Episode 184: Cats That Look Like Hitler

Matthew Wrather and Peter Fenzel overthink straw men, of the literal and logical varieties, and the false dichotomy between analysis and creativity.

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Further Reading

Straw Man

“You Can’t Handle the Reaper King,” by Doug Beyer, Wizards of the Coast

More on Commonplace Books

William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” from Harvard Classics

Cats that Look Like Hitler

Ranier Maria Rilke‘s Letters to a Young Poet: Kindle and Codex varieties

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

37 Comments on “Episode 184: Cats That Look Like Hitler”

  1. Emil #

    I think this is the first time when I have to listen to episode once more because I’ve just reached “I’m Dracula and I love you” at the end and could not explain what this episode was about. :o

     
  2. jjsaul #

    Evernote is the ultimate cross-platform application for your “commonplace book”… it’s so useful that future historians will abandon BC and BCE for BE and AE.

    Lesbians.

     
  3. jjsaul #

    A good argument to take those reference snapshots even of something you know you can always find in google is that the web is so dynamic – pages change for many reasons, so taking a snapshot can be valuable in many ways beyond just preservation of an interesting idea. It also automatically runs photos through OCR to make the text in the picture searchable as well.

     
  4. Tulse #

    MATHEW RATHER IS A GIGINTIC LESBAIN!!!

    (I am very disappointed that no other OTI poster has pointed out his similarity to Mary
    Wollstonecraft.)

     
  5. Mary #

    So Matthew, what is your favorite Straw Man? You never answered the question if I’m not mistaken…

     
    • Matthew Wrather #

      Oh, I thought it was “the terrorists winning.” If it was buried neck-deep in conditionals, let me make it official.

       
  6. Charlie Etheridge-Nunn #

    I definitely like the idea of the commonplace book.

    It’s great that you can go from Magic: The Gathering to Mary “I’m a huge lesbian” Wollstoncroft to poetry and still mention Pokémon in there, too.

    I admit I began to expect Wrather wouldn’t get a word in if he was sharing the podcast with The Fenz, but as soon as antique poetry was referenced, it balanced out.

    Isn’t the argument against critics being creative a way of trying to push people away from analysing what makes art good? Was it that the original concept of creativity that it was divinely mandated somehow and couldn’t be learned?
    These days it’s a lot closer to ‘research’, but then expressed in forms which in themselves could be considered creative. The Escapist’s “Zero Punctuation” video game reviews have reached a point where they do more interesting things creatively than the reviews themselves. The old computer game review show Consolevania and the newer board game review show, Shut Up & Sit Down use the review format to perform a lot of scripted comedy AND provide insight. There’s a Facebook group dedicated to the artfully-scathing Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw, specifically his one-star reviews.

    I feel that these show a level of art which is considerable, even if it is not in a traditional form.

    Come at me, straw men!

     
    • fenzel #

      There is some truth in the discussion of criticism and art. As an artist, you really have to fight your own desire to bash your own work as you are making it.

      People who show a taste and interest for art are likely to be raised and trained using criticism of that art. You have to choose what you’re going to take away from that. One of the pitfalls is to focus so much on criticizing that you apply it to yourself before you even get started.

      You have to be willing to be fearless, to be inventive, to take risks. If you just focus on criticism at the expense of actually working on something that excites you, you’ll never get anything done.

      AND THEN…

      And this is what people forget…

      You have to revise.

      (I know I revise my OTI posts less than pretty much anything I write, which is a shame. I should do that more.)

      That I think is where having a critical eye can be helpful – in the refining and rewriting process – as well as the various opportunities you have to respond to and interface with other work.

      Criticism is only an enemy if it constrains you, paralyzes you, or keeps you from taking those initial risks. It’s criticism as a mindset, not as an activity or practice, that is the problem, and it’s a specific problem that often has a general label.

