Why we love horror: the sublime and monstrous Other

This article is the second part in a series that began with Beyond Fear. Here’s a quick summary: I argued for a distinction between horror and fear, and said that horror is appealing because it suggests mundane reality hides something supernormal. Since this is also true of fantasy, I have also argued that these genres are related in a fundamental way.

I have stated in passing that horror is dark, and fantasy by comparison is bright. That is not a generalization I think many will contest, and it will bring us greater clarity about the differences between them. Both genres suggest that something exists beyond the mundane world: what I will call the fantastic Other. Think about that term for a moment – let it settle into your mind.

I think you will agree that in some contexts, a nebulous word like Other could be quite glorious, or very ominous indeed. The fantastic Other might be the dweller in your attic, the monster beneath your staircase, or Dr. Seuss’s “Vug under a rug” (which didn’t give me many sleepless nights as a child, I swear): in short, it may be monsters and demons. But then again, the Other may be Aslan, may be Jack Frost, may even be Santa Claus; in short, it may be saints and angels.

I have outlined, here, a strict dichotomy – that the fantastic Other breaks down into two kinds: the sublime Other, and the monstrous Other. But I know that we are generally suspicious of dichotomies these days. After all, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” I know that whenever boundaries are suggested, areas of overlap must be acknowledged before one may go on.

So let it be known that the sublime and monstrous Other have not always been separated, and it is only recently that we have tended to separate them, and only more recently we have discovered we were wrong to do so. I view that as more evidence for my claim that fantasy and horror are related: they are sprung from the same fountain.

Take, for instance, the mermaid, the leprechaun, or Germanic fairy tales. We often hear today that fairy tales were much darker than we now think they were, and that it was Walt Disney who separated them into black and white categories (but of course, the Romantics did that long before Disney): the mermaids may have been glorious, fantastic creatures, but they were also seductive, murderous, and cunning. The leprechauns may have been a charming folk that horded pots of gold, and granted wishes to those who caught them, but they were also tricksters who would steal your baby and replace it with an ugly one. David Douglas McAnally assures us that leprechauns were “not wholly good nor wholly evil.”

This fantastic other was, in short, both monstrous, and sublime.

In fairy tales, too, the woods hide secrets that are both terrible and wondrous to behold: take Hansel and Gretel who stumble on the gingerbread house (sublime!), only to be captured by a witch intent on cannibalism (monstrous!).

But what we have in this older kind of story, the kind which combined what we now call horror with what we now call fantasy, was rather unlike a modern fantasy story, because – for all its impossibilities – it was a rather realistic one. Life is full of things both terrible and wonderful, and sometimes they are found in the same places. Nowhere is this more evident than in human beings themselves, for as we know too well, the best and worst sort of person can be combined in a single being.

Yet even before Romanticism, the sublime and monstrous Other were sometimes separated: there is actually nothing sublime about the Banshee, and there is nothing monstrous about the Lady of The Lake. And before we condemn, and (especially!) before you take me to condemn modern fantasy and horror stories for escaping an ambiguous dimension, let me remind you of something else you probably know.

In addition to the regular human being who is both flawed and virtuous, on rare occasions, we meet two special kinds of people: those in which it is almost impossible to name a flaw, and those in which it is almost impossible to name a virtue. Although such people are rare, we do know them. Or if we do not know them, we certainly know of them – we have read about them in papers, and we have read the biographies, both of man’s gold, and man’s dross. We are envious of one, we are repulsed by the other, but we are wholly transfixed by both the saint and the psychopath.

Whether we like realism better than romanticism, the fact that the monstrous and the sublime Other have been purified into respective genres is one we have come to examine rather than to judge. We want to understand fantasy and horror, and we can begin by seeing them as the separation of the ambiguous Other into two incarnations very different in character, but equally intriguing.

The Grotesque

Now to the question of horror as a modern genre. I have already said it arouses the sentiment that something exists beyond mundane reality – but what kind of thing? I obviously mean to say the monstrous Other, but I will also be more specific.

In horror, the veil of reality is torn to reveal something appalling beneath its surface. In tamer kinds of horror, this something could be flesh and bones. In Frankenstein, the human being is deconstructed into parts of rotting corpses dug up from old graves, and stitched together with thread.

There are three kinds of monstrous Others in Shelley’s tale: the monstrous Other relative to Science, which is not merely a wonderful tool for improving life, but a method for creating disjointed and unearthly beings. There is the monstrous Other relative to the human body; beyond the veil of human beings as we perceive them lies the fact that they are composed of ugly stuff, and although we think ourselves special, it takes only some very clever chemistry to bring that stuff to life. There is, finally, the monstrous Other relative to society in Frankenstein; polite people of Christian values in a Victorian society denounce the monster as a godless creature with no rights, in spite of his reason, love, and emotions. Society turns out to be the veil of something cruel, and unaccepting.

But I have called this kind of horror tame – why, seeing as it is rather morbid? I say it, because horror can go much farther, and it has. Body horror always concerns the monstrous Other relative to the human body, and there are examples I am not willing to share on this blog, but you are likely enough familiar (Frankenstein’s monster is tame by our standards). Beyond that, horror has given us monstrous Others relative to nature itself, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It has given us the monstrous Other relative to the human psyche (not just to the human body), as in Psycho. It has very often given us the monstrous Other relative to childhood and innocence, with all its murderous clowns, and demon-possessed playthings. Internet culture has brought this kind of monstrous Other farther along in creepypastas, where innocuous children’s shows become the façades of bloody and hellish enterprises. In some works, horror has even given us a monstrous Other relative to metaphysics and ultimate reality, but this in particular is a subject I will devote another article to.

