November 9: American Recoil: The Red Queen and the Election of Donald Trump
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As I write this, Donald Trump (I can barely spell out the name—it feels like bad magic) is accepting his victory, and I, with my back turned to the TV, am fighting back nausea with black coffee and Ativan. I know he’s there, though, just over my shoulder, looming and lurking as he was in the second debate. We can’t banish what we’ve conjured without the help of an equally powerful spell, and we don’t have one right now. What we can banish, perhaps, are a few illusions. The first one is that “the cream rises to the top” is a suitable metaphor for human endeavor. It doesn’t, and it isn’t. In the world of mammon—which is very much Trump’s world—the best are always defeated by the canniest and quickest. Meritocracy is a myth that holds true only in athletic competition and perhaps displays of musical virtuosity. In any case, in activities devoid of any moral component. The common man and woman, whether in the U.S., in the United Kingdom, in Poland or Russia, does not wish for merit to be the measure of things, because the common man and woman no longer want their leaders, their teachers, or any of their friends to be better people than they are. The people of the United States of America chose to elect a man not only “not better,” in any sense that Plato or Kant would've understood, but baser. “Deep down,” they assert, “He’s one of us.” A failed human being who has pulled off the hat trick of turning his failings—whether financial, ethical, or spiritual—into triumph.
We should likewise cast aside the illusion that any one sort of human is innately wiser, more empathetic, or more enlightened than any other. Women, from whom I've always expected better, evidently voted for Donald Trump in droves; the promised deliverance by non-white and marginalized voters never materialized. That’s not to say they supported Trump with a fervor equal to that of his “base” of resentful, undereducated white men. They clearly didn’t. But they allowed him to win, and that’s almost as inexcusable. I had a bad feeling early on, and particularly after the “Access Hollywood” video emerged, that playing up Trump’s sexual misbehavior in an election where the perceived excesses of “political correctness” were front and center might actually work to his advantage. It fed the “he’s one of us” narrative among both his male and female supporters, and made his critics look like a gallery of scolds. When one after another accuser began to come forward with decades-old groping accounts that were sometimes borderline frivolous, it started to feel like piling on, and sad to say, the “boys will be boys” sentiment is far from passé. It may never be. The same holds true of the much-ballyhooed demise of the alpha male. We are a high order of monkeys, but we’re still monkeys. Thoughtful progressives would do well to spend some time during this awful interregnum boning up on evolutionary psychology. We are a long way from the trans-human, post-gendered creatures we might like to imagine ourselves to be. Freud famously said that biology was destiny, and while we’ve chopped away at that pillar, it still stands. Did Trump benefit from the deep-seated misogyny of both men and women? You bet he did. But he did it because we incorrectly assumed that America was ready for a new order, ready to overthrow the patriarchy, when in fact, it takes decades for deep change to take hold. In the meantime, the people in “flyover country” were reeling from the loss of their familiar bearings on issues like marriage, gender and privilege, and seized by a near-pathological nostalgia for restoration, even at the cost of their own freedom. They saw "the new man" and recoiled from him.
And this draws us to the heart of our present darkness. Obviously, the polls were wrong. But maybe that’s because no statistical metric and no demographic shift (surging Latino population, Millennials, educated suburban women, etc.) is as certain as the mechanism of political recoil. The results of this election—the fact that it wasn’t even really fucking close—indicate an astounding backlash to the rapid cultural change of the past eight years. The voters who participated in this backlash clearly—although probably not at a high level of cognition—saw it as a corrective. A big, fat orange warning sign saying, “Slow down! You’re moving too fast!” Did many of them couch their dread in racism, sexism, and xenophobia? Oh, yes. Are some of them truly deplorable? Yep, but it was probably a mistake to label them as such. It only made them more resolute in their resentment and more deaf to reason. Recoil. It’s Newtonian: Action-Reaction; Fire-Kickback. It happens in the nations of Europe all the time. France swings wildly from left to right; so does England (maybe not as drastically as the U.S. does, but then look at Brexit), and consider what’s happening now in Poland and Hungary and Austria. Bush was a recoil from Clinton and Obama was a recoil from Bush. Does anything ever really change, or do we just take one step forward and two steps back? There’s a widely accepted idea in evolutionary biology known as “the Red Queen theory,” which takes its name from the character in “Alice In Wonderland” who constantly runs without ever getting anywhere. It addresses the fact that our bodies keep fighting the same pathogens, generation after generation, millennium after millennium, and that we manage only to keep a short step ahead of them. That would seem to apply equally in the domain of politics. We act and react, always in crisis mode, never allowing for the dialectic that might take us to a vital center--and in the end, always face the same villain. The villain has won the latest round, and in a way that no Dadaist would have dared to imagine. We’ve gone all the way through Alice's looking glass, so far beyond our ken that almost any horror is conceivable. Trump will be—to use his favorite word—a disaster. Can we take some small comfort in knowing there’ll be an equal and opposite reaction four years from now? That will depend... For now, our only comfort will come from one another.
Huddle close. The hour is late, and the beast is within the city walls. And this time, we can't promise our children that everything will be okay.
October 1: Don't Fear The Clown
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No one needed to spell it out. Not the kids, and certainly not the parents, whose sense of alarm increased as the sightings grew more frequent and the night terrors more urgent. He was after us. At my tender age, still a few years shy of puberty, the sense of what exactly he wanted to do with us was stuck somewhere between Hansel & Gretel and David Lynch. Though it wasn't spoken of except in adult whispers after bedtime, we knew about sex, and sex was always transgressive and scary. But perhaps the scariest thing about Trenchcoat Man was that he was, in every aspect but his strange materializations and his lurking behavior, utterly normal. Men in white trenchcoats got on the city-bound train on any rainy morning. It was the early Sixties, and the Burberry secret agent look was in style. It was in the variance between his normalcy and his deviance that the fear lay. In other words, it lay in the hidden folds of the Uncanny Valley.
Now that I think back, it also occurs to me that no one was ever able to describe his face. It was an empty oval. And that leads us by association to the subject of creepy clowns.
If your attention to the news hasn't been consumed by the even more clownish reality of the 2016 Presidential Election (we'll explore that linkage later on), you've probably read or heard that on August 30, just a bit over a month before this post, a stir was created at the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina when a rash of creepy clown sightings occurred at the edge of nearby woods, outside laundromats, and under streetlights at twilight (where one local resident claimed a silhouetted clown with a bouquet of balloons had waved slowly to her, and she, unthinking, had waved right back). Once again, the first reports all came from children. The common story that emerged went like this: The clown (or clowns--there was often more than one) were trying to lure children into the woods, to a little house beside a dark pond which the clowns all presumably shared and where they performed whatever heinous mischief they intended. There's evidence of an unreliable narrator from the get-go, as only a child who'd been to the little house and lived to tell the tale would know of its existence. Of course, that's the way these stories have always been related: "someone told me that...they say that...my brother said..." First-hand proof isn't the main point of interest, so much as why we tell the stories this way. The Greenville police searched the woods. They even found an abandoned house matching the description well enough, but it hadn't been occupied for many years. An informal posse of local men fired shots into the woods for good measure. But no clowns were apprehended--dead or alive.
The tremors of clown-panic traveled like an earthquake swarm across the border into North Carolina, where it was reported in Forsyth County that a machete-wielding clown had emerged from the thicket and terrorized a passing woman, while police presence in Winston-Salem was bolstered after clowns offering candy sent two children shrieking home. The next eruption was in Kentucky, followed closely by Tennessee. If it hasn't happened already, I suspect they'll cross the Mason-Dixon Line before the November 8 election.
You probably know that this isn't the first outbreak of what's become known by the neologism 'coulrophobia' (a condition not yet listed in the Big Book of psychological maladies, the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5). It happened in Brookline, Mass in 1981, and again, in various locales, in 1985, '91, and '95. Somewhere along the line, the Creepy Clown became associated with the infamous "white van" (although the color sometimes varied). In 1991, a woman in Wellington, FL answered the doorbell to find a brown-eyed clown on the stoop with balloons in one hand and a Glock in the other. According to a neighbor, he/she shot the woman point-blank in the face and then drove off in a white (yes, white) Chrysler LeBaron.
Now I could be wrong, but my hunch is that the killer (cuckolded husband, jealous wife, or simply homicidal maniac) chose the costume not only to disguise identity but to add an extra measure of frisson before the moment of death. That's how much we fear clowns.
But why the clown, who wants only to make us laugh (either at his own expense or that of some unsuspecting foil)? There are theories--lots of them--and efforts to trace the etiology of this mania back to things like Stephen King's Pennywise or John Wayne Gacy's Pogo. One journalist cited the WWE's 1990s mascot Doink the Clown, who entered the ring accompanied by twisted circus music akin to the haunted organ and calliope of the 1962 cult horror classic CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Scholars of folkways and ancient ceremony mention tricksters of old like the Lord of Misrule or the jester, who both frightened and delighted us precisely because they tweaked authority, upended convention, or were permitted by the mask to make sudden and socially inappropriate moves. I have a feeling the roots of clown-fear go even deeper than this, to a time when the malformed and leprous moved openly among us. Joseph Durwin, a sociologist at Cal State Northridge, writes: “Young children are very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face.”
Just the thought of it gives me the creeps. For example, Dad coming home from work in a Freddy Kruger mask, or with a stocking pulled over his head. The friend you approach from behind on the playground, only to see him turn and reveal a different kid--one with a terrible disfigurement or skin disease. The Unfamiliar-Familiar (a concept I stress in teaching aspiring film composers how to write scary or "haunting" film music). Steve Schlozman, a child psychiatrist who also teaches a course on the psychology of horror movies at Harvard, contends that the exaggerated, often misshapen features of a clown's face set off evolutionary alarm bells, primal fears of contagion or genetic abnormality, and here is the takeaway statement from Dr. Schlozman: “It (the clown face) has this...capacity to grab you emotionally before it grabs you cognitively. That’s the key to making something viral online actually: to make people emotionally engaged before they’re intellectually engaged.”
Kind of like the /r/The_Donald subreddit posts about Hillary Clinton having a body double or Michelle Obama being a transgendered man.
My favorite expert opinion comes from Frank T. McAndrew of the Dept. of Psychology at Knox College, an alma mater of mine parked way out in the harvest cornfields of western Illinois, who with his associate Sara S. Koehnke has authored a study entitled "On The Nature Of Creepiness." Its thesis returns us to The Man In The White Trenchcoat. According to McAndrews, getting creeped out is a response to "the ambiguity of threat." Who is this person who seems to know me, and why is there something not right about him? “So," he writes, "it isn't the clear presence of danger that makes us feel creepy, but the uncertainty of whether danger is present or not.” That's the way we felt about Trenchcoat Man.
The late 50's and early 60's were a time of existential panic fed by everything from flying saucers to Freedom Riders, but most of all by the threat of nuclear war and its terrible capacity to cause genetic mutation. We now live in another such era, one in which the definition of the "normative" is ever more fluid and ambiguity is everywhere (Is that a man or a woman? And which bathroom should it use?) Nowhere has this shift been felt more frighteningly than among the white, avowedly Protestant and avowedly "straight" populations of the Old South and Midwestern Rust Belt, the economically marginalized descendants of those hearty and highly superstitious Europeans who came first off the boats and now see themselves cast back into the sea by the coastal elites. These are the people who think that Donald Trump is less a demagogue than a demigod (wouldn't it surprise them to discover that their protector--if he is a god--is far closer to Loki the trickster than the baptizing Holy Spirit). And these are the regions from which the Creepy Clown Panic of 2016 has sprung. A clown has no gender. A clown has no name. And a clown has no clear country or origin. He is a stranger, an immigrant, always.
I want to say to them, "Don't be afraid." Fear not the jester with the bulbous nose and Joker's smile who waits just outside the town limits. For most of human history, the clown has been a friend to the common people, an ally of infinite jest in the fight for equity with the high and mighty. The clown's face is human feeling writ large. Surprise! Delight! Amusement! And yes, Grief and Heartache. These expressions become menacing only when our own sense of self, our own sense of 'identity' has taken a hit, and the Other threatens to snatch our children away. I want to say, "Find a way to embrace the Clown!"
The clown, after all, is only a mimic. And who is it now that he mimics?
March 9: Panpsychism: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Immanence)
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I pedal through a simile
And all the world around me knows itself
No ergot on the brain.
This is real.
Pan:psych:ism. Mind through all. Or the philosophy that holds that there is. Mind in earth, air, water and fire. Mind in the far more elementary substance of which these things are made. Mind in matter, in other words. And in the new panpsychism espoused by neo-Realist philosophers like Galen Strawson, something even stranger: matter in mind.
Why is it strange to suppose that mental things could have a physical nature? (Which is not at all like saying that mind and brain are one and the same, that mind "emerges" from brain, or that we are Turing machines) It's strange because for roughly two-and-a-half centuries, the prevailing view from both sides of the abyss has been that this was unthinkable. Whatever mind was, it wasn't material. But Strawson and others like him say that we made this separation because we didn't--and still don't--understand the true nature of matter. Matter, they say, is a whole lot weirder than we have imagined.
So put aside, at least while you're reading this, the conventional bias that labels you as one of those dull and starchy "materialists" if you allow that mind/consciousness might be made of stuff. It's much more poetic, and more startling, than that. In panpsychism, water sprites and wood nymphs can exist, but as exceedingly exotic forms of matter, which we know, thanks to Einstein, is a form of energy, or the equivalent thereof.
These new panpsychists are what you might call visionary realists. They are strictly empirical in their approach, yet like the Celtic file and the Vedic rishis, they can see things that slip through the interdimensional cracks--or at least acknowledge their right to exist. If mind suffuses matter, then it can probably take various forms, and those forms would be 'material.' As mentioned, the last two hundred-fifty years--and especially the last hundred--have discouraged us from thinking this way. Mental things, we're taught, are somehow emergent properties of matter. They arise from matter, but they are not matter. They are something else, and we do not know what the f**k that is.
This viewpoint is changing, and there is some serious science behind the change. The central point that the panpsychicist realists seem to make is that you can't get something mental from something categorically non-mental. You can't get sentience from dead rock. But if the rock in some way has active properties and participates in the universe--which is, after all, what quantum physics seems to be telling us--then it's a different story.
For the Greeks, Psyche was personified, as were nearly all attributes of man and nature. They gave her a story, and in that story, she went to hell and back to secure her freedom. She was soul and spirit before these things were separated. Not the dusty, wind borne spirit of the Hebrews, or the wet, moral soul of the Christians, but something closer to what we now call consciousness. She wanted expression, and she wanted to be known, and loved. This was the meaning that the early practitioners of psychoanalysis adopted, though Freud and Jung both used the word Seele (soul). Later on, further distinctions were drawn, and psyche assumed its station as "the totality of all psychic processes." Nowadays, we read psyche as mind.
(You can skip the following philosophy primer if you already know about Descartes and logical positivism and so forth...)
[Ever since Descartes (and maybe all the way back to the Orphic Greeks), matter and mind have been at odds. One had substance (animal, vegetable, mineral, chemical) and one did not. Mind was immaterial, though it might take up residence in the brain (or the pineal gland). If in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries you expressed a view of things anything like panpsychism, you either did so as a pantheist (God is all-pervading, and embodied in Nature) or as an acolyte of someone like Leibniz or Spinoza. Leibniz posited that the elementary constituents of reality were monads, self-sufficient particles, each reflecting the totality of the universe, and with a vague awareness of one another but no interaction. But either way, you were more philosopher than scientist. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, panpsychism found some scientific respect. Not coincidentally, it happened along with the rise of psychology and the development of quantum physics. The issue of mind became unavoidable. Psychologists were finding that all sorts of things were going on "in there," and physicists were realizing that nothing was determinable without an observer, and the observer had a mind. William James. Alfred North Whitehead, Erwin Schrodinger, Arthur Eddington, Teilhard de Chardin, David Bohm, Roger Penrose--they all sensed the truth. But we couldn't handle it. Too crazy. So for a long time we went back to the safety of logical positivism and the idea that mental things emerge from non-mental things--a point of view that contravenes much of what we experience, and yet is very hard to shake.]
Running a life with the presumption that mind is either divorced from matter or just a product of matter, like intestinal gas, causes all sorts of problems. Health problems, happiness problems, and spiritual problems. On the one hand, a complete separation leaves matter to the scientists and mind to the religionists, and this can lead to fundamentalism on both sides. On the other, reducing the extraordinary engine of consciousness to an algorithm turns Beethoven into Siri and then I want to kill myself.
But if mind pervades matter and is in fact an essential part of what is material, then the problems of religion are solved without giving up its beauty and capacity for healing. If mind is one with matter, then a Sumerian sky god no longer owns the soul. Zeus at last falls from Olympus, along with Bel, Marduk, Yahweh and Allah. God is with us, because what is God if not the consciousness that fosters empathy and understanding? (And if you're allergic to the word 'God,' go ahead and say 'The Force') Most of the hard problems of science are addressed, as well, because if observer and observed are of the same substance, then real is real (in scientific terms, wavefunction collapse truly happens), and things like the double-slit experiment make all the sense in the world. What would all this mean for humanity?
Panpsychism is a 16th century word for the oldest belief system in the world. (Thales, 624-545 BCE: "the universe is alive and full of spirits") I like old things. They have abided through the flux of war, technology, fashion and human idiocy. But because the idea of mind became entwined with the idea of soul, and soul was entrusted to the temple, panpsychism had a hard time getting out from under the skirts of the priests, the rabbis, and the mullahs. But if matter "thinks," then God-stuff is simply part of reality, and belongs to all of us.
Maybe I'm an anomaly. I have never seen the physical world as inert. I can see motion in brick. I've never felt that the universe was any less aware of me than I was of it. It buzzes and hums and churns and spins and never, ever sits down. And yes, it thinks.
From the notebooks of Giacomo Leopardi, 1827:
’Prove to me that matter can think and feel.’ —
Why should I have to prove it? It is proven by fact. We see bodies that think and feel; and you, who are a body, think and feel. I need no other proof. —
’It is not the bodies that think.’ —
Then what is it? —
‘It's a different substance within them.’ —
Who says so? —
’No one: but we must suppose so, because matter cannot think.’—
First of all, prove this to me: that matter cannot think. —
’But it's obvious, it doesn't need proof, it's an axiom, it’s self-evident: it’s assumed, to be taken for granted without further ado.
December 19: The Swami and the Savant
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FOR SOME, SATORI COMES as it did to Saint Paul: in a spiritual white-out that renders all that came before as blindness. Others may find it in the well of despair, or in a survey of life’s wasted opportunities. From time to time, however, it flashes from what initially seems happenstance: a commingling of disparate lights that only time and distance reveal as a new constellation. My great-grandfather was witness to such a celestial event, and the stars were as bright as they came in those days.
The headline in the New York Herald’s society column of Sunday, February 9, 1896, read as follows:
A Wonderful Curio Supper Proves the Most Novel Entertainment of the Winter Season.
I can attest, albeit from four generations remove, that the affair was as reported, because my great-grandfather, Claydon Webb, was among those few fortunates to have received an invitation to the soiree from its hostesses, Mrs. Austin Corbett and her sister, Miss Annie Corbett, of 425 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. If the Herald had aptly characterized the evening as “entertainment,” then it was of a rarefied sort, for the guest list featured the great French actress known as The Divine Sarah Bernhardt--or simply, “the Bernhardt”--the eminent American psychologist William James, and two gentlemen whose minds were arguably a century ahead of their time: the visionary scientist/inventor, Nikola Tesla, and from Calcutta, the Vedantin swami known as Vivekananda, whose advocacy of Universal Religion had become a cause celebre among spiritual progessives following his first American appearance at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Indeed, my granddad’s creed was never quite the same after the encounter.
In the late winter of 1896, New York City was still waltzing through what Mark Twain had dubbed “The Gilded Age,” though only a small number of its citizens knew such gilt. It was the time of the Robber Baron, and no previous slice of American history had seen such disparity between rich and poor. Hard snow, blackened by coal soot, lay banked against the brownstones of upper Fifth Avenue; immigrant workers, willing to work tirelessly for a day’s bread, crossed paths with sleek black hansoms in J.P. Morgan’s Gramercy Park. The milieu would not have been unfamiliar to Dickens. And yet, there was great intellectual and spiritual ferment in the land, a sense that with the turn-of-the-century, a finer sort of gold might bring luster to uptown and downtown alike. There was, literally and figuratively, electricity in the air, and its conductors were not only the newly strung high-tension wires but the newly educated women of the era, who found themselves with that most subversive of luxuries: time to think. Mrs. Corbett and twin sister, Annie, were such women, and their fascination with all things spiritualistic had now led them to investigate the mysteries of the East. The party had come to supper following a performance of Mme. Bernhardt’s latest play, a costly French production entitled Iziel which dramatized the attempted seduction of the Buddha by the Indian courtesan, Ambapali. The latter, of course, was played by Bernhardt, then a youthful fifty-one, who spent most of the four acts in the Buddha’s lap. Great effort had been put into the sets, particularly those designed to evoke the Indian street, and the word about town was that The Bernhardt had requested an audience with Swami Vivekananda in order to query him on “spiritual questions” raised by the play. In those days, no one refused a summons from the regal Sarah.
Swamiji -- as Vivekananda was known -- was un personage in his own right, and but for his almost childlike curiosity, might not have felt so obliged. Once committed, however, he’d enlisted the Corbetts to arrange this meeting of Eastern and Western luminaries. At 52, William James, brother of novelist Henry, hadn’t yet published his seminal text, The Varieties of Religious Experience, but he’d been teaching at Harvard since 1872, his Principles of Psychology was considered a foundational work of the new science, and he’d coined the phrase "stream of consciousness." At the time of receiving his invitation to the Corbett’s supper, he was immersed in a new book, and would have declined had he not glanced at the guest list and seen that the occasion offered an opportunity to observe the elements of his abiding fascination: faith, will, and spiritual truth as something authenticated by its effect on believers. Beside that, he was a fan of The Bernhardt.
All four of the principals in that Friday evening’s discussion were at the zenith of cultural deification, but though the group included a “divine” actress and a genuine holy man, Nikola Tesla, at 40, had achieved the closest thing to apotheosis. Three years earlier, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he’d spectacularly bested his arch-rival, Thomas Edison, in the bitterly fought “Battle Of The Currents,” a contest between Edison’s Direct Current and Tesla’s Alternating Current. Edison had J.P. Morgan’s financial empire in his corner, and Tesla had found a passionate sponsor in George Westinghouse. As if Tesla’s victory weren’t enough to insure immortality, he’d also pioneered radio, x-ray photography, and robotics, and in remaining prodigiously inventive, steadfastly celibate (though rumors of homosexuality dogged him to his grave), and willful to a fault, had ascended the pillar reserved for Nietzsche’s Superman. He was six-feet-two and strikingly handsome, resplendent that evening, as on most, in white tie and tails. Women grew dizzy in his presence, and that was when they weren’t gossipping that he’d come from Venus. As a final flourish on his resume (and one of great interest to the Corbett sisters), he was said to possess remarkable psychic gifts. As of late, however, the ground had begun to quake beneath Tesla’s feet, as it does eventually for all men hailed in their time as prophets. The triumph of AC power had not come without cost, and in certain quarters, adulation had turned to scorn. Some in the press derided him as a showman, a charlatan, or worse. At the very moment when he was near breakthrough in development of a system for worldwide wireless communication, his salvific crusade for “free energy” had made the investor class wary. All New York was aware that in the Spring of 1895, his Fifth Avenue laboratory had
burned to the ground, vaporizing radio components and other marvelous inventions (for which Tesla kept designs only in his head), but few knew how precarious his financial situation was or what dark forces were arrayed against him. He’d sold his alternating current patents to Westinghouse outright, and at the time of the Corbett’s supper, was agonizing over whether or not to mortgage his enterprise to the man who’d done his best to crush him: J.P. Morgan. Tesla had a bad head for business and a heart full of misplaced trust, and on that cold February night, his soul and sense of mission were on ice. He could accept Morgan’s offer and trade his independence for a seat on the board, or continue his wireless energy research and gamble on the blessings of history or the curse of ignominy. Tesla had heard Vivekenanda speak and been much impressed. Perhaps, he’d thought, the eastern star will offer some illumination.
