Friday, October 01, 2010


The University of Chicago Divinity School constantly asks, “What’s your method?” This post is about methods of reflection on heresy, blasphemy, nonconformity, going against the tide when you think the tide is wrong even if you’re pretty sure you’ll drown. To include non-readers (how would they get HERE?), I suggest three image-based methods:

1. Historical: those individuals in the past who have paid a terrible price for their stubborn opinions.

2. Scientific/experimental: both setting up social incidents and using the fMRI to “see” the brain.

3. Dramatic: Well, actually, you’ll have to get a DVD for this, Watch “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I’ve watched it twice now. The Swedish version with sub-titles for readers. (Sorry. There WILL be a Hollywood version.)

Cynically, I expect most people will watch this movie because Lisbeth Salander is outside the norm in a sexual/violent way kinky enough to capture the attention of the Brit murder-mystery fans. She is a genuinely vivid and appealing character with her black leather and motorcycle. (Who does that make you think of?) And she has that androgenous, bisexual, self-possessed, catwoman quality we seem to be attracted to these days. In the book the emphasis is on the other non-conformist, the investigative reporter who is far more like Clark Kent than Superman, and who is frankly Stieg Larsson, the original author.

Lisbeth must defend herself in terms of actual physical survival against predators. No ambiguity. Except that the structure of society allows her to be defined as crazy and therefore confined by the people who are supposed to be her guardians. We think of jailing dissidents as Soviet, but in fact the US does it all the time right now: troublesome people are locked up. Lisbeth is powerful: a kick-boxer, a computer hacker, a person with a network and access to technology beyond guns, like surveillance cams or stun guns.

Mikael Blomkvist is defending society. His motives and methods are stainless, yet he is defined as criminal and locked up. The method that he uses to get out of trouble is the same one that got him into trouble: steady investigation and reflection. In the book he is far more potent (literally). On the screen he becomes almost background for Lisbeth. He is an old-fashioned hero version now, since so many journalists who seemed to be revelatory have turned out to be making things up. But in becoming a movie, there is no time to develop the webworks of our modern society -- how twisted much of it has become. In the movie, the dragon tattoo that was on one shoulder has grown to inhabit Lisbeth’s entire back, even some on her thigh. The corruption of one family is now portrayed as occupying the whole country, maybe life everywhere.

I joked about this movie being “Wild Strawberries Meets Batgirl.” I was prompted by the opening with the Vanger patriarch to remember the old man who has betrayed his family in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” This time, unlike the cold honor of the academician, the old man who ought to have been keeping order in his own family has known about or should have known about torture/sex/murder/Nazism among his brothers but either did nothing or pretended not to know. (There are a host of ironies in casting Christopher Plummer in this role.) His reasons seem to be preoccupation with business. In the book the point is made that international corporations are entwined with international crime. In the movie the focus shifts to atrocities against women which evidently can only be found and addressed by women outside the system via justified homicide.

I’ll be very interested to see what Hollywood does. It’s a clue that the mild Mikael will now be played by Daniel Craig, known for being James Bond. Much focus is on the Salander character. Interviews with Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress. are all about her private life and her character: how she went on a diet, exercised constantly, took kick-boxing lessons and motorcycle lessons, how her personal life was affected, how they got the tattoo onto her back. Ours is a society relentless in its pursuit of the individual and nonconformity while equally relentlessly enforcing conformity to cubicle life. This movie is a pornography: an enthrallment to intensifying something, maybe in hopes of resolving it, maybe just for the pure sensationalism, maybe a displacement of frustration.

Once on an airplane during my ministry years, I sat next to an outstanding child psychologist. Offhandedly he remarked that “Anne of Green Gables” was a book much loved by children in every culture he had worked with, including Africa, because the experience of being the oddball, the outsider, is paradoxically so universal. Anne overcomes every problem because of her giftedness, her soft heart, and her endearing blunders. The woman who invented Anne, Lucy Maude Montgomery, was clearly drawing on her own life, which did not go so well. Her father was not dead, just a discarder. The Cuthberts were her own punishing grandparents. She married a clergyman, who ought to have had the right inspiration and guidance for a happy life, but who was so crushed by depression that Lucy Maude had to cover for his failures. In the end she committed suicide. Is it any wonder that we would prefer the fiction?

Tim Barrus hates for me to talk about Nasdijj, a fiction that turned into a vendetta. He’d much rather be seen as the video-poet he has become (see Facebook) and the group that evolved out of a gaggle of gifted boys in Paris and has now taken flight to be something else or at least somewhere else. Again, his work has been discredited by concentration on his identity and private life. Suppressing him also suppresses the issues that consume him (nearly literally): boys who have caught HIV-AIDS from sex work and boys who are trafficked. They are often close in image to Lisbeth Salander: androgenous, technically adept, outrageous in image with goth spikes, dramatic makeup, hair over one eye. My attachment to them is my nonconformity.

What’s my role? What’s my method? I watch. I read. I analyze and look for patterns. If you have watched these videos, I assure you that though I admire these historical figures and my birthday is the same as the day they burned Michael Servetus (neither Nygvist nor Blomkvist) for the heresy of Unitarianism, I have no desire to be a martyr. But I am acutely aware of being out of step, even in the Unitarian context. I don’t look like Lisbeth (more like her mother who was played by Noomi’s real mother) and I’m no technical adept. I don’t stand out in a crowd, which can be an advantage. I’m more of a Steig Larsson, an old-fashioned writer, no more traumatized than most.

The exotic and the homely do not contradict each other. Conformity is fine so long as non-conformity is tolerated, learned from, protected, seen as a source of renewal. And so long as the non-conformity is not just a matter of moving allegiances, switching the method of conformity to the goals of a destructive sub-group like the Vanger’s Fascists.

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