular purpose, pick up your instrument and play along with the recording you just listened to. I like to call this ‘ awareness time .’ Awareness time lets you freely float and simply experience yourself in your practice.

Question #4: What am I emulating?

What is the skill set, style, people, or person who are the masters of your field of practice?  Who are you going to emulate?

This doesn’t have to be something that is set in stone either.  Sometimes you might emulate one person for a few months and then move on to somebody else who better represents the new skill sets you’re working on.

Whatever it is that you are up to, there is somebody who has mastered it, or mastered something similar – so learn from them and build upon their knowledge.

Question #5: What skills does that emulation require?

For musicians this means taking time to play with the musicians whom you love (live or on CD); for dancers, maybe it’s going to a particular class; for a meditator, try using someone else’s meditation guide.

To play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, dance like Michael Jackson, or think like the Dalai Lama there are particular skills that need to develop. What are they?

If you aren’t sure – seek the advice of an expert, a friend or a colleague. Keep a list of these skills written down; not as a to-do list, but as a ready provider of what to practice when you aren’t sure.

Question #6: What is the most basic skill that I can master right now?

You have that list of important skills from Question #5 right?

So now choose maybe 2 of them to focus on each day. Visualize them clearly and implement them.

The idea here is to master the skill starting with its most basic component, and working up progressively. Start slowly and simply, and always take your successes and your failures with a grain of salt.

Question #7: Who are my people?

Having a community is the best way to create a healthy and vibrant practice.

Solitary yoga is important, as are reading alone and dancing while nobody is watching – but it’s when there are relationships around your practice that it truly comes to life.  As often as works for you, take your practice into your community.

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Meet Samuel Pepys.

Born in London in 1633, Pepys was the fifth son of eleven children, born into a merchant-class family. Pepys attended Cambridge University, and entered the British Navy as a bureaucratic administrator. Finding himself particularly adept at the tasks of administration, Pepys rose in the ranks of the Navy Board, despite his lack of nautical experience. In 1673, Pepys was elected to Parliament, and he later spent two years as President of the Royal Society – in that capacity, you can find his name on the title page of Isaac Newton’s original Principia Mathematica .

And yet, today we remember Pepys for none of those reasons.

Why are academic papers and books being written every year about dear Samuel Pepys?
Because he wrote a diary.

Diarist extraordinaire.

On January 1st, 1660, Pepys began a diary.

The original, 6-volume manuscript.

The original, 6-volume manuscript.

For nearly ten years, Pepys would record a daily accounting of his life – personal and public. The decade that Pepys kept his diary happened to coincide with some particularly pivotal moments in British history – the restoration of the monarchy, the Great Fire of London, and one of the worst plague outbreaks in London.

Pepys also happened to be a bibliophile, and in his lifetime created a personal library of thousands of texts. When the man died, the library survived and was transferred to Magdalene College in Cambridge, where it was preserved and maintained as one of the greatest private libraries (remember, this was during that foggy pre-Internet age, where physical collections of texts played a paramount role in the preservation and dissemination of culture and knowledge).

Pepys’s six-volume, hand-written diary went along for the ride to Cambridge, but did not garner much attention for years.

Then, over a century after the man’s death, his diary was transcribed (translated, in fact, from a personal form of shorthand) and published in 1825.

From its first publication, Pepys’s meticulous diary has been one of the most significant sources of our conception of England in the latter 17th century. More so than any other text, Pepys’s daily recollections have provided later generations with a picture of what life was like at that time and place.

Written in the 17th century. Published in the 19th. Studied ever since.

The World of Samuel Pepys And as such, it’s also arguably the most academically analyzed and thoroughly parsed diary in the English language .

Scholars from a breadth of disciplines have scrutinized Pepys’s diary to create and bolster theories in the fields of history, psychology, social philosophy, political science, gender studies, literary theory, and more. The diary is taken as a window into the man’s mind, life, and society, through which modern readers are able to peek into centuries past.

The ways in which modern academics use the diary reveal the fundamental view we hold of diaries as a textual form: we take them to be unfiltered reflections and genuine accounts of the author, and his or her life.

Now this doesn’t mean we assume diaries are by any means unbiased or ‘fair’ accounts of one’s life or personhood. Of course, diaries are full of biased opinions, skewed perspectives, hasty judgments, and all the rest of the colorful array of any person’s thoughts. Rather, we take diaries to be faithful reflections of those colorful thoughts .

Reflective media.

We can better understand the special consideration we give to forms of seemingly reflective media by looking at similar texts that we don’t interpret as purely reflective. 

Take letter-writing, for instance.

When one person writes a personal letter to another, much of the content in that letter might be the sort of thing that could also go into a diary – important personal events, worries, celebrations, and so forth. But we don’t automatically assume that letters are unfiltered reflections of the letter-writer, because there is an intended audience , and so we recognize that there may be intentions or motivations shaping the narrative of the text.

A soldier writing a letter home to his family might create a text (the letter) that masks the soldier’s fear and uncertainty, because the soldier doesn’t want their family worrying. The soldier essentially creates a ‘character’ (of him or herself), and presents that brave-soldier character to his ‘audience’ (his family).

Or, one businessman writing an email to a partner, trying to minimize the severity of some financial consequences of the author’s poor decisions. The author might narrate ‘true‘ events, but skew their presentation in such a way as to intentionally control his reader’s perceptions.

Because of these realities, we don’t consider letters – even personal, private letters from one individual to another – to be genuinely reflective media, in the way we consider diaries to be so. When scholars study a person’s letters, they interpret the contents with much greater skepticism and recognition of narrative artifice.

Diaries – and what else?

So if, unlike letters, diaries are considered as reflective media – what else do we take to be reflective?

The big player these days: social media .

Though platforms like Facebook create a context for mini-texts (posts, messages, pictures, and so on) addressed to an audience – indeed, far more of an audience than written letters – we take those mini-texts to be reflective without much question. When I see an acquaintance post an angry rant about their perceived slights by the government, I might not be inclined to agree with their beliefs about the government, but I am inclined to believe that their post is a genuine, unfiltered reflection of their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

g9510.20_Millennials.Cover The impact of those assumptions can be seen in the conclusions we draw almost entirely based on social-media evidence.

We’ve all heard the refrains from countless corners, lamenting how utterly “narcissistic” today’s young generations are. And what’s largely the evidence for this? The media they create and present within social-media platforms.

And notice how we even speak of that content-creation. It sounds stilted to talk about someone’s Facebook postings as “creating pieces of text” or “creating media.”