Swami Vivekananda was a man of great erudition whose plump cheeks and ebullient manner disguised his thirty-three years and poor health, and made him seem less imposing than he was, even in ochre robes and full turban. Sarah Bernhardt was a tiny, red-headed woman of modest looks whose vaulting talent and stellar reputation made her seem a great beauty. Possessed of equal charisma, they were well-matched in their velvet-cushioned chairs, placed opposite one another in the Corbett’s salon. At right angles on either side sat William James and Nikola Tesla, James warming a glass of sherry in his palms and Tesla nursing a whiskey. Professor James wore a full beard and spoke in a scholarly baritone. Tesla, far more the dandy, sported a neatly trimmed moustache and, when excited, had an almost preternaturally high voice, as if his body itself were a live wire. The rest of the guests hovered as close to the fire of genius as they dared, sipping mulled wine or schnapps. My great-grandfather was among them, and as the summit began, pardoned his way to the edge of the circle. After a somewhat portentous introduction by Mrs. Corbett, Bernhardt posed the first query to Swamiji. “Je desire comprendre...”
“I wish to understand,” repeated the interpreter, “...what is meant by the Hindoo concept of maya. I am told that all we see, touch, and hold dear is illusion, and though I can appreciate such legerdemain as an actress, I cannot fathom it as a sensible woman.” The Swami smiled and offered a little bow. “Perhaps it is not as a sensible woman that you should attempt to ‘fathom’ it, dear lady. You have played many roles, all splendidly. I will direct my answer to you in the role of Sakti, well of divine energy.” It was Bernhardt’s turn to smile, as she evidently liked the comparison. Tesla leaned forward, resting the whiskey on his knee, and James avidly studied the great actress’s practiced body language, from which the power of eros was never absent.
“Maya ...” Vivekananda cleared his throat. “It is a good place to 'dive in,' though perhaps also the deepest. To say that something is illusory does not mean it is without value. Quite the contrary. It has value precisely because its true nature is transcendent.” He swept his hand across the space between them, letting the drape of his robe fall from his arm. “I wear a garment which hides my nakedness, and beneath that I wear a garment of flesh which hides my bones. But even my bones, which appear far more solid than either garment, are composed of millions upon millions of tiny atoms, dancing on the divine breath which we call Prana and you call energy.” He turned to Tesla and cocked an eyebrow.
“Is it not accurate, Mr. Tesla, to say that this energy manifests in Nature as electromagnetism?”
“It is certain that one form of it does, Swamiji,” said Tesla. “This is precisely what Maxwell found.”
“Yes, yes,” agreed the Swami. “He found a field. And Brahman, the ultimate reality, is like the field of fields!” He rubbed his chin, then returned to Mme. Bernhardt, whose dark eyes were fixed on Tesla. The holy man cleared his throat softly. “So, as I was saying, dear lady, all things are formed of atoms, which themselves arise from a deeper reality. We become attached to our loved ones, our fine silks, our pets ... even killing to defend them! Yet no one would think of becoming attached to an atom!” Vivekananda giggled and mimed the act of holding an invisible dog on a leash. “Come along, my little atom! Come, precious Fifi!”
Bernhardt put her tiny hand to her mouth in delight, and the gracefully aging skin around her eyes crinkled. The salon rippled with laughter. “How much less,” the Swami added, “should we think to possess the infinite sea from which these forms arise like waves. Can we take as separate what is merely a form of the sea? The wave is maya. Only the sea is real.” Vivekananda took a sip of water, licked his lips, and turned to William James. “Does this not correspond, Professor James, to your thesis that all things are formed of the stuff of consciousness?”
“It may be,” James replied, “the only way to explain mystical experience. But -”
Bernhardt gave a little cough, and the three men swiveled toward her as one.
“You are saying, then," she asserted, "that the true nature of all things is divine?”
“I am,” the Swami affirmed. “So you see, Madame, your sobriquet is quite in order!”
Bernhardt laughed gaily, and then Vivekananda added, “Further, I am certain that, one day, men such as Mr. Tesla and Mr. James will find proof of this in science.”
“I’m afraid I can’t yet share your certainty,” James said. “I have occasion to see much in nature, present company excepted, that is far from divinity.”
“Ah, yes,” replied Vivekananda. “All form is transitory, and maya can twist a swan’s neck into a serpent. The serpent’s true nature, however, remains unblemished.”
“Then I take it,” James said, “that you do not give much credence to the Biblical idea of mankind’s fall from God ...”
“We cannot ‘fall’, but we can err,” answered the Swami. “I return to the fact that we are made of atoms, and ask you: can an atom be evil? Did not Jesus say that the good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit?” He leaned toward James with a twinkle in his eye and placed a finger against his temple. “I submit that the depravity you see arises from a reality constructed ... in here. The mind is a great maker of demons.”
Tesla smiled. “You might have found agreement with Bishop Berkeley on that, Swamiji. He contended that material objects had no existence outside the mind.”
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Bernhardt. “Quelle idee!”
“I do not say that objects do not exist.” Vivekananda rapped the arm of his chair for emphasis. “Only that we fail to see them rightly. This is the effect of the gunas --”
“The veiling power of Tamas,” said Tesla, his eyes reflecting the fiery hue of the Swami’s robe. “The projecting power of Rajas. The revealing power of Sattva.”
Vivekananda raised his dimpled chin and smiled, offering the inventor a bow. “You have read Shankara, Mr. Tesla?”
“No less avidly than I read the work of Mr. James,” replied Tesla, with a gracious nod to the psychologist. “Although I am an authority on neither. But it seems to me that your Vedanta is the philosophical system most consistent with modern science.”
“Then surely, Mr. Tesla,” said the Swami, “you must have considered the possibility that all material phenomena are but aggregations of energy ...”
“Well, I -” Tesla began.
“But cannot we ...” Bernhardt began in English, then turned to her translator.
“Can we not,” he continued, “love the forms of God as we love God himself? Can we not find all the more delight in a rose if we know its true name?”
“Madame Bernhardt,” said the Swami, his eyes glistening. “You have, as they say in America, hit the nail on the head!” He raised an imaginary hammer and gave it a firm whack, and Bernhardt’s face lit up. “You see,” he continued, “if we saw things rightly, even the common earthworm would be worthy of reverence...and if --”
“If physics were to be reconciled with mysticism,” William James offered, “we might have a genuine science of mind ...”
“... and an end to the Cartesian divide,” said Tesla. “Mind and matter would be seen as complementary...interpenetrating.”
Sarah Bernhardt cupped a trembling hand to her interpreter’s ear, and he added: “As would God and Man. Our fall would then be broken...”
“Careful, Madame,” said William James. “Such sentiments would once have consigned you to the stake!”
“Hooaa!” said la Bernhardt with a roll of her eyes, then in French, “I have been there many times...the flames are not so hot as they say!”
On the heels of the translation, there was gay laughter, and my grandfather raised his glass and led the Corbetts and their guests in a toast to The Bernhardt.
When the laughter had subsided, Tesla addressed the circle. “But I wonder...if mankind is ready for such a unification. If duality, and indeed, conflict are not somehow ‘designed’ into our function...” He knitted his brow. “If we must err in order to exist.”
“Is mankind ready,” the Swami teased, “for what you’ve proposed in Century Magazine...a system for the worldwide wireless distribution of information and electrical power, so that even the poor of Calcutta shall read Proust by electric lights?”
“This,” Tesla replied, “I cannot say. It may be me who goes to the stake.”
There was again laughter, but muted, as if all present shared a grave presentiment. Bernhardt raised her liquid eyes to the Promethean inventor, and there could be no mistaking the fact that her passion was more than spiritual. Tesla flinched almost imperceptibly. He could pass ten-thousand volts through his body without pain, but the great actress’s frank regard seemed to tax his circuits.
“I believe,” said Vivekananda, keenly aware of the chemistry, “that there is only one duality which truly confounds us...that between Prana--the force that animates--and Akasha--the mass which is animated. When Mr. Maxwell demonstrated the unity of electricity and magnetism, I believe he took the first step to union. Now, if it can be demonstrated that both force and matter are reducible to potential energy ...”
There was a lengthy pause as Tesla rubbed his temple and the others murmured in attempt to glean the Swami’s meaning. The February wind rattled the crystal-paned French doors which led to the Corbett’s patio garden. Tesla glanced up at the sound, his eyes fixing on an electric lantern, newly installed on the patio and flickering. “I am not entirely sure,” he said, his head still turned away, “given our humble assets of mind, that such an equivalance can be found. Matter, it seems to me, remains resolutely inert until moved or infused by force. As for man, energy may inspire him to occasional heights, but at root, he is an automaton.”
“Would you say this even of Christ?” James queried. “And of yourself, man?”
“Christ is another matter altogether,” Tesla replied, “and I...have been proven mortal by my critics.” He stood, drew a cigar from his inside pocket, and turned to Mrs. Corbett. “May I...make brief use of your patio, Madame?”
“Of course, Mr. Tesla,” she answered. “But you are perfectly welcome to smoke here. It’s bitterly cold ...”
“That may be just the tonic I need, Mrs. Corbett,” he said, and with a bow to both inner and outer circles, he stepped coatless into the night.
With Tesla’s chair empty, there was left a void of mind which in itself gave the lie to his modest self-assessment. Try as they might, the Corbetts could not fill it with a fresh round of drinks or with banter about Bernhardt’s next theatrical undertaking. As for the Swami, he remained seated, but for all purposes left the room by entering a meditative state. It was my great-grandfather’s strong impression that he was, by some means, in direct communion with Tesla, for each time Vivekananda filled his lungs, he saw the inventor’s shoulders rise and his head tilt more to the stars. There was a singular moment when all conversation ceased and the party turned to watch Tesla blow a smoke ring toward Polaris. Soon after that, he returned.
Or perhaps he did not.
By my great-granddad’s account, all present saw Nikola Tesla retake his seat, and heard the Swami ask him the inscrutable question, “Do they still take tea at four?” Then something occurred which caused a woman to faint, a gentleman to drop his drink, and gave the excitable Corbett sisters good reason to believe that their plush parlor was a sanctuary for sprites. The patio door creaked open, an arctic gust rattled the crystal chandelier, and Tesla stepped in for a second time, crossing the room to claim his empty chair. “I do apologize,” he said, rolling the cigar between thumb and forefinger. “Some ideas blossom only in starlight ...”
There was weighted silence, the cause of which seemed lost on Tesla. It was Professor James, beholding even the supernatural with an empiricist’s cool eye, who broke the spell and restored the time domain. “Good God, man,” he said. “You speak as a materialist, but your predilections...not to say your unusual talents...seem those of a vitalist.”
“The two are forever at war in me,” Tesla replied, with a dry laugh.
The Swami looked up, only now stirring from his revery. “In your study of the Vedas, Mr. Tesla, did you happen to encounter the Kalpa sutras? Kalpa is what urges us to the higher path. To find our--”
“Raison d’etre,” Bernhardt said softly, her eyes lit as if by phantom footlights.
“In a fashion,” said Vivekananda. “It concerns the actions we perform each day...in our private laboratories, so to speak...which fulfill God’s highest purpose.”
Tesla took a sip of his whiskey and faced the Swami. His voice was pitched high with excitement, clear of ambivalence. “It may not be possible,” he said, “in view of the very obstructions to perception you’ve cited, to provide experimental proof of the equivalence of energy and matter. Indeed, such a practical demonstration might unleash forces too awful to imagine. But I believe a mathematical proof is attainable. This would give scientific foundation to your insight. I shall derive such a proof, or die trying. I shall do my best to read the mind of God.”
Vivekananda said nothing, but stood and offered his hand. Tesla rose from his chair and accepted it, and the room erupted in applause, a much needed release of tension. William James and Sarah Bernhardt joined them, and Mrs. Corbett offered an ebillient toast to “a new age in which science and the spiritual path would be joined.”
As with dreams, as with all our small, daily glimpses of the numinous, the unfolding that night of a foreign dimension in the Corbett’s salon was soon forgotten by most of the guests. Those for whom the sensation of the marvelous lingered were inclined to put it down to drink, or to the “animal magnetism” of such large personalities. But my great-grandfather could not shake it, and it troubled him to his death. “There are doors in time,” he wrote. “And I saw Tesla walk through one of them.”
Tesla never delivered Swami Vivekananda the mathematical proof he had vowed that night to find, a proof which nine years later established the reputation of a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein. Perhaps he was simply unable to wrap his methodical inventor’s mind around a reality so abstruse, or maybe, as my great-grandfather asserted before he died, Tesla had glimpsed through a portal in time the horror of Hiroshima, and opted not to throw such a pearl before swine. It is clear, however, that the elusive mass-energy infused his later work, particularly his prescient research in what is now called plasma physics, as well as his quixotic campaign for free energy, an idea which hastened his professional exile. He died penniless and alone, but fully his own man, ever mindful of the calling the Swami had given him. Perhaps one day, a door will open, and Tesla will take his place in the parlor once again.
Afterthought: An intriguing story is sometimes heard in scientific circles. Though I can’t affirm its verity, it has a ring of truth. According to it, Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, made its debut as E=M in the margins of an early draft of his Special Theory of Relativity, written in the hand of his Hungarian wife, Mileva, a scientist in her own right. Nikola Tesla and Mileva Maric had been correspondents for years, a friendship which may have dated from Tesla’s youthful studies in Budapest. I cannot help but wonder, in light of my great-granddad’s account, if the Corbett’s “curio supper” did not extend its reach beyond the boundaries of Manhattan Island, defying space as well as time. Swami Vivekananda himself died three years shy of Einstein’s breakthrough, finally succumbing to a lifelong stomach ailment, but I am inclined to believe, with my ancestor, that death is of little consequence if the forms we inhabit are merely “corks on the water.” Swamiji’s insight had been given wings which may yet, as Sarah Bernhardt imagined, lift mankind above its fallen state. And Tesla, dear Tesla, regards us from that vantage.
October 19: A God for Non-Believers
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What business does 21st century man have with God? By all that's held sacred among non-believers (contradiction in terms intended), we ought to have outgrown Him* by now, the same way we outgrow belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. This is what "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins seem to be saying. If you're over ten and still believe, you're a moron.
[*The first problem I have with the atheistic brief is its insistence on making God a "person" and branding Him with a personal pronoun. It sets up a straw man--or a Straw God--that is just too easy to knock down. The problem doesn't go away if we switch or eliminate gender.]
TIME Magazine asked "Is God Dead?" in 1966. Rationalists everywhere reordered the words to make the question an assertion and rejoiced that we'd finally come to our senses. Fifty very ungodly years later (the equivalent of five centuries in Old Time), God yet persists. Even the idiocy of fundamentalism hasn't killed the Almighty. But the ground beneath the tabernacle is quaking.
Moreover, what's been for centuries the central brief in favor of God's existence ("No God? Explain the universe then, smart-ass"), otherwise known as the Cosmological Argument, has been chipped away at so thoroughly by science that most educated people accept Creation from-nothing-by-no-one pretty much without question. The Big Bang, we're told, was the consequence of "fluctuations" as random as ripples on a pond. And now, by way of the latest wrinkles in the science of cosmology, we learn that we may have not one universe but many--possibly an infinite number. What purposeful God would need more than one?
Saith Parmenides, "Ex nihilo nihil fit." Nothing comes from nothing. Plato agreed. So did Averroes, Aquinas, Leibniz, and a lot of other major thinkers. For a long time, that was the final word. Now, any number of physicists will happily show you the math that proves the opposite. Something came from Nothing. The case for God seems to failing the test of "sufficient reason." "The universe," says physicist Alan Guth, "is the ultimate free lunch."
And yet, there is that tingly spider-sense again. The sense that I am, to paraphrase Henry Corbin, alone with the Alone, and that the Alone is not Nothing.
In contrast to the chinks in the pro-God argument, the strongest case against God ("the argument from Evil") has only gotten stronger. If the Black Death shook the faith of the 14th c. faithful in a just and merciful God, what can we say about Hitler, Pol Pot, napalm, nuclear war and Ebola? Evil seems to mutate into ever more successful forms, while we can only assert that good guys finish first by prefacing it with the qualifier, "Sometimes." What Supreme Being, by definition good, would stand by and allow genital mutilation, ISIS and Adam Sandler movies? Why haven't we driven Him from our tents?
Maybe because you can't drive out what is an essential part of the human self. That would be like a psychic lobotomy, wouldn't it?
"Okay," say the ersatz Buddhists of Beverly Hills. "I get you. You're taking about spirit. You're talking about consciousness. That's God, right?" No, I'm talking about something much deeper and broader, of which consciousness partakes but is not the sum. "Sorry," the chorus answers. "We're just not buying the whole transcendent being thing. He wouldn't have let my Nipsy suffer so much before we put her down. What kind of God would?"
I'll answer that with an assertion that may need some explanation: God is neither a "being" nor even "good" in the sense of culturally defined morality. I'm inclined to agree with the twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich that God is "the ground of being," and therefore has no separate identity. Instead, God is what allows being to be, and that is Good.
I see no contradiction between this assertion and the tenets of (non-Copenhagen) quantum physics. In fact, I think that science may yet make a good case for God.
First thing to tell my son: the scientific arguments for a Creator-less Creation are based on math and perhaps a handful of particle accelerator experiments. The math is arcane and yields equations that are self-consistent but that you and I will never, ever understand. The rest of the "New Atheism" is simply a point of view. There is no observational proof for the non-existence of God. In fact, it turns to be maddeningly difficult to prove the non-being of something that has no material being to begin with. Can science account for perceptible physical reality without resort to God? Yeah, it can, so I hold no brief for "intelligent design." What science can't account for is the plenum of existence. The existence of existence. Nor, despite the Herculaean efforts of evolutionary psychologists, behaviorists, and students of mollusk mating habits, can it fully account for love--which I think, whether you call it affinity, agápē, or quantum entanglement, has a great deal to do with God.
There comes another shiver. The feeling that when I lean back into nothing more than simple being, it leans back into me.
The second thing I'll tell my son: no sophisticated argument made for God since the Middle Ages--maybe since Plato--has identified God as a Person requiring a personal pronoun like He, She, or even It. God is God and I Am That I Am. Whatever God is, it is "with us," not apart from us, and even if we insist on a "transcendent" deity, this only means that God abides in the cosmos-at-large and not simply in the human (or animal) soul. God is not entity or quantity, and God's impact in the world doesn't offer itself for measurement.
Shake the image of a hoary patriarch riding a thundercloud from your head. God is neither Yahweh nor Jor-El. And if the new atheists (and pundits like Bill Maher, whom I mostly admire) want to attack the notion of God, they ought to begin by lining up the right target.
The God whose presence I feel at-large in the world occupies a place somewhere between the Brahman (or para-Brahman) of Advaita Vedanta and a realm that the great physicist, David Bohm (a protégé of Einstein's), called "the implicate order." Being that hasn't yet become but has the softly humming potential to. The implicate order lies in a Twilight Zone sector proximate to the Quantum Vacuum we keep hearing about, but somehow before (in the sense of time), beneath (in the sense of Euclidian space), and within it (in the sense of multidimensional space-time). The implicate order "unfolds" to become the "explicate order" (what is perceptible to senses and instruments), but it is itself enfolded in an unbroken continuum known as the Holomovement, and underlying even this, we have the Subtle Non-Manifest, a level of reality that isn't even "implicate." With this last stop, science gets very close to metaphysics, and to a God that even the most strenuous atheism cannot unseat. A God that is, in some sense, akin to Ψ.
In a deeply wooded north Indian valley, cut by the Ganges as it pours down from the roof of the world, lies the so-called "Gateway to the Himalayas," Rishikesh. This is where the Beatles headed to woodshed with the Maharishi, and today, you'll find trekkers, rafters, and a greater concentration of yoga ashrams than in any other part of the world. But in the 6th c. of the common era, the great guru Guadapada taught his students there that the ultimate reality was tat ("that"), not idam ("this"). That is Brahman, and Brahman is mirrored in the human soul by the Atman. The world as perceived by our senses is illusory: a kind of masking device for field upon interlaced field of energy. Fourteen centuries later, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr, David Bohm (to name a few), and most recently and provocatively, string theorist Juan Maldacena--who holds the material world to be a kind of hologram projected by the underlying reality--are our sadhus, and they are telling us the same thing. Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about. Or rather, something is real, but it's not at all what we think it is. The mystery remains, and where there is mystery, there is room for "God."
My friend and mentor in all things quantum physical, Dr. Mani Bhaumik, calls this ultimate reality "the Source," or the primary field (as in a gravitational field, an electron field, or a Higgs field). He sometimes describes it as a sort of pervasive, self-referencing cosmic awareness. His opinion may not yet be orthodox science, but I promise you, he can express it all as equations. Now, the Source sounds a little like Luke Skywalker's Force, and it's possible that George Lucas's cosmogony was more sophisticated than his characters. For the Source flows through every thing and every one, constantly urging on creation, and could probably fire up a light saber under the right circumstances.
So maybe the best answer I can give my son is, "May the Source be with you."
Before signing off, I feel obliged to take on another--and maybe the most enduring--argument against God. This is what we might call "the argument from human weakness," and it is the argument that new atheists like Richard Dawkins wield with perhaps just a little too much glee. We poor, benighted humans just don't know what to do without our prayer wheels and rosary beads. We can't handle the truth of a cold, pitiless and purposeless universe. We need something radiant and sacred. Well, I grant their point without conceding their worldview. The material surface of the world, when not underlit by this fire from within--the light of constant creation--is hard, drab, and utterly unappealing.
There are times, such as when I look at sunlight through the leaves of a cottonwood, when I swear I can "see" the play of energy. There are even rare occasions when my perception of this energy is so strong that it blots out whatever physical matter is standing in its way. It's like seeing the Matrix, only in a good way. I like knowing that it's there, and in those moments of doubt and despair that all lives deal out, I like believing that the ultimate reality is That, not this.
June 12: Trigger Warnings--A radfem deconstruction of the motel rape scene in LOLITA
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LOLITA: An excerpt for discussion (with Trigger Warnings)
October 7, 2014: Leaving Los Angeles
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I can only describe the sensation evoked after reading this latest post about L.A. as a heart- quiver. So it's not just me. To see it, you can't look at it directly. To get there, you take the second star to the right and straight on til morning. But you don't know you've been there until you've left
This makes me love L.A. just a little bit more. And, I never flirted with Kim Bassinger, but I did so (just a wee bit) with Sherry Lansing... and got a kiss on the cheek for my efforts. Yes, LA ("half-sister to Paris) is inside me, perhaps more than I ever realized.