At bottom, horror is a genre that tells us there is something outside our ordinary experience of the world, and it is grotesque. It is a deconstruction of ordinary life into something corrupt, ugly, or unsettling. Those who extol a work for its subtle approach to horror – the kind that is known to be especially ‘psychological’ – sometimes praise it for being merely ‘wrong’, though they may find it difficult to explain precisely in what sense it is ‘wrong’.

The word ‘wrong’ as a description of something particularly horrifying or ‘creepy’ tells us something important: that in addition to the aesthetic dimension of the grotesque, there exists a moral dimension to the monstrous Other. There is usually a sense in which it is bad, if not wicked, cruel, callous, or malevolent. But this is another subject to be addressed more fully later on.

The Glorious

You know the next logical step already: fantasy works like horror, except for the sublime Other. Since these articles are mainly about horror, an extended explanation is unnecessary, but here are some brief illuminations.

Take Harry Potter, with its castles, wizards, magical sports, and mythic creatures. J.K Rowling’s magnum opus is effectively a sublime Other relative to the country of England, in which ordinary train stations hide better, glorious train stations. Remote hillsides harbor stone castles (a sight known in that part of the world), and these stone castles in turn harbor glorious schools. Even the staircase in 4 Privet Drive harbors something glorious: the boy who lives; the Chosen One to save the wizarding world from darkness.

Harry Potter is one, glorious conspiracy on every level of human life. Animals (Hedwig), natural spaces (the Forbidden Forest), public spaces (London), even the transportation system are complicit.

I noted in the last section that the monstrous Other possesses a moral dimension. The same is certainly true of the sublime. It is obvious in Harry Potter who is good, and who is bad; that the sublime Others dress in righteous robes, taking the role of hero at every turn. In Harry Potter, the sublime is held in moral contrast with the grotesque. As before, I must suspend further elaboration on this point until later on.

Terrible and wonderful truths

At this point, I can now give my full explanation why people love horror, and why they love fantasy: people love both because they love to feel there is more to the world than meets the eye. But people love fantasy in particular because it reminds them of truths that they may only dimly know: glorious truths that illuminate reality, cause it to transcend, and reveal the higher potential or fuller nature of things they are already familiar with. These are glorious truths.

To quote a famous author:

“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
– G.K Chesterton

But then, what about horror? horror is the whole subject of these articles, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time talking about fantasy instead. That is because I think the first cannot be fully appreciated apart from the second. And if you can appreciate the sorts of truths that fantasy communicates to us, perhaps you will also appreciate the truth which horror communicates.

Horror is about the other kind of truth – the truths that are not glorious: the terrible, awful truths. Frankenstein rings true in certain ways; it reminds us of a society that is not so virtuous as we imagine, of a science that is not as beautiful as we thought, of human bodies which are not as permanent as we believe.

These are truths that humanity finds occasion to be reminded of again, and again. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Old Testament which contains the sort of hard, terrible truths that I am talking about:

“All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
Ecclesiastes 3:20

These words are not taken from a book in the horror genre, but one which was Divinely inspired. Hopefully you know already that the book does not end there – neither Ecclesiastes, nor the Bible. It teaches that all men return to dust, but also teaches that they are more than dust, and the final end of man is not in this world.

But having said that, so far as the words go, they obviously were not written to be comfortable. They were written by a disillusioned king at the end of his life, reflecting on all the pointless vanities in which he had indulged. The verse is not something one says at a party – it’s not something one says to cheer up a friend. It is a truth we’d rather not think about, and yet some part of us yearns to face it headlong, and stare at it for all its worth; that is what horror gives us the opportunity to do.

Something strange

If you have thought, up until now, that I am setting up fantasy and horror as equal and opposite genres, you are wrong: because there is a very curious lack of balance between them. Think of all the horror works you have been exposed to, then think of all fantasy works you have been exposed to, and ask yourself this question: does the monstrous Other ever appear in a fantasy work? And does the sublime Other ever appear in a work of horror?

Strangely, the answer to the first question tends to be an emphatic ‘yes’, while the answer to the second question is almost always, ‘no’. In literature and art, the sublime Other is well complemented by the monstrous: Harry Potter has its death eaters, its Voldemort, its Dark Spells and its Dementors. Lord of The Rings has its Sauron, its Orcs, its Nazgul and its Barrow-wights. The Chronicles of Narnia has its death of Aslan, as the majestic lion – the sublime Other – is surrounded on all sides by misshapen and ghoulish parodies of Narnian races – the monstrous Others.

And yet, we rarely if ever find the opposite in works of horror. If we do, it is almost always just at the end, or at the very start, as though the sublime Other can only be present in a horror story as parentheses, but never as points along the way. I have tried with great difficulty to think of any examples to explain, but quite frankly, I have never known a work of horror to contain any element of sublimity.

In short, a work of fantasy can be – on the whole – sublime, even if it is laced with monstrous Others. And yet, a work of horror can only be monstrous on the whole if it never permits entry to the sublime Other in the first place.

To me, this suggests that fantasy and horror are not equal genres, and I have a theory about this inequality which I will explain in the next article. Until then!

Click here to read part 1 of this series. The next part will be included as a link when it is posted.

Why we love horror: beyond fear

This article is the first part in a series. Click here for the second part.

If you have lived life long enough, you are bound to have heard the question at least a dozen times before: why do we enjoy horror? Because however bad it rattles them, however late it keeps them up at night, however often they check their shower for a knife-wielding psychopath on account of Alfred Hitchcock, people enjoy horror. People love hair-raising and diabolical tales around a campfire at midnight. People love horror movies, horror video games, horror stories shared in dark corners of the Internet, in that lovable modern genre called ‘creepypasta’.

Apparently, people love to be afraid, just as much as they hate it. Humans are naturally attracted to experiences that make their hearts pound, and release all those good chemicals in the brain which we have been told horror triggers. Science, science, science, something about evolution, chemistry, brain, bingo. Question answered. Now go away.