How do we normally talk about that collection of personal textuality? As someone’s behavior on Facebook.

In talking about ‘behavior’ rather than ‘media creation,’ we reveal our assumption that social media texts are direct reflections of the author’s personhood. Rarely would we talk about someone’s behavior in the letters they write, or their behavior in an essay.

But is ‘reflective media’ really reflective?

Our attitudes about seemingly reflective media are so ingrained and automatic that we rarely put them under any scrutiny.

Such has been the case with old Samuel Pepys’s diary, until Mark Dawson, at the time a historian at Cambridge, entered the discussion in 2000. In his article, “Histories and Texts: Refiguring the Diary of Samuel Pepys,” Dawson rocks the body of Pepys academia by asserting that, all along, we’ve been wrong in thinking the diary reflected the man.

Dawson points out the long-known but rarely considered fact that Pepys’s diary was only one of numerous daily personal texts that Pepys created (others for his business, for financial accounting, and so on) – and so that one must look at the function and intention of Pepys’s diary, as a text among differently oriented texts.

Doing so, Dawson goes on to show that, “The diary is essentially a narrative of social accounting by a middling man on the make.” Rather than a reflection of Pepys’s day-to-day thoughts and experiences, the diary is a meticulous recording of certain selections of Pepys’s experiences, filtered through the lens of social mobility – how each event would improve or harm his social standing.

An example will be particularly telling. The diary entry for the morning of Sunday, November 29th, 1663 reads:

“29. Lords day . This morning I put on my best black cloth-suit trimmed with Scarlett ribbon, very neat, with my cloak lined with Velvett and a new Beaver, which altogether is very noble, with my black silk knit canons I bought one month ago. I to church alone, my wife not going.”

If we read this entry assuming it to reflect Pepys the man, we might reasonably conclude that Pepys is very concerned with the smartness of his dress, is rather vain, and gives a little perfunctory attention to church and his wife. Indeed, that’s how it’s usually read in the scholarly world – as evidence of Pepys’s “innocent vanity.”

Dawson shows how misguided such conclusions are. The November 29th entries is surrounded that week by entries in which Pepys writes his worries about falling behind fashion, and worrying that his and his wife’s ‘uncool’ clothes are going to hurt their social standing. That same Sunday afternoon, Pepys records his stress at finding out at church that his neighbor’s wife is wearing a flashy new style of dress before Pepys’s has been able to buy the same for his own wife.

The November 29th entry does not show us Pepys being vain or petty, but rather offers an example of Pepys trying to determine – and elevate – his current social status.

And though it would be easy to say, “Well, it still shows Pepys being vain, because all he cares about is his own social standing and what people think of him,” we must remember that the whole purpose of the diary was to be a tool of social accounting . And to purport that a tool’s purpose reflects the entirety of its user’s personhood is a more than shaky leap.

Flashes of Facebook.

Does the November 29th entry, and the differing conclusions drawn from it, remind you of anything today?

The art of the selfie.

The art of the selfie.

It might – it’s basically the written version of a “selfie” photo (for those unaware, a ‘selfie’ is a picture one takes of oneself).

Selfies proliferate on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Their ubiquity is one of the most oft-pointed to proofs of growing narcissism among youth. These young’uns just can’t stop taking pictures of themselves!

Self-obsessed vanity? What if we look at selfies with the same eye Dawson looks at Pepys’s diary?

No less so than in Pepys’s time, one’s physical appearance is a fundamental indicator of where one is located – both through one’s own volition, and social imposition – within the social arena. A snapshot of one’s physical appearance is one of the simplest, clearest, and most direct ways to assess one’s social standing – and, when shared with others, to direct that social standing (e.g., if you want to be seen as a sports fanatic, be seen in a bunch of pictures always wearing different sports jerseys).

Selfies, and the rest of self-referential media uploaded to platforms like Facebook, are created with the intention of assessing and controlling one’s social standing. The body of texts and media created by a particular person and uploaded to Facebook are not a ‘reflection’ of them, but rather an artifice – not in the sense of being fake, but in the sense of being intentionally crafted with a specific purpose .

And should we be surprised that content on social media is overwhelmingly concerned with assessing and directing social standing?

To say someone – or a generation – is narcissistic or obsessed with social standing because such content comprises the vast majority of the media they create and upload to the contextual space of Facebook, is like saying someone is obsessed with videos because that’s all they upload to YouTube, or is obsessed with buying books because that’s all they do at bookstores.

Mind the context.

As we’ve looked at before in The Quandary of Context , context plays an inextricable role in how we perceive anything. And when we misinterpret or lose focus of the proper context, our interpretations and conclusions can run amok.

Samuel Pepys would likely be horrified to learn that whole books had been written about him based solely on what he wrote in a diary he wrote from ages 26-36. And yes, as many critics are quick to point out, many teenagers today would likely be horrified as adults to be judged solely based on the content they uploaded to Facebook from ages 16-26.

But to base a conception of a person on such a skewed segment of contextually biased media content is faulty in any case. And for all the worries that social media content will come back to haunt the young and vain, perhaps instead we’re all just still learning how to interpret within the new and expanding contextual playgrounds of the internet.

Daniel Klayton

Author Daniel Klayton is a poet and writer – as well as a lifelong student of philosophy, and a man of peace. Learn more about Daniel at his artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out his latest collection of poetry, Elemental Sonnets .

Enjoy the article? Consider leaving a tip  : )

Your support keeps Waistcoat & Watch up and running ad-free – and keeps our writers well-fed and well-caffeinated!

At the start of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!

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#5: The Phantom of the Opera , Gaston Leroux – 1910

This month starts out with a novel that, almost from its first publication, has been overshadowed by its own adaptations – The Phantom of the Opera .

Published serially in France in 1909 and 1910, The Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a French opera house and the ghost that haunts it. Gaston Leroux carries us through the hectic relationships of the opera, centered around the ghost, singer Catherine Daae, and her suitor Raoul.

The novel is a thriller ride of a book, rushing from one melodramatic scene to the next at sometimes breakneck speed. Sometimes romance, sometimes mystery; sometimes horror, sometimes comedy; the book is emotionally all over the place, but always good fun.

Though the novel wasn’t overly popular when it came out (or much since), the first film adaptation came in 1925, and there have been numerous more since. Undoubtedly the most famous and loved adaptation is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1986 musical of the same name. Among many claims to fame, the stage production has grossed over $5.6 b worldwide, making it the most financially successful entertainment piece ever.