I made an overnight detour to Scottsdale to see an old college friend. At least, that was the stated reason. Like a fever in the limbic core of my brain was the knowledge that the first great love of my life—Linda—had settled years ago in Scottsdale with a rich real estate developer. I’d convinced myself that she couldn’t possibly be happy with such a man, that she’d be aching like I was, that I’d show up at her door unannounced and we’d re-ignite the adolescent lust we’d teased into flame but never consummated, and my retreat from Los Angeles would be redeemed. Instead, I learned that Linda had died six months before. That evening, I couldn’t look at the sunset.
Ten minutes after crossing into New Mexico, I saw a dead man on the highway. The troopers had just arrived and were pulling him onto the shoulder. There were no wrecked cars, no glass, no skid marks. Just a fresh corpse. I learned later that in the vicinity of Gallup, it’s not uncommon for Native American men to stagger off the reservation after sundown, sit down on the still-warm asphalt, and wait to be pulverized. The thought of a despair that terminal took my breath away, and then remained like a phantom hitchhiker in the passenger seat. I kept expecting to see the dead Indian return my edgy sidelong glances. In the long hours of driving afterwards, an awful inertia held the speedometer to a bare fifty, as if there was a giant bungee cord connecting my rear bumper to L.A. and I’d neared its maximum extension. I drifted into the slow lane, families in minivans shooting past and reaching the horizon in seconds. Ten miles shy of Albuquerque, I nearly turned around. The portents were not good. I had left the future and was headed into the dead past.
And in Los Angeles, a trace of me---left twinkling in the hazy Pacific twilight—had just turned off the PCH onto Sunset, looked back over his shoulder and smiled as if to say, “Wow, the road really does end here. If my life ends here, too, that’s cool.”
My Parisian wife never took to L.A. the way many exiles do. I think she felt about it the way most people feel about Greyhound Bus Terminals: bleak refuge for 4 AM souls. Or as a vast, featureless internment camp for the gathering together of displaced persons, a Gaza Strip for would-be celebrities. She never embraced the beautiful estrangement which makes Los Angeles half-sister to Paris as a great writer’s city. You have to embrace negation to see that. You have to forgive the dessicated brownness of the hills in trade for the way their wild sage and fennel perfume the air, and the way their coyotes yip maniacally when the sky turns purple. “No man loves the desert,” said Alec Guinness to Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. But Lawrence did, and he was a poet. He was the oasis.
But if Paris and L.A. are siblings, they are at odds, for sure. Poles apart. The essential Paris is watery abundance; the essential Los Angeles (despite all the conspicuous consumption) is dusty austerity. L.A. is where you come when foie gras is too rich for your blood. How, the Parisian asks, could anyone love dust? I kept saying to my wife, “Don’t look at the architecture, or the shabby storefronts, or the mock Tudor next to the French Provincial next to the ersatz Moroccan; don’t look at the minimall that sprouted overnight like a wart at the end of our street. For God’s sake, stop looking for design.” And, of course, she’d regard me as if I were nuts, with an expression that said: what the hell am I supposed to look at? What, after all, is a city if not design?
Here is how I should have answered. I should have said: look at the way the light enchants that ordinary stucco wall over there, makes it beautiful, even numinous. Then look with lazy eyes at the shimmering space between you and the wall, and imagine yourself in that space, enchanted by that same light. Needless to say, she would have thought me even crazier. But that’s just the thing. It is a kind of madness, a conjuration from dust. The thrill of the abyss. Los Angeles is on the edge of the cold sea, the edge of the unforgiving desert, the edge of a stark mountain wilderness. It’s all edges. Not the place for a person with vertigo.
My first serious job interview in Los Angeles ended with these parting words—words that I cannot imagine ever being spoken by a prospective employer anywhere else in the world: “One day--if you stay here long enough—you’ll wake up and you will be different. This place will be inside you. People won’t see you the same way. You’ll be able to walk into any office in any city and have any job you want. They’ll want to give it to you, because they’ll want your vibe around. Until that day, you’re lugging old world baggage.” Now, that may have been hype, and the skeptics will snicker when I reveal that the author of this quote went by the name of Sonny Blueskyes, but I’ll tell you something. Sonny Blueskyes was a happy man, and a self-made multi-millionaire, to boot. Los Angeles is where the buoyant, snake-oiled optimism of America turns in on itself and becomes something like a national religion. Here’s the twist, though: it’s not just the blue skies and palm trees that account for this. It’s the very precariousness of the place. It’s the frisson of apocalypse.
Great cities have patron saints and poet laureates. It’s been fashionable for too long to say that L.A. has neither. Yet Aldous Huxley, a British-born Brahmin who became the herald of a new consciousness, chose to die in a house up on Old Mulholland, with a megadose of LSD in his veins. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller migrated west, and so did Krishnamurti and the latter-day prophets who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, the Krotona Institute, and the movie business. I’m not going to argue that Jack Warner had anything in common with Aldous Huxley, except to say that you can’t make magic in a place that isn’t conducive to it. The making of a golem begins with dust. A living L.A. patriarch, Bishop Stephan J. Hoeller of the Ecclesia Gnostica, says of Los Angeles that it is “a city where the genius loci is sympathetic to the ancient visions.” And this statetment points to the riddle of L.A.’s winking Sphinx: what’s new and old, Eros and Thanatos, entrance and exit, eternally beginning yet very near the end? I suspect that L.A.’s “genius loci” may be the god Janus, grinning into life but ever-aware that its negation is only a rocky footpath away. In leaving Los Angeles, I left a place of gateways for the old world of cul-de-sacs. Safer, yes, but only by design.
At the end of my run, Hollywood went cold on me. Things got dicey, the work slowed; I’d played my string out. Choose any gambling metaphor: in the end, I had to leave the table. But no other city in the world could have offered me such a streak while it lasted. I stood sipping Tattinger between Lauren Bacall and Nicole Kidman at Morton’s when I didn’t have the money for valet parking. I made small talk with Madonna at a dance studio in Burbank and tried my damndest to remain nonchalant when her left breast slipped out of a skimpy halter-top. I procured a pretty cellist for Warren Beatty and flirted with Kim Bassinger. I got mud-plastered at Two Bunch Palms, rebirthed at Wheeler Hot Springs, and exorcised at the Annie Besant Lodge. I had crabcakes at the Ivy and Rocky Mountain Oysters at the Saddle Peak Lodge. I went to the Oscars, won a Grammy, wrote three novels and two screenplays, landed a cover story in the L.A. Weekly, and married a countess. And all of this happened as a matter of course. I was there to work, not to play. All of it came from dust, and a lot of it went right back there. In the end, my net was zero.
But then again, it wasn’t, and that’s the mystery of L.A. It also happens to be the mathematical mystery of the universe. Take that as you like.
The city reached its greatest luminosity for me after all the stargazing was over, when I began to glimpse it again through the eyes of the aspirant; when a ringing phone could mean redemption or disaster. When fear made me twenty-six again. I had a little condo on Beachwood Canyon Drive, acquired in the last days before my credit score dropped below 200. From its balcony, I could see the HOLLYWOOD sign against black chapparal in one direction and the rooftop neon of the Argyle Hotel against a sea of white light in the other. I wrote through the night, with a desperation that made for a better rush than any amphetamine. In the hours before dawn—usually around that time when they say the urge to suicide is the strongest—I’d break from the keyboard and walk up Vasanta Drive to Temple Hill, where the Moorish-style house that had once belonged to Charlie Chaplin overlooked the villa that had once been occupied by Andy Warhol and abutted the property that had once been sanctfied by Madame Blavatsky. And the coyotes would keen and the mockingbirds pipe sweetly and the jasmine would fill my nostrils, and all things would seem possible again.
There is a crack in time between three-thirty and four a.m., and if you slip into it, you can see some very unusual things. I am at a window now in Chicago as a light snow falls like a scrim past the lamp post on my patio. And as the backlight catches the perfect lattice concealed within a single snowflake, a great city unscrolls before my mind’s eye, streaming in from the desert like a storm of sparks and sprawling from San Bernardino to the Pacific, spinning up from the dust and shimmering briefly before falling back to earth. If I am very lucky, I will carry a bit of that shimmer into the coming gray dawn.
6/24/14-- Running From The Wolves
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There was also something attractively feisty and rough 'n tumble about those early "Second Wave" feminists. Like the Irish warrior queens I'd just begun to read about, like Maureen O'Hara characters, like Scout in 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' they struck me as worthy companions, not alien beings. From my earliest romantic fantasy, girls had been adventure-mates, riding bareback with me across windswept plains, scrambling up rock faces and navigating treacherous passes at ten-thousand feet. Sometimes, they looked like Hayley Mills. More often, they were dark to my light, mysterious to my openness, feral to my 'civilized' nature. My most enduring fantasy girlfriend was a green-eyed wild child whose blue-black hair was a glorious mess and whose kisses were like sweet plums. I think I saw in feminism the promise that one day all women would be free to run wild with me.
I read 'Sisterhood Is Powerful' and its precursors, 'The Second Sex' and 'The Feminine Mystique.' I made what seemed to be unique and powerful connections with women. I felt like the herald of a new masculinity, but I also figured that being a man who "got" women would do good things for my romantic life. I took acid trips with them, and long walks in the woods, and practiced what must have been a sort of schoolboy's tantra by showing them that I could hold and kiss and caress them without pushing to get to home plate.
And so, I was for a time a model feminized 70's male, with aspirations to knight-errant and/or wandering minstrel. You may say that this latter-day chivalry was just another form of "objectification," that I had put women "on a pedestal." But I believed then and believe now that the love of woman ennobles man. It both raises him up and grounds him.
To be sure, there were some bumpy stretches in my relationship with feminism during the next two decades. Times when I reverted to a more traditional masculinity, or "backslid," as the tougher feminists called it. I bristled at Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics," and applauded Norman Mailer's retort in "The Prisoner of Sex." I winced at the creeping political correctness evident in feminist criticism of movies and music I loved. I didn't like the fact that miniskirts and gauzy hippie dresses had been supplanted by pantsuits, or that the diamond-hard sexiness of TV characters like The Avengers' Emma Peel had been replaced by something more gender-neutral. Most of all, I disliked the bumper-sticker slogan, "A Woman Without A Man is Like a Fish Without A Bicycle" that had begun to crop up everywhere. I knew what it meant. I understood its propaganda value. But it also devalued an entire sex and ridiculed the thing I valued most highly: the male-female axis. Yes, I thought, we know you can live (and orgasm) without us, but do you really want to? It was the first time I began to doubt that feminists meant what they said, and the moment when the first shot was fired in what we now know as the gender wars.
Another feminist pop culture artifact squared better with my sentiments. It was a cartoon showing an attractively savage female sitting cross-legged next to a pile of human bones. The caption read: "He told me to eat him, so I did." That was funny, and I accepted its not-so-subtle threat as just one more reason to treat women as sexual equals. But while we laughed, a darker, more puritanical strain was indeed worming its way into feminist theory, and humor was waning. I've since learned that this recessive strain was "gender feminism" as contrasted with "equity feminism." All movements harden into dogma as they struggle for institutional change, but second wave feminism, which began as a cry for liberation, took a sharp turn into Mao-style "re-education" and cultural conditioning.
And then there was Andrea Dworkin, but that's another story.
Nonetheless, I stuck with the program right through the end of the Eighties (when the fun feminists like Debbie Harry emerged and brought the laughter back). I read Riane Eisler's "The Chalice and the Blade," and despite being put off by its bashing of "the patriarchy" (a term I'd never before heard outside the context of Old Testament Hebrews, and which seemed more ideological construct than historical reality), I embraced her theory of a "partnership" between men and women. I studied matrilineal societies and considered whether or not traditional marriage might be a form of servitude. I became aware of the Goddess, even pledged myself to her in a fashion. My favorite popular feminist tract was, by far, Clarissa Pinkola Estés' "Women Who Run With The Wolves." I read it aloud in bed to my first wife. At that point, I thought, it was safe for my wild woman to come out of the woods and dwell among us again: fierce but fair, wise and rooted, witchy, holy and unashamedly sexual. 'Wolves' may not have been a masterpiece, but it was a game changer. Its pop Jungian approach took us beyond the place where the political lines were drawn, and without its influence, it's impossible to imagine characters like Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen, Catherne Hardwicke's "Red Riding Hood," or an earlier Kristen Stewart in "Snow White and the Hunstsman," These women all--some literally--ran with the wolves. They even slept with them. And if the wolf represented the threat of unrestrained, hot-blooded masculinity, these heroines were finding ways not only to accommodate it, but to turn its power to their advantage. They were no longer threatened by men.
With the coming of the 90's, I welcomed the Riot Grrrls and Liz Phair and believed that we'd turned a corner. If Liz Phair could sing about giving her man an awesome blowjob but make it clear that it was on her terms; if Jane Campion could make"In The Cut" and Kathryn Bigelow make "Strange Days," then we might be edging closer to a new and truly revolutionary definition of femininity. Maybe men could rediscover their inner wolves and women, far from being lambs or Red Riding Hoods, would be she-wolves. Wolves: a naturally monogamous breed, male and female both devoted to the keeping of the den, yet entirely comfortable with their distinctions. Riane Eisler's partnership society, but with a bite. It would be as close as the modern world had seen to the pagan sexual parity that, even today, continues to hold a grip on my imagination.
And then, inevitably, the recoil occurred.
The trigger, I concede with the same shame I felt about my peers in high school, was men behaving badly. On campus, in the newly integrated armed forces, in professional sports, in the workplace, in the wings of the Supreme Court, and dear God...in the Oval Office! Men had backslid big time, but the response from institutional feminism, now firmly ensconced in academia and corporate HR divisions, was and continues to be disastrously wrong. Sexual reactionarism roared back with an almost Inquisitorial fervor. Ken Starr was its Torquemada. Media feminists (and pseudo-feminists, female and male) began to sound more like members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union than sexual visionaries. Men had gone over the line, and had to be clipped back severely.
In spite of Sarah Silverman, slut walks, sex positive feminism, and a social network- spawned dialogue about sexuality and gender roles that is more open than ever before, we are still feeling the kick of that millennial recoil. On some fronts--gay marriage, transgender acceptance, and the whole idea of sexual self-definition--genuinely progressive things have happened. But when it comes to deep understanding between heterosexual men and women, we have regressed. And in the matter of "women's liberation," the very people who once led the charge have accepted--even demanded--a new kind of paternalism from institutions. The feminist war cry of "Empower Me!" has diminished to a timid but shrill, "Protect Me," nowhere better evidenced than in the confounding rules on sexual consent recently enacted under SB 967 for the California university system. After the briefest of ceasefires, men and women, it seems, are back at war. One side cries, "Assault!" and the other cries, "Entrapment!" But both sides are crying wolf.
In a recent piece published by salon.com, a female author asserted that any man who calls himself a feminist is not to be trusted. She described it as "just another pick-up line," or worse, a kind of preemptive maneuver that serves to undercut women's grievances about treatment in the workplace or on the campus. Yes, there's a lot of jive out there, and a lot of dicks spewing it. But it's not all bad. And if we cast our eyes back, resisting the assumption that what's "new" is always the same as what's "progressive," we may find in the distant past an indicator that feminism simply means accepting women as an equal force.
Most historians and anthropologists now say that Dark Age and early medieval Irish society was matrilineal, i.e., wealth and title were passed down via the mother, not the father. This is not the same as a matriarchy, where political power resides in the female, but when women hold deed to the estate, it definitely makes for a closer balance of power, and man-woman relationships that are more Tracy & Hepburn than Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. When women determine lineage, they become the kingmakers, and the primitive advantage that men have in physical strength is offset by genuine power.
So it was between King Ailill and Queen Medb (Maeve) of Connacht and so went their famous "pillow talk" as related in the Táin Bó Cúailnge--hailed by scholars as the greatest of the Ulster Cycle of Dark Age Irish tales. As they spread their royal bed in Cruachan, the stronghold of their kingdom, they engaged in a little conjugal sparring on the subject of who'd brought more to the royal table, stable, and treasury. "True is the saying, my lady," opines King Ailill, fluffing the pillows. "'She is a well-off woman who is a rich man's wife!" Queen Medb gives the bedsheets a tug. "Is that what they say then?" she retorts with a laugh and one russet eyebrow raised. "For I was as well-off before ever I laid eyes on you!" "Not so, woman!" Ailill insists. "You're far better off since I took you into my bed." Medb throws back her head. "Ha! So it was you took me into your bed, eh? If memory serves, it was I made room for you after the last fellow failed to please me!" Thus begins a long and almost screwball-comedy-ish comparison of their respective holdings in gold, servants, castles, titles, and even lovers, with Medb concluding that it wasn't wealth the bound her to Ailill, but his willingness to meet the terms of her bride-gift, to wit: to be a good husband, without avarice, fear, or jealousy. A husband less generous than her, Medb explains, would have shamed her, for she is known widely for her largesse. A husband less skillful or courageous in battle than she would likewise have been an embarrassment. And finally, a jealous husband would not do at all, for there was "never a time when I did not keep a lover on the side," and stinginess of affection is just as bad as stinginess of purse.
This is a pretty remarkable stretch of dialogue. They are King and Queen, man and woman, bedmates and soul mates, and they are equals. Ailill's bit of masculine bluster can't mask the fact that he's met his match. After literally dragging all of their possessions into the courtyard to be counted and compared, there does turn out to be one thing Ailill has that Medb can't match: a prize white-horned bull named Finnbennach. "Why that bull was born of one of my cows!" protests Medb. "He should by all rights be mine." Ailill pokes her, "He took it as a loss of status to be owned by a woman, so he joined my herd." "Well, then!" declares Medb, her Irish fully up. "I shall find a bull that is his equal." Here begins the story proper, known in translation as "The Cattle Raid of Cooley."
You might protest that it's not the same with royals--let alone mythical ones--as it is with the rest of us, and the Medb's privilege is a little like Sheryl Sandberg's: she can afford to "lean in" because her rank and status allow it. And it's true that social power increases in proportion to economic self-sufficiency. But Queen Maeve's power isn't only about her money. It's about her intellect and her can-do gumption. And it's about her womb.
I'm still a feminist, though I may bitch about the way in which academic feminism has sucked the blood from the movement and made it into something sexless and abstract. Women are a force equal in every measure, and don't need neo-Marxist ideology to prove it. I'm not using that as a pick-up line, but I do hope it makes for better pillow talk.
9/12/14: The Failure Quotient
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Can't buy love in this world
But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love
But it's all right
It's Money That I Love
It's Money That I Love
--Randy Newman ("It's Money That I Love")
Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Then there's this one, attributed to Mark Twain: "It is not likely that any life has ever been lived which was not a failure in the secret judgment of the person who lived it."
As we sit here in 2014, there's simple ratio for determining failure vs. success. Work Done : Earnings = Success-Failure Quotient. In the "old days," most people aimed for a stable 1 to 1, with maybe a little margin for a rainy day. Nowadays, even a moderately successful person shoots for something in the neighborhood of 20 : 100. For spectacularly successful (often for no apparent reason), more like 1 : 1000. If your quotient is a whole number, you're failing. If it's a decimal number, you're in the game. Electronic day traders can probably approach negative numbers since they do no work at all. Sure, the economics are basic, and the mathematicians would insist on an actual quantity for "work done." I was never much good with numbers, but I think you get the point.
That I, and maybe a few others reading this, are failures by this measure is not in doubt. Not in the current climate. The question is why. And also how we came so far so fast from what I'm sure Churchill and Twain had in mind.
If Churchill was right, then frequent job changes and an inability to maintain an upward trajectory on the economic line graph of life may amount, when the final accounting is taken, to a series of "stumbles" adding up to a great success. In whose estimation, I don't know. God's? History's? Churchill's? Certainly not my accountant's. My own assessment--at least at the present pause for stock-taking--bears out the timeless tragicomic wisdom of Samuel L. Clemens. In my own "secret judgement," my own life doesn't measure up. To say in what particular material respects I have failed would invite pity or schadenfreude, and I'm after neither. I'm after comprehension, and after many long years, I may at last have come to it.
Money (read: earnings) has been sacralized. Work has been devalued.
To paraphrase something my ex-father-in-law once said about another family member, "I have no respect for money." And it's money that matters. The desire for gain (and preservation of gain) is at the center of almost every human activity that isn't purely biological, and if not at the center, always lurking at the periphery. Every man, woman, and child on this planet works the machine. The only escape is total retreat--asceticism--and total retreat isn't possible for most of us. Not if we are enthusiasts. Not if we love art, science, psychology, literature, the movies...people, as opposed to prayer wheels.
I like money just fine, but if by "respect," my ex-father-in-law meant something closer to reverence, I plead no contest. To not revere money is to fail to understand the nature of business, and in the 21st century, to fail to understand "the market" is to fail altogether. Because the world has become, essentially, one big enterprise. Everything--even the words on this screen (so they tell me)--can be "monetized." They also tell me that we are in the midst of something called "the sharing economy," but that we are simultaneously engaging in "disruptive economics," and I don't know how one can share genuinely in a world where work is continuously being disrupted and devalued and my sister works for TaskRabbit.
Until I experienced my satori moment about money (which, for most people, isn't a satori moment at all and occurs around the age of six), I would reflect on my...well, allow me the dignity of calling them "professional setbacks." I would look back at the projects that had fizzled and the companies and organizations I had left or been tossed out of on my ass, the way a gate crasher gets tossed out by a bouncer when it's discovered he doesn't have the secret, only-visible-under-ultraviolet light $$$ stamp on his hand. I would think of the people who had remained behind at those companies after I'd vanished, and in some cases were still there. Many of them were good people: caring friends, parents, and reasonably good citizens. Some were very smart in a way I have never been smart, as Randy Newman says in his song. Others were utter mediocrities: people who showed up and figured that was enough. A few were outright fuckups. But all had one thing in common: none of them, in manner, style or attitude, questioned the holy economic imperative.
They were, in fact, in total sync with that imperative, most of them in an instinctive, unconscious way. Like Christians in the Middle Ages.
Maybe some of you can relate to this. I hope so, because I'd hate to be alone. To say that I "questioned" the economic orthodoxy doesn't mean that I've ever openly tried to undermine it. That would mean doing a bad job, and I've always come to work to do the best job I could, trusting that this, after all, was my purpose for being there. I don't have the courage of a true subversive, a Norma Rae, or a "Take this job and shove it" rebel. And besides, I like having a job, doing a job, and being valued for it. I like having money.
I just never figured out that money was the sacred muffin. I've also never believed that money ought to allow, much less drive, an unwise or uncreative decision, or excuse a shoddy product. Or that "the interest of the shareholders" (in whatever form they take) should override the interest of the clients/public ostensibly being served, whether they be artists, students, audience members, or Chess King customers (yes, I worked there, and I'm pretty sure I got fired). It's at this disconnect with the mercantile mind that I've met my recurring Waterloo. I have left a trail of people behind, saying, like my ex-father-in-law, "The man has no respect for money." But that's not quite accurate. I respect the impact that money has on life. I don't believe it deserves veneration.