Just kidding.

Perhaps that’s where you wanted to stop. Perhaps you were hoping for a simple and conventional answer. But if you were hoping for a conventional answer, you have come to the wrong place. Because I am of the very firm conviction that we do not love being afraid. It seems quite obvious to me that we hate it; nobody has ever enjoyed being stalked. Nobody has ever asked to be startled on purpose.

At this point, I am sure someone will raise the point that people do, actually, face terrifying experiences on purpose: that people ride roller coasters even if they are terrified, they go to haunted houses where actors are paid to jump out and frighten them, that even in daredevil sports and risky endeavors such as hiking a mountain or asking for a raise, people face fears all the time.

But surely there is a fairly simple explanation of these facts: people love victory. They love the satisfaction of facing fear, and winning in the end. Just as the mountain hiker loves the feeling of reaching a summit, so the BASE jumper loves the feeling of landing safely on the ground, and so the ambitious employee loves the feeling of being promoted.

But do any of these people actually enjoy the experience of being afraid? Or is it the very displeasure of that experience which makes victory all the sweeter? I think the second explanation is correct. Fear, without any payoff, is not enjoyable.

The greatest proof of this is the jumpscare. That is to say, nobody enjoys jumpscares. I claim this emphatically, without feeling overly-general or ignorant, because in my life, I have never met a single person who liked them. Nobody who watched Ghost Car has ever told me afterwards that the viewing was a positive experience (you have been duly warned).

If you are delighted by the sensation of being obnoxiously and spontaneously frightened out of your wits by Internet trolls, this article will not speak to you. But if – like most people – you aren’t fond of that experience, read on.

Notice how the question has changed: the title of this article is, ‘Why do people enjoy horror?’ And instead of answering or introducing the question, I have tackled the question, ‘Why do people enjoy being afraid?’. And I have answered that people don’t enjoy being afraid at all. Fear may be sought because it is a gateway to some other pleasure, but in itself, is not desirable.

I have changed the subject on purpose, because fear and horror are often equivocated. Fear is an emotion; horror is a narrative genre which finds expression in many artistic media. It encompasses campfire ghost stories, or the Internet equivalent of such tales (creepypastas), cinematic psychological thrillers, novels by Stephen King, video games like Resident Evil, and the Gothic works of Romantic authors like Mary Shelley, or the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe.

The Difference Between Fear and Horror

The excitation of fear may be a necessary element in horror, but it is not the only element: if it were, we wouldn’t like it. I have spent the first section of this article arguing that point so we can get beyond fear, to the root of the reason we enjoy horror.

Horror provokes the feeling that there is something more to the world than we can actually see – that a house is not merely dark, and gloomy, but haunted. That the forest is not just hard to navigate by night and difficult to see, but also populated with monsters. That the sounds we hear outside our tents under the moonlit sky are more than the scraping of tree branches in the wind, but malevolent forces bent on destruction.

Horror always involves the conversion of something ordinary into something extraordinary. Take for instance the famous Internet tale, Ben Drowned. In case you are not familiar, Ben Drowned is the story of a college student who buys a black market copy of the video game Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The game begins to glitch, and a mysterious save file called ‘Ben Drowned’ reappears whenever it is deleted. It soon becomes abundantly clear that a deceased owner of the game possesses its cartridge.

You shouldn’t have done that.

Ben Drowned – like almost every creepypasta – takes elements from the familiar world, and gives them decidedly unfamiliar inhabitants, qualities, or powers.

Lest we lose ourselves in the realm of poorly written Internet fiction, let’s explore something with greater cultural status, such as Stephen King’s The Shining. When Jack Torrance becomes winter caretaker at an isolated Colorado resort, his son begins to have visions of ghosts, premonitions, and gains telepathic powers. The ominous mood of The Shining comes precisely from an otherwise mundane environment, imbued with supernormal qualities.

That is the reason we love horror, and if you are astute, you may note that this is the very reason we love many things which aren’t horrific. Fantasy is a genre which works in precisely the same way. Fantasy tells us that between the platforms 9 and 10, there is a platform 9 3/4 which leads to a hidden train station, and a world of magic; that the wardrobe on the second floor of a country home opens to a snowy land never seen by human beings.

And so, while fantasy and horror are obviously very different genres, we seem to love them for the same uncanny but riveting idea which they suggest to us, never expressed better than it was by Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

I propose that we enjoy Horror for the thrill of temporary relief from our bland, materialist lives. We love the surrender of our imaginations to something outside ourselves, hidden just beyond the familiar, buried beneath the mundane. When we read horror – as with fantasy – something invisible becomes tangible, for a brief but delicious moment, to our minds.

That can’t be all…

The answer, I confess, is not yet wholly satisfactory. It may be only too obvious that horror is fascinating because it suggests that the ordinary is imbued with extraordinary properties. I have already admitted that the same is true for fantasy.

So, why horror in particular? To put it another way, why horror instead of fantasy? Why would one very specific genre of story exist, when another serves the same purpose adequately? Certainly, it could come down to a question of taste – that some people prefer the generally darker tone of a horror story to the brighter tone of a fantasy.

But then, in that case, why the difference of taste? And why do some people profess a taste for both?

Before answering that, we will discuss the difference between horror and fantasy as genres, and instances in which these genres co-existed.

To read the next article in this series, click here.


Why small stories are (usually) best

Six years ago, I read a book review that changed my life forever.

At the time, I was working on my very first novel. This novel was precious to me, and still is (I continue to work on the final draft). It was based on a simple idea in my head that I had nurtured throughout childhood. But somehow, along the way, the idea had become less fun. As I gradually built the histories of my world, designed bitter backstories for every character, and came up with languages for my various inhabitants, I realized that everything was becoming dull, gloomy, and tedious.