It probably won’t stick with you or move you quite as much as the musical, but if you’re looking for a fun adventure ride, you’ll enjoy this one.

You might have the music stuck in your head the whole time though. I did.

…I might also be listening to it as I write this. Indeed!

#4: The Hound of the Baskervilles , Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 1902

Last month, one of the five books we featured here was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes . That was the first Sherlock Holmes book I’d read – and since, I have been hooked on them, short story collections and novels both. Of the five Sherlock books I read this month (like I said: hooked), The Hound of the Baskervilles was my favorite.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of the four novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to feature Sherlock Holmes. The story takes us from London to the damp and spooky countryside, where Sherlock and Watson must solve a murder with seemingly supernatural undertones – and protect the heir of the Baskerville estate from the same gruesome fate that befell his uncle, whether hell-spawn hound or human hand.

One of the advantages the full-length novels have over the stories is the room for Doyle to include false leads and setbacks. In the short stories, whenever something unique or unexpected is described, you can be pretty sure it signifies something major. In the novels, the breathing room provides a more realistic experience – and less obvious outcomes!

As always with these stories, the lovable personalities of Holmes and Watson (and the lovable bromance between them) are what make The Hound of the Baskervilles so enjoyable. Check it out, and enjoy!

#3: White-Jacket , Herman Melville – 1850

White-Jacket is Herman Melville’s 1850 novel based on the author experiences serving aboard a US Navy ship in the 1840’s. Melville takes us on a tour of life aboard a military ship, describing incidents and relationships in such a way as to widen scope and meditate on humanity as a whole. Throughout the book, our narrator – whom we know only by his nickname “White-Jacket” – is plauged by the uncommon whiteness of his baggy, homespun jacket. Said jacket has the tendency to isolate our unfortunate narrator, and get him to spots of trouble.

If this all sounds a bit reminiscent of a certain arguably-greatest-novel-of-English-literature, it’s no coincidence: White-Jacket was published just one year before Moby-Dick .

Reading White-Jacket is somewhat surreal, as its nearly impossible to experience it as its own novel and not Moby-Dick ’s precursor. In style, tone, construction, and themes, so much of White-Jacket feels like a warm-up to Moby-Dick . Which makes it an enjoyable read in itself, though not at the heights of Moby-Dick .

Interesting historical note: at points in White-Jacket , Melville lambasts the practice of flogging on US Navy ships. His vivid descriptions and impassioned moral reasoning inspired Senator John Hale to move Congress to ban flogging on all US ships. Hurrah for literature being the source of ethical progress in the world!

#2: The Age of Innocence , Edith Wharton – 1920

The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 12th novel. Published in 1920, The Age of Innocence is set in 1870’s New York, exploring the growing pains of New York’s upper class entering an industrializing and modernizing future.

The story centers around Newland Archer, one of New York society’s up-and-coming young gentlemen, and Ellen Olenska, one of New York’s black sheep who has returned from a scandalized European marriage. Olenska is the cousin of Archer’s fiancee, and the romantic tension seethes.

Wharton paints a closed, inwardly focused American society struggling to maintain its internal coherence and rigid edifice of mannerisms, in the face of globalizing liberalism and democratic equality. Her depiction of a judgmental upper-class never degrades into mockery or condemnation, allowing us to sink into uncomfortable characters, seeing the world through their eyes (and the tinted glasses they look through). Through the novel, a growing strain of yearning passion enlivens a reticent society, as well as deepens our appreciation and understanding of characters we ourselves may have been quick to judge.

Marvelously written, this one was a treat. Check it out!

#1: The Jungle , Upton Sinclair – 1906

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle , is one of those books that we all know by name, and have at least a cursory understanding of – yet rarely read. To be frank, before reading it I thought it was simply a journalistic exposé, not a novel (Sinclair was a muckraking journalist, as well as novelist).

Actually reading The Jungle blew away my expectations.

The story follows Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who travels to Chicago, looking for productive work and a fruitful new life in America. Jurgis lands in the Packingtown district, where he works in the hellish meat-packing industry. Over the years, as his family falls apart around him, Jurgis struggles to hold his identity in the face of crushing abuse, and to reach some sort of sustainable relationship with the world around him.

The descriptions of the inner workings of the meat industry (informed by Sinclair’s time spent working in them, researching for this book) are what The Jungle is known for. And yet, the story is so much more than that. Inspired by his socialist philosophy, Sinclair shows the oppressive, soul-crushing side of capitalism, and the yearning to join together and create a more compassionate, supportive world.

It’s sad that The Jungle , from its first publication, has been so diminished in scope. As Sinclair himself said: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Whatever your preconceptions of it may be, The Jungle is a novel well-worth a read – and worth letting strike your heart, as well as tummy.

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Uncertain bedfellows.

How do art and politics relate to one another?

Can they sit happily together? Are they mutually exclusive?

Are they destined to clash, or inherently connected?

The political and artistic atmosphere of Chile in the 1960’s and 1970’s provides a rich opportunity to delve into the question in one particular time and place.

During these years, traditional folk arts were revitalized, and socialist politics (which advocated public ownership of industry, greater social equity, and care and opportunity for the poor) grew in popularity. The Chilean arts and leftist politics would grow together during these years – and ultimately, be attacked together.

Looking back to the roots.

Violeta Parra

The collusions of art and politics in Chile at this period can trace much of their lineage back to a single figure’s impassioned impetus: Violeta Parra .

Violeta Parra, born to a schoolteacher in 1917, found her life’s calling in folklore music. At a time when globalization and industrialization were deepening their holds throughout South America, Parra championed a renewal and celebration of traditional Chilean arts. Parra is credited with recording and preserving thousands of Chilean songs, recipes, traditions, and proverbs.

And yet, in her connection with the common folk of her country, Parra’s intentions went beyond a simple itemizing or fossilizing, or even a well-intentioned glorification of the past. Parra sought to revitalize the traditions of the Chilean public, and to renew artistic creation within them . Her efforts would give birth to the movement of “ nueva cancion Chilena ” – “new Chilean song.”

Nueva cancion Chilena grew around artists who were embracing the style and heart of folk-music, within the context of modern consciousness. Just as the folk songs of old would sing of the lives of common-born men and women, so would nueva cancion songs sing of the working classes – but now, these working-class lives were set in the world of globalizing capitalism .