(Somewhere in my mind's eye appears the image of a camel passing easily through the eye of a needle, and I wonder if Jesus had it all wrong)
In the saga of my lurches through the commercial landscape, I have been like the pious but clueless Jesuit, sent by the crown to some primitive outpost, blinded by the notion that he's actually there to convert the natives and thereby ease their path to salvation, as opposed to being a stealth agent of imperial conquest whose pacification of the indigenous people will open their country to "trade," and other less savory forms of exploitation. With incredible naiveté, I have subscribed to and worked in service of my employers' "mission statements," missing the dark, cathedral-like forest of greed for the upright trees of industriousness.
In some jobs--the golden ones--the "mission" temporarily subsumes the underlying agenda of avarice. For example, when a company is making so much money on its core product or "catalog" that it can afford to hire visionaries, take risks, and say, "We don't care what it costs. Make it great." Or when the company is run by an independently wealthy genius balloon pilot. You would think that institutions of higher learning and scientific enterprises fit this mold by nature, except that many of these have been privatized and are now in it for the money, too. Schools, hospitals, sanitation, research institutes: even the Human Genome Project was profit-driven. In any case, these golden periods, where we are encouraged to exercise, in John Kennedy's words, "the full use of our powers along lines of excellence," never last. When profits drop, the market speaks.
What we earn, in money terms, winds up at the heart of things. At least for those billions of us who live in consumer society. (The remaining hunter-gatherers, subsistence farmers, and true artisans who occupy the planet are exempt.) But why? Wasn't the heart once the province of love? What about the pursuit of truth and beauty? Or, on a less lofty level, why not pursue personal power, influence, or intellectual respect? These things were once held to be of equal value with wealth. Yes, social position remains important, but only insofar as it's backed up by material attainment. When we log onto Facebook to "update our profile," money is never far away, whether we are bitching about the wait time to buy the new iPhone 6 or advertising the restaurant we dined in that evening. And when we consult the internet oracle about how to enhance our profile, her answer--in a Silicon Valley voice as sultry as ScarJo's--is "Monetize your thoughts. Monetize your actions. Monetize your Life. The Singularity is approaching, and it won't be a giveaway like the new U2 album."
The late Walter Benjamin of the Marxist-leaning Institute for Social Research, once wrote, “Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.” Now I'm not a Frankfurt School guy. I do believe in free enterprise and generally accept market economics as the least bad system. But something about Benjamin's assertion shakes the scales from my eyes. What if the acquisition of enormous wealth has indeed become a religion? And not just some fringe religion, like neo-Zoroastrianism. An orthodoxy. That would make people like me heretics, and we know what becomes of them.
The new God of money isn't the gilded Christ of the robber barons or Henry Ford, shining down from high above the altar to bless the capitalist credo. This is a much more slippery god, befitting cyberculture and quantum uncertainty. If computers have become tools for monetizing existence, then maybe this god is the ghost in the machine. In the present age of finance, money doesn't so much "change hands" as mutate: the human-computer interface that the true believers in Silicon Valley claim will one day become a unity allows money to stream through countless channels as 'information,' gathering "realness" as it goes. Money is diverted, converted, inverted via tax schemes, exotic "debt instruments" like derivatives, losses counted as gains, inflated valuations, and even make-believe currencies like Bitcoin, until the very notion of giving something of value in trade for something else of value becomes almost quaint. There are huge companies now valued at billions of dollars that have never made a real profit. If they're lucky, they'll be bought before they have to break even.
But work--in the old-fashioned sense of what one does to earn his daily bread--is worth less than ever. I don't need to cite the stats. You all know what a college graduate makes these days. The concept--common to all the great world religions, by the way--of "the dignity of labor" has all but vaporized. Most jobs below the stock option/golden parachute level are a form of servitude. And don't tell me that "the gig economy" will free us from those shackles. Those poor people, driving for Über, weeding gardens for TaskRabbit, scrubbing floors for HomeJoy, and delivering the Whole Foods order for Favor are the most enslaved of all, but the increasingly Orwellian voice of "the Valley" is telling them that they're free. Look, ma! I'm an entrepreneur! I pay to work.
Now I realize that some of this is just in the nature of human commerce, which finds its outlet even in the worst and weirdest of times. Companies--even the new world companies of the "disruptive economy"--are like tribes; successful tribes become kingdoms, and both survive and seek advantage by trading with other tribes and kingdoms. I don't think we can change that. But I do wish we could boot the God of Earnings from heaven and install one who once again values work and the products of work, and thereby alters our commonly held definitions of success and failure. The products of work can be intellectual or artisanal, a story well-told or a meal well-served, a product improved, or a life enriched.
"A job well done." Do you remember when that meant something?
I'd like to see teachers paid like the professionals they are. I'd like to see mandatory rollbacks in college tuition and I'd like to see every college or university responsible, to some degree, for the process of transitioning its graduates into the work force. I'd like to see the people who handle our food paid enough to handle it well. In my own field, I'd like to see composers of music for films and TV once again paid respectable creative fees--up front--as opposed to dubious back-end pot o' gold schemes based on net profits that will never materialize, and promises of the "long tail" of residual income from Spotify and You Tube. If the money people are that certain of the back-end, let them have it.
There will be no more revolutions. And even if there were, what new boss would we install who isn't as bad as the old boss? What we need to do, before it's too late, is re-dignify and--can I say it?--re-sacralize labor so that the quotient for success is based upon the quality of the work and the good fruit it bears. Work smarter, not Harder? Nah. That's a credo suitable only for the Wolves of Wall Street. Work hard. Put everything you've got into it, even if that means the zen of flipping burgers. And then ask for a raise. A big one.
May 20, 2014: The Heart Is A Lonely Gumshoe
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I wonder: have modern women not grasped the transitory nature of cyberspace sentiment? Do they believe that a feeling expressed, a promise made, a fear revealed five years before can trump the current reality, simply because it was expressed as text? Or could it be that 21st century women, wary, wise, and weary of emotional swindle, have become legalistic about love?
There is more than a whiff of the prosecutorial in all this caching of documents. We collect information about people when we are 1) seeking advantage over them (including all forms of blackmail); 2) seeking equal footing in preparation for a struggle or difficult negotiation; 3) plotting their demise. As much fun as it might be to explore the question of whether or not all women secretly want to kill their mates, black widow-style, I think I'll discount #3. Reason #1 may steer feminine sleuthing of the more sinister kinds. But it's my sense-of-the-moment that #2 offers the best clue.
When I can step away from the fray for long enough to glimpse anything like the real picture, I see women in modern relationships locked into a binary, fight-or-flight oscillation. Crouched and ready to file suit. It's not so much an explicit threat as a posture of defense poised to switch at any moment to offense. Squirreling away emails and quoting them to gain points in a quarrel isn't the 21st century equivalent of saving love letters. Love letters were (sadly, the past tense is appropriate) composed, worked over, often rewritten many times--all in a genuine effort to "say it right." They were meant to be kept, even while acknowledging that the feelings expressed in them might, at some point, cease to be felt. Emails are expressly NOT meant to be kept. The time frames (and frames of mind) given to them disallow careful composition. They are pure impulse shot into the ether by the appendages that connect reptile brain to mouse and keyboard. Email as a medium of written communication is about as nuanced as the telegraph, which was limited in expression to notification (WILL ARRIVE LA GUARDIA GATE SEVEN 10:26 PM. STOP. DRESS FOR DINNER. STOP.), emergency, or breaking news, good and bad. If you are holding on to emails with any intent to make use of them as emotional proof, then you are acting as an aggrieved person, and for men, a potentially dangerous one.
To say that many women--maybe most women--feel aggrieved may be deserving of the "Duh!" response. Women living in impoverished third world countries or under the dominion of a Christian Promise Keeper or a Wahabi Muslim are given reason every day to feel aggrieved. Even the best men can strike women as emotional con artists. Men are opportunistic. We "take advantage." And as Myrna Loy might have said in a 40's noir, "a girl needs a little protection." There's no question that in the great civil court of the heart, women are the principal plaintiffs, and they have their reasons. But I think it's equally true that some of this grievance, this sense of injury, of being outmatched is habitual, and at least among informed and reasonably self-aware people, outmoded. Moreover, it's easier to make paté from cowshit than to build and sustain a strong, balanced relationship when one party feels compelled to compile a dossier on the other. At the very least, it evidences a deep lack of trust. At the worst, it evokes the scheming woman archetype that men dread.
This calls for a brief digression to the subject of V. That is, V. Stiviano, former "archivist" for the noxious Donald Sterling, and as nightmarish a succubus as ever emerged from the tar-black Lynchian subconscious. Bill Maher, responding to Sterling's taped assertion that V had been "an animal in bed," quipped, "Oh, right. Every guy's wet dream. A transvestite in a welding helmet." I mention this tabloid trash here only because when a story like V. Stiviano's betrayal of her benefactor's dark side breaks, and on the same day, you tell your boyfriend or husband that you "have something on him" in the form of old emails he probably doesn't even recall sending, all sorts of alarm bells go off, and the very thing you sought to gain by keeping them--equal footing on the field of love--is undermined by a sinkhole of mutual mistrust.
And so I say: Women of the World! Clean out your inboxes! You are not the chroniclers of your love affairs and/or marriages. You are not Jane Austen, and the correspondence doesn't rise to that level anyway. Get rid of anything that doesn't reflect the current state of things. I try to stick religiously to a six-month limit on retention of personal emails. One effect of this is to grant my partner (and my friends) an effective statute of limitations on ill-chosen words. If you clear that half-year limit with me, and we're still sharing a bed or a confidence, you're clean. Holding on to things is hard work. I was once told by a friend who grew up in what was then East Bengal that people who live on mud floors still sweep them. The Tao of Love requires that our floors also be swept out regularly, even if they are made of earthen stuff and the decomposed remnants of broken hearts.
It may be a fool's errand to try to persuade women to clean out their cobwebby attics for mens' sake. Choose your cliché: Nancy Drew Lives! Kate Loves A Mystery! Q is for Qurious. Women are natural-born sleuths and natural-born tacticians. And if I seem to be saying that women keep emails for reasons of fear and apprehension, the way they might keep mace or taser on hand (both designed to protect one person by disabling the other), then I should also say something about what men fear, because it is men's fears that often cause them to behave in a way that women fear. A recent experience may serve best to illustrate.
I stayed for a few nights last week in the newly named Hyatt Andaz West Hollywood on Sunset, known widely and notoriously back in the day as the Riot House. It may have a fancy new name, but it's still a Hyatt House, with thin walls and rooms sometimes as close as the single door that separates them (a relic of the old "adjoining suites"). On two successive nights, the couple in the next room went at it. Things came to a head on Night 2. He: "You fucking little whore! I saw you! I saw what you did!" She: "I didn't do anything. You're so fucking insecure." He: "The fuck you didn't! You were practically (this part was garbled, even though my ear was to the door) ......the guy!" She: "I was not. Fuck you."
For a few breathless seconds, I expected to feel the impact of a head hitting the wall. Thankfully, this did not happen. Instead, things got very quiet, dropping to a level just below the poor acoustical threshold of the rooms. It was only later that I heard weeping, and it was not the weeping of a woman. The scenario was clear enough. In some manner--perhaps unwitting, perhaps not--she had caused him to experience sexual humiliation. Maybe she drank a little to much, danced a little too provocatively, laughed a little too appreciatively at another man's joke. Whatever it was, he was the one who left the party feeling aggrieved, and he'll be the one, in the middle of the night while she lies asleep, to go to the laptop and write: "Sometimes, when you hurt me like that, I just want to strangle you."
If she loves him, really loves him (whether or not he's worth loving is another matter, but let's assume he is), she'll read his email, absorb fully its explosion of pain and anger, and then send it to the cyberspace graveyard. After all, Scarlet, tomorrow is another day, and love under surveillance never, ever works.
April 19: Spies In The House Of Love
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In fact, counterintelligence as practiced by the likes of Angleton and his opposites in the KGB is an exercise in practiced dissociation, a tightrope walk not only between TRUTH and FALSEHOOD, but between a constantly reinvented story and a cornucopia of counterfactuals, any one of which might prove to hold a greater truth. Agents were doubled, sometimes tripled, and had a wardrobe of roles and cryptonyms that would challenge a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. And actors is what they were. Actors in the bleak, modernist theater of the postwar era. The spy's true identity was unknown even by his intimates. Not even love offered shelter from deception. Love, indeed, provided a kind of proving ground for treachery.
I have to wonder if this hasn't always been true. A few nights ago, I was seized by the thought that as lovers, as husbands and wives, we never really tell one another the whole truth. Why? Because to tell the truth is to reveal and to reveal is to give up an article of protection. That's pretty much the way spies play it. What if the spy game, with its fabricated realities, "legends," and disinformation, is just the geopolitical expansion of human relationships? What if love itself is an act of deception? After all, it begins with the willful projection onto another of an identity constructed from one's own desire.
Angleton, a brilliant theoretician and a figure of great moral and intellectual complexity, not to say ambiguity, was the CIA's chief of counterintelligence for nearly 35 years. He once described counterespionage as akin to a scenario in which a wife is cheating on her husband and at the same time enjoys access--whether through blackmail, sex, or other connivance--to his psychiatrist. She is thereby in a position to know exactly which of her deceptions are effective and which ones require tweaking in order to fool his emotional radar. With the information she receives illicitly from the shrink, she is able to calibrate her treachery to a fine degree. She is figuratively inside her husband's head. If she hears back from the shrink that hubby is growing suspicious, the "late at the office" excuse can be traded for evening pilates class, or even her own therapy sessions, "confidential," of course. With each successful deception, she gains power and ground.
We'll give these two people cover names of John and Mary, even though they are you and I. Let's imagine that even after Mary's artful adjustment of her cover story, John remains distrustful. It's just a feeling, or maybe a scent. To get at the truth, he "runs an agent." He places in her world someone who is in a position to witness her transgression and report back. The furtive kiss, the brush of hands, or even the way she laughs when she is utterly charmed by her paramour. The agent might be the maitre d' at Mary's favorite upscale lunch spot, or a male workmate of hers with whom John plays occasional tennis. By Angleton's book, this is classic espionage, as opposed to counter-intelligence.
At the same time, however, Mary, who has learned from the shrink that John is having his doubts, deploys her own operative. A girlfriend who knows them both and whom John is disposed to trust. "I'm worried about John," Mary tells her friend (we'll call her Rita). "He's getting so possessive! I think he thinks I'm cheating on him." "Well, are you?" asks Rita, to which Mary responds by shaking her head ambiguously. "I'll talk to him," says Rita. At this point, Rita becomes a "disinformation agent," or even a "dangle," in the sense that she is dangling before John information he very much wants but which will mislead him further.
Now suppose that John learns from his maitre d' that Mary and Rita have been talking conspiratorially at a corner table. On the presumption that he's being duped, he sets out to "turn" Rita into his double-agent. How is this accomplished? The English did it brilliantly with Operation Double-Cross, turning Nazi spies back against their controls. In the grimy, Byzantine world of postwar Berlin, it was typically done with money or sexual blackmail (a surprising number of double agents were closeted homosexuals or had kinks they didn't want revealed). But if John intends to double Rita, it's going to require emotional deceit. The most effective ways for John to get Rita working for his side are 1) to play on her sympathies (women are suckers for male vulnerability); 2) to seduce her, or offer the prospect of seduction, thus becoming an infidel in order to detect infidelity. Quite often, 1) can lead to 2).
If Rita turns out to be an exceptionally effective double-agent, she may achieve the status of a "mole." In this case, John has achieved "a penetration." (The lexicon of tradecraft is full of such sexual allusion) A true mole must be someone "the enemy" (in our case, the unfaithful wife) will trust implicitly in her own camp. To prove her loyalty, Rita must continue to convince Mary that she is convincing John that no one is betraying anyone.
In love as in tradecraft, double-agents are a risk. Like defectors, they tend to be unstable (this is what allows them to be used) and to have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and knowledge (this is what allows them to feel special). The double-game can backfire. Whether Rita sleeps with John and regrets it, or doesn't and hates him for suggesting it, or worst of all, falls for him only to realize that his heart still belongs to Mary, she may wind up right back in Mary's camp. Now Mary is in a position to "triple" her, and since John is none the wiser, lead him further off the track and into that hall of mirrors.
At this point, it may appear that John has been checked. But has he? His unfaithful wife now knows that he knows, and he knows that she knows that he knows. Soon enough, she will know that he knows that she knows that he knows, and will have no way of being sure that he hasn't gotten on to Rita. Her best asset remains John's psychiatrist. Unbeknownst to Mary, however, Rita has made a mistake that renders the shrink an unreliable narrator. "But didn't you used to love playing with Barbies when you were little?" she asks John, after a few glasses of wine. John knows that not even his wife is privy to this information. Only his analyst is. Hence... The best thing for John to do--assuming he still wants Mary back--may be to let things play themselves out according to the logic of falsehood. Allow Rita to continue to believe that she's deceiving him, and Mary to continue collecting intel from the shrink--intelligence that John is now in a position to taint. Maybe she'll begin to feel the noose closing around her neck. Maybe she'll tire of the game. Maybe she'll even admire John for the way he's turned the tables on her. Maybe she'll come in from the cold.
This is more or less how James Angleton claims he opted to play the greatest counterspy of modern times, Kim Philby, who was so far up the ass of the Anglo-American intelligence community that he could see through its eyeballs, like the characters in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. Others wanted to haul Philby in, put him before a firing squad. But Angleton--at least by his account--let him run. He knew where the lie lay, and that's what mattered. In order to know the truth, he needed only to flip the lie. So it goes in love, too. We play each other endlessly, sometimes letting out the reins, other times drawing them in; sometimes confessing and sometimes concealing. And all the time, like those spies who double back on their masters, all we really want is to be held to be of great value to someone.
March 18: Time, Recurrence, & True Detective
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As it turned out, the more esoteric and supernaturally enticing elements from those early shows I'd missed--the KING IN YELLOW references, Carcosa with its black stars and strange, foreground moon--were used more as lures than as plot points. I suppose I could have found some pirate site online, backtracked to Episode 1, and caught myself up, but these days I like to use my time in the way most likely to yield up a new experience, or just as nice, something I haven't known before. So instead, I ordered THE KING IN YELLOW and read one of its strangely linked stories after each episode. THE KING IN YELLOW was a lot of occult weight for a TV show to take on. The slim collection of stories is mesmerizing in a Borges meets Edgar Allen Poe way, but the writing is mannered (it was 1895) and poetic in a way American prose no longer is. To integrate that into a mini-series as an "under-story" would have required the style and methodical mise-en-scène of the Coen Brothers, or of a Kubrick. I'm not a Kubrick apostle--at least half of his films leave me cold. But when he decides to embrace a period or literary conceit, he goes all the way in. THE KING IN YELLOW is like "Traumnovelle," the 1926 Arthur Schnitzler novella that EYES WIDE SHUT was based on. And whatever else can be said about that movie, Kubrick never forgot his source. I'll shoot off on a tangent (hell, Rust would) and cite a deeper connection between EYES and TRUE DETECTIVE: it's in the archetype of The Mask. The most frightening lines in both THE KING IN YELLOW and TRUE DETECTIVE are "Take off the mask!" And the spookiest scene in EYES WIDE SHUT is Tom Cruise coming home after the orgiastic revelry to find his wife sleeping peacefully beside the mask she may have worn to the same affair. The question we are forced to ask is: did he fuck his own wife as another, and in doing do reveal some hidden side of himself? And if so, how many others did the same? And what would that mean?
These are provocative, soul-tearing questions, and the fact that Rust Cohle was willing to look at them without turning away had a lot to do with the show becoming an insider phenomenon so quickly. Suggesting that life is a kind of topside Hell--that free will is a cruel illusion--is deep end of the pool stuff. In the end, TRUE DETECTIVE didn't stay that deep. In TWIN PEAKS, a show that did stay that deep for a season, we learn why Laura Palmer went to the roadhouse. She went to be degraded, as close to snuffed as you can be and still be living, and David Lynch doesn't spare us that knowledge or the penitential weight it carries. But as far I'm aware, we never learn why Dora Lange followed the Yellow King to Carcosa, or why so many pages of her diary were devoted to it. Nor can we be quite sure of why Rust felt so strongly that he had an appointment with the King. Unless, that is, it was because he'd kept that appointment before--many times before--out on the perimeter of that flat circle we keep walking eternally. Unless Rust, like Jesus before Calvary, was cursed by the knowledge that the pain would have to be endured again and again. It's one way to read the story, but the way the show ends undercuts this interpretation. More likely, he went to Carcosa to find his daughter in that formless, yet substantial darkness that greets us at death. He had to go to the center of hell for her. Orpheus did. Shamans do.
On a different level, Cohle's ruminations on the nature of time and space did tie into the solving of the crime. Not every investigation has to head straight for the center: for Means, Motive, and Opportunity. That was Marty's way, and he was good at it. Cohle's approach was hermeneutical, like that of the ancients. He spiraled in on the truth. Philosophy is never a thing totally apart from procedure. It takes patience and time, this modus operandi, but I'm pretty sure it's the way Leibniz and Einstein came up with their more amazing stuff. It's possible, again, that Rust's grief took him onto this path--we don't know what he was like before he lost his daughter. Maybe, like Nietzche's depression, that state of mind allowed him "never to look away." He couldn't stop looking, and that maniacal persistence, rather than his arcane and languidly mumbled bayou koans, became the driving force of the show.
If the darkness at the heart of TRUE DETECTIVE never achieves the weight of either great fiction or the greatest film, it still inspires some grisly and transgressive moments. The depiction of Carcosa, with its cancerous growth of swamp vine, corpses bound in it like buds that will never open again, was a creep show worthy of Guillermo del Toro. And I can't say I've ever heard the exhortation, "Die with me, little priest" on prime time TV, cable or no. The Marie Fontenot videotape, with its unseen closing frames--images that made Marty vomit and bad cop Steve Geraci scream uncontrollably--was an especially gruesome bit of business. We all assume the girl died horribly, and from some form of unspeakable sexual battery, but what sort of hideousness would make a hardened cop scream? Nic Pizzolatto invited us to imagine something that a mind invested in its own sanity can't allow itself to imagine, and in doing so, he did indeed subject us to a bit of what the unfortunate characters of THE KING IN YELLOW experience when they dare to read the forbidden second act of the play.
If anything about the show disappointed its strongest adherents, it was the wholly unexpected final scene. I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling, as I watched it, that the show had properly ended minutes earlier and we were now watching an outtake or alternative ending. If the creator had wanted to remain true at any level to Cohle's cowboy existentialism, he could have ended it ay least three different ways: 1) pull back from Cohle, wired up to life support and looking for all the world like the image on the Shroud of Turin, to reveal Marty sitting at his bedside, hands folded in something like prayer; 2) a Hitchcock camera move up from the three bodies sprawled in the center of the Carcosa labyrinth (so that perspective becomes flattened), toward the mouth of the volcano to a place where we could see, like the gods Cohle spoke of, that time was a flat circle; 3) at the beginning, because if there is an eternal recurrence, our two heroes will have to endure all of this again without being any the wiser. The fact that the show did not end in these or any other more ambiguous ways may have made some people feel a little conned. As if Cohle's nihilism was a feint, a college kid's passing fancy, or worse, an outright deception on the part of the writer, who all along had known that Rust Cohle was a guy who believed the light was winning. I didn't feel all that badly cheated. In part this is because both men are such damned good actors and in part it's because I prefer to think of the light as winning, too. I bought it. Mostly.