Somehow, paradoxically, my story was becoming far less interesting as the stakes became more colossal. ‘Fate of the world’ style plots swarmed in my head; magical objects, grand destinies, perilous quests, the whole High Fantasy kit. It was all taking the determination out of me and making what had once been a labor of love into a tremendous chore.

Around that time, I stumbled upon a book that looked to be very promising: Fablehaven.

You might have read Fablehaven. It was a New York Times bestseller, and the book has a respectable 4.5 stars on Amazon. It’s even been optioned for a Hollywood film.

The idea of the book was quite promising as well: two kids stumble upon a nature reserve for mythical creatures.

And as it turned out, the concept was similar to what I had in mind for my own book, so I had to do more than read it: I had to do some research. I read through dozens of reviews, all full of praise and adoration.

But then, I saw something that didn’t belong. Something that confused and fascinated me: Fablehaven and Why I Hate It.

I clicked the link, and came to a very humble Livejournal page, that still persists to this day in its antiquated glory. I will not reproduce the entire review here (it’s still online), but I will paste the sentences that affected me:

What Fablehaven actually is: A generic McFantasy with a side order of “Oh bother, this plot again?”

What Fablehaven ISN’T: a story about a wildlife refuge filled with mythical creatures.

It’s strange that such an obscure piece of writing has stayed with me for all these years, but I still remember the cool, Fall evening well. I remember how my heart sank into the bottom of my stomach. I remember realizing, with burning clarity: “My book has lost its identity.” All the histories, lands, languages and races that I had constructed came crumbling to the ground in that moment, and I saw the heart of my story, which I had loved, barely beating under all that excess weight.

I saw the characters who had begun their lives in my imagination; their quirks and eccentricities, their motivations, their conflicts, and their simple desires. I saw the childlike simplicity of it all, and I realized how I had buried it under a slush pile of ‘epicness’.

My novel was no longer fun, because I had lost the essence of it, trying to shoehorn it into a bombastic mold that it was never meant to fill.

The heart of a story

So I turned it all around. I backpedaled, and returned to the heart of my vision. I kept most of what I had invented in the background, and allowed my characters to speak for themselves. I allowed them to decide what adventures they would go on. And it turned out, their simple, bizarre lives were a thousand times more interesting than the one I was trying to create for them.

Everything became fun again, almost instantaneously.

I had learned an extremely important lesson: the heart of a story is simple. The premise, the characters, and the basic setting: this is what sets everything in motion. Everything else develops over time, and it’s only a supplement to the story. Magical objects, destinies, races and languages – they can make your worlds richer, but if they aren’t the point of your story, they may very well destroy it.

But people still enjoy High Fantasy, don’t they? If J.R.R Tolkien used elves, dragons, dwarves, and invented a dozen languages to go along with them, can’t we do the same thing?

Actually, I believe this is a tremendous mistake. I think many people miss the whole point of Tolkien’s work. For Tolkien, everything began with The Hobbit. And The Hobbit began with one simple line, scribbled on the back of a random assignment that the Professor was grading in the 1930s: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That was it. That was how The Hobbit began.

A hole, and a hobbit.

This is eventually what led to The Lord of The Rings, the first and greatest epic fantasy novel of all time.

Tolkien continued to write The Hobbit for his children. It was a whimsical, exciting story to read them before bed. He had no aspirations to publish it; no ambitions of becoming one of the most influential fiction writers of the 20th century. And because he was a philologist who studied language for a living, languages came into it naturally. Because he had a lifelong love of mythology, myth came into it as well, and then dwarves, and elves, Dark Lords, and everything that now fills The Silmarillion.

If you – like many others – weren’t fond of the explosive, bloated movie adaptations of The Hobbit, perhaps you now understand why: because the movie wasn’t about hobbits at all. It wasn’t about a Hobbit, and his crazy adventures with a bumbling troop of dwarves. It was, instead, about battles, horrors, mixed up political commentaries, and exotic tangents that were never in The Hobbit to begin with.

Whereas Tolkien never lost sight of his story’s core, the movies never seemed to grasp it in the first place.

Movie makers, novelists, and story-tellers of every kind could learn a valuable lesson from one of Tolkien’s closest friends:

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.

C.S Lewis, to Nathan Starr

The enemy of great

It could be objected that many people, in fact, enjoyed Fablehaven.

I’ve only mentioned the opinions of one little critic. And maybe he was overlooking a lot when he decided to write off the book. Maybe he was being overly judgmental.

But in fact, our reviewer knew better than that, and even admitted: “What irks me the most is that Fablehaven isn’t really a bad book. The prose is fairly standard and the characters are believable enough.”

The point isn’t that Fablehaven was a bad book. In fact, Fablehaven may have been a good book.

But the reviewer saw one thing that nobody else saw, or cared about: what the story could have been. He saw the beauty of the simple premise – a nature reserve of fantastical creatures, and all the simple, intriguing adventures that might be had by the staff, or the visitors.

Those are all unique possibilities. Those are all possibilities that only Fablehaven could have explored, and no other book.

Instead, the writer chose a plot that any book could have had, and missed out on the unique promises of his own, original idea.

As a reader, should you care? Maybe not. If the book is still enjoyable, even if it isn’t as good as it could be, there’s no harm in it.

As a reader, you shouldn’t care. But as a writer, you should.

As a writer, you have a duty not only to your readers, but to the characters you have brought into existence, and to the premise of their lives.

As a writer, you have a mission: to write the best story you possibly can. Don’t settle for less. James C. Collins famously wrote, “Good is the enemy of great….Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

We can easily paraphrase him: “Few people write great books, in large part because it is just so easy to settle on good books.”

Write sincerely, from the bottom of your heart. Be true to your characters, deliver on your premises, and don’t worry if you end up with something simple or small. The best and the biggest stories usually start from humble beginnings.

