1. In the academic world this week, a new study looks at self-citations among academics. One had 7,000 citations, which is pretty good–but more than 1400 of those came from his own (later) work. There’s some ‘bootstrapping’ for you. The study also found that men over the last couple hundred years have cited to themselves 56% more than women, with 70% more from 1991 to 2011.

In a footnote, the paper’s authors — three women and two men — dryly note that the pattern holds among themselves as well: “The men authors of this paper cite themselves at nearly three times the average rate of the women authors.”

King and her colleagues offer a number of hypotheses for why men may be more likely to cite themselves. For starters, studies have shown that men generally have a higher opinion of their own abilities than women do. And they typically face fewer social penalties for self-promotion. “Gendered perceptions of self-promotion likely influence perceptions of self-citation, which could be viewed as a form of self-promotion in the academic workplace,” King and her colleagues write.

If that’s not a good picture of incurvatus in se, I don’t know what is. Reminds me of a Rudolf Bultmann metaphor about self-salvation: it’s like trying to pull yourself out of quicksand by tugging upwards on your own hair (citation here). Joking aside, I wonder if the “higher opinion of their own abilities” is a bit shallow for an explanation– it could also be that men remain more stuck on the ideas of their earlier selves, or perhaps we see our earlier selves and our earlier work as being better than they are. I, for one, remain stuck on this old xkcd comic by Randall Munroe, which provides a nice microcosm of this turned-inwardness in human study:

2. For those who are feeling Game of Thrones fatigue, a brief confession from the WSJ’s Joe Queenan, who apparently has been lying about watching it:

. . . I did a crash Wikipedia course in “Game of Thrones” mythology and began lying about seeing recent episodes of the show.

“What was up with the bastard of Winterfell last Sunday?” I would interject into conversations. “Can’t wait to see what the dwarf of Casterly Rock has to say about that!” . . .

Shame! Shame!

And for those who are feeling Thrones-fatigue, consider skipping to (4.).

3. Lies notwithstanding, I think the consistent quality of Game of Thrones right now is about the best thing going (spoilers follow ’til the next numerical heading). But some of the attitudes surrounding the show are manifesting a tendency toward moralism. For example, the A.V. Club – which I’m picking on only because they’re my favorite GoT source, apart from the reddit – seems to demand a morally satisfying ending to the ‘arc’ of each character.

We’ve recently grown attached to the term, the use of which more than doubled (though we’re admittedly working with small percentages) in Google ngrams’s books corpus from 2000-2008. And it’s accelerated considerably in popular Internet review-circles. From what I can tell, the idea of an ‘arc’ is that a character is moving from some point A, toward some point B, on a redemptive journey, where point B represents the (triumphant) culmination of some struggle: for instance, where Jaime’s sense of honor finally wins out over his love of his destructive sister. The issue is that real people do not always have ‘arcs.’ Spiritual progress, as we’ve noted before, can be cyclical, rather than linear. Careers can flatten out, marriages can go south, and so on. So it’s astonishing to see seasoned reviewers calling for these sorts of journeys, which are more the stuff of fairytale than modern television. And there’s nothing wrong with fairytales, but think of the great modern TV shows. The ‘arc’ of the Sopranos is mostly downward; that of The Wire is clearly cyclical, where the drug trade waxes and wanes, the sun also rises, and the sun sets, and none of the detectives can quite keep their lives together. So why the fascination with ‘arcs’ in Game of Thrones?

Is it simply because the genre is fantasy? But Martin saw himself, quite consciously, breaking from the sort of good-versus-evil, monomythic narrative of the Triumph of the Good. The show’s premature execution of its onetime protagonist should’ve taught us this; in Season 4, they spent tons of screentime building up a fan-favorite badass who ended up doing nothing but dying in an arbitrary moment, accomplishing little. Not to mention the Red Wedding.

My best guess is that a new sort of narratival moralism has cropped up, where we demand those stories which confirm our preexisting moral intuitions, rather than disappoint or, heavens forbid, challenge them. Given that Game of Thrones seems “largely [to] transpose[e] our social views on incest,” the reviewer doubts if “there’s a productive story to tell” concerning certain romantic possibilities of characters who do not know they’re related. I agree, incidentally, with the prevailing social views on incest, but the idea that this would destroy a fictional romance in a TV show feels like it’s come out of a time-traveling machine with the dial set to some hardcore evangelical church from the eighties, or whenever it was before we Christians became culture-positive.