But if you really want to see a film that embodies nihilism in every seductively beautiful frame, and paints time as a closed circle, inescapable and often monstrously unjust, go back and take a second look at INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS now that it's out as a VOD (or a first look if you haven't seen it). There's a film that is true to its vision in every beat and every syllable of dialogue. After you've watched it, go back and examine once again the bookended opening and closing scenes. At first glance, what the Coens--always innovative editors--seem to be doing is making use of the sort of non-linear construction that's been part of cinematic language at least as far back as LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, and part of fiction for longer. The beginning is the end and the end the beginning, and what happens in between illustrates how things came to such a sorry pass. But the two scenes are not identical. For one thing, a different song closes Llewyn's set in the scene's reprise. For another, he remains in the club for long enough to take notice of the young Bob Dylan before stepping into the dark alley. Is this just crafty, elliptical cutting? Are they in fact mirrored scenes? Or is Llewyn Davis stuck in an eternal return which is partly of his own making, and partly the handiwork of a particularly malicious demiurge? I hope Rust Cohle is right about the light. I pray that he's right. But in some way, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the best film of 2013 for my money, feels closer to what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison of earthly existence. The light may be winning, but the stars are also a long way away.
January 23: John Dobson 1915-2014
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GOD PULLS A RABBIT
The Heretical Cosmology of John Dobson
(Originally published in the L.A. Weekly)
LIKE ALL GREAT COSMIC RIDDLERS, maverick physicist John Dobson derives a certain mischievous glee from watching us squirm, squint and sweat out the implications of his mathematical enigmas. This is neither intellectual sadism nor the sociopathic smugness of a geekier-than-thou academic. Dobson has as little in common with that lot as it’s possible to imagine. Rather, he knows from personal experience that the paroxysms his ideas inspire are the birth pangs of awareness.
Dobson, whose writings on relativity were once prescribed to students along with with Einstein and Gamov, and who maintained a correspondence with Nobel laureate Richard Feynman until the latter’s death in 1988, is today, at an amazingly spry 88, a figure marginalized by mainstream science, but this is as much due to his own predilections as to his heretical beliefs that the Big Bang never happened and that photons are about as “real” as pixie dust. To the extent he is known, it is as the father of The Sidewalk Astronomers of San Francisco, a loose-knit confraternity of citizen stargazers which, owing to his tireless missionary efforts, now has chapters across the continental U.S. Founded in 1968, the club’s sole raison d’etre was that no one should be denied the rapture of looking at the stars, and they fast became the Merry Pranksters of telescopy, lurching across the country in an aging school bus dubbed the Starship Centaurus and teaching poor kids how to build serviceable telescopes from scrap. These days, Dobson travels mostly alone, silver ponytail flapping out the window of a rusted hippie van, but his peregrinations have made him something like the Johnny Appleseed of the skies.
Born in 1915 to educators posted to the University of Bejing, Dobson eventually landed in San Francisco and found it to be the rightful center of his universe. He enrolled at U.C. Berkeley with the stated purpose of “finding out how to keep Einstein alive” (i.e., accessible) and finished with degrees in chemistry and mathematics, notably breaking his studies for a tour of duty with a guerilla dance troupe (Dobson still has the lithe body of a dancer). The signal shift in his consciousness occurred, however, when in 1944 he entered the San Francisco Vedanta monastery. Vedanta (Sanskrit: End of Vedas) is the ecumenical branch of Indian philosophy which, over time, has attracted the largest number of Western intellectuals with Eastern sympathies, and its continuing foothold in the United States is the legacy of a ground-shifting speech made by its apostle, Swami Vivikenanda, to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. John Dobson spent more than twenty years in contemplative retreat before his desire to evangelize the gospel of the stars (catalyzed, no doubt, by the sounds and scents of the Summer of Love drifting through his little cell window) got the better of him, and it is to the Vedantins of L.A. that he returns each winter to recuperate between journeys, and to share with the public the latest wrinkles on the central theory propounded in his little masterpiece of lay physics, Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science: that the Universe we perceive in space and time arises by way of an Apparition.
I interviewed Dobson in the salon at the Vedanta Society’s Hollywood outpost, the same room in which the likes of Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood once held forth, and a setting thus well-suited to “cleansing the doors of perception.” I wanted to get a preview of his upcoming lecture series on “Conceptual Cosmology”, and to clear up (if that could be hoped for) a few questions of my own. By turns as tricky as a Zen master, as tart as an English schoolmaster, and as buoyantly enthusiastic as a child, John Dobson is mercifully un-geeky in his delivery. But that doesn’t mean he won’t turn your brain to a quivering mass of Jell-O or challenge your most basic assumptions about reality.
As preface, I should say only this: contemplating the notion that the Universe is “apparitional” does not mean denying material reality in toto, i.e., literalizing the Hindu concept of Maya. In a functional sense, that would be catatonic schizophenia, for how could we hope to take a single step in such a world. Even a holy man can only eat, sleep, and shit in the world his senses tell him is there. But science has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the Universe arises from primordial hydrogen: a single proton and its single standoffish electron. A single pair of opposites. The rest of it --the whole damned works--is transformation of that fundamental matter into heavier and more complex commodities (including ourselves) by physical processes we largely understood at the dawn of the 20th Century. The question which has occupied John Dobson for most of his long life is, “Why do we see the hydrogen?” (and, as a corollary, “Why doesn’t the electron ‘sit down’?”) He has steadfastly challenged the reigning Big Bang model (he has explanations for both cosmic expansion and the famous “background radiation” which are consistent with a Steady State model), and he finds infinite jest in Science’s pursuit of ever more chimerical particles to explain the capricious behavior of those other weird particles (and anti-particles) whose reality we now accept as gospel, painting a picture of the scientific establishment as a self- perpetuating orthodoxy not altogether very different from the medieval church.
There is a price to pay for all heresies, and though we no longer burn heretics, we snuff out their lights as effectively by labeling them “crackpots” or, more charitably, “iconoclasts”. In either case, they don’t get grant money from either the Ford Foun- dation or Dow Chemical. So John Dobson conducts his research under the stars, and in the alpine observatory of his mind. In this, he recalls not only his boyhood hero Einstein, but another, perhaps dearer mentor whose name he cites often in his talks: Nikola Tesla. They called him crazy, too. Which box does Dobson fit in? Maybe a box not yet devised, or at any rate, dimensionless.
AH: The subject of your Sunday lecture is “Creationless Cosmology”. People unfamiliar with your work and with Vedanta may read that as “Creator-less Cosmology” ... as a kind of agnosticism. Are you an agnostic?
JD: Well, I’ll have to clarify that at the beginning of the talk. I’m not a creationist. Not only are most Christians, Jews and Muslims “creationists,” most cosmologists--whether they subscribe to the Big Bang or Steady State Theories-- are, as well. They just have Creation occurring without a Creator. From nothing. You can’t get something from nothing.
AH: People seem to need beginnings, though, don’t they?
JD: Stephen Hawking met the Pope. The Pope told him, “I like that Big Bang idea. Just don’t get into what happened before that.” But yes, most people want the story to have a first page and a last page. There are, however, many very religious people who don’t feel the need for a personified Creator and a moment of Creation. The Vedantins, for instance, have this notion that the Universe is seen in space and time through a mistake in perception. What is behind that apparition is the Changeless, Infinite and Undivided. Now, you can call that a Creator, if you want, but it’s really not the same idea at all. The idea of a Creator is: He did it once; He did it out of nothing; He did it for fun. I don’t see it that way.
AH: You’re not a fan of the Big Bang Theory …
JD: I blame this whole thing on physicists misinterpreting the findings of other physicists. A long time ago in India there were physicists who looked at the Universe and called it “the Changing”. Their word for this thing we see is “the Changing!” Now, logically, if you have change, it has to be with respect to something else. Instead of asking, “What is this ‘something else’, science has just looked at the change.” The real problem is: by what sort of causation do we perceive the Universe as changing if what lies underneath is changeless, infinite and undivided? If you believe, as I do, that it is by way of an apparition, then you have to conclude that science has occupied itself with the study of a mistake.
AH: A lot of what you say may not seem all that strange to readers of science-fiction, or even to fans of the MATRIX, where our apparent “reality” is shown as a bit stream ...
JD: Ah, but then you’re calling for a Creator again. The “man behind the curtain”. Reality is not a creation. It is. If you study that idea of “mistaken identity”, you can get to the physics of why we see the Universe in space and time.
AH: Is it possible for you to summarize the physics?
JD: If the “Changeless” has to show through in our physics as inertia; if the “Infinite” has to show through as electrical energy; and if the “Undivided” has to show through as gravity, then there is an explanation for these so far unex- plained forms of energy which nobody has at Caltech.
AH: You’re saying that this is how the underlying reality is made manifest to our “observational equipment” ... our senses?
AH: How would the Universe look to someone able to take the blinders off ... to see it as it really is?
JD: Well, it’s not an on-off thing. Because the Universe is in flux, there are many ways of seeing, closer to or farther from “the way it really is”. But let’s put it this way: if you happen to mistake your friend for a ghost, you can either shake yourself “back to earth” and say, “No, no ... he’s real, all right,” or you can say to yourself, “Ah. I’ve just seen his true nature showing through. He is an apparition.”
AH: But why? Why the apparition? Who would play such a trick?
JD: You can’t ask that. All causation is within the apparition. All the “why” questions are within the apparition. You are allowed to ask: why do I continue to see it this way …
AH: O.K. I’m asking ...
JD: If you see it in time, you will see it as changing. If you see it in space, you will see it as finite. If you see it in spacetime, you will see it as divided. And all we can say for sure is that it is none of these things. It is from what the Universe is NOT that you get the physics of what it IS.
AH: There have been mystics who argued that God brought forth the Universe in order that He might be perceived. And the secular version of this is the anthropic principle: that the cosmos evolved the way it did so that we would come along to figure it all out, by way of consciousness …
JD: Well, I don’t know. Either way, it’s determinism. Consciousness is a form of sentiency, and sentiency is in this apparition from the word “Go”. Matter is sentient. Protons discriminate protons, electrons know electrons, etc. But if you try to assign sentiency to the First Cause, you fall into the water. The Ultimate Reality cannot be self-aware.
AH: Coming back to our own senses ... you assert, in your little book Advaita Vedanta and Modern Physics and elsewhere, that Einstein’s Equation of Separation demonstrates that there is actually “zero separation between observer and observed”, no matter the distance apart. I can process this “metaphysically”, but you’re not talking metaphysics, are you?
JD: No. I’m talking physics.
AH: That’s what I thought. So ... how do I “calibrate” my senses to a reality so amazingly different from my perception?
JD: I’ve worked at this for many years and I have not succeeded at all. Except perhaps in dreams. When you’re dreaming, there is no separation between “you” and the events in the dream. That only occurs when you wake and remember the dream.
AH: But, to use an example from High School science, are you saying that when I understand a distant star to be vastly separated from me in time and space, this is a mistake?
JD: It’s a mistake to see it as “out there”. The star may be there, or it may not. It may have moved. It doesn’t matter. The light you perceive is Here/Now. The gravitational pull you feel is Here/Now. If you can perceive an event, there’s no separation, because its distance from you in time will always be equivalent to its distance from you in space, and when time and space are measured in commensurate units, Einstein’s equation reduces that separation to zero. It’s in the nature of the apparition that we see the Universe backwards in time and away from us in space, and all of our observations tell us it’s “out there”. But the same observations, expressed mathematically, tell us that it’s not “out there” at all. If you want God’s idea of a joke, there it is.
AH: And Descartes didn’t get it. Did Einstein get it?
JD: Not entirely. Einstein looked at the failure of Michaelson and Morley’s experiment to measure the absolute motion of bodies in space, and his equations were the result. He didn’t like some of their implications, but I took a look at them as a young man and said, “No, dearie. You got it right.”
AH: I have to ask you - if I don’t, someone will - if you really mean to say that the physical separation between me and, say, the Moon ... is zero. Literally.
JD: Everybody takes it that way. No! The separation we’re talking about is not between you and the Moon. The separation we’re talking about is between Here/Now and There/Then.
AH: O.K. I think I’m beginning to get it. You’re talking about the mutual dependency of space and time -- that one can’t exist without the other -- and you’re also talking about the Mother of all paradoxes. If I see the Moon as being away from me in space, then I must also see it backwards in time, but if I take either one out of the calculus, then there can’t be any separation, and the Moon ... Oh, boy ...
JD: You said it.
AH: Some folks are going to say that you’re a latter-day Bishop Berkeley, the 18th Century philosopher who said that material objects have no independent existence outside of our minds.
JD: I can see how they might. But if you go there, you also have to ask whether the mind has any independent existence outside of the ultimate reality. Why should it?
AH: I’ll go them one better. I’ll say you’re a latter-day Plato and leave it there, because my “mind” -- whatever that is -- is boggled. Let me ask you about the Sidewalk Astronomers. I think the official founding was in 1968, right?
JD: Yes. We started as a club in ‘68. But I was building telescopes before that.
AH: You were doing it on the sly, right? You were moonlighting while you were still in the monastery ...
JD: Yes, and by ‘67 I was out of the monastery and into the streets, where I’ve remained more or less ever since.
AH: San Francisco, 1967. And you were building telescopes in the park. Was there an element of “missionary work” in all this?
JD: A woman in San Francisco once called me “a man with a mission”, and I said, “Lady, you got it.” The search for truth begins by looking at the sky and ends in beatitude.
JOHN DOBSON’S 2004 Lecture Series, Conceptual Cosmology, will run on five consecutive Sunday evenings commencing February 29, from 7:30 to 9:30 PM at the Vedanta Temple, 1946 Vedanta Place, Hollywood (just off “upper” Vine St., north of Franklin Ave and a block west of Argyle), with repeats of the same lecture offered at the same time on Mondays, March 1-29. The phone contact for the Vedanta Society is 323/960-1737. A suggested donation for the series is $45. (No one will charge you admission at the door, nor would anyone ever be turned away, but as a point of information, John Dobson may be the world’s only “mendicant physicist” -- both his “missionary work” and his very modest existence depend entirely on the gratitude of those whose gardens he seeds ... just as one imagines Johnny Appleseed’s did.
Dec. 21: The Gift of the Magi 2013
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Dear Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come,
Thanks for dropping by tonight. True to Mr. Scrooge's words, you were the phantom to be feared most. In the threads of your robe our timelines run, and they all run to the hem. You are the reminder that we really do reap what we sow, and you offer the only chance to make provision for a better harvest. I'm not saying this to flatter you. It's clear enough from that featureless visage within your cowl that you can't be bought off for any price.
In the aftermath of your visit, I'd like to put my accounts in order, and if they're not too seriously out of balance, make an attempt at reconciliation. Why have I waited so long? I can only offer a poor excuse: I've been busy. And then there's this: you don't always glimpse the destination until you've come around the final bend. Based on family history, lifestyle, and other actuarial realities, I probably have fewer than twenty years left on this earth. The last three or four of those will be pretty much an empty frame: once you take sex, travel, physical stamina and mental acuity out of the picture, there isn't much to look at. Scratch another couple of years for time lost in the various waiting rooms of life, and I'm down to less than the age of my youngest child. That time will not pass slowly. Things could, by the grace of God, go differently. What the great Akira Kurosawa recently wrote to Martin Scorsese--that true creativity begins at 80--may prove true. But there are no guarantees.
I sat down to write a Christmas epistle to my children and stepchildren, who, due to circumstances and parental bad choices (more on those later) have not spent a Christmas together in over a decade. You can't make up for that stuff, but I hoped that enfolding them all in my letter's embrace might create a semblance of community. After all, one of the things they have in common is me. It was to be one of those "true meaning of Christmas" letters, spiced up with world-weary wit and kept well on the safe side of a sermon.
And yet here I am, writing to you instead. Maybe because it's easier to say the sorts of things I have to say to a ghost. Ghosts can't reflect, only absorb--and point ominously. But through you (you are, after all, transparent), I'm speaking to Olivia, Andrea, Nathanael, Eloic and Calypso, my beloved and long-suffering brood. I want to make a present to them of my experience. Should others find some value in it, let their stockings be filled, as well.
I believe in happiness at Christmas. (For Christmas, readers are free to substitute any year-end festival of light, reflection and renewal. They all fall on or around the winter solstice for reasons of a very ancient vintage) It's the way the calendar should close. The children of men should all have happy Christmases. But this harvest of joy at year's end does not come if its seeds have not been planted and cared for over the preceding twelve months. This is what I've learned from you, Spirit, and this is the lapse that has limited my own harvest.
Happiness is different from illumination, don't you think? Illumination, epiphany, satori--such as the kind you provide--all have a shock and awe aspect. Things both wonderful and scary are revealed, but like the world unmasked by quantum physics, they're shown to be not entirely stable, if only because their revelation leaves us dangling midway between heaven and earth. Happiness, in contrast, feels more like a light from inside. A fire in the heart's hearth. Comfort. Trust. Good food and laughter. Most of all, the certainty of being loved. This is the feeling I've wished for since childhood and never experienced except in fragments. I know I'm not alone. In the first phase of our lives, we can put this deprivation down to fate or the bad choices of others. Our parents screwed up. We were born on the wrong side of town. But past the age of 25 or 26, it's down to us. If we don't experience happiness at Christmas, it's probably because we haven't loved enough.
Suppose we wanted to solicit this kind of happiness? I'm guessing that you, Ghost--mute though you are--would counsel those of us who share our lives with a significant other to begin there, with what is for most people the center of life. The Relationship. It's hard to be happy if this is more a source of pain than pleasure. All but one of my kids knows this from experience already. I've been married twice, and both times I married for love. More precisely, I married the object of my desire, and in both cases, while desire survived the ups and downs of marriage pretty well, happiness did a fast fade. So it wasn't lack of ardor that stole happiness. In some vaguely Buddhist way, the opposite may be true. Desire begins and ends in a profound insecurity. Sometimes even desperation. We can never get enough. That's what makes it hot, but it also damns us to the fire down below.
Should we abandon desire in pursuit of happiness? Are my children more likely to have a lifetime of happy Christmases if they select mates who don't inflame either their tempers or their libido too much? Or is that sort of happiness simply the absence of conflict?
I don't believe that even you, Phantom, with your hardened knowledge of the wages of lust, avarice, and neglect, would advise us to "settle" for something substantially less than we want in trade for a prosaic happiness. But you might say that love is like wine. Any good vigneron learns to recognize the grapes that will mature well in the cask. Likewise, we should inspect the vineyard of potential mates, looking not only for a lovely grape but one that will grow lovelier in time. Recognizing this person requires moving the locus of our desire to a higher chamber of the heart. We ought to choose not the person most able to love us, but the person we are most able to love, and that love must be its own reward. We must submit utterly to it, as the vigneron submits to the rule of the seasons and the soil. We can ask for no immediate return. We simply have to wait for the grapes to mature.
If we are trawling for love at Christmastime--I hear you say in your wordless way--our nets will remain empty. If, on the other hand, we are a sea of love, there will be a bountiful catch. This is all down to that simple axiom: in the end, the love we take is equal to the love we make. I've sometimes been so consumed by my need to take love that I neglected my duty to make it. This debt--a debt to my family, my friends, my wives, and especially, my children--has grown over the years. Is there yet time, Spirit, for me to settle it? And is there time for my children to correct for any genetic or behavioral propensity before they repeat my mistakes? Before they find themselves up at 4 am on Christmas morning, nursing a brandy and a broken heart? Tell me that the answer to both is yes, Spirit! Tell me that my capacity for loving can be born anew, just as the preachers say that Christ is born anew with each Christmas. Reassure me that an unmourned death is only one of many possible outcomes in what physicists have taken to calling the multiverse. "Reality is a sum over histories," they say. I suspect this is true, based on the clever switch you pulled tonight.
You did not show me an open grave, or an unattended funeral. You didn't point out to me, with that spectral digit of yours, my life's equivalent of Tiny Tim's abandoned crutch. You gave me instead a variation of the Scrooge treatment. You took me to a hillside above the sea, a place I did not recognize from any experience. Below, on a broad plateau, was a community of houses, sturdy, wood-framed, possibly Cape Cod style, nice but not ostentatious. One of them, painted gray-blue like the sea, you pointed out to me for a reason I couldn't fathom. Then, from a screen door in the back, burst a little girl of not more than four, with springy ringlets of curls, squealing with delight. Right on her tail came a boy, three years older, chasing her with the cowboy lasso he'd just gotten for Christmas. "Get along, little doggy!" I heard him cry out, and the voice of the boy was mine, calling to my little sister in play. Behind me came my younger brother, in full cowpunk regalia: embroidered red hat, bandana, gun belt with six shooters. Finally, there came a man, my father, somehow taller than I remember him. He stood, legs apart, confident, on the back stoop and lit a cigarette, and was soon joined by my mother, who shared a drag with him before wrapping her arms about his waist. For a long time they watched us without words.
I turned to you for some gesture of what this fantasy signified. As is your nature, you said nothing and spoke volumes. You were showing me not a Christmas yet-to-come but one that might-have-been if my own father had been a man more able to love. A man less in need of affirmation, who didn't always need to be the smartest guy in the room. And a man less troubled by demons. A man less like me. I saw a Christmas from the un-manifested past that nonetheless remains a future-in-waiting--if not for me, then for my childrens' children.
My own love for my family, my friends, and all those connected to me by experience is bounded only by the limits of my ability to express it. Those limits were imposed by a sorrow once felt keenly, but I see now that sorrow is only an accident of time, not a cross to be carried through life, and certainly not one to be passed to your children. Today, I throw open my shutters to behold Christmas Day and all that it holds in store.
November 17-22: Jack & Mary
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History isn't dead. It bubbles and oozes beneath the cracked earth like magma, its vapors informing what we call the present. It is co-eternal with that present, like the old Arab streets that run beneath the plazas of Spanish cities--streets whose ghosts you can still hear if you're crazy enough to put your ear to the ground. Yes, the world has moved on, but time's arrow can only travel within the limited range of directions given to it by the past.
"There is another history of the world," writes gnomic author and Yale lit professor John Crowley in his signature book, "Aegypt." Given the nature of the book, an alchemical novel written almost entirely in a kind of poetic cypher, I think what "another history" refers to is like what another writer, Peter Dale Scott, called "deep politics" in his own book, "Deep Politics and the Death of JFK." Both authors contend, with Marvin Gaye, that we ought to "believe half of what we see, and none of what we hear." There is the official story, and then there are the multifarious threads that formed it, any one of which could represent a more authentic truth. There is the history written by the victors, and the one lived by the fallen. And so it is with the assassination of John Kennedy and the relationship with Mary Pinchot Meyer that may, in some quantum entangled way, have led to it .
If you want to understand a man, find the woman to whom he gives his secrets. She will be the nearest thing to his own reflection. It may not be the women he makes his life with. She may not even be a lover, but usually is or has been. In a certain way, Mary Pinchot and John Kennedy were high school sweethearts. It began, quaintly enough, with him cutting in for a dance at a Choate mixer in 1938. The guy he cut in on was her then current boyfriend, William Attwood, who would later figure in to the secret negotiations with the Castro regime which directly preceded Kennedy's murder. JFK was a college man, three years her senior. There's no indication that things went beyond a dance that night, but I'm willing to bet that there was--for both of them--an instantaneous feeling of complicity. Complicity is what sparks romance, and complicity is the only thing that could have allowed a President John Kennedy to drop acid with Mary Pinchot in the White House.