       
  7. meatballsack #

    Matthew Wrather is a huge lesbian

     
  8. cat #

    I do not keep a commonplace book…that would be far too organized. I do have the habit of writing down masses of quotes that I find particularly interesting or well written in little notepads or on scraps of paper which I often then lose. I’m not sure what the purpose of the endeavor is. It used to be that I did a lot of reading and would find passages I liked though I didn’t like the whole work and after being banned from wasting the supplies of the copy machine, I would simply copy the passages myself by hand. As a writer I suppose it is good to collect bits of writing but I then lose these bits and pieces so perhaps the act of writing just helps to imprint the passages on my brain…or something.

     
  9. cat #

    This reminds me of the debate that sometimes comes up among English majors as to whether the curriculum is beneficial in helping someone become/progress/develop as a, let’s say, more creative writer. The general consensus as I understand it, is no, it does not. The things you’re reading might be useful background to have but the actual criticism and mode of thinking is more useful for the academics (who go on to get PhD’s) and less useful for people who want to write fiction or even become editors at magazines and such.

     
  10. Leigh #

    1. Wrather, you never did get around to explaining what was so boring about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Personally, I’d like to hear a little more on that topic.

    2. If I was a girl, and Ben Gibbard was trying to date me, I’d feel very inadequate, because I couldn’t possibly compete with his ex, who is one of the most attractive women on the planet.

    3. How does one remain a critical “man of the mind” while avoiding the perception of negativity? Or, to put it another way, what do you say when someone screams “Can’t you just this once just sit there and enjoy the goddamned movie?”

     
    • fenzel #

      I’m not Wrather, so I can’t address #1 like he can, but when I think of boring gothic horror books that inspired much more exciting movies, my go-to is Dracula, not Frankenstein. Geez, that book is boring.

      I think part of why it is boring to me is so much of the “scariness” of it is really just racism. There’s this British Isles fear in the book of the encroachment of this exotic, scary Europe that really doesn’t affect me in a visceral way. I specifically remember a description of what are essentially Croatian cowboys — while reading it, I remember thinking “I get the feeling this is supposed to be ominous in some way,” but not being affected by it.

      Frankenstein is different, though. I’ll let Wrather address his opinions on it.

      2. I am curious as to whether he dumped her or she dumped him, but I do not care quite enough to look it up. Why the star of Elf would want to marry such a dopey-looking wet blanket is beyond me. Unless of course his deep sadness is largely an act he uses to get chicks and not particularly remarkable among people, who of course all deal with this stuff.

      Regardless, on both sides, acting! Genius! Thank you!

      3. One big problem is people conflate being smart with being sad or upset — maybe I’m still channelling the Ben Gibbard question, I suppose. But there are ways to be critical and analytical about art that are undesirable because they are just annoying in a superficial way to people with different expectations — as in, would you please shut up, the movie is on — but there is also a way to be critical and analytical about art where the annoying thing is you are nothing but negative all the damn time.

      People hating on Justin Bieber is a good example of this. There are so many people who seem to think they are sooooooo smart for hating on Justin Bieber – looking for ways to tear his work down or looking for new ways to insult it.

      And yet, Justin Bieber is really popular, and a whole lot of people — I’d wager to say a higher percentage of people than generally love most things — love Justin Bieber. Why does the analysis comes so overwhelmingly from the negative side? And why is there a need for quite so much of it?

      And furthermore, if they are so smart and analytical, why do so many people’s analysis create an expository dichotomy of hate or love and only make comments on their own side, except perhaps begrudgingly?

      I tend to think it is because people are just angry and upset for some reason, and Justin Bieber gives them a safe place to vent some of that frustration. That really, it isn’t about engagement with his art at all (how many people bash Bieber or Ke$ha or Katy Perry without ever really listening to them except in passing?), but about how a given person feels at a given time.

      And of course it sucks to be angry or sad all the time. You have ample reason to do that if you want, but it’s not great, and it’s certainly not the frame of reference within the work of Justin Bieber most fittingly exists.

      That is why I brought up the Rilke quote – because to Rilke, the real issue with critcal engagement is it does not treat art with love, and the love of art is necessary to protect and foster a burgeoning artist and burgeoning works. At the end of the day, love is a more powerful, vivid and beautiful motivator for art than anger or upsetment or depression – even when depressed or manically depressed people make art (which is very common) the best product of these endeavors comes from a yearning for that love that urges them to reach out through their own darkness or turmoil and create something.