The fact is that there can be a good, satisfying relationship between two people which also contains flaws. That’s how real life works, and there are productive stories to be told there; think Tony and Carmella Soprano, whose relationship isn’t rendered narrativally unproductive simply because they live off the proceeds of the Jersey mob. This is an issue of what Lutherans call the theology of the glory, which demands satisfying characters arcs and linear progress, inevitably lapsing into moralism and intolerance of sinners, and theology of the cross, which sees humans as they are in all their (Christian cliche warning) simultaneous beauty and brokenness. It is difficult, as a reviewer, to let the story take the lead, to stay clear of abstracted detachment of ideology. But it is nuance and surprise, rather than foreseeably satisfying conclusions, which make literature worth consuming in the first place.

4. While we’re on the subject, Tessa Carman over at Mere Orthodoxy writes a nice review of Neil Gaiman’s modern twist on a Snow White / Sleeping Beauty fairytale. The heroine leaves her wedding preparations to set off on a quest, and she defeats the witch (making dwarf-friends on the way). Carman continues the story:

Our snow-white champion, galvanized by her not-too-shabby success, then becomes a knight-errant, setting off on a path opposite from the kingdom where her bridegroom prince (presumably sniffy, weak-willed, and undeserving of her bold spirit) waits in vain for her return. She rides off into the lonely, independent sunset (a few dwarf friends notwithstanding).

I closed The Sleeper and the Spindle dissatisfied. This was a spell lacking in muchness, with a twist too tiresome and predictable to inspire wonder or admiration. Snow White’s ride into the sunset didn’t only feel leaden—it felt warped, cold.

Gaiman’s tale is not one of enchantment dispelled, but rather of disenchantment—for us benighted readers who may still prize goodness, purity of heart, and wonder. These are child’s toys, nursery games, for Snow White 2.0. In the modern fairy tale, it is the strong that survive. Where there is wonder, there is weakness. Where there’s a will (and perhaps a well-placed kick or knockout punch), there’s a winner.

Gaiman’s retelling reminded me of Tim Burton’s lavishly shot Alice in Wonderland (2010), a tale purportedly full of wonder and whimsy but that is marred by its predictable modernizing: ideology becomes the ideal. In Burton’s sequel to Carroll, a dour, grown-up Alice returns to Wonderland, and her old friends are dismayed to find she lacks “muchness”: the adult is not as curious and courageous as the child. But then Alice dons armor, becoming a (still dour) golden-locked swashbuckler, and slays the fearsome Jabberwock in an encounter sucked dry of all Carrollian charm. When she returns to England, she dons merchant garb, spurns her supercilious suitor, and bravely sets sail to sell her wares. She now has the courage to pursue her dreams. The magical inspires the mercantile. . .

Somehow the enchantment of a successful capitalist career in a nascent global economy doesn’t compare with the heroism of the old stories and the spells of the old-as-time fairy tales, let alone with the original whimsy of Carroll.

But the modern storyteller’s creed is a cynical one: there’s no way good deeds and a loving heart can win the day without some badassery. There cannot be any greatness in humility, for there is no god to reward perseverance. . . .

The old fairy tales work their magic in a different way. In the midst of a dark and grim world, they showed the power of a pure-hearted act—offering an old woman a drink of water, serving selfish sisters without complaint—to dispel the darkness. Such stories evinced a deeper magic than all the sorcery and violence of mankind put together: the weak can best the strong because of a greater power and a higher order—the Love that moves the very stars. The modern fairy tale, however, takes place in a buffered world, with no transcendent immanence. It is a world protected from—and ignorant of—bad and good fairies alike, a world bereft of love. . .

[Link above supplied.] Straight to the heart. Not much point editorializing on Carman’s fantastic piece. “The magical inspires the mercantile.” (Theory: maybe entrepreneurship has outstripped finance as the preferred destination of American elites because, with the dimension of the mercantile having become so exclusively our chief source of meaning, we need a more open-ended career ideal which can more plausibly bear the outsize meaning we wish to attribute to it?) Anyway, if the ‘Net had a gif for “read, mark, and inwardly digest,” I’d post it here.

PS: Even the mercantile sometimes still feel lonely, per Rolling Stone.

(From Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a modern dark fairytale which retains a sense of wonder–and persistent foreboding.)