Tell your story as it really is, let it live up to its own, unique potential, and don’t worry about the size; you owe it to your story, and you owe it to yourself.

Art is more than self-expression

It is exceedingly common to hear art defined today as ‘self-expression’, and this has become the measuring rod for lay evaluation of music, poetry, literature and almost every other form of art.

Rather than asking whether a work of art was constructed skillfully, with great attention to detail, good choices of details, colors, etc. we are more prone to asking, “Does this work communicate the feelings/experiences/beliefs of its creator effectively?

But this is exactly the wrong question to ask, and it’s a dangerous one. It not only affects the way we perceive art, but also the way we create art. And the longer the erroneous ‘art as self-expression’ definition persists, the worse art gets created.

Morever, art is held in increasingly low esteem. Educators and public opinion increasingly push for STEM students, and fewer students of the humanities.

Why doesn’t culture believe that art is worth studying, or reflecting upon? Why are we more eager to create another chemist or physicist than we are to create another painter, or an expert in painting?

I propose that the idea of art as ‘self-expression’ is partly to blame for this. Scientists are better respected than artists, because scientists deal in ‘facts’ rather than opinions, ‘objective reality’ rather than ‘subjective experience’. And because the Arts seem to be more concerned with the latter category than the former, their value (and I shudder to say, their ‘utility’) is not immediately apparent to everybody.

Why art isn’t self-expression

I’ve claimed that art isn’t just ‘self-expression’, and I’ll be asked to explain myself. But the claim is trivially easy to prove. All one has to do is think of a single form of ‘self-expression’ which isn’t considered a form of art, and I can suggest quite a few right off the bat:

  • Toddlers throwing tantrums.
  • Terrorists blowing up buildings
  • Office gossip
  • Boring social media statuses

Now this is not to deny the obvious possibility that any of these things may be imbued with some artistic sensibilities (terrorists are sometimes quite creative); but we can easily recognize that in and of themselves, there is nothing artistic about them, although they remain quite self-expressive. None of these things are art-forms, and if anyone claims they are, they should be treated with an intellectual cold shoulder.

If self-expression can exist without being artful, then it is not right to say that art is ‘self-expression’. The category is too broad. It may plausibly be a superset of art, but it can’t be equivalent with it. In fact, all art may include an element of self-expression. But self-expression alone does not qualify something as artful.

Art as mimesis

Classically, art was understood to be an expression, but a particular type of expression. Art was understood to reflect the world of nature, and real things. Art was indeed synonymous with realism, and the ability of art to conform to physical forms or objective reality was the measuring stick of its worth.

Modern artists have made great sport out of the limited confines of realism. And while I’m happy to throw most of these experiments into the gutter, it cannot be denied that some of them have legitimately artistic value.


This can go.


This can stay.

There remains no small effort to go backwards to the realistic view of art (take the efforts of the Art Renewal Center, or the Stuckists). And while I think that view is a bit too limited, it would put us in a much better situation than our present one. For while some possibilities would go unexplored, at least a great deal less effort would be spent exploring possibilities that are meaningless, freeing artists up to do what they should be doing: making great, magnificent art, even if that means following tired conventions and formulae.

If we are too enlightened to be strict realists, but also too enlightened to say that art is a form of ‘self-expression’, how then should we think of art?

Let’s go back to the logic behind mimesis. It’s important to understand why mimesis became a standard artistic paradigm in the first place. For that, we must visit our old friend Plato.

This is not the time or place to flesh out Plato’s theory of forms; in short, Plato thought that the physical Earth itself was a kind of physical ‘shadow’ of metaphysical things called ‘forms’. These forms included transcendentals, such as ‘the form of the Good’. And everything which exists in this realm exists contingently, while the things which the Earth reflects are eternal, unchanging, and self-existent.

Since nature therefore represents eternal and transcendent things – on this Platonic view – art should represent nature; thereby, art will also represent eternal and transcendent things.

Now when it comes to the point, it might be possible to represent eternal and transcendent things without strictly imitating nature. Pure mathematical concepts can turn out beautiful things worthy of artistic consideration. Take for instance the Mandelbrot set:


Realism a solid way of creating good art. It may not be the only way, but it’s a tried and true method which works for any art form, including literature, music, and the visual arts.

Although it is understandable that artists don’t want to be limited by the confines of realism, by sacrificing the value of their craft to the subjective notion of ‘self-expression’, they also shoot themselves in the foot, destroy their chances at taking part in a pursuit that is as much about objective reality as any STEM field, and moreover, create lousy art.

The best art is not about self-expression

I’m going to bring up two famous poets: Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth.

I am convinced that one of these poets is a million times better than the other, and I’m going to quote some of their most popular works.

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
William Wordsworth, Surprised by Joy
In a perfect world, it would not be necessary for me to do anything more than share these two examples. But I know I will have to elaborate.
Both poems share some similarities. Both are indisputably self-expressions. But one is an expression that begins with self, and ends there. It is both self-indulgent and shallow, giving us no insights which surpass the immediate psychological conditions of its author. The other is an expression of something timeless, eternal, and universal. It carries us outside of the author, and helps us to understand both ourselves and him better.
One is arbitrary, lacking any form, meter or rhyming sequence. It has an admittedly impressive array of adjectives and nouns that are, in and of themselves, pleasing enough to say, but without any unifying structure. The other conforms to a haunting pattern that is pleasurable enough to repeat, and bury itself into the head. It is mathematically quantifiable. It is in a completely objective way, orderly.
Both poems involve self-expression. As it turns out, while self-expression can be divorced from art, art cannot be divorced from self-expression. By creating a work of art, an artist inevitably lets us in on his or her internal condition. But some self-expressions reflect on something that surpasses the internal condition of the writer.
Some internal conditions are more worthy of expression than others, and those are the ones that constitute the most lasting and effective works of art.