The mutually reinforcing connections between the nueva cancion aesthetic and the political philosophy of socialism are clear. Both focus their attention on the struggles, adventures, and triumphs of the working commoners. Both recognize an intrinsic ethical and social value in these folk traditions. Both seek to elevate these ‘common folk,’ in person and traditions, to a sphere often reserved for the ‘upper classes’ – in art, the dominance of globalizing megastars, and in politics, the dominance of the capitalist class.

Whether or not the collusions of nueva cancion art and socialist politics were inevitable, they were certainly manifested through Violeta Parra’s work.

In the early 1960’s, Parra opened Peña de los Parra – a combination of political meeting-place, exhibition venue, and collaboration hall for artists. The core of Peña de los Parra was its thriving and evolving collection of nueva cancion musicians.

Leading the new wave: Victor Jara.

Victor Jara

Victor Jara was one such musician.

By the time Jara came to Peña de los Parra in the mid 60’s, he’d been an active folkloric artist with the traveling theatre group Conjunto Cuncumen for years. With Cuncumen , Jara had been vitalizing communities with traditional storytelling and folklore, but it was at Peña de los Parra that Jara would begin to focus on folk music. Jara published his first recordings in 1966, and in the years that followed, his music became increasingly popular – and increasingly politically charged.

Jara, nueva cancion , and Chilean Socialism all took a leap forward in 1968, with the album X Vietnam , by the group Quilapayún . In addition to his musicianship, Victor Jara was the producer of the album, which featured songs by a variety of Peña de los Parra , including Violeta Parra and Pablo Neruda. The songs combine folkloric tales of the working classes, religious-inspired songs and hymns, and music from the Spanish Revolution.

When the album was recorded, nueva cancion continued to thrive as a decentralized, unofficial movement, living in small gatherings and local shows. In an effort to raise funds to send Quilapayún to an arts festival in Europe, the Communist Youth Party of Chile paid to press 1,000 copies of X Vietnam . Everyone involved expected to sell a modest number, on a local basis.

Instead, the albums sold out in a flash , reflecting and spurring international demand for the socially conscious voice of nueva cancion .

In response, the Communist Party formed its own record label, Discoteca de Canto Popular (DICAP), to print and distribute socially conscious nueva cancion music.

Continuing the message.

The third album produced by DICAP was one of Victor Jara’s most popular and enduring albums, Pongo en Tus Manos Abiertas ( I Put Into Your Open Hands ). The album contains songs both that reflect archetypical folkloric stories set in a modern context, as well as overtly modern meditations on specific situations within contemporary Chile.

An example of an archetypical, folkloric story in a modern context is “Te Recuerdo Amanda” (“I Remember You, Amanda”).

Here, Jara sings a story of grief, remembrance, and love. ‘Amanda‘ was a young lover, who would run to meet her love, Manuel, when he had a break from his factory work. The song remembers her running through the rain to meet him – on the day Manuel was killed in his work, never to meet her again.

An example from Pongo en Tus Manos Abiertas of an explicitly modern-oriented song is “Preguntas por Puerto Montt” (“Questions for Puerto Montt”).

In 1969, homeless peasants had begun to build homes and settle on land in Puerto Montt. The land was privately owned, but abandoned. The peasants had received unofficial permission from local and national authorities, but on the morning of March 9th, 1969, the ruling powers decided otherwise. On the orders of the Minister of the Interior Edmundo Pérez Zujovic, 250 armed police officers opened fire on the 91 unarmed peasants with machine guns, attack dogs, and tear gas. All the homes were destroyed, and 8 peasants killed.

In “Preguntas por Puerto Montt,” Jara laments the tragedy, and challenges those responsible – both the individuals, and the social systems that made the tragedy possible. Jara cries, “ You will have to answer, Mr. Pérez Zujovic, why were defenseless people replied to with guns. Mr. Pérez, your conscience is now buried in a coffin, and all the southern rains won’t clean your hands.

Salvador Allende and the 1970 Election

Salvador Allende

In 1970, Victor Jara and his music delved deeper into the political sphere, becoming the voice of a presidential candidate .

Salvador Allende, himself a member of the Chilean Socialist Party, was backed in his presidential run by Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), a coalition of leftist political parties. Thanks in large part to the artistic message spread through the nueva cancion movement, socialist sentiments were running strong in Chile at the end of the 60’s. During Allende’s campaign, Victor Jara lent his support through free concerts at official rallies, as well as campaigning independently through his speech and music. Jara’s rendition of “Venceremos” (“We Shall Triumph”) was played widely at Allende’s rallies.

In the November 1970, Allende was elected into office. Under his Socialist-guided leadership, the country’s policies began to shift to the left; institutions were nationalized, jobs were created for the poor, land redistribution continued, and efforts towards universal education and health-care began. As well, Allende’s government contributed grants to fuel the arts, and the nueva cancion music continued to thrive .

Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the new government.

Under attack.

The Chilean right-wing, which included the Chilean military, did not approve of the new policy shifts. Nor did the United States government.

Before the election, the Nixon administration gave the CIA $10 million to prevent Allende from being elected. Allende’s election in November was deemed unacceptable to US political and business interests, and so money continued to pour clandestinely into Chile. Now that Allende was in office, US efforts went to destabilize the economy and continue to support Allende’s political adversaries. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it: “ I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.

On September 11th, 1973, the Chilean right-wing, with the support of the Chilean military (and the unofficial support of the United States government), staged a coup d’état, overthrowing the Allende government. With gunfire and explosions audible in the background, Allende gave a final live radio speech, then killed himself before the Presidential Palace was stormed.

At the time of the coup, Victor Jara was teaching at a university in Santiago. The night of the 11th, Jara stayed at the university with students and other teachers, singing songs to raise spirits.

On the morning of September 12th, Jara was taken – along with thousands of others – to Chile Stadium. Many taken to the stadium would be tortured and killed by military troops in the days following.

After Jara was recognized by some of the troops in the stadium, he was savagely beaten. The troops shattered the bones in Jara’s hands, then mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them. In defiance, Victor began to sing the Popular Unity song, “Venceremos.”

Amidst the beatings, Jara managed to write one final untitled poem:

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?

A few days after being abducted, Victor Jara was gunned down by machine guns, and his body (and its 44 bullets) was dumped in a run-down street in Santiago.

The legacy continues.

Though Victor Jara’s life was brutally cut short, the art and philosophy he manifested live on.