5. Fortunately, we can still recover that sense wonder, but we’re increasingly doing so through children’s books. So even as we increasingly fetishize potential, and thus treat our kids’ childhoods as a long prelude to becoming an achievers, we also increasingly wish to step back into that Time of Wonder ourselves. In the best Pixar and Pixar-like films, we are made small, and the world becomes a place of human stakes, moral stakes, where the old virtues of loyalty and courage and fortitude and daring suddenly displace the litany of valuations and powerpoint presentations. This is one explanation for why Mockingbird’s been so involved in the genre – the other just being that they’re dang good movies – and perhaps why there so much great fantasy, sci-fi, and YA (ask CJ) lit out there these days. Here’s the WSJ, on Goodnight Moon:

‘In the great green room

There was a telephone

And a red balloon

And a picture of—

[here we turn the page]

The cow jumping over the moon’

A less interesting, less intuitive book might have started out with something like, “There once was a little bunny who was going to bed in his little bunny bedroom.” Brown instantly and gracefully gives us a child’s eye view of things. The great green room: to a 2-year-old, a bedroom—or any room—is an epic space, a Monument Valley full of objects that glow with strange newness. Nothing in their world has yet acquired the dull patina of familiarity that allows adults to go about their business oblivious to, say, the miracle of grass or sky.

Putting Carman’s piece and this WSJ one together, perhaps there’s an inconsistency in our love of children’s books. When one lives in a closed universe, without God, there is less to wonder at, since there is little above the human being. The bedroom of Goodnight Moon is like a Monument Valley because the mundaneness of the room is transfigured by hope, the sense that there are adventures everywhere. In our adult world, though, the main adventures we seek are forms of self-actualization, whether social, professional, or spiritual. To the mind fixated on professional success – on taking up a mercantile life, as the piece at Mere Orthodoxy would have it – there are not many places that newness, and those adventures, can come from. In such a world “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes), the journey into the world of childlike wonder must be the escapist naivete of pure make-believe. That is what theology-people mean when they speak of a “desacralized” or “disenchanted” world–the idea that there is not a Truth which can bear the beauty and newness we long for, and the adult must engage in naive make-believe or simply adopt a cynical and closed-off mindset.

The middle ground would be a sense of wonder which is supported by truth, a sense that the world has been created by a God who sees it as good and sustains it, and a hope for a future when it will be renewed. That past assurance and future hope bookend and fasten time, such that our lives on earth are, to borrow a metaphor from John Milbank, ‘suspended’ from transcendence and anchored there, like a cable-bridge or a net. Fairytales shock us into this consciousness of a higher time, of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” (Faulkner). But who are we kidding? Those Disney folks knock the socks off the theologians, any day.

6. And rounding out that topic, Megan Howell at McSweeney’s contributes an excellent list of  “Classic Works of Children’s Literature As Described in My English Thesis.” Some selected highlights:

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: “The story makes allusions to various ancient religions that offered prayers and human sacrifices to the sky in exchange for plentiful harvests.”

Boom Chika Boom Boom: “Collectively, the letters act as allegories for the repetitive nature of language. The palm tree is a phallus.”

Everyone Poops: “A commentary on man’s unbreakable animalistic connection to nature.”

[Goodnight Moon: A commentary on the transience of the objective world when the human spirit grows fatigued.]

Add yours in the comments! Also at McSweeney’s, there’s a great Wes Anderson satire, imagining him conducting a grand jury investigation into Trump’s alleged Russian thing. And ICYMI, we posted a great Onion article this week, “Picture Most Closely Resembling Actual Self Deleted.” But my favorite humor piece of the week has to be “And God Created the Millennial Earth” at McSweeney’s, which is churning out gold with almost Toast-level frequency. Here goes:

GENESI$ 1

1
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. #CreationGoals #EarthIsBae

2
Now the earth was formless and basic, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was lowkey hovering over the waters.

3
And God said, “Let there be light,” and it was lit AF.

4
God saw that the light was so extra, so He separated the light from the darkness (for aesthetic), then bragged it was hashtag no filter.

5
God called the light “day,” then threw some shade and called it “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first truly #blessed day.

Read the rest here. For the philosophy nerds out there, I have to recommend Existential Comics. Their stuff on Socrates is particularly good. Rounding humor, on the darker side, Southern Living contributes an explanation of funeral etiquette:

And we are one week closer to the Eschaton. Happy weekend!