C.S Lewis and why astrology still matters

You may have opened up your social media platform of choice one day to discover this bit of humor on your dashboard:

I laughed when I saw this ‘horoscope’ for the first time, but I also frowned. Why I laughed is obvious, but I will need to explain why I frowned.

Since the image is supposed to be humorous, let me begin with a lighthearted observation:

Scientifically speaking, the stars and planets actually do affect your life.

According to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, every particle in the universe attracts every other particle in the universe. In other wards, the particles which make up VY Canis Majoris have been tugging at you from the moment you were born, and are still tugging on you this moment.

Now, as I said at the start. This is merely a lighthearted observation. I don’t mean to say that because the stars and planets affect you through gravity, you can learn something about your destiny or the fate of mankind simply by observing their motion. Like you, I regard that as unscientific poppycock.

However, that’s where my real concern truly begins. Most people think they are above ‘astrological thinking’, simply because they don’t open the dailies to have a look at their weekly horoscope, and they don’t obsessively dig for the Zodiac sign of their significant others.

But in his work The Discarded Image, C.S Lewis gave some great insight into the reasoning behind astrology, and why it was once regarded as a useful practice by the Medievals.

As above, so below

As far as the Medievals were concerned, celestial bodies moved with an exact precision which admitted no idiosyncrasy. Lacking instruments to observe minute details about the stars or planets, the sky they observed seemed absolutely fixed, and never varied or changed in any way.

Of course, we know the Medievals were wrong on this point. We know that stars explode and collide, that new stars form, and that galaxies shift very slowly (on a scale of billions of years). But the Medievals didn’t know any of that, and they can’t be blamed for not knowing any of that. To them, outer space seemed like a fixed system, and this sort of perfection demanded a very rigorous, mathematical explanation.

Therefore, in Medieval scientific thinking, motion in the universe could be described from the top down, beginning with God who moved the Heavens, which in turn moved the planets and the stars. Lest anyone blame Christian Theology for this idea, we should recognize that the model was largely based on the thinking of Aristotle, who – in his De Caelo – tried to work out the origin of motion in a similar way.

Lewis puts it this way in Discarded Image,

All power, movement, and efficacy descend from God to the Primum Mobile and cause it to rotate; the exact kind of causality involved will be considered later. The rotation of the Primum Mobile causes that of the Stellatum, which causes that of the sphere of Saturn, and so on, down to the last moving sphere, that of the Moon.

This system, in turn, transmits motion to the Earth. Not that the Earth itself moves (of course, Medievals thought it was stationary), but things on the Earth move quite a bit. As such, the moon, along with all the other celestial bodies, exerted subtle affects on the Earth itself.

Besides movement, the spheres transmit (to the Earth) what are called Influences – the subject-matter of Astrology.

So it followed to the Medieval thinker that by understanding the motion of stars, planets and galaxies, one could also predict what would happen on Earth – calamity, the path of an individual’s life, and so on.

A modern kind of astrology

While it’s good to understand why people a long time ago believed what they believed, I worry that we are not careful enough to realize we aren’t so different. In our own age, we have of course discovered that the Universe is quite different from how the Medievals imagined it.

However, we may not be so different from the Medievals after all, at least when it comes to our general approach to understanding life.

While the Medievals thought ‘influence‘ began at the very top of the food chain and trickled down to human beings, we are rather inclined to believe the reverse. Because we have learned about DNA, molecules, quantum physics and biology, we might very well believe that ‘as below, so above‘.

As Richard Dawkins the eminent evolutionary biologist and atheist put it,

DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

The idea of human beings ‘dancing’ to the order prescribed to them by DNA is really no different from the Medieval idea that humans ‘dance’ to the motion of the stars, and as such, modern Science has put Christians in the same predicament that Astrology put the old Christians.


Yet Dawkins is no longer in vogue, and neither is pure determinism. Though there are still many sworn fatalists in the world, there are many more compatabilists. Beware, all the same. Old habits die hard, and astrological thinking can still be found in many forms. The atoms, molecules, DNA strands and chemicals of our body; our upbringings, social status, economic class and racial ‘privileges’ form constellations of stars and planets within us, and to them, many are prepared to pay the same homage as the Medievals did to the stars and planets without us.

Lewis notes about the opinion of the Medieval church on Astrology,

She fought against…astrological determinism. The doctrine of influences could be carried so far as to exclude free will. Against this determinism, as in later ages against other forms of determinism, theology had to make a defence. Aquinas treats the question very clearly. On the physical side the influence of the spheres is unquestioned. Celestial bodies affect terrestrial bodies, including those of men. And by affecting our bodies they can, but need not, affect our reason and our will. They can, because our higher faculties certainly receive something (accipiunt) from our lower. They need not, because any alteration of our imaginative power produced in this way generates, not a necessity, but only a propensity, to act thus or thus. The propensity can be resisted; hence the wise man will over-rule the stars.

I believe we can learn a valuable lesson from the struggles faced by the old theologians in light of an apparent scientific fact, which is now known to be hogwash. On the one hand, we cannot deny the influences which human beings receive from genes, sociological factors, hormones in the brain, etc. But on the other hand, we must never suppose that we ‘boil down’ to these things; that our whole nature and character are really exactly that of our influences.

We must recognize them for what they really are: influences, and not excuses, not causes, nor shackles nor laws.

Why everyone should plot before writing a book

Every NaNoWriMo, the Internet is aflame with the age old argument: should you plot your novel, or should you make it up as you go along? Most people have agreed on the generally civil principle that some people are better at plotting, while others are better at ‘panstering’, and it’s best to live and let live. “Whatever floats your boat,” as the saying goes.

That logic is perfectly fine if you want to write a novel, and have no special wish for it to be good. In fact, ‘freewriting‘ – or writing consistently for a period of time about absolutely nothing in particular – is highly recommended as a technique to improve your writing abilities, and loosen up the cogs of your brain to let thoughts flow more freely.