Jara would become a symbol of the brutality of the Pinochet regime – and a symbol of artistic resilience in the face of such brutality . Though Pinochet would rule with a harsh hand for years, his government was eventually replaced in the 90’s. In 2003, Chile Stadium – where so many had been held and tortured during the coup, and were Jara was killed – was renamed Victor Jara Stadium.

Though its members have changed over the years, Quilapayún is alive and well, performing and recording music, and continuing the nueva cancion Chilena movement.

Jara’s own music continues its popularity, speaking its message of peace, social justice, and love to a new generation.

Daniel Klayton

Author Daniel Klayton is a poet and writer – as well as a lifelong student of philosophy, and a man of peace. Learn more about Daniel at his artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out his latest collection of poetry, Elemental Sonnets .

Enjoy the article? Consider leaving a tip  : )

Your support keeps Waistcoat & Watch up and running ad-free – and keeps our writers well-fed and well-caffeinated!

Why do humans make art?

There are many ways to answer this question. We can ask ourselves, other human beings around us. We can take brain imaging scans to try and trace neural patterns associated with the desire to paint, write, or sing, and we can look into our history to reveal ourselves.

Looking at humanity in ancient times is like stripping off the clothing of centuries of society and culture off of our beliefs and interactions, exposing the basic driving forces of humankind. Genetically speaking, we are basically the same kind of animal that we were 25,000 years ago.

If you could momentarily abandon thousands of years of social conditioning, what kind of insight would you have on your pure raw existence as a human being? What could we learn if we were able to speak with one on one with the first authors of the Torah, or listen to have a little chat with Vedic priests of ancient India?

Through the marriage of art and archaeology we can do just that!

How did it all begin?

The debate on when and why human beings began to make art, music and language will likely never be resolved – but due to the fascinating nature the topic, we have an increasing amount of knowledge on the chronology of human creativity.

Modes of communication are common among all animals on this great planet – and not unique to Homo Sapiens, though we can see that somewhere, somehow and at some time we crossed a line into the realm of what we call ‘language’ . Were we imitating the sounds of animals to warn our tribe of a predator?

Did we begin by codifying verbal emotional exclamations among family groups to communicate things like, “hey get out of my cave!”?

We can see from the cave paintings of Blombos that 50,000 years ago we were painting pictures of our surroundings, then we see in the Vinca Scripts of 6,000 BCE that our drawings began to be symbolic of ideas and thoughts, not necessarily just the visual stimulus. As we move into Mesopatamia around 4,000 BCE we begin to see that our symbols are representing words and morphemes, and utilizing syllables – eventually leading to the advent of the Alphabet around 1000 BCE which allowed us to write with a collection of less than 30 symbols what used to take 400 – 600 symbols.

As we continue to excavate and study ancient and prehistoric artifacts, we learn with increasing evidence that art was communication and inherently linked with survival.

Vinca Script.

Vincan symbols

One of the oldest artifacts of written language are the Vinca Script remnants found from tribes around the Danube river in Europe from 6,000 BCE. These symbols are indecipherable to us – though we can conjecture at their purpose. Some say that they were used in spiritual and religious rituals, to mark territory, and to unify tribes.

Human beings achieve their strength through cooperation- unlike a great whale, or bald eagle, we don’t thrive alone, in fact, solitude and isolation means death. Imagine that we had no written language. Our tribes could only reach a minimal population before our spoken language would splinter off into such different dialects we wouldn’t be able to organize amongst ourselves. So what do we see with the advent of written language?

Societies, cities and large highly populated communities. What were the first things that were written down? Did we write down advice on the best ways to kill a bear? Did we press survival tactics into clay tablets with earliest proto-types of Cuneiform and Heiroglyphics? It seems like we started by counting things and telling stories.

Telling stories.

An ancient tablet describing the epic of Gilgamesh.

The epic of Gilgamesh was first written around 2000 BCE, and later rewritten and combined into the Epic we know today. The story is about a former king of the city of Uruk who lived around 2700 BCE. Uruk was a powerful force in ancient Mesopatamia, excercising hegemony over neighboring tribes. These people were capable of sophisticated architecture, music and mathematics.(in ancient Uruk there were over a dozen differing numeric systems)

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written by many scribes over hundreds of years, and included not just Gilgamesh, but an account of the line of kings from which he desceneded. Why was it so important to write down the story of a King who lived 700 – 1500 years before you; and not to just one scribe, but to many scribes and poets?

These stories connect us on a level other than the physical plane. Such art allowed us to share ideas – values, beliefs, questions, and more – with each other. With it, we began the quest of trying to understand our lives, our very existence together.

If this is in fact the basic impulse of creating art – to understand, connect and share, how does that translate into our entertainment world of today? Do we remember how basic and fundamental making and receiving poetry and paintings are?

So why do you think we make art?

We’ve looked here at a few examples of poetry and storytelling – how might these relate to other forms of art, like music and dance?

Angela Cross

Author Angela Cross is a vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a passionate and ever-curious soul – learn more about Angela at her artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out her latest album, Songs from the Girl .

Enjoy the article? Consider leaving a tip  : )

Your support keeps Waistcoat & Watch up and running ad-free – and keeps our writers well-fed and well-caffeinated!

At the start of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!

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#5: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes , Arthur Conan Doyle – 1892

First up this month is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection of stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes . This is the first collection of short stories featuring Britain’s favorite detective, following the success of Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four .

Twelve stories here feature the rascally genius Holmes, and his trusty assistant Dr. Watson. Though they all follow the standard mystery-story formula pretty closely, Doyle’s puzzles are creative and diverse enough to seem fresh each time. Though I must admit, the stories at times suggest that anyone could get away with a crime, if they just wore generic and in-tact clothing, and maintained reasonable standards of personal hygiene. Who knew the culpability of rips and stains!

What sets these mysteries apart, of course, is the love-hate attraction of Holmes himself, as clear in popular adaptations (think Robert Downey Jr., House , BBC’s Sherlock , and so on). Just goes to show you: genre fiction may have important tropes to manifest, but it’s always characters that make or break a story.

Fun fact: this book was banned in the Soviet Union in 1929, for the supposed occultism it contained. The ban was later lifted, and Sherlock Holmes grew to be wildly popular in the USSR. Today, there’s a statue of Holmes and Watson in Moscow, near the British embassy.

#4: Mansfield Park , Jane Austen – 1814

Mansfield Park , Jane Austen’s third novel, tells the story of Fanny Price – a girl sent by her impoverished parents to be raised in the wealthy family of her aunt. Fanny grows into womanhood alongside her cousins – Tom, the rowdy and profligate elder son; Edmund, the upright and virtuous younger son; and Maria and Julia, two vain and spoiled sisters.