Complicit they remained throughout the Fifties, when they had both physical and social geography in common. He was a hot young politician with the ability to touch both head and heart; she was Georgetown aristocracy, the lovely daughter of left-leaning public intellectuals in the days when there were many such in the corridors of power and even in the spy trade. It's hard to imagine now that many of the early young knights of the CIA counted themselves as progressives, even "one worlders." Cord Meyer, the young poet-warrior who gave Mary his name, was one of these idealistic spooks, utilizing espionage to make the world safe for the "new world order" that would eventually trump both Bolshevism and predatory capitalism. In light of the shrill anti-Communist stance he adopted later on, one has to wonder how earnest Meyer's embrace of this utopian ideology was (in 1947, he had founded an organization called the United World Federalists, which sounds suspiciously like a CIA front). But in the beginning, Cord and Mary were idealogical soulmates. She was a one-worlder, too, and her sincerity was never in doubt. She was a peace activist before the term was used, a Vassar girl, a wealthy proto-hippie with a genuine sense of noblesse oblige. She was also as fine in every way as a high-bred, high-boned American woman can be. One friend described her movement as "like a cat on a moonlit roof." Like all the women in her circle, she knew how to flirt with powerful men.
Once her husband had left the progressive fold and "gone over" to the dark side, falling under the sway of überspook, James Jesus Angleton, and managing the CIA disinformation campaign known as "Operation Mockingbird," the marriage went cold. And when their nine year-old son son was run down and killed by an automobile, the union could not survive the strain. Mary went her own way, became an artist and took an older, more accomplished artist as lover and mentor. Her life took a decidedly bohemian turn, and though her social set remained stocked with spies and Cold Warriors, she was fiercely idealistic in the high period of American idealism, devoted to peace at a time when the world held its breath in anticipation of nuclear war. Nothing remotely like the Sixties has occurred since.
When John Kennedy ascended to the Presidency, it must have seemed to Mary as if the agent of all her dreams had been handed the scepter and empowered to transform the world. From most accounts, Jack "courted" Mary for a while before she finally assented to having the White House limo pick her up for a tryst. (Anyone familiar with the story of how ardently Henry VIII had to woo Jane Seymour, despite being king and all, will understand) The fact is that she did assent, and this led to a two-year romance that looks an awful lot like love. In fact, James Angleton, that same master of black ops who had seduced away her husband, insists that among JFK's many flings, this was the one that mattered. He ought to have known: he was in love with her, too. Mary Pinchot was the sort of woman who gave you no choice. After her own murder in October 1964, just short of one year later than the President's, it was Angleton who wound up with her secret diary in his gnarled, nicotine-stained hands.
It's hard not to see the Mary Pinchot murder--like JFK's, another autumnal sacrifice--as a kind of timewave aftershock of November 22, connected to it in the sense of "deep history," even if not part of a methodical coverup. She was killed on the towpath that runs beside the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal--one shot point-blank to the head, one to the heart--and was found on the ground in the fetal position. The D.C. cop who gently turned her body over said he'd never seen a more beautiful corpse. The attendees at her memorial service were a Who's Who of spooks and characters who have since been cast in all manner of conspiracy theories. But the most intriguing and provocative question is not who executed her murder (it remains unsolved), but what passed between her and Jack Kennedy in the private hours of sex and revery they spent in the White House, many of those hours--by her account--under the influence of psychoactive drugs. Likewise, I'm less interested in who may have plotted JFK's November 22nd ambush than I am in what the two of them may have plotted together in their blissfully altered state, and how it may have altered the shape of history.
Timothy Leary, the primary source for the Kennedy LSD story, is a somewhat unreliable narrator, but the details of his story are so good and so right that it would be a crime not to enshrine them in the grand hall of the American mythos, thus lending a nice purple haze to Camelot. She came to him, he says, in his office at Harvard, where he was a respected academic doing serious research on the brain chemistry of psychedelics, and not yet notorious. She asked him to train her in how to "guide" an acid trip, said that she had entrée to a world of powerful men--men with their finger on the nuclear trigger--who, if properly influenced, might come to see a better way to chart the future course of the ship of state. She asked him for his best stuff (although he could probably brew his own batch right there in the Harvard lab, I like to think of it as Grade-A Owsley acid, the same stuff that Grace Slick and Aldous Huxley were doing). She returned to Washington, like winged Mercury, and delivered the dose to the President, after which, in her telling, they made love. He wondered aloud, "Ha! What if the Russians did something right now?" She rolled him fat joints and they talked about how to seek a newer world, one in which the heroes were peacemakers and manliness was a quality associated as much with restraint as military prowess. (In the Sixties, hip women were beginning to know that the bigger the gun, the humbler the personal equipment) And slowly but surely, as the story goes, she got to him. Not that the inclination wasn't already there. He was a deeply intelligent man, straight, but hip enough to be aware of Kerouac and Mingus, and cosmopolitan enough to see beyond narrow nationalism. But she brought these qualities out. The acid brought them out. And the historical record unfolds as if in synchronization with their love affair: the peace overtures to Castro and Kruschev, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the American University speech, the perhaps fateful decision to withdraw sixteen-thousand troops from Vietnam. I'm not suggesting, as some authors have, that Mary and her magic seeds were the sole, or even the principal influence on Jack's evolution. But take her out of the picture, and the history would have been other than it was. That's not conjecture. That's physics.
She was with him on the night of the day the Diem brothers were killed and dismembered in Saigon by a CIA operation he'd given tacit approval to and later regretted, the night it may have come to him that he did not have control of the chaotic forces within his own government, and that he and his own brother Bobby might--like the Diems--end up in a trunk. He called for her. What was her advice? I imagine Mary cradling his head in her hands and whispering something like that quote, often attributed to Gandhi, about "being the change we wish to see in the world." Then kissing his mouth to quiet his fretting, and slowly taking him down to that place where peace is made between man and woman. In the life of John F. Kennedy, it may have been the only real peace he ever felt. She changed his heart, and he offered that heart to the forces arrayed against him. What happened then is really no great surprise. In all such cases, the king must die.
Cord Meyer never got over his ex-wife. The tough CIA operative, with his glass eye and war-scarred face, wept publicly throughout her memorial service. Hardened as he was by then, indentured to the Company as surely as a Mafia lieutenant is to his capo, she must have represented for him the man he might have been. Many years later, caught in a fleeting moment of transparency and maybe remorse, he was asked who he thought had murdered Mary Meyer. "The same sons of bitches who killed Kennedy," he said, and he was in a position to know. As far as the record goes, he never spoke on the subject again.
As to what Jack Kennedy and Mary Meyer might be able to tell us about who those sons of bitches were, I can offer only this observation, gleaned from Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and my own personal experience. A corollary of the "keep your enemies closer" adage is that when it comes to political or professional hits, we are far more likely to be struck from within our family of familiars than from without it. The gravest danger comes from those we've first embraced and then rejected. From those with whom we were once, even fleetingly, "complicit." John Kennedy played both sides throughout his brief reign: he had to. The times were that dangerous and the stakes that high. It's part of the art of ruling, and he was born for it. But the strategy comes with a high risk, for sooner or later we must make a choice, and someone's going to feel burned. History shows that, by and large, Kennedy made--or was on his way to making--the right choices, and that it cost him dearly. And my gut tells me that Mary Meyer, with her vision of a turned-on world, was the physical embodiment of those choices.
Lee Harvey Oswald was in the sixth floor window, and whether or not the shots from his twelve-dollar mail order rifle were the only ones fired, it's inconceivable to me that others did not know he was up there. He was on too many radar screens, and had too many handlers enmeshing him in too many nets. He was allowed to slip through those nets by people who were most likely known to his victim. This is how most conspiracy works: it "lets things happen." It permits history to move along one vector rather than another, leaving us no choice afterwards but to feel the game is rigged. One needn't be an active agent in the plot, only to let it unfold. In this sense, the tears shed at Mary's memorial service by her ex-husband and his keepers may have been tears of remorse as well as of genuine grief.
Weinergate II: Adam, Eve & That Damn Snake
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August 6: Today, in light of the *revelation* that Anthony Weiner's virtual paramour, Sydney Leathers, has released a sex video (I'm shocked!), I was going to indulge myself in another rant about the whole mess, and especially about how we assign "guilt" or "innocence" when it comes to sexual shenanigans.
But then I decided, screw it, I'm going for the Big Red Apple: SIN. And specifically, how and why, after all these eons, the shame of non-procreative sex continues to sting us, despite the fact that sex is EVERYWHERE. There is something about the aching urgency of raw lust that frightens us and has brought fiery judgement down on our heads for all the years of human history, and this seems to cross national and cultural borders (excluding those of France, Sweden, Denmark, and certain South Pacific islands). I'll reference the biblical story of Adam and Eve, but the equation of sex with sin sin isn't limited to Judeo-Christian culture, or even to western culture. Giving free reign to the pull of the id brings its own sort of whiplash in both east and west, from the Arctic to the antipodes. That sexual behavior should fall under the heading of morality seems to be something the whole world agrees on.
In the last piece, I pondered out loud the matter of why--publicly at least--Anthony Weiner's sext messages and dick pics seem to elicit an "eewww," "yecchh," or "yuck" reaction from almost everyone (apparently not from Ms. Leathers, who is making hay with them). I suspect a lot of this tut-tutting is just another example of the great private-public hypocrisy gap that allows us to throw bricks from our own glass houses. Most of us probably say and do things in private that aren't all that dissimilar to what Señor Danger did, but anytime private behavior is hauled into the public square, we tend to shake our heads and whisper, "Not me. Never." But if good Christian housewives in Peoria are reading "Fifty Shades," there's got to be some pretty kinky stuff going on out there.
But why should public exposure of our sexual hunger be shameful at all? Such a powerful prohibition must have a long and deep history. With apologies to all the real scholars who've brought their keen intellects to bear on this question, here goes nothing.
Question: Why has sex for its own sake, and particularly, any unbridled public expression of lust, been considered sinful in most cultures throughout the history of civilization?
Possible Answer #1: The Threat of Violence and Civil Disorder
Lust can lead to a whole lot of trouble. You have to give some credit to those old Hebrews, who knew that if their unruly and back-sliding tribesmen were to be governed in the name of the one true God, they had to begin by proscribing sex. Coveting your neighbor's wife is one small step away from inciting your neighbor's wrath, and that's a heartbeat away from the gravest of sins, murder. When Joni Mitchell invited us "back to the garden," it may have been to escape carnality as much as to embrace it, because years later, she sang, with equal conviction, "Sex Kills." And now that historians believe there may actually have been a Trojan War, who's to say that it wasn't, in fact, Helen's face (or another part of her anatomy) that launched a thousand ships?
The ancient lawgivers must've figured out fairly quickly that sex within the bounds of any socially circumscribed arrangement was manageable, while unbounded, orgiastic sex led eventually to serious rips in the social fabric. Knowing how lascivious a species we are, some of the cleverer leaders even pronounced days or periods of license, like the Feast of Fools or the Saturnalia, when anything and everything was up for grabs, confident that things could be cooled down afterwards. Sex and violence are two braided branches on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At least in the conventional interpretation of the story, that wise old serpent knew this. God was not pleased to see his naifs made so aware, any more than an overprotective mom wants her child to read the unexpurgated Brothers Grimm . Genesis 3:15 "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed." There's a case to be made, I suppose, that all our troubles begin with sex. But then, what choice did we really have? We're no angels, after all.
Note: There are Gnostic versions of the Genesis story wherein the serpent is a sort of Yoda figure and Eve is his Luke Skywalker. In these tellings, the revelation of sexual ecstasy to Eve is part and parcel of her "gnosis," a direct perception of man's kinship with the divine and of orgasm as a kind of temporary substitute for rapture. Sex is one of the gifts that makes our fleeting residency on this blighted planet tolerable, and it ought to be given freely. This may be one of the reasons that gnostic sects like the Cathars are thought to have accepted, even embraced, multi-partner and non-procreative sex, and saw no conflict between this license and their profound piety. They were "just passing through" this earthly prison on their way back to God, and might as well make the best of it.
We'll look later at how this take on Genesis changes things...probably for the better. But in the meantime, the world that equates sex with danger. Carlos Danger, that is.
Possible Answer #2: Paternity Paranoia
If you think this is small potatoes, think again. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was beheaded in part because of rampant rumors that her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, was not of Henry's royal seed. Knights headed for the Crusades bound their wives in chastity belts. Sultans had their harems guarded by eunuchs to insure that no juice but the royal juice would impregnate their women. If you plumb the subconscious of any heterosexual male, you may well find that his biggest nightmare, after being emasculated by a piranha while swimming naked, is discovering that the child he's raising is not his own. The institution of marriage itself derives in part from this anxiety.
But why does the fear cut so deep? What makes the idea of having another man's child under your roof so terrifying? No man wants to be a cuckold, and no man is a bigger cuckold than the one who gets stuck with another guy's kid and has to pay his way. But neither sexual jealousy nor stinginess can account for the dread this dilemma induces. There's more, and I think it may be about survival. There is something of the spookiness of the changeling in the "pretender child" who takes your name and your providence and isn't really yours. The pretender is a stranger in the house, and strangers are among our tribalistic species' oldest fears. Such a child--especially if a son--is a potential rival, maybe even a usurper and will always take mommy's side when push comes to shove. The son who looks into his father's face and can't see his own may be a threat. Mythology is replete with such pretenders, and they often end up holding the knife to Daddy's throat.
There is another kind of death that fathers fear, and that is the death of the seed line, for that is also the end of immortality. When you look at what recent archeology has learned about the importance of ancestor worship in the formation of religion and the idea of kingship, you see how hugely the hope of living on through one's progeny figures into the makeup of the human psyche. Sex outside of carefully drawn boundaries threatens this.
Possible Answer #3: Fear of Woman
The notion that men instinctively fear women's more fluid, freewheeling sexuality has found currency in Women's Studies programs and feminist theory, but it isn't really a new idea. For most of recorded human history, woman was considered (mostly by men, of course) to be the lustier of the sexes. Crack any pre-20th century book of moral philosophy and you'll find abundant references to woman's promiscuity, faithlessness, carnality, and moral blindness. Needless to say, there was a whopper of a double standard being applied, as always happens when we can't see our own shadows.
But there is something here, beneath the barnacles of the patriarchy and the poisonous quills of misogyny. Men simply can't figure out female sexuality, and what we don't understand, we generally fear enough to put in a cage, even if it's a gilded one. The relatively new field of evolutionary psychology has added fuel to the fire with its findings about "sperm competition" and the tendency of females, left to their own devices, to have multiple partners, the better to insure that the best man wins.
"Secure Men Don't Fear Strong Women" the t-shirt slogan says, and most reading this blog probably agree, but you might find this sentiment less in evidence in many parts of the old world. Genital mutilation, honor killing, arranged marriage: all are ways to keep the genie of female sexual desire in the bottle. And it all goes back to Eve.
Possible Answer #4: The Sin of Onan
If you skipped your Bible studies class this week, it's Genesis 38. Yahweh smote Onan's brother, Er, for disobedience, leaving him without a male heir. Onan was then ordered, under what were called levirate marriage laws, to impregnate Er's widow. Onan complied, but during the act had second thoughts, and doing what today might seem the honorable thing, he pulled out and "spilled his seed on the ground." So Yahweh smote him, too.
Nowadays, onanism is synonymous with masturbation, but in those days, it was any "waste" of a man's seed. In other words, non-procreative sex. For rabbinical authorities, this was a grievous crime. As with the concerns about violence, this makes a certain amount of sense in the context of a small, threatened tribal community that was worried every day about its extinction. Like France in the 1980's, where they actually paid women of good, Gallic stock to have babies. But the harshness of the Jewish patriarchs on the subject of non-procreative sex was nothing compared to that of the early Christian fathers like St. Clement and St. Augustine, for whom it was an absolute abomination. The Christian church, then as now, had a way of taking "community standards" and turning them into moral law. Even today, sex without the potential for conception remains officially anathema. But that still doesn't quite account for the disgust many people feel about Bill Clinton's cigar and Anthony Weiner's "package."
Our erotophobia, (or maybe libidiphobia is more precise) is a tree with many roots and just as many branches. Although it finds its fear object mainly in men, its real source is is the sexual urgency that women (or any object of desire, be it man, child, or sheep) incite in men. As the truism goes, we fear what we can't control. And we fear especially those things that call to our pre-civilized, primitive nature--the atavistic impulses to carnality and violence that spring from what's known as the reptile brain. The branches of this tree of terror may even extend to sub-branches like radical veganism (meat, after all, is muscle, fat and blood), anorexia (the compulsive denial and starvation of the flesh), the veiling of Muslim women, and the almost comically shrill crusades for political correctness and gender neutrality fought in academic circles, as if we could eliminate desire with ideology.
The very person of Anthony Weiner, with his arrogant, leering, Pan-like face, monumental Jewish schnoz, and James Deen-sized penis squirting all over the desktop, transgresses all these social codes. He is a satyr. And he's also the dark man in the raincoat. He is all id.
But all this fear can't really be healthy, can it? All this obsession with the private doings of public people can't really be advancing the development of human consciousness, can it? Haven't we learned that any fruit, if forbidden, turns rancid? Isn't the lesson of current movies like "The Canyons" and "Lovelace" that porn, by dint of its illicitness, attracts bottom-feeders, just as illegal drugs attract organized crime? The body must be fed, and so must the subconscious, and on the evidence, it's far healthier to feed it lovingly than with spite. We are, if you go by pharmaceutical stocks, a manifestly sick, depressed, anxious, phobic, and deeply hungry species. Was Freud all that wrong to trace the roots of neurosis to frustrated sexual desire, fantasy, and the consequent guilt? Were the so-called "free love" movements of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries (cf. Victoria Woodhull) really that far off base?
Stop the world for a moment, and take a trip back in time with me. A trip to the forest primeval and to the sun-gilded glade where Adam and Eve stroll beneath boughs heavy with ripe fruit. Then ask yourself: what if that scaly old snake was right? What if the serpent in the garden was a little like the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey?" A catalyst for consciousness. Consider in a new light the admonition of Jesus to be "as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves." And then look at Eve as Sophia, the bearer of God's wisdom to fallen man. What if sex were as basic to health as bread and wine? Would Carlos Danger ever have had need of Sydney Leathers, and if he happened to, would we care?
In a world where the "alternative" easily slips into the mainstream, this is a genuinely alternative way of thinking. It has bubbled up from time to time throughout history, most recently during the demi-decade from 1964-1969. (Nixon and Manson killed it) In his last major work, ISLAND (1962), the great novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley described a mythical South Asian utopia called Pala, a haven of Tantric Buddhism on which mind-expanding drugs (moksha medicine) and the balm of sex are dispensed as freely as water. Adolescent schoolchildren are taught how to pleasure themselves and one another safely and considerately, and no woman complains of a bloodless marriage because--for one thing--exclusively monogamous marriages don't exist. Overpopulation is not a problem, because procreation is considered incidental to sex, not the other way around. As a novel, ISLAND isn't all that satisfying, but Huxley considered it his most important statement, and that's something coming from the guy who wrote BRAVE NEW WORLD. A year after its publication, Huxley was dead. He died in Los Angeles on November 22, 1963, the very same day that John F. Kennedy and "Narnia" author C.S. Lewis left this earth. On his deathbed, he gave to his wife, Laura, a written request for "LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular," and by her own testament, she injected him at 11:45 am PST, seventy-five minutes after the fatal bullet had entered JFK's brain. On that fateful day, when the world lost so much treasure, what we now think of as "The Sixties" began, and in a way, the following six years can be thought of as a kind of extended Irish wake, or perhaps a neo-pagan remembrance, of what was lost. Maybe it is time to go back to the garden, and make friends with the snake.
July 25--Weinergate, Act II: Carlos Danger In Hell
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(pillaged from George Bernard Shaw's DON JUAN IN HELL. A dialogue featuring the Devil, Don Juan, and Ana, a lady seduced by Don Juan during his time on earth.)
THE DEVIL Oh, by what irony of fate was this cold selfish egotist sent to my kingdom! You don't fit in, Señor Don Juan.
DON JUAN I am really very sorry to be a social failure.
THE DEVIL Not that we don't admire your intellect. You just don't belong with us. The truth is that beneath all your affected cynicism you have a soft spot...for Woman.
DON JUAN Bah! Do you not understand that when I stood face to face with Woman, every fibre in my critical brain warned me to save myself. My morals said No. My conscience said No. And whilst I was in the act of framing my excuse to the lady, Life seized me and threw me into her arms as a sailor throws a scrap of fish into the mouth of a seabird.
THE DEVIL And were you not the happier for the experience, senor DON JUAN?
DON JUAN The happier, no: the wiser, yes. That moment introduced me for the first time to myself. When I made those proposals to ladies which, though universally condemned, have made me a figure of legend, the object of my desire would not infrequently say that she would countenance my advances, provided they were honorable. Upon inquiry and comprehension of what that proviso meant, I invariably replied with perfect frankness that my proposals were unconnected with any such matters of property or propriety, and were the outcome of a perfectly simple impulse of my manhood towards her womanhood.
ANA You mean an immoral impulse.
DON JUAN Nature, dear lady, is what you call immoral. I blush for it; but I cannot help it.
Let's begin by stipulating that Anthony Weiner is a dick, and New York City can do better (though I have to think he'd be a whole lot more fun than an abstemious multi-millionaire who wants to take candy from the hands of children).
I'm not moved to write this out of compassion for Mr. Weiner. Nobody's going to go to the mat for a guy who thinks so much of himself and evidently so little of others.
The question isn't "Is he a jerk?' but "Why are we so upset about his peculiar brand of jerkiness?" After all, we overlook far greater malfeasance among the crowd on Wall Street. Things that actually hurt people, vaporizing pension funds and life savings and foreclosing on homes held in families for generations. As with all such uniquely American scandals, it's about sex. And especially about the "eewww" factor in sex. We cloak our indignation in empathetic concern for his wife ("Poor Huma!"), and in fact, there is now a subset of Weiner rants in the blogosphere expressing public outrage about Huma's lack of public outrage (quoth Gloria Steinem: "Maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome.") This is how Americans dignify their reflexive disgust at hearing phrases like, "make me wanna cum all over you" from the mouths of public figures. When we read "cum," we see, feel, smell and taste cum, and some of us (to use another wonderful American expression) "throw up in our mouths." (Jesus, who invents these things?) We don't really care about the injured wife. We care about the exposure of the stain on the mattress. We care about Anthony Weiner's weiner, just like we cared about Bill Clinton's vaginally marinated cigar. The French may say, in their world-weary way, "between piss and shit, we are born," but they know the difference between excrement and effluence. I'm not always sure that we do.
I once asked my then eighteen year-old niece why I was suddenly hearing the expression "eewww" on the lips of so many young women in response to so many things. Smart girl that she was, she answered immediately, "Sexual immaturity." She had gone straight to the core. Things that are wet, sticky, oozy, viscous, engorged with blood or have the texture of internal organs make us feel sick with shame. And that is pretty much the substance of sex.
A small digression, if you'll permit me.