However, I would like to argue that everyone should plot their writing to a certain extent, at least when the goal is to create an interesting, readable work.

Now, let me explain. I’m not saying everyone should write in exactly the same way. Some people inevitably plan their works in much greater detail than others – they may carefully structure their work with the ‘snowflake method‘ or the ‘hero’s journey‘. Like Dostoevsky, they may fill a notebook full of character backgrounds, and like Tolkien, they may write out the histories of entire worlds before they ever start working on a story.

But I’m not saying all that is necessary. I’m not advocating any particular method, and I allow that some people flourish by ‘going with the flow’, while others find it a lot more productive to plan out every scene, character and line of dialogue before writing a book.

Nevertheless, I take it as a serious principle that every good story has a few key elements planned from the beginning.

What does Poe think?

Edgar Allen Poe did a good job of explaining this idea. Yes, that’s right, Edgar Allen Poe, the gloomy 19th century American writer with a big mustache who married his cousin and wrote a very famous poem about a raven. As weird as his works may have been, they were actually carefully planned, and before writing his poems, he planned them down to the last stanza.

In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, Poe justified his own approach to writing like so:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement [conclusion; final act] before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. ¹

So according to Poe, you should always have the ending in mind when you write a book.

Personally, I like to plan my books according to the three act structure, which means that I always have at least the setup, confrontation and climax in mind when writing, and I think everyone could stand to benefit from having at least this skeletal structure before writing the very first scene in a novel or even a short story.

Pansters are quick to point out that over-planning can make a novel stuffy and calculated, and I tend to agree. But under-planning can make a novel rambling and directionless. Without any direction, the point of a book can be hard to discern, and your writing isn’t likely to catch readers’ attention. A novel with a lot of potential can turn out mediocre if it isn’t given any thought beforehand.

Wherever you lie on the spectrum between plotter and panster, before you start writing a novel, have something in mind, and preferably a few things. You’ll thank yourself later on, and so will your readers.

Have your own take on this discussion? Leave a comment! We’d love to hear your opinions.


Study Guide to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This article was originally posted to my personal Tumblr blog, and proved to be very popular. It has been updated over time, and will continue to be updated in the future according to constructive feedback.

For those who wish to attain a good understanding of philosophy, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (or SEP) is an incredible and highly recommended resource.

One minor caveat to the SEP, however, is that no ordered guide exists within the encyclopedia itself to peruse its contents. I have therefore taken it upon myself to structure the guide with a chronological ordering of major Western philosophers through the 20th century, and I have also included links to associated schools of thought.

Unfortunately, the SEP is not totally comprehensive. Some philosophers do not have direct entries available in the SEP. Therefore, I have also included links to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) where no equivalent SEP links can be obtained.  IEP links are italicized, like so.

The Pre-Socratics

Classical Philosophy

Ancient Non-Socratic Schools of Philosophy







Medieval Philosophy


Renaissance Philosophers

Islamic Philosophers

Jewish Philosopher(s)

Early Modern Philosophy (it isn’t medieval, but it also isn’t modern)

See also Rationalism vs. Empircism



Non-Aligned (Not strictly empiricist or rationalist)

19th Century Philosophy

German Idealism


  • Karl Marx (of course he gets his own category)

British Empiricism

American Philosophy

European Philosophers

20th Century Philosophy

(Characterized by two large and competing traditions that neither IEP nor SEP can succinctly describe)

Analytical Philosophers

Continental Philosophers

Why engineers leave STEM for art

Six months ago, I walked into the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Tennessee as a Computer Engineering major. When I left that department an hour later, I was an English major, and I haven’t looked back since. Many have disagreed with my decision. Some have laughed and scorned, and quite a few have expressed the unoriginal but provocative concern, “You won’t make any money that way.”

Even fellow writers have given me cautions. “Books feed your soul,” an administrator of the Tennessee Author’s Guild said to me. And as I turned to leave, she quickly added, “But you have to feed yourself too!”

So why have I persisted on this path? I’m not afraid to answer an unoriginal dilemma with an unoriginal answer: because there’s more to life than money, and I love writing.

But I am pretty sure this sentiment is no more satisfying than the question it responds to. In fact, questions and answers posed in this way tend to be weak by their very nature. When it comes to choosing a vocation and making significant life choices, more often than not, we turn from calculated reasoning to role models. In these matters, we look to parents, teachers, celebrities and famous people as guides; their stories, failures and successes shape our paths.

As such, I’ll begin by briefly describing some famous people – both living, and dead – who started their careers in STEM fields, before leaving it behind to become influential artists.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Fyodor Dostoyevsky is without a doubt one of the greatest writers of all time. His many works include the Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground. Although sometimes dealing with obscure themes and set against the backdrop of 19th century Russia, these works have been translated into more than 170 languages, and are broadly studied by students of English as essential works of literature.

But the world might have missed out on the genius of Dostoyevksy if he had continued in his first occupation. To fulfill the wishes of his father, Dostoyevsky studied to become a military engineer at the Saint Petersburg Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy.

Dostoyevsky was evidently unsuited for such an occupation. … Not long after completing his [military engineering] degree (1843) and becoming a sublieutenant, Dostoyevsky resigned his commission to commence a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.¹

Thankfully, Dostoyevsky hated every second of his studies and his work, and made the unpopular decision to leave it all for his true calling. If he’d made the easy choice to stay, Dostoyevsky – who struggled with money all his life – would have been richer, and the world would have been poorer.

Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal


We jump more than a century ahead to some of the most influential ‘internetainers’ in the world. Every day, upwards of four million YouTube subscribers take their morning coffee with the latest episode of Rhett and Link’s comedy show Good Mythical Morning. With warm personalities and eccentric senses of humor, Rhett and Link have established a tremendous platform as comedians, musicians and entertainers.

But things weren’t always so. Although the two always managed to make their friends laugh, they had never intended to make a career out of it. Together, Rhett and Link pursued degrees in Civil and Industrial engineering respectively at North Carolina State University. For some time, Link even worked for IBM, and Rhett for Black & Veatch.

Fortunately for millions of people, R&L both had spouses who realized engineering wasn’t going to work out forever.

They saw that we weren’t happy in our engineering jobs and encouraged us to follow our dreams. ²

Sir Alfred Hitchcock


The contributions of Alfred Hitchcock to cinema were so significant that he was appointed Knight Commander by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980. Known for his masterpieces in the genres of thriller and horror such as Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window, Hitchcock was a revolutionary and historic filmmaker.

But as the reader will suspect, Hitchcock was not headed in the path of a movie maker, nor an artist of any kind, but began studying at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation at the age of 15. He went on to join the Royal Engineers during WWI, but quickly realized through experimentation that his talents were better suited for the silver screen.

He began to write short stories for The Henley Telegraph, and soon became its editor before going on to join a film company.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Scott Adams

Even if you aren’t an avid comic reader, you are bound to have encountered Scott Adam’s ‘Dilbert’ at some point. Adam first published a Dilbert cartoon in 1989, and continued to draw them throughout the 1990s. By the year 2000, the comic was being published in 2,000 newspapers across multiple countries, and Adams was able to pursue a career as a full time cartoonist. Since then, Adams has written influential satirical works which have been tremendously influential on the white-collar business landscape in the United States.

Adams did not study engineering, but after receiving a degree in Economics from Hartwick College, went on to work in various fields of expertise, including Computer Programming. He worked closely with Telecommunications Engineers at Crocker National Bank.

After the tremendous and unexpected success of his comics, Adams was able to leave behind his office job for good, and continues to create comics for his international fan-base.

Clarence Brown


One-time engineer and World War I aviator who became one of the film world’s most prolific directors

-From Clarence Brown’s obituary in the LA Times

Not many people will immediately recognize the name of Clarence Brown, but I’ve included him anyways, not only for his achievements as a motion picture director, but as a nod to our shared Alma Mater. In the course of his prodigious life, Brown directed over 50 pictures. His films received a total of 37 academy award nominations, and 9 oscars. Classic movies directed by Brown include National Velvet, The Yearling and Anna Karenina.

Brown also began his career as an engineer, graduating from The University of Tennessee at the age of 19 with degrees in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. He spent some years of his life working in the automotive industry, before he left engineering to study directing under Maurice Tourneur.

So, why do Engineers leave STEM for art?

My answer is simple: because the wrong people have the wrong role models, and some of them realize it after starting down a path they weren’t made for. And it may be that the next Beethoven or the next Ernest Hemingway grew up believing that they should be the next Steve Jobs, or the next Stephen Hawking.

Even though there is as much room in the world for a Hemingway as there is for a Hawking, our culture has made the questionable assumption that there are simply not enough Engineers or Scientists to go around. As a result, our universities are flooded with too many mediocre Engineers and Scientists who are not motivated so much by aspirations to make the world a better place as they are to make a fat paycheck.

Now the point about money stands, but it’s easier to answer. It’s probably true that more engineers are rich, and more artists are poor. But it might be a better thing to find happiness doing something that is important and fulfilling to you than it is to make twice the money doing something monotonous and miserable.

I always remember the author who told me that books feed the soul. I’ve realized that if one path feeds my soul twice as much as the other path, half the food is worth the compromise. If you feel that you enjoy studying Aristotle more than you enjoy studying Calculus, don’t worry too much about money. Hard workers can get that anywhere. The world needs you, and it will be just fine without one more Engineer.

Tithing in The Temple

Many Christians warn writers against being ‘preachy’. But even though many of us have a vague idea of what it means to be preachy, few have any clear idea of what on earth the term means. We’ve all read writing that jarred us with its bombastic, thinly veiled message that we have to accept Jesus, but we have very little idea where that feeling comes from or what it is doing. But most of us want to know what it is, so we can avoid it.

In one sense, this is due to a lack of the author’s skill. A lot of preachy writing finds its roots in the fact that that the author simply doesn’t know how to communicate the gospel any better than they can communicate scenery or character. And though this certainly is an element, skill as a writer is still not a guaranteed cure for preachiness. There are writers who have serviceable technical skills, and still come across as hackneyed twits.

preachy writing finds its roots in the fact that that the author simply doesn’t know how to communicate the gospel any better than they can communicate scenery or character

The problem is, Christians treat writing like tithing. They give certain portions of their work ‘to the Lord’ as it were, sometimes they write their whole book ‘to the Lord’ (and heaven help us if they do), and what comes out is something as dry and inedible as asbestos. The work ends up as either pure entertainment with some bible verses thrown in to appeal to Christians, or the sort of work that parents read to their children as a punishment.

The problem is, Christians treat writing like tithing

We can’t simply ‘give our work to the Lord’. The result is moralism. We think that if we somehow throw in Bible verses or put in ‘good lessons’ that God will somehow be pleased with us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our greatest righteousness is as filthy rags before the Living God. Do you think God is impressed because you shoved a Bible verse into your novel? Yea, even the devils throw Bible verses into their novels and tremble (i.e Twilight).

We should give glory to our Lord and Savior, and we do that by worshiping Him. All our work should be done to worship him, from our dialogue, to our conversations, to our characters–not just the ‘God’ portions of our novel. It should be an act of worship, not of forced tithe. J.R.R Tolkien and Jonathan Swift crafted Christ-honoring masterpieces, and they barely mentioned God at all. They wrote, like we should write, as an act of worship to the greatest Storyteller of them all.