The novel brings to focus the moral degeneration that can run in wealth and decadence. Austen paints the flippant cruelty of wealth and carelessness, as contrasted with her temperate narrator, Fanny.

This wasn’t my favorite of Austen’s novels, but it has one thing going for it that I don’t think I can say of any other of the Austen books: I didn’t know how it was going to end. Usually with Jane Austen, you can pretty well tell by 1/2 or 2/3 in that A will end up marrying B , and C will marry D , and E will be exposed for the jerk s/he is. Or something along those lines. With Mansfield Park though, I really wasn’t sure. Austen novels are great for their rich character studies, not their plots, but still – it was a nice change of pace to feel surprised!

#3: A Room with a View , E.M. Forster – 1908

A Room with a View is E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, in which we follow a young woman Lucy as she enters adulthood in the transforming society of early 20th century Britain. The story follows Lucy as she travels abroad in Italy with her cousin, and later as she navigates her entries into romance.

Throughout the book, Lucy finds herself in situations expressing the growing split between an ‘old’ England of conventions, formality, and emotional distance, and the ‘new’ modernizing England of genuine intimacy, novelty, and social equaling.

The first half of the book includes some of the most evocative and pregnant explorations of the ideas of travel and tourism I’ve come across. To what extent do modern tourists enter into a physical location, while insulating themselves emotionally or spiritually? What does it mean to travel? Why does one seek out a change of scenery, of location? Forster blends these questions with his evocations of the social dis-location of the early 20th century, as well as the transformative reorientation of early adulthood.

A fun and thought-provoking read – check it out!

#2: Invitation to a Beheading , Vladimir Nabokov – 1936

Nabokov wrote this Russian novel before the English-speaking literary world fell in love with him through Lolita . In it, we join our narrator Cincinnatus in jail as he awaits his execution, having been convicted of “gnostical turpitude.”

This short novel runs rich with farce, existential absurdity, and black humor. Nabokov paints the laughter and anguish that accompany man’s attempt to understand and reconcile himself to the fundamentally irrational world in which he’s placed. Cincinnatus tries to reconcile himself to his situation and create some sense of ownership and control of his life – and, for the most part, fails.

The innate ‘otherness’ of the narrator – which seems to be his only crime – is reminiscent of a Dostoyevsky protagonist: struggling against a seemingly unbridgeable gap between himself and those around him, he at times bitterly embraces his isolation and at other times desperately seeks to connect with another person.

If you enjoy Kafka or Dostoyevsky (or Nabokov of course!) you’ll definitely love this one. Nabokov once said that, of all his works, he held Lolita with the greatest affection, but Invitation to a Beheading with the greatest esteem – a recommendation that alone makes this one worth reading!

#1: Red Mars , Kim Stanley Robinson – 1993

Red Mars is the first novel in Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi Mars trilogy, in which he depicts the colonization of Mars.

In Red Mars , 100 scientists are selected on Earth to make up mankind’s first colonizing team sent to Mars. The novel follows these best-of-the-best pioneers as they come together on Earth, voyage the long trip between planets, and begin their new life – and society – on the red planet.

The core of science fiction as a genre is philosophical speculation on the future of mankind, and how we grow alongside and through our technology. Robinson manifests this on a phenomenal scale – he explores diverse sides of politics, art, revolution, colonialism, economics, gender relations, religion, ethics, psychology, and more. This is a pretty long novel, but Robinson packs a lot in, even given its size. And yet it all fits seamlessly, never feeling contrived.

Robinson’s wonderful characters are the driving force behind his philosophical speculations. He gives us a diverse cast of highly opinionated characters, who can act as stark foils for one another and near-archetypes for their beliefs, yet still remain completely believable and relatable.

This pitch-perfect combination of good science fiction and good character-driven literature makes for a fantastic reading experience.

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A version of this article previously appeared in Vol. 30 of Writer’s Journal .

It all depends on your point of view…

In all my years as a student, teacher, writer and reader, the most frustrating—most convoluted—writing topic I’ve ever encountered has to be narrative viewpoint . Writing instructors, writing books and literature critics invariably resort to a list of definitions fictional narratives purportedly fall into: 1st person, 1st person unreliable, 2nd person, 3rd person omniscient, 3rd person limited, 3rd person limited omniscient, 3rd person objective, 3rd person subjective, dramatic point of view, universal omniscient point of view… Like most broad categorizations of artistic elements, these definitions are as inadequate as they are confusing.

Rather than typecasting narrators, I’ve discovered it is more beneficial to think of narrators in terms of having a set of characteristics that fall along a set of four distinct continuums: Knowledge, Distance, Objectivity , and Presence .

As a writer, it’s vital to make sure these characteristics stay consistent in any given story, and as a reader, thinking of a narrative in these terms allows us to better understand a story and gain a better appreciating of everything from characterization and plot to tone, style, symbolism and theme.

Narrative Knowledge

Narrative Knowledge is the amount of information a narrator has access to. On one end of the scale the narrator’s knowledge is limited to the perspective of only one character; on the other, the narrator is all knowing: omniscient. The omniscient narrator knows what’s happening everywhere in the fictional universe, knows the past, present, and future, and has access to the thoughts and feelings of every character in the story.

Figure 1 illustrates where the typical viewpoint definitions fall on this spectrum. On the far limited end of the Knowledge scale lies the 1st person narrative . But even the 1st person narrator’s knowledge can vary. In the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, our narrator, Dr. Watson, has very limited knowledge, and this is crucial considering that Holmes knows the answer to every mystery from the outset of the story. If the story were told from Holmes’ perspective, we’d know right off the bat whodunit, and that would take all the fun out of the detective mystery story. (To give due credit, Edgar Allan Poe invented this form of detective story well before Doyle. See: “The Purloined Letter.”) Alternatively, the first person narrator, Gordie, from Stephen King’s “The Body” (which was adapted into the motion picture Stand by Me) is very knowledgeable. He tells a tale from his childhood as an adult and has all the wisdom time and age afford.

Also on the limited side of the scale are 3rd person limited stories, stories like The Metamorphosis where Gregor Samsa is the sole viewpoint character. On the opposite half of the Knowledge scale, we have the 3rd person omniscient narrative, occupied by narrators like the one in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy who jumps from character to character and from one space and time to another.

But what about stories told from the perspective of a selected few characters, or stories that occasionally jump from space and time to advance the plot? Stories like The Da Vinci Code , by Dan Brown? This type of viewpoint shifting is sometimes enviously called “bestseller point of view” by critics, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a powerful tool in dramatizing plot-driven stories, and this is just one of many instances where the conventional viewpoint definitions of limited and omniscient 3rd person are too constricting. While contemporary short stories tend to be told from a true limited 3rd person perspective, most popular contemporary novels and a good number of short stories from experienced writers fall somewhere in between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient. Is this bad writing? Of course not. The whole point of telling a story is to tell the story in the most entertaining—most dramatic—way possible, and if that means an author defining their own bounds to the narrator’s knowledge, then so be it! As the rules of geometry say, there are an infinite amount of values between two points, and 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient are just two points on the Narrative Knowledge scale.

Narrative Distance

Narrative Distance is the degree by which a narrator gets into characters’ heads and hearts. On one end of the Narrative Distance scale we have the distant narrator , who merely narrates the actions in the story and never reveals the thoughts or emotions of the characters. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classic example; the story narrates a couple’s actions and dialogue, leaving the reader to infer all the underlying thoughts, emotions, and subtext. Hemingway’s narrator never lets us into the characters’ heads to see what’s really bothering them—the characters never utter the word abortion—and yet that’s what’s on their minds.

On the opposite end of the Distance scale is the close narrator . The close narrator accesses all the thoughts and feelings of a character, or characters, essentially zooming the narrative focus right into the middle of the characters’ minds.

Figure 2 shows where another batch of typical narrative definitions fit into the spectrum. By definition, the 1st person narrative is a close narrative, since it’s literally told by one of the characters in the story. But, just like real people, 1st person narrators can vary—they can be introspective or they can be completely thoughtless. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye is a very self-reflective narrator, for example, whereas, Dr. Watson primarily narrates his observations of Sherlock Holmes.

Not surprisingly, the close 3rd person narrator lies on the close side of the Narrative Distance scale, while the distant 3rd person narrator lies on the distant side. Here, though, we run into the same problem with the 3rd person definitions as we do with the Narrative Knowledge Scale: a 3rd person narrative need not be one or the other . The narrators in the 3rd person short stories of Raymond Carver , for example, while often described as being Hemingway-like because of their matter-of-fact tone and seeming distance, often comment on the motives, thoughts, and emotions of the characters in the stories. While Carver’s style gives the illusory effect of distance, the narrative is actually somewhere in the middle of the Distance scale.

Narrative Objectivity

Narrative Objectivity is how biased or unbiased a narrator is. Figure 3 illustrates another batch of typical narrative definitions that occupy this scale. By definition, the 1st person narrative is subjective because it is told from a specific character’s perspective. Like with Narrative Knowledge and Distance, however, objectivity in a 1st person narrator isn’t absolute. Again, Dr. Watson serves as a good example: he objectively narrates what happens and what Holmes says, and there is little textual evidence to suggest the narrative is significantly biased or otherwise filtered by Watson’s personality. On the other hand, Humbert Humbert, the narrator in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita , is an extremely subjective narrator ; the entire text is colored by Humbert’s obsession with the pubescent Dolores Haze and the rationalization of his pedophiliac actions.

Also occupying the subjective side of the spectrum is the 3rd person subjective narrative. A 3rd person subjective narrative is biased, or filtered, by the personality of a character (or more rarely, the narrator). In Tobias Wolff’s “Say Yes,” for example, the 3rd person narrative is limited and very close to a man who has gotten in an argument with his wife; the comments and judgments expressed in the narrative—about how he’s being very reasonable and how she’s being irrational—are biased by the husband’s point of view. This creates a subjective narrative.

The objective narrator on the other hand remains uninfluenced by the characters. The truly objective narrator keeps the thoughts and impressions of the characters independent from itself: it attributes all of the characters’ thoughts and impressions to the characters themselves by either using italics to offset internal monologues, or by using thought tags (e.g. Wow, he’s a lousy teacher, little Sally thought to herself.) The truly objective narrative is unbiased, treats characters fairly, and always lets the reader pass judgment on the characters. If an objective narrator does offer any commentary it is backed up with direct evidence, otherwise it ceases to be objective. Tolkien’s narrator in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is not shy about saying whether a character is good or evil, but the narrator remains largely objective by going on to show how that given character is good or evil.

But even Tolkien’s narrator isn’t truly objective. It is often thought—and even taught—that omniscient and distant narrators must be objective while close and limited narrators must be subjective, but in reality most narratives are somewhere in the middle , even our extreme examples. Just as Tolkien’s narrative is somewhat biased towards Frodo and his well-being, Wolff’s narrator in “Say Yes” provides just enough of the wife’s perspective to provide some objectivity and keep the story from becoming stilted.

Narrative Presence

Our last continuum is Narrative Presence . On one end of the scale is the inconspicuous narrator. The inconspicuous narrator shows rather than tells and does not draw attention to itself. Again, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a perfect example. The conspicuous narrator , on the other hand, really stands out ; the narrator may address the reader (e.g. “Dear reader, such a tale you have never before heard…”), it may make judgments or comment on the characters in the story (e.g. “Sally was an interminable twit.”), it may have a story-teller feel (e.g. “Once upon a time…”), or it may be heavy-handed in how it leads the reader from scene to scene (e.g. “While Thomas hung precariously from the edge of the cliff, Lilian sat eating a picnic lunch back in town.”).

As Figure 4 illustrates, only two of the typical narrative definitions fit on the Narrative Presence scale, and even these two are only associated with the scale by deduction. This is because narrative conspicuity is largely shunned in contemporary fiction unless the story is in 1st person. 1st person narratives by definition are conspicuous because the narrator is a character in the story, and, in fact, it’s often the narrative conspicuity in these types of stories that provides the subtext readers find so intriguing—the inconsistencies and subtle traits hinting at the true personality of the narrator. Again, Humbert Humbert in Lolita is a perfect example.

As much as this conspicuity is praised in 1st person narratives, it is condemned in contemporary 3rd person narratives (with the possible exceptions of experimental fiction and children’s stories). For whatever reason, conspicuous 3rd person narrators are assumed to be subjective and therefore thought to be intrusive and a distraction from the story. Hence, narrative conspicuity is largely left untaught by writing instructors and writing books, and most of the standard narrative definitions ignore narrative conspicuity altogether. The only other typical definition that fits on the Narrative Presence scale is dramatic point of view, which by definition lies at the inconspicuous end of the spectrum. Dramatic point of view is a term used to describe stories like “Hills Like White Elephants,” stories where only actions and dialogue are narrated , where everything is shown and nothing is told. Dramatic point of view is also by definition distant and objective.

So the question we’re left to ask is whether we should remain closed-minded about Narrative Presence in our fiction? Should authors by rote just write narrators as inconspicuously as possible because that’s what’s in fashion? I for one say no and no! While it’s true the vast majority of 3rd person stories published these days have inconspicuous narrators, it’s also true that some of the most powerful and widely read stories have very conspicuous narrators . “Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver has a highly conspicuous narrator which—gasp!—tells more than shows, and it is probably one his top five most anthologized short stories. The fact of the matter is, a narrator with presence provides a voice to a story and makes it stand out from the slew of other stories in magazines and books and on the desks of editors and instructors. I’m certainly not saying the narrator need be highly conspicuous, on the verge of obnoxious, but remember, that’s why we’re thinking of narrative characteristics as being on a scale. All I’m saying is a narrator needn’t occupy the far left end of the scale, and that—yes—as writers or readers we should give thought and consideration to where our narrator lies on the scale.

In conclusion…

In the end, thinking of a narrator in terms of having characteristics that lie on these four scales—Knowledge, Distance, Objectivity, and Presence—may not make the issue of viewpoint all that simple, but it does provide a context for fully understanding our narrators , whereas the typical narrative definitions leave a lot of gaps. As a writer , if you can take your narrator and point to where it lies on each of these four scales, you now have a guide for writing (or editing) your story. All you have to do is make sure your narrator’s characteristics stay consistent —make sure they’re not wandering aimlessly on those scales—and your story will have a distinct voice, tone, and style, and furthermore, the limits to what your narrator knows, shows, and tells will be rational and consistent. Whether all those factors add up to a good story still depends on how good your idea is and how well you write it, but then again, isn’t that always the challenge? And as a reader , identifying the characteristics of the narrator will better equip you to delve deeper into a story and better appreciate it.

So, what novels and short stories stand out in your mind as having a distinct narrative voice? Do they fit one of the standard viewpoint definitions or does this new approach make it easier to better analyze the narrator?

Writers, what about in your own fiction writing? Do you give much thought to characterizing your narrator or just let the narrative figure itself out?

Author Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction – as well as a teacher and connoisseur of good hikes and good beer. Learn more about Garrett at his website !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out his latest novel, Dreamwielder .

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“After silence , that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music .” ―Aldous Huxley

Music in our modern world is more than entertainment.

Knowing what kind of music someone enjoys can tell you a lot about them. Nearly all religions today use music as a tool of worship in some way, and music seems to have physiological effects on our bodies that we are just beginning to understand. A person’s musical tastes can tell you about their personality, their interests, their politics. Music tells us who we are .

We can remember our first kiss by the song that was playing on the radio; we cry when the song that was our deceased grandfather’s favorite is played. Music is one way that we measure and color our lives – and this has been true for thousands of years .

By modern estimates, musical instruments predate written language by at least 50,000 years . It seems that the more musical artifacts we find, the more we realize that musical cultures of prehistory were more advanced than we have ever thought.

Let’s look at a few examples of musical instruments and their relationship to the culture of their times as far back as we can. Perhaps through exploring our earliest instruments we can come that much closer to understanding how we came to be who we are.

Levite harp

A 'nebal' harp, on an ancient coin.

A ‘nebal’ harp, on an ancient coin.

The lyre, possibly the world’s most famous instruments through history, was the musical tool of the Levites.

The Levites were a priestly group in ancient Israel who were responsible not only for sacred texts but for music – which we can see in the book of Psalms. Throughout the book of Psalms we see references to ‘playing the name of god’. Ancient Hebrew culture had a distinction between singing and playing an instrument, and their harp, the 10 string nebal or kinnor would have been used to play the psalm, doubling the voice.

The structure of the nebal or kinnor is somewhat similar to the design of the harps of Sumer a culture of prominence from 3000 BCE. The harps of Sumer remian the oldest harp artifacts we have excavated.

The instruments of Sumer.

We can tell that the instruments of Sumer were holy because they were made of precious materials, included in ritual art, and incorporated into sacred stories . Musicians recieved special training in schools throughout Sumer, and musicians would wash their hands to cleanse them before playing these valuable instruments.

The Queen’s Lyre, of Ur (2750 BCE) is made of the precious stones lapis lazulli, red limestone, and carnelian, with a bulls head and body serving as the frame of the instrument and a symbol of fertility and the goddess Inanna.

In the great Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (first story fragments written in about 2000 BCE) the flutes are said to made of made of lapis lazulli and carnelian. Gilgamesh of Uruk was said to have lived around 2700 BCE, and was obviously part of a vibrant and precise musical culture. Excavations of ancient flutes from Sumer show that they were likely designed to play scales that we still use today .

The instruments of Sumer reflect a highly developed culture . Sumer was complete with not only instruments capable of precise musical tunings, but also notation which allowed important songs to be written down in cuneiform. The system utilized by the Sumerians is somewhat similar to the system we use today – and though we don’t have the wealth of artifacts from the cultures prior to Sumeria, we do have some evidence that this knowledge was passed down from cultures prior.

The flute of Divje Babe.

Many instruments made prior to written history were likely made of perishable materials such as animal skins and wood. Still, some survived – we’ve found a number of flutes made of bone which show evidence of a developed prehisoric musical culture. Some instruments seem to date back to a time when we shared the planet with Neanderthals.

This flute, found in the cave of Divje Babe in modern day Slovenia, was likely constructed from a bear femur and had four holes. Evidence suggests this particular artifact is somewhere between 40,000 and 55,000 years old .

The positioning of these four holes lead to speculation that its creators were already using scales similiar to what what musical cultures much later would employ. Some experts believe that the Divje Babe flute was in fact created by Neanderthals – which would challenge common ideas of our supposedly less-developed prehistoric cousins.

The condition of these prehistoric instruments leaves much to our imagination and to debate.

What does the flute of Divje Babe illuminate about the intellectual life of its creators – and what if they were Neanderthals? Was the Divje Babe flute incorporated into a prehistoric tradition of spirituality?

How do these ancient instruments inform our ideas of the history of music?

What do you think? Does this change how you see music, or our collective history?

Angela Cross

Author Angela Cross is a vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a passionate and ever-curious soul – learn more about Angela at her artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out her latest album, Songs from the Girl .

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