      So I would say if you can find a way to critically or analytically engage with art that incorporates a love of art, a love for the thing you’re talking about, even when you’re being negative – then not only are you yourself going to create more interesting stuff and further your own growth as an artist – you won’t piss off the people around you as much.

      Unless of course you won’t shut up during the movie, and you’re watching it with movie-during-shutter-uppers.

       
      • Tulse #

        Why the star of Elf would want to marry such a dopey-looking wet blanket is beyond me.

        Ben Gibbard is a huge hipster star. Zooey Deschanel is a huge hipster star. Their union is like an astronomical collision that produces a hipster supernova. Alas, it now seems to have collapses into a hipster black hole…

         
        • fenzel #

          The falcon cannot hear the falconer… Hipsters fall apart… The center cannot hold…

          Man, how great would it be if Zooey Deschanel starting daying Jay Sean or Drake or something like that…

           
          • fenzel #

            Dating, not daying. Although I guess if she were daying them, it would also be awesome, whatever that means.

             
      • Matthew Wrather #

        It’s funny, Pete, that you and I were typing and posting answers to this question at the exact same time.

        I didn’t share your low opinion of Dracula when I read it in high school—but then again (and this is one of the traits that makes me suited for acting) I have a capacity for ignoring the manifestly ridiculous parts of a premise and committing to it anyway.

        And as to #3, I think we’re on the same page, though you call it “love” and I call it “hope.”

         
        • Stokes #

          Yeah, either that or you’re viciously racist against Slovaks.

           
    • Matthew Wrather #

      Here’s the thing: The novel isn’t boring, if what you’re looking for is a philosophical disquisition on the nature of the soul. Compared to the Dracula novel, however—which I read in the same high school class and which actually kept me up nights in terror of falling asleep—it’s soporific indeed.

      As to #3, we usually point them to the name of our website.

      But seriously: This is something I think of a lot in the course of doing creative work. Because the thing about creative work is: You have to tolerate the fact that as you grow better at it, you’re going to suck for a long time before you get good. And if you have some intellectual capability, ironically, not only does it not HELP the development of the skills around your creative pursuit (only time and practice help those), but it brings into focus far more clearly your perception of how much you suck.

      You’ll notice that I’ve just made a straw man argument of a sort, because I’ve substituted for your question a superficially similar one and answered it instead of yours. But I think the answer to your question is related.

      Without getting too touchy-feely on a site devoted to hard-nosed analysis, I think the answer is hope. When you’re trying to become a better writer or musician or actor or whatever, you have to realize that your sucking right now is not a permanent condition. You’re holding out for and working toward a future where things are better, and evidence shows that practice does actually improve people’s skills.

      It’s a related thing when you feel the tension between critical analysis and being a jerk—you’re not being analytic in order to tear down this or that work. Or at least you shouldn’t be. (This is why frustrated filmmakers make such vitriolic movie reviewers, and this is why artists are resentful of criticism.)

      When you exercise your analytical capacity, you’re actually trying to point the way to a better world—a world in which the things you consider valuable are valued even more highly, and the things you consider crass or demeaning are exposed and done away with. You’re hopeful for such a time, and you’re crazy enough to think that your exercising your mind might help bring it about in some small way.

      That’s how, I think.

       
      • cat #

        I found Frankenstein much more interesting than Dracula, which now that it’s been a few years, I will admit I could not even be bothered to finish it was that tedious. And yes, I fell asleep a few times while trying to read it. I think the characters in Frankenstein are reasonably compelling and the writing is quite beautiful from what I remember while Dracula seemed like a piece of art that was mainly enjoyable for the debates one could have about it. I remember really disliking the book until I started to break it down analytically for discussion and see the characters as flat and stereotypical for a reason. However, that doesn’t make spending the majority of the time not with Dracula any more exciting.

        To engage in pure negativity for a moment, I think Zooey is pretty but certainly not “one of the most attractive women on the planet.” Her singing voice is quirky but not particularly skilled or remarkable. And I really don’t see the appeal of all that adorkableness. It makes her come off as a bit annoying and fake. Her acting on New Girl is not good and her eyes show that she isn’t committed. I don’t understand why that show is so popular.

         
        • Tulse #

          It’s because she’s so “adorkable” (a term actually used by the network in promoting the show, a fact which should earn their PR staff a place in the lowest circles of Hell).

           
  11. cat #

    Fenzel, at 58:22 were you talking about Baucis and Philemon or Apollo and Daphne or something else entirely? Those are the only two tree myths I can think of at the moment but neither seem to apply.

     
    • fenzel #

      It was a bit sloppy, but I was primarily thinking of Baucis and Philemon, where they are physically turned into intertwining trees, as well as the Celtic myth of Deidre and Naoise (although I had to look it up again to remember what it was called – gotta get a commonplace book) – in which trees grow out of their graves and reach for each other.

      I was definitely taking it to an interpretive level, though – the thematic and poetical connection between myths like that across cultures and what they say about the yearning for a grander expression of love – rather than the specific overt message of any one myth.

      I was feeling a little Neil Gaiman-ish as I was talking – definitely recommend _The Book of Ballads_, for which he was a contributing author, for more stuff that kind of vibes on this level:

      http://www.amazon.com/Book-Ballads-Charles-Vess/dp/0765312158/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1

       
      • cat #

        Oh, good then. I thought I was losing my mind and was remembering things incorrectly. I’m not that fluent in Celtic mythology. The wikipedia page has a story that reminds me a bit of Snow White.

        I agree with the interpretive level you were reaching for. I’ve been thinking of maybe writing a romance, because that’s where the money is :) and have come across that problem both in brainstorming and in considering what has been written. It seems like writers either fall back on cliches and perhaps find something interesting to do within the confines of a familiar structure or they try and stretch to some grand expression of love or depth that corrupts what should be a simple story. See: Amazon reviews for any popular romance

        Everyone is always recommending Neil Gaiman to me. I will add this to the list of things I should read. Thank you.

         
        • fenzel #

          Not sure I mentioned this before, but The Book of Ballads is a comic – well, it’s serious enough and long enough to be a graphic novel, but is not a novel – but an anthology of poems. So it’s not a tough read. But I think it’s pretty sweet. Enjoy!

           
  12. Amanda #

    Really enjoyed the more “serious” and comtemplative podcast. When Pete was talking about the heightening of actions in a romantic relationship near the end of the podcast, it reminded me of a Marion Cotillard movie from a couple years before she became famous worldwide, called “Jeux d’enfants” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0364517/ Not much to add here, just an interesting movie and fits with the theme :)
    I have a suggestion for Jordan: Jenny Lewis’s latest solo album, Acid Tongue. There’s a couple bluesy, very rock n roll songs in it like The Next Messiah and Jack Killed Mom.

     
    • cat #

      LOVE Acid Tongue, though it came out a while ago, didn’t it?

       
  13. Timothy J Swann #

    Group creativity as regards OTI is definitely something I have thoughts on – having had the immense privilege to join the panel, what we get is that kinetic elevation – because we all come with ideas and modes and together we can raise up something that deflects off all of us – which is not to say that having a two-hander (four-hander!) panel doesn’t work, but you’re covering a broader ground with a broader panel – fortunately, there’s enough to say that the two of you can happily go for an hour. I’d wonder how long the panel could go (given how after-show discussions have sometimes gone) if it was not limited by time commitments and had four or give people on. Possibly indefinitely.

    I find writing-wise in terms of the non-fic stuff to be the case too – without someone to sharpen me, I kind of spiral around like the dyspraxic ballet that I have sometimes performed for laughs, whereas group endeavour gives a more clear course.

     
  14. Gab #

    The two of you did a good job, despite your misgivings or apprehensions at the beginning- good balance between the two of you rambling on.You could work your way around the world, find the queen(s) of all your dreams… Ahem. Sorry…

    Disclaimer: I think what I have to say is along the lines of what Wrather and Fenzel have already said ^up there^, but I wasn’t reading the comments as I started writing my own, so if this is repetitive/ redundant, oh well.

    Is it okay to disagree with the Rilke quote because of a different philosophical idea of “love”? Becuase… well… I don’t think always being positive and praise-giving is honest. If you really love someone or a thing, you should be willing to admit they/it has flaws- the true act of love is caring anyway. Denying the existence of any flaws or problems is a lie of omission, both to oneself and the object of love. And it’s almost one’s duty to point out those problems. For a simple example, if you’re talking to a friend and they point out you have a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth, it’s because they care and they don’t want you to embarrass yourself- and how often do we get irked when we realize it ourselves later, knowing the person(s) we were with didn’t tell us it was there? It parallels patriotism, as Fredrick Douglas expresses- basically, he critiques the US out of love for it, with the hope of making it better. And while we may not critique a book to make said book in itself better, since we don’t expect it to be changed, we can critique it in the hope that the next book won’t have those flaws we point out. We critique that book in the hopes of making literature better.

    And why is critique inherently negative? Whenever one gives “constructive criticism,” at least in the field of academia I’m in (or maybe the way my institution trains us), we’re encouraged to say a few positive things, too, and to be conscientious of them as we read whatever we’re critiquing. Granted, this isn’t motivated by love, but rather peer review/edit/ etc., but I bring it up because it’s a method of critique that isn’t 100% “critical” in the negative sense of the word. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think negative conclusions are the only ones a body can come up with when exercising critique- and yes, I’m projecting my own values into my definition of it, but not every aspect of every definition of “critique” implies an inherently negative assertion. A “detailed evaluation” could point out good or bad things, for example.

    And is literary criticism its own form of art? I’m going to jump in head first and say yes, for it involves its own creative process when analyzing the original, synthesizing ideas, and then articulating those ideas in a way the person doing the critique feels will be the best at getting anyone consuming their product to interpret/consume the original the same way. The critique has to come from somewhere, doesn’t just exist on its own, and if we think broadly enough about acts of creation, then yeah, it’s art. So in that sense, Rilke’s critique of criticism is hypocritical. And yeah, I’m making a slippery slope, here, basically saying anything creative is, as such, a form of art… But it depends on what people see as artful, artistic, beautiful, etc. A mathematician that comes up with a formula to solve some formerly unsolvable problem could be thought of as a creative genius and an “artist” of math. A plumber that designs a unique way of fixing some tricky pipe problem could be thought of as an “artist” within their own craft. Etc.

    Alright, so maybe I’m too off-track, but to sum up, I guess I think Rilke was being a reactionary and responding to negative criticism by assuming all negative conclusions are 1) done out of malice; 2) bad in the value sense; 3) restrictive. He assumes critique leaves no room for praise and, thus, that it makes things worse . And I don’t agree, since there’s no room for growth if all a person/thing receives is, “AWESOME!” And I’m a firm believer in growth, development, change, etc. Stagnancy is repugnant to me, and if all we did was love the art we already have, it would never evolve.

    /end rant

     
  15. Lady Brainsample #

    I’ve been putting poems I like into a notebook since I was a kid, but I never had anything to call it until now!! Thank you, Wrather!

     
  16. Aidan #

    Long time listener, first time poster. I just wanted to say that this has been my favourite of the many of your podcasts I have consumed. Wrather talking about an area which he is teaching and as such is fresh in his mind is really engaging, and I have to say that only having Pete and Matt – who are usually the most audible and have the least delay – was a big bonus for me.

    Criticism or homage within art (in my case mostly music) is something that really tickles my listen-whistle. The tongue-in-cheek-but-still-kinda-mean-it of some of LCD Soundsystem’s tracks is a clear example in my mind: while producing art they also comment and criticise both other artists and critics (You Wanted a Hit; Losing My Edge etc.).

    Anyway keep up the good work.