I grew up in the golden age of mooning. No trip down the freeway was complete without the sight of some boy's plump buttocks pressed up against the rear side window of a passing station wagon. Boys and girls alike found it hysterically funny, and I don't recall ever hearing a girl exclaim, "Eewww!" There were, of course, reserved girls who would avert their eyes, and the occasional tongue-clucking prude, but mostly it was a good laugh brought on by an act of harmless transgression. We all did it. It's fun to break the rules, and the hindquarters, as any cartoon will demonstrate, are the seat of comedy. Now there's the moon, and then there's the stars--the stars being the male genitalia. The boldest move of all was to "give 'em the moon 'n the stars," a risk generally taken only by the guys who sat in the back of the class and seemingly had little to lose by it. Once, I was persuaded by some other sixth grade boys who probably did not have my best interests at heart to prove my mettle by flashing a star from the second floor library window that overlooked the main hallway of Ogden Ave. Elementary School. Down that hallway, when the bell rang, passed more than half the student population. Why I let myself be talked into something with such potentially damaging consequences for my academic career, I'll never know. I suffered for the next three days the most profoundly crippling shame, guilt, and criminal anxiety I've ever experienced. Raskolnikov himself could not have anguished more. I did not get caught. Nobody tattled (I'm not sure anyone saw, other than my 'friends,' who were on the lookout). But I sensed that I had done a horrible, maybe unforgivable thing, and ought to be punished. The penis was a thing that nobody in America wanted to see.
However... Mixed way down deep in that roux of anguish was the memory of that single instant when I'd let it all hang out. One second, maybe two at the most. The frisson of naughtiness. The thrill of breaking taboo. The most hidden part of me: revealed.
I was eleven years old. Sexual knowledge was in the gray, pre-dawn period. But it was there, enough for me to realize I'd done something dirty. If I had been caught, it would have been awful. The perp walk to the principal's office, the call to my mother. Suspension. A period of penance. But I got away with it. And for that fleeting instant, it had been fun.
In today's America, getting caught would mean getting shrinked, probed, juiced up with meds, and probably diagnosed with an autism spectrum or sociopathic disorder.
And that brings me to Congressman Weiner. We are going to try, over the coming days and weeks, to deal with his behavior by characterizing it as pathological, maybe even quasi-criminal, at the very least: narcissistic and enormously irresponsible. Dr. Phil will have lots to say. Experts will be summoned. Scorn will be heaped. Most likely, his mayoral candidacy will end. The last of these things will be for the best. But maybe not for the right reasons.
Everyone will ask the big question. Why? With such a beautiful, talented and forgiving wife? With his reputation on the mend and Gracie Mansion in his grasp? The question is a good one, but I'll lay odds that nobody will come up with this answer:
He did it because it was fun, and because his correspondents were complicit in that fun.
I've seen the texts. They're embarrassing, as sex always is when it's out in the open. But nowhere do you get the slightest indication that the women on the other end were having any less fun than he was. Or that they were compelled to look at his penis. If anything, they egg him on. But that's the nature of dirty talk. Both parties get to feel powerful.
Was anyone hurt by this behavior? Only when it became public knowledge. How did it become public knowledge? As per the now-standard narrative, one of Weiner's virtual fuck buddies was either 1) suddenly afflicted with a deep sense of shame and moral outrage; or 2) decided to make a name for herself, just like Paris Hilton, Paula Jones, Ashley Dupre, and--dare I say it--Edward Snowden. Reportedly, she's a 23 year old Indiana woman by the name of--if you can believe this--Sydney Leathers. Ms. Leathers knew who Carlos Danger was and liked him very much. Loved him, according to statements she gave the NYT. A self-described Democratic activist and an ardent fan of Congressman Weiner's firebrand liberalism. And what could be hotter than talking dirty with a personal hero?
What went askew in this bilateral smutfest? How did the teeter-totter get out of whack? We may never know. "I'm disgusted by him," Leathers told Inside Edition. "He's not who I thought he was." I dunno, but it sounds an awful lot like the fury of a woman scorned. Unless it's something far more cynical. Either way, she broke the rules. We may not like the rules. We may find the game puerile and deeply distasteful, but you don't get in it if you don't want to play by the rules. We can all agree that Weiner is a fool, but unless you're one of those militant feminists who believes that the penis, by its very nature, is an assault weapon, you'll have to work really hard to make this woman a victim.
We are in a weird place. On the one hand, the internet has become an instrument of extraordinary license. Almost any imaginable appetite can be indulged, and even the deepest, darkest secrets of the American government are there for the pilfering. On the other hand, American sexual mores have not been so socially circumscribed since the 1950's. It's a strange, postmodern Puritanism that demands an end to "the private sin." Everything must be OUT. Purged as if by a high colonic treatment. We must see into every corner, and on this score, the high priests of "free information" and the data miners of the NSA stand in the same glass house. Puritanism, like jazz, is one of America's unique bequests to the world. In many respects, it's a noble contribution: the emphasis on personal accountability and the endurance of sin as contrasted with the "sin tonight/atone tomorrow" morality of the old Catholic world. But like so many doctrines, it falls to pieces in the face of sex. We just don't know what to do with the messiness, the gooeyness, the eewwwiness of sex. And until we do, we'll be a nation with the sexual maturity of an eleven year-old. When the sexual Puritan sees a shadow on the wall, it sprouts horns and an enormous phallus like the Great God Pan. This sort of Puritan is terrified by the fundamentally pagan energies stirred by sexual desire.
As Don Juan said to Señora Ana, "Nature, dear lady, is what you call immoral. I blush for it, but I cannot help it."
As a postscript, I'll propose a radical cure for this. The cancer may already have spread too far, but what the hell. I suggest a return to the sanctity of the private joke, the private conversation, the private affair. I suggest we do not meddle in the private affairs of public people, and that if we do, there be sanctions imposed. I propose that all sexual behavior that is not clearly coercive, imposed under the threat of violence, or aimed at those too young to give informed consent, be placed beyond the reach of law or the court of public opinion. We might describe this attitude toward sexuality as enlightened neo-paganism. As the great British author Lawrence Durrell writes of love and sex in his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, "Aphrodite is not a Christian. She is a pagan through and through."
I've had a recent brush with the new Puritanism. Anyone who has played backyard badminton or volleyball knows what it means to "set up a spike." This was such an instance, and it was me who got spiked. To make a long story short, I had been hired to work overseas for a major American college (based not far from the old stomping grounds of Cotton Mather) whose academic hierarchy was engaged in one of those pointless power struggles that only academics have time for. One faction approved of my hiring, the other did not. I knew from the day I started that both would attempt to score points on my head. One day, at a dinner reception, I found myself seated across from the vice-president of curriculum development, a graduate of the college who had risen rapidly through the ranks and was now, at 34 or 35, my nominal superior. I did not know that she was a lesbian feminist, and if I had known, I wouldn't have cared. Seated on either side of her were two other former students, mid-twenties, who had just been promoted to staff positions. All three of them were what could fairly and accurately be described as geeks, in the sense of embracing technology. The vice-president was waxing rhapsodically about the high video resolution of the new, fiber optic carried Internet2 signal they had been testing that afternoon. "Yeah," one of the young staffers chimed in. "It was unbelievable. When I saw Jerry on the video monitor I could count the hairs in his nostrils!" This seemed a little strange to me, the nostril being an orifice usually examined only by qualified ear, nose and throat specialists. But I got his meaning. It was super duper hi-res! The vice-president of curriculum development beamed proudly. The i2 installation was her pet project. "Being able to see so clearly is going to revolutionize American education," she crowed.
"Not to mention the internet porn industry," I quipped.
The very next day, I was called in to face what amounted in the academic world to a letter of indictment for "workplace sexual harassment." I was to sign the letter and accept it as the first and final warning that such conduct was utterly unacceptable. When I raised my dis-believing eyes from the letter and asked, "Why?", this is the answer I received:
"Because when you say the word "porn" in that frame of reference, Andy--especially to young, impressionable staff people, that's where their minds go. You took them there."
"You mean," I stammered incredulously, "that my joke made them see visions of penises and vaginas and money shots? And that's what you're calling sexual harassment?"
"Causing them to imagine it is almost as bad as forcing them to watch it," she said, without the faintest trace of humor or collegial feeling.
So we are one step closer to the precogs of "Minority Report" or the Anti-Sex league of "1984." Be careful what you think, what you imagine, and what you whisper in the presumed privacy of your own bedroom. In the meantime, while we still have our wits about us, crucify Carlos Danger, if you must, for his egregious assholeishness, but please, not for his dirty mouth. That will lead us to a slippery, slimy, eewwwy slope indeed.
July 7--DIE, DIY, DIE
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"Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."
Tru 'dat. There is probably a version of this old saw in every language. I've used it with my own kids. They sneered at me, of course, in youth, but now my two millennial daughters are practicing what I preached, and I'm very proud of them. Nonetheless, I have reservations about where the DIY ethic is taking us..
What if the fish have been killed off by a steady discharge of industrial pollutants from a factory upstream? What if the pond has dried up due to global warming? And what good does it do to know how to fish when you can't afford a pole, much less a decent boat? What good is individual initiative in any of these cases? Sometimes, indeed, it takes a village.
Let's look at a few other popular American motivational phrases:
Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!
Be a "self-starter!"
Make it happen!
Get out there!
Promote your brand!
Don't leave to others what you can do yourself!
Like the fish proverb, these words can all be good advice on a personal level, in a family setting, or among colleagues. But the great American fallacy is to assign to the societal and universal the values that hold true in our personal lives or belief systems. In a nutshell, this is the problem with fundamentalist Christianity (just as it is of fundamentalist Islam). "Women can't be priests because the Twelve Apostles were all guys." "Masturbation is wrong because of Onan's sin." Etc. Radical feminists say, "the personal is political." I get it, but more often than not this way of thinking leads to clumsy attempts to impose ideology on intimate relationships which are, by their very nature, not politically correct. We are so damned literal-minded. Did we really believe that an entire nation of bootstrap pullers would not leave the shoeless on the ground? Is it possible that a culture of self-starters would not leave the lame at the gate? Do we think at all anymore about the basic inequities in the world, and the moral difference between those who insist these inequities must be tempered, and those who don't give a fuck about anyone else? Most of all, did it occur to us that in finding ways to do everything ourselves, we would be 1) adding hugely to our own workload; and 2) subtracting the jobs and dignity of hundreds of millions of people who once paved the way for us? Entire industries. The record business, for example.
As recently as 15 years ago, the music business employed tens of thousands of people, all engaged in one way or another in the scouting, development, management and promotion of talent. For all its flaws and occasional corruptions, it worked. Good bands got signed, got a shot, and with the right breaks, a career. Sure, some gems were left undiscovered, but even Big Star, the brilliant Memphis band that's the subject of a just-released documentary, got a record deal and made three albums. Moreover, they're still with us because even if the public failed to give a shit, professional tastemakers--rock critics (whatever happened to them?)--made sure that we noticed. Small time promoters and publicists with a dream in their hearts and a gleam in their eye worked their asses off for the band, and now have loving stories to tell about it. Nowadays, Big Star--or R.E.M., for that matter--would be just another DIY band from the boonies, struggling to pay the rent and keep their van on the road from t-shirt sales or "branding" from the local used car dealership.
Branding. There it is. The dirtiest word in the English language (and now, sadly, a global term). As far as I can see, the whole rotten edifice of wired culture--Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Amazon, etc.--is supported by the conviction that each and every one of us can be branded with the things we identify as "likes." The things we buy. The sites we visit. The songs we download. We all now bear the mark of the beast on our foreheads, only it looks like a barcode. We have been identified, and for the rest of our lives, what we "like" today will dog us. DIY culture rests on a bed of consumerism. It works only because we continue to spin the Reagan-esque fantasy that if we "get out there," a revenue stream can be generated, not by our talents or the quality of our labor, but because we've succeeded in creating a scent that draws the carrion-eaters: 1) ad buys; 2) tie-ins; 3) a buyout by a bigger company; 4) a reality TV show.
A do-it-yourself society can never be an egalitarian society. And with respect to creative fields, it will always reward qualities like pluck, chutzpah, savvy, and tenacity over raw talent or idiosyncratic brilliance. Forget about The Beatles. There would have been no Brian Epstein to fall gorgeously and tragically in love with John, and no Capitol Records to make sure the band got the Ed Sullivan spot. No Murray the K to break them on radio because there are no DJ's and not even much radio. Only the vain hope of going viral on YouTube and generating the lousy .001 of one cent (or whatever it is) per 100 views. Sure, all of these "enablers" of the past were commercial enterprises out for a buck, too. But they were also human enterprises, staffed by humans who were capable of excitement, not a phalanx of cyborgs in Bangalore mining data on each play and every click.
The DIY movement started off well enough, and for good reason. Millennials (and lots of others) suddenly realized that no one was going to do it for them. Their parents were broke, their college loans were due, and Ron Paul was telling them that by the time they reached retirement age (whatever that is), the social safety net would look about as good as the badminton set in your grandmother's moldy basement. And so, they harkened to the cry of the libertarian. "Plant your own trowel!" "Mow your own lawn!" "Diversify!" "Multitask!" Hang out your own shingle (not on brick and mortar, of course), but for God's sake, don't employ enough people that you're obliged to pay for health insurance. Then plow the earnings into the financial markets and let them double it by downsizing factories and putting more people in the streets. Still, I don't blame them. They were resourceful, they shunned the vices of their parents, and they did what they felt was necessary.
But the end result is a social order that is tilting away from the communitarian and ever more toward the "libertarian," which is to say, toward Social Darwinism. I have heard nineteen year-olds advocating a return to the gold standard, for chrissakes, and bemoaning the continued influx of immigrants who may, of course--like our great-grandparents-- occasionally need to draw sustenance from a communal pot to which we are no longer willing to contribute our share. And when our most ambitious self-starters do indeed succeed at launching yet another useless web service, concocting a new energy drink, or making money from money, they are inclined to look at the rest of us and say, "I did it. What's wrong with you?" They can be stunningly intolerant of those who lack their entrepreneurial zeal and their desire for total self-sufficiency. But the fact is that most of us have no interest whatsoever in "promoting our personal brand."
We cannot be a nation of island people in Sports Connection sweats, gulping lattes and hardwired into terminals that fuel our vaulting narcissism with an endless loop of recycled "likes" as we watch the world die on a 15" screen. We are a community. We rise or fall together. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" still seems to me the most sensible social doctrine. All the neo-libertarian talk is just another tired riff on "the virtue of selfishness." Ayn Rand, can you please just fuck off and die already?
In my dreams, there are bookstores again, with clerks who know all the titles--even those from authors you've never heard of. They make only $10 or $12 an hour, but that's okay with them. There will be better paying gigs, but for now, they're among the things they love. And music stores with juice and coffee bars and maybe even a dance floor, and clerks who know who Big Star was and what Win Butler was doing before Arcade Fire. It doesn't matter how the music is packaged. You can plug in your thumb drive and go. What matters is the joy of community, and the presence of people who have made it their business to be experts and delight in sharing that expertise with you. And everywhere, companies in the true sense of that word that make things of value and quality, and where the top guy doesn't make more than three times what the bottom guy makes. And he's okay with that.
I know there's no going back. I'm not a Luddite. Mostly, I love the internet (because it allows us to connect). But where I used to sense the presence of a fine, invisible lifeline joining me and the rest of the world in a common struggle, I now feel a terrifying solitude.
June 14--The Laughing God
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A few years back, Albert Brooks released a sort-of-documentary entitled "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World." Now, I love Albert Brooks as much as the next nebbish, but the premise of his film was snarky as hell. It was all too clear he'd concluded before setting off to make the film that there was no comedy to be found in the Muslim world.
He ought to have been hanging out with Sufis.
I got back yesterday from a long-dreamed-of visit to the annual Festival of Sacred Music in the medieval city of Fes, Morocco. Many westerners probably hear the name and the place and assume that it's something like a trip to yoga camp, or worse, a week of self-abnegation and austerity colored by the faintly ominous shrieks of the muezzins from the minarets and the anti-American screeds of local imams. At best, a chance to hear some nice oud playing. It's not like this at all. It's a party, albeit a party in celebration of God in all his/her/its forms. And a lot of its rambunctious and magical spirit comes from the presence of Sufis.
Sufis are the spiritual world's mystery men, largely by their own design. Their very existence is something of a holy deception. The name comes from "suf," or wool, after the humble garments they wear in the fashion of Franciscan friars. Like gypsies, they are always on the move, and like gypsies, they move with music and the music moves them to dance. This has always made them an anomaly, bordering on the heretical, among ostensibly Islamic sects. They are the honeyed center of Islam's dry pastry, the mystical, fluid core of what has long since--as with most "organized" religion--hardened into orthodoxy. If they have a motto, it is probably something like the credo that "those who say don't know, and those who know don't say." Like turbaned Zen masters, all truth is expressed in riddles, or perhaps, in jokes. In the Sufi world, expressions of drunkenness and erotic longing can be transmuted into the loftiest of spiritual conditions without anyone being the wiser. If a comely young woman asks a Sufi master to demonstrate the existence of God, he may well answer with something like: "Consider the melon-like ripeness of your breasts. Could any power but Allah's have fashioned them?" They are the evangelists of ecstasy. The medium is praise (dhikr = remembering), trance (hadra), and dance, and the goal is the dissolution of the self in the drunken love of God, not as a "higher being," but as the thing at the center of all being. They could, in truth, exist in the esoteric domain of any great religion, but they have found a home within Islam because Islam is a creed that expresses itself through poesy and poetic cypher. Poetry is the magic carpet that carries us home.
And they laugh, and they hoot and stomp and cry out and sing stories of love desired and love unrequited and love consummated. And then they laugh some more. And--this is the most important thing--their God laughs along with them. This is Allah with a smiling face, an Allah that most westerners are not at all familiar with. A Sufi jihad would be one that disarms us through laughter and song and sweeps us off our feet in a spinning dance that, like a spiritual centrifuge, throws off all that is inessential and impure. Sufi poetry and song, carried into Europe in the hidden, silk saddlebags of the Muslim conquest, was arguably the generative force behind chivalric ballad and courtly love, for the beloved in Sufi verse is almost always an evanescent synthesis of sacred and profane, just like the unattainable Lady in troubadour music. And the lute is just an oud with an extra course or two of strings. The Sufis have mastered the art of living both in and apart from the world.
In Fes, beneath Paul Bowles' black, sheltering sky, a troupe of Sufis from the Upper Nile kept a sophisticated European crowd literally spellbound for a solid hour in a performance that would have done Bruce Springsteen (or James Brown) proud. Just as in a great rock performance, the goal is a "disordering of the senses" that disinhibits the soul's thirst for ecstasy. Just as in rock 'n roll, there's a front man (munshid) who calls the shots and whose gestures are echoed in rhythm and riff. And just as in rock 'n roll, the carnal and the sweaty physical is a portal to the sublime. For Sufis, prayer is an active undertaking.
There are no atheists in foxholes, and as far as I could tell, there were none present when this band of rocking Sufis sought their divine "saltana" (the Sufi equivalent of satori or moksha). Of course, the Fes festival draws people of a spiritual inclination, but this isn't exactly what I mean. When we witness an act of pure devotion, when we stand within the magnetic field of someone in thrall to the wonder of existence and the fire of love (as with a really great black gospel choir), we forget to doubt what is evident: that existence is a miracle and miracles are the work of, well....God. Now before my agnostic friends go and accuse me of holy rolling, let me state that I believe (as I think the Vedantists and the Sufis, as well as Zen Buddhists do) that God is a no-thing. Not a thing. Not an it. God simply is. I AM THAT I AM. By way of explanation, it's useful to remember that science still does not know what energy is or where it comes from. So for the purpose of this humble blog, we might say that God is Energy. G = E. The Sufi dance taps this energy and turns it back toward its source in the form of praise. Of course, God may be something even more sublime, but for the moment, I'm content with perceiving God in the humming, restless, streaming activity that lies beyond the surface of things. And even though physics has recently discovered "negative energy," the energy that makes the universe turn and all its varieties--sexual energy, creative energy, spiritual energy--is a positive thing. Out of our childlike relation of all power structures to the family, we have given God a face that is most often imagined as stern and masculine. A face that says, "No." Take away that face and see instead the smile, like that of the Cheshire Cat. Take away the "no" and hear the laughter.
Now start spinning.
April 17: What Is Malick Saying?
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Farther down this page and back in time I relate a story told by legendary film producer and Paramount head of production, Robert Evans, about the reaction to an early draft of Robert Towne's CHINATOWN, a script he would ultimately produce to great acclaim, as well as a certain amount of head-scratching. He'd sent the script home with a sampling of industry colleagues for a "weekend read," and on Monday morning, he polled the responses. According to Evans, half the readers thought it was brilliant and half thought it was awful, but none could give reasons for their opinion because not one of them had understood what Towne was trying to say. Those who came back positive were pretending understanding in order to seem smarter, and those who came in negative were pretending disdain in order to cover their feelings of stupidity. All of them were confounded.
People generally don't like to be confounded. To be confounded means a loss of moorings. Helplessness. Confusion spiked too strongly with mystery. Something is lost on us, and to disguise our disorientation we lash out with derision. A lot of critical derision is being directed right now at Terrence Malick's purposefully oblique new film, TO THE WONDER. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 42%. I think that matches the ratings for the stupendously awful BATTLESHIP and maybe even Ben Affleck's near career-ending disaster, GIGLI, from which director Martin Brest never recovered. There's spite in many of the reviews. I think I have an idea why. I also have an inkling as to why you should ignore the spite and let this extraordinary movie get under your skin. Follow me as I think out loud.
I won't pretend to be objective. I'm in the pro-Malick camp and despite never having met him or worked with him, I've loved him like a brother ever since I first saw Sissy Spacek looking out through a screen door at summer's dusk at on green South Dakota lawn. His images don't simply imprint themselves on memory, they imprint themselves on consciousness. It's as if he says to his crew, "Capture everything about this place, this day, these people, including the things we can't see. Including the angels in the pine boughs." But of course, he chooses the place, the day, and the people, so what is being captured is the world he sees. That's as close to the definition of an artist as I can come.
Like the late Robert Altman, another 70's cinema icon with whom he has a certain kinship, Malick's manipulation of sound drives some people nuts. Non-directional, pre-lapped and out of context dialogue, rambling voiceovers, crickets and rustling wheat competing with people for bandwidth, and all those cosmic whispers emerging from some unseen míse en scene. This is the way we hear things in a hypnagogic state or when undergoing anesthetic. Why are we hearing this in the movie theater? "Life's a dream," says a character named Anna in TTW--a character who appears out of nowhere on the streets of Bartlesville, Oklahoma more than halfway through the film--speaking Italian, no less--claims center stage for five minutes, and then disappears, never to be seen again. "In a dream you can't make mistakes. In a dream you can do whatever you want." And Malick does.
The same "oneiric" explanation can be given for the breathtakingly luminous quality of Malick's (and DP Emmanuel Lubezki's) imagery, the constantly prowling, pursuing camera, the shot fragments, jump cuts and strange lapses in continuity. Are dreams soft focus and, well...dreamy? Absolutely not. Nor are memories. They are sharp and hyperreal, as HD as images come, and have almost infinite depth of field. And they don't play out in classically blocked and measured scenes. They are fragmentary, ephemeral, and riddling. Who is that? That's my mother. Then why does she have the face of the lady at the pharmacy or my neighbor's ten year-old daughter? How do I know it's my mother? The dream tells me so.
Terrence Malick has three strikes against him going in. First, his films--even those that play out on an epic scale like "The New Land"--are personal, in the way that Bergman or Bresson films are personal and very few American films are. His last two, the Palme d'Or winner THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, are so personal that they sometimes feel like the world's most expensive home movies. How dare he presume that we're interested in the quality of light on peeling paint on the windowsill of his boyhood bedroom? Secondly, he suffers brickbats because what was once the boldly independent style of 1970's cinema (an aesthetic he helped to shape) has now been enshrined as orthodoxy and Malick is a heretic. Impact, edginess, and a perfectly measured amount of grit, all wrapped up in a flawless three-act structure, are the order of the day. If Malick made BADLANDS today, it would be praised as widely as it was misunderstood in 1974, but Malick has moved on to something else. Finally, there's the religion thing. It's become (to some) alarmingly apparent, beginning with his return to Hollywood in THE THIN RED LINE, but unmistakably in THE TREE OF LIFE, that Malick is a man in dialogue with God. That might get a pass if he were talking to an ecumenical, non-sectarian, 37 flavors God like the one invoked in THE LIFE OF PI, but there is a sneaking suspicion that Malick's God, although immanent in nature and in the human heart--more the God of Meister Eckart than Saint Augustine--bears resemblance to the Judeo-Christian--and specifically Christian--God. That is simply too much for the professional agnostics of the media to handle. But this is the God that Terrence Malick knows. It's the one he--and his characters--were brought up with.
So let me ask the obvious questions: what is the "wonder" in TO THE WONDER? Why such an earnest, wide-eyed title? What is all the whispering about? And all the prancing and frolicking and whirling and tripping the light fantastic? And why is the woundingly beautiful Olga Kurylenko (as Marina)--in grassy meadows, wheat fields, and on suburban sidewalks-- forever running ahead, forever luring, siren-like, her unseen follower (the camera, of course, as Malick, as Ben Affleck, as us), beckoning, teasing, daring him/us to pursue? Where is it she wants to take us? The answer, of course, is in the very first question. She is taking us to the wonder. Jessica Chastain's character in TREE OF LIFE reminds her son (and us) "not to miss the wonder" and then levitates into a tree to prove her point. Olga Kurylenko's Marina gives us a glimpse of it with the adoration in her eyes and the glow beyond the horizon. So did Pocahontas in THE NEW LAND. And here's a counter to the thrust of those who might dismiss Malick as an old-fashioned heartland Christian dressed up in artsy coastal couture: Terry Malick's God is distinctly feminine (or, at least, the shepherdess who leads us to God is). Malick's men are like Old Testament prophets and kings: Solomon, David, Abraham, Moses, Elijah. Stoical, plain-spoken men who listen for the call. But the still, small voice they hear--the I AM speaking from the burning bush--doesn't sound like James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. I'm thinking it's more like the airy voice that twice breathes the words, "I'm here" in TTW. And that is no man.
TO THE WONDER is a movie about love. A movie about the nature of love, as opposed to a "love story." To be sure, there is a love story contained within it (two of them, in fact), and it's a doozy, but it is there to keep us engaged with the characters while Malick casts a wider spell. Quite a few reviewers have pointed out the autobiographical imprint of the film. Yes. And you don't cast someone like Olga Kurylenko as your love interest unless at some pivotal point in your life have loved and lost someone marvelous, and it still hurts. The town in which the film's principal action takes place (Bartlesville, Oklahoma) is the town of Malick's youth, and the Paris in which Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Marina (Kurylenko) is the Paris in which he came of age. He loved her, and he lost her, but in order to keep her in his life for that brief time ("Just to go a little of our way together," she says, early on), he may also have lost someone else (Jane, the Rachel McAdams character). The film is suffused with an almost overwhelming sense of loss. Loss of love and loss of grace. Loss of heaven. We all know this loss, both personally and archetypically, and on a purely emotional level, this is where the film connects. But somewhere along his way, maybe as a young man, or perhaps much later, after Terrence Malick had had time to reflect on this loss, he realized something that can only be described by reference to religious experience. Human love, sexual love, love on the plane of earth, of field and forest and city street, is a kind of basic training. A dress rehearsal for something much, much bigger. ("You think your love has died," says Javier Bardem as the parish priest, Father Quintana. "Maybe it is waiting to be transformed into something greater.") A relationship blossoms and we are seized up in an almost mystical rapture. A relationship grows cold and we draw back into our shells, sealing out the light. We think it's over. But someone is waiting, off screen, to take us through the fields of whispering wheat to our true home. This lover never departs (though sometimes it seems so). This lover never betrays, or boards a plane back to Paris. "Love that loves us...thank you," says Marina, at the bleakest moment in the story. She has glimpsed the open arms. She has understood that earthly love may be just a practice run for the love of God. Life is a schoolroom, and we are being taught how to be lovers of God.
How often do you get that message from a movie?
I'm tempted here to digress into a Wikipedia-style summary of mysticism. I won't, except to say that in mystical practice, the love of the heart and the love of the spirit are not mutually exclusive. Nor are sexual love and divine love at odds, as they seem to be in the more strident forms of Protestantism. The Sufis (see Rumi or ibn Arabi) and the Tantrists say that full surrender (and yes, submission) to the love of a woman or a man can open a portal to the divine. The alchemists, seeking their own satori in the meta-transmutation of base metal into gold, had at their side a "soror mystica" (a mystical sister) to act as oracle, helpmeet, and one suspects, sacred courtesan, since the alembic in which the alchemist creates the holy fire is a replica of the womb. It's impossible to read the ecstatic testament of a Hildegarde von Bingen or Theresa of Avila (or, for that matter, The Song of Songs) without feeling the dizzy eroticism in these accounts of a soul being possessed, penetrated, ravished by God. And then, to bring us closer to our own time, we have Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and even rebel Catholic theologian Matthew Fox urging us to fuck for God's sake. So although Malick is treading new ground as a filmmaker, it is ground hallowed and irrigated by the underground stream of esoteric spirituality that's been with us for millennia.
"A man does not find a woman lovely," says Bardem's Father Quintana. "He makes her lovely." And again: "Find the divine love that lies in the heart of every man, every woman."
The trouble is (as Father Quintana painfully concedes and this film depicts as poetically as it has ever been depicted) that this knowledge of the twin nature of earthly and celestial love is as slippery as an eel and as hard to hold onto as the memory of a dream. It comes to us when we are "in love," and anoints every kiss with holiness, but then we "come back to earth" and forget. "Why don't I hold on to what I've found?" asks Bardem. "My heart is grown cold." "Where are we when we're 'up there'?" asks Marina. "Why not always?" And later, when things are falling apart and lessons have been lost, "There are two women inside me. One, full of love for you. The other pulls me down to the earth." She is speaking ostensibly of her feelings for Neil (Affleck), but she could just as easily be a bride of the Church, speaking of the difficulty of being a faithful lover to God. Stricken and alone, she then does what the human heart always seems to lead us to do: she betrays her love in hopes of getting it back. In the tawdriest of surroundings, a rent 'em by the hour room at the Econolodge, she goes to bed with a local carpenter (a carpenter!) even though she knows it will end her marriage. This is why love dies, Malick seems to be saying. We forget. We forget what it's for, and we lose sight of the fact that we are intended to use it to get to a higher place. We don't know how to take it there. Where? To the wonder. "We were made to see you," Father Quintana says to his maker. "How long will you hide yourself?"
The films of Terrence Malick--BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, THE NEW LAND, THE TREE OF LIFE, and TO THE WONDER--would not have the quality of mystical revery they are known for, nor would he have achieved the reputation for cinematic sorcery that sustained a legend during a thirty year hiatus, if not for his exquisitely idiosyncratic use of music as a way of illuminating subtext. From the first soft mallet-struck tones of Carl Orff's Gassenhauer (Street Song) in BADLANDS to the last chord of the first movement of Gorecki's Symphony 3 in the wrenching "break-up" section of TO THE WONDER, music is used to hold us spellbound, almost afraid to breathe for fear the spell will be broken. In TO THE WONDER, the layout of the music--both pre-existing pieces and those composed directly for the film, can serve almost as a "key" to the story's meanings and to Malick's creative intent. Just as top actors line up for even the smallest part in a Terrence Malick film, composers will all but sell their souls for an opportunity to have most of their work land on the cutting room floor, for a Malick film is like no other and Malick is as selective about music as Stanley Kubrick was, usually with far better effect. Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, and Alexandre Desplat--an A-List for sure--have all had their turn with the baton, and of them, only Morricone's score for DAYS OF HEAVEN survived more or less intact (mainly because the old maestro was canny enough to use the director's choice (Saint-Saens "Aquarium" from "Carnival of the Animals") as its musical foundation. For TO THE WONDER, Malick turned to some of his repetory company of favorites (Wagner, Berlioz, and Francesco Lupica's Cosmic Beam), as well as to Gorecki and Arvo Pärt, but he also turned to Hanan Townshend, a young New Zealander doing post-graduate work at the University of Texas in Austin, Malick's current stomping ground. In Townshend, Malick finally seems to have found his musical doppelgänger. Just about all of Townshend's roughly fifty minute score seems to have made the final cut, but three standout cues, titled "Awareness," "Marina's Theme-The Call," and "Marina's Theme-The Wildflowers," along with Gorecki's 3rd and Pärt's "Fratres," form a gridwork that can be traced to locate the movie's nodes of meaning.
In Paris, Neil (Affleck) meets Marina (Kurylenko), a divorced woman raising a daughter on her own who "never hoped to love again." They fall deeply and gorgeously for each other, the emblematic section being a road trip to Mont Saint-Michel, where together they "climb the steps to the wonder," the only direct reference to the film's title. By nature a cautious and taciturn Oklahoman, Neil takes a while to rise to the occasion, but he finally asks Marina and her daughter to return with him to Bartlesville, where he works as an environmental scientist, inspecting toxic waste dumps for seepage into groundwater (the despoilment of nature--which Malick views as nothing less than God-rape because Malick's nature embodies Malick's God--is a major sub-theme in a number of his films, but discussion of it would take us on a major detour). There are rumblings of trouble almost from the start of Neil and Marina's new life. It is, after all, Oklahoma, a desolate place almost guaranteed to kill the spirit of a sensual, free-spirited Frenchwoman. Neil's world seems to consist mainly of stark, empty rooms that may never be fully furnished in suburban tracts with square, fenced in backyards. The two characters inhabit these empty rooms, make love in them, and tear each other apart in them, almost as if on a bare stage. Their house will never be a home. At the end of the "first act," Marina's visa expires and she returns to France without a commitment of marriage or even continuation from Neil, and the fall from heaven begins in earnest. But something beyond immigration problems sets up this act break.
At about 2o minutes in, Marina's daughter Tatiana, feeling increasingly isolated from the world she knows, whispers, "We have to leave. Something's missing." Marina then stands alone in the back yard, and for the first time, we hear the music cue titled "Marina's Theme--The Call" on the soundtrack album. It's a simple but very evocative little theme that suggests both longing and a realization of "unbelongingness," if that can be made a word. And it's named "The Call" for a reason. She's being called home, only she'll discover soon enough that home isn't where she thought it was. As Neil watches her drive out of his life, we hear Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances," and it's the most classically "sad" moment in the film. Neil, whose weakness is the weakness of a man who can't commit, doesn't stay alone for long, however. An old flame, Jane, played with almost unearthly honesty by Rachel McAdams, happens back into his life, and they begin a love affair that might almost have been his happy ending. Like him, she's a creature of the high plains and the big sky, but she has shadows of her own. In a wordless scene widely excerpted, they drive out to the pastures and park in the midst of an enormous herd of buffalo. This is where we hear one of the film's other main musical themes, the cue titled "Awareness" which also opens the film. It's the spotting (placement) of the cue that makes it so interesting. It enters not as Neil and Jane shyly eye one another, perhaps thinking "this thing could work," but as the buffalo--wise, alert, animate, almost sentient--draw closer to get a look at these two humans. It is the beasts who are "aware." In a Terrence Malick film, it's not unthinkable for wild creatures to know more than we do. This brief romantic interlude comes to an end, however, when Marina calls from a gray, icy Europe, saying that "Paris is dreadful" and she wants to come back to the States. Neil should say no. He should commit to one of his own kind, but he doesn't. What follows is the first of two wrenching break-ups and the first use of Arvo Pärt's "Fratres." "We had nothing," Jane says in voiceover. "You made it into nothing." She is never seen again. And in quick succession, Marina and Neil have a civil marriage ceremony, buy a new house, and then seal the deal with a church wedding performed by Father Quintana. A chance to recapture heaven seems to be offered, but it's not to be. Neil is "uneasy with strong feelings," and Marina--a true force of nature--is all about strong feelings. He pulls slowly away, she's left alone, and in the film's most overtly metaphysical scene, we hear the third of the key musical motifs, "Marina's Theme--The Wildflowers," as she wanders through field and forest asking, "Why do we come down (from 'up there')?" She is asking her God why it's so hard for people to keep heaven.
It's far from certain that Terrence Malick thinks we can keep it, except maybe in those fragmentary moments of joy, as when the meeting of lips in a kiss forms the center of a new universe. We have, after all, "fallen." We carry, as Bruce Springsteen once sang, "debts no honest man can pay." Or perhaps, looked at from the other direction, we have not yet "risen." To that place "up there," the dream where mistakes can't be made. We are exiles.
"My God, what a cruel war," says Marina.
"Please take me there," says Father Quintana to the God he fears he has lost.
"I want to be free," says the prison inmate offering his confession to the priest.
Malick's "awareness" is the bittersweetly beautiful awareness of the poet who knows that the wonder is there, but most often just out of reach...maybe because we've not yet earned it. Maybe because we haven't learned how to love. "We cannot love God...we cannot love each other," concludes Quintana. And merely mortal love will never suffice to keep us "up there" forever. But if we could learn... If we could love..If we could surrender....
The movie's ending is its most confounding note. Some may find it unendurably depressing. In the coda, we are given a glimpse of Neil's future life. He appears to be successful. A nice house in the woods with picture windows a deck and, it seems, a daughter of his own. But something is missing. We can feel it. "I saw you again," he says in voiceover, and we are in France, in the countryside near Versailles, and Marina, unkempt and a little feral, presses her palms into the soft, wet earth, then turns to the ever-following camera--to the genii of TO THE WONDER, to show him her muddy hands. As if to say, "Here I am."
The end credit roll concludes with a reprise of the "Awareness" music and, fittingly, the sound of an old locomotive train passing away in the night.
Over the next two years, we will see no less than three new Terrence Malick films, an astounding rebound for a guy who virtually fled from Hollywood more than thirty years ago and was off the grid entirely until his comeback with THE THIN RED LINE in 1998. Taken together, these three films feature just about every major young American actor out there today, and many who are not so American and not so young. One film alone, still untitled but set against the Austin, TX music scene, has Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer, Benicio Del Toro, and Holly Hunter. Perhaps only Robert Altman and Woody Allen could claim to have had so much talent so eager to work with them under almost any circumstances. Malick likes working with movie stars, and he has also created more than a few of them. But he doesn't give them star turns. In general, they are dwarfed by his landscapes and by the scope of his vision, as the stars of the European cinema used to be in Antonioni films.
Terrence Malick is America's Antonioni, and given his cinematic quest to furnish cinematic proof of the existence of God, he may also be America's Aquinas.
February 22: Why Jennifer Lawrence Will Win The Oscar
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I considered making it "Should Win" rather than "Will Win," but that would have made this an opinion piece rather than the straightforward recognition of a phenomenon. Ingenue Jennifer Lawrence will win the Oscar for Best Actress because the character she embodies in "Silver Linings Playbook" is unforgettable, and absolutely true to her time and place.
Her character, Tiffany, isn't new to American movies: the working class townie girl who manages to snatch the crown from the head of the homecoming queen and win the day. But Lawrence does the best turn on it I've seen, and brings to her role the most openly physical sexuality since Debra Winger played (archetypically speaking) the same part in "An Officer and a Gentlemen," when she was also a newcomer. If her character's arc was cathartic for me, I can only imagine what it must have been for a twenty-three year old girl from Detroit.
Years ago, in "Broadcast News," Albert Brooks (playing, well, Albert Brooks, as an insecure but soulful news writer who feels himself losing Holly Hunter's affections to the more superficial charms of William Hurt's anchorman), asks rhetorically, "Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if neediness was actually a turn-on?" In the end, poor Albert wasn't able to transmute his world of Darwinian sperm competition into a place where gentle, easily bruised souls could thrive because his character lacked the all-important attribute of "pluck," not to mention tenacity. Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany actually succeeds in making "neediness a turn-on" because she is both relentless and has the goods to back it up. But before the gain, the pain. It's a pretty amazing thing to watch. Lawrence is a very attractive young woman--a star--and yet she makes us feel the pathos of an ugly duckling--maybe even a former fat girl--hiding behind those jet black bangs and the aggressively saucy manner. When she tells Bradley Cooper's character--on first meeting--"You can fuck me if you turn the lights out," we believe she's that desperate. And in the extraordinary scene in which he comes to her parent's door to save her honor after she has texted one of a dozen local low-rent Lotharios to her love shack for an affection fix, we see her shamefaced in the background, against a blank wall, having been revealed for the love junkie she is. My heart broke, but I also fell for her completely.
But, oh, when she puts her hair up and begins to dance and sweat, she knows, we know, and eventually, Pat (Cooper) knows that even local girls can be goddesses. Academy voters can occasionally make inscrutable choices (as they may well do with "Argo," a nicely made but completely forgettable movie), but they rarely fail to recognize the zeitgeist, and right now, Jennifer Lawrence is the "It Girl." It's just possible she could carry the film to a Cinderella ending, as well, but I won't stake my name on it. As for Best Original Score, a category I actually know enough about to shoot my mouth off, my congratulations in advance to Mychael Danna for "Life of Pi." I've never called this one wrong, and if I'm wrong this time, Mychael, I'll do a fitting penance.
February 21--Guided Tour of Nowhere-Land
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Now here's something I'd pawn a piece of my soul for. This visionary geologist/ archeologist from Boston U. leading a trek through ancient Turkey that follows pretty much the same route that Stephan Raszer followed in "Nowhere-Land."
February 19--for Angel
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The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
--Francis Thompson, "The Kingdom of God"
"April neither fully believed nor disbelieved any of it; she simply refused to dismiss the possibility that her mountain was the matrix of something wonderful. She'd decided one day that life on earth was a far more exciting affair if you believed in things like "energy vortexes" than if you didn't."
--from "The Last Days of Madame Rey"
February 6, 2013: Man Up
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Great essay Andy! The existence of the Bushmaster "Man Card" blows me away. What else needs to said on the subject? I wish the media highlighted this card more. Look at the feminization of the education system. Millions of school boys are medicated with the aim to relieve them of their masculine "symptoms". Women are in the majority at colleges now (creating a field day for the few lucky guys!) What is the relationship of the success of the women's movement to the continuing fracturing and vitriol of the political system? Notice how the right more and more invokes the male point of view while the left plays to our softer side. What is also confounding is how academic types continue to dig themselves deeper into a hole insisting that there is no difference between male and female other than their genitalia. Enough ranting for now. Hey, want to indulge in a fantasy of how America's 4th revolution/civil war will start? I'm afraid it is coming soon. Lee
Bill Maher, the comedian-provocateur and host of HBO's "Real Time," recently went on one of his famous end-of-show rants on the subject of vanishing American manhood. His primary targets were the gun fetishists--not the guys who own hunting rifles or shoot skeet, but the ones who barricade themselves in their suburban McMansions behind electrified fences, security systems, and an arsenal of weapons, and then have the nerve (if not the balls) to call themselves protectors of the homeland. The home of the brave.
Isn't it reasonable, Maher asked, to question whether someone whose entire existence is built around fear of the boogieman can legitimately be called "brave?" Can he even, when it comes down to brass tacks, call himself a man? From defensive maneuvers and manhood, Maher took off tangentially on the subjects of American football and the Manti Te'o mess. First on how pro football has created a culture of overfed Laz-E-Boy warriors whose only exposure to physical risk is vicarious and who don the jerseys of their favorite players in an attempt at ritual identification and borrowed masculinity. Then, on how Manti Te'o, an emblem of that masculine ideal in its most virginal form, described himself as having had a year-long affair of the heart with a woman (now known to have been a man speaking in falsetto) he'd never touched, much less made love to. How different was this, really, than taking a transvestite home? Why didn't Manti say, "Enough with the chatter, sweetheart. Let's dance?"
I don't agree with Maher on everything, but I think he's got this one nailed: the American male is in danger of extinction. On second thought, maybe extinction is the wrong word. He's in danger of being supplanted by an ersatz male with a beer in one hand, a Glock in the other, and a woman nowhere in sight except on the internet porn site displayed on his Dell laptop. He suffers from "Low-T," erectile dysfunction, and a terrible fear of invasion and penetration. He girds his loins with every imaginable kind of insurance policy; he diversifies his portfolio and hedges his bets. He makes virtual love, and wages virtual war using younger men as avatars. And the weaker he gets, the more dangerous he becomes.
In the early Seventies, when I was coming of age, the witchy-wise hippie chicks I dated used to say, "A guy who needs a gun is a guy who needs a dick." It was an article of faith with them that men who oversold their manhood would be lousy lays. And there were a lot of those men, and women suffered through a lot of lousy lays. The typical American male was in need of a makeover. He kept the lights on and the car running, but he was insensitive, a bad listener, was role-bound and rule-bound, and knew next to nothing about vaginas.
I can remember back before Google and Gaga, before Slut Walks and Third Wave Feminism, before Liz Phair and girl-on-girl and before casual blowjobs took the place of make-out parties--before Madonna, for God's sake, to a time when "the feminization of the American male" seemed like a really good idea. In fact, I welcomed it. Gloria Steinem looked pretty good in her aviator glasses and had a sort of Kennedy-esque glamour, and all she seemed to want to do was make men more responsive and interesting to women. My peers and I were all for being more interesting to women, and I was also pretty sure that women held secrets I'd never be privy to without having earned their trust. Not just sexual secrets: spiritual secrets. I thought men could use a dose of that pagan immediacy and fluid sexuality that are among women's most glorious attributes. Plus, the Women's Movement really did seem to promise the next giant step forward in human civility after the Civil Rights Movement. I looked forward to an imagined day when women would be the high priestesses, taking over the domains of psychology, medicine, and religion, and men would be their capable heads of state, administrators, and engineers.
And so, over the next two decades, a great experiment was conducted. Men discovered the kitchen, the Cuisinart, and fancy coffees. We took yoga and Lamaze classes, and when our first children were born, learned how a breast pump worked and favored cloth diapers over plastic. In the workplace, we gradually--if grudgingly--accepted the first generation of female executives, and with the advent of the personal computer, we all joined the typing pool. We learned to open up, became better partners, and discovered a lot about vaginas. And some of the other, less tangible, aspects of female sexuality and psyche, too.
But no sooner does the storm-tossed ship right itself than it begins to tip the other way, sometimes with help from a strong wind. Once men were relieved of the burden of stoicism, invited to set down their hunter-gatherer spears and come inside the cave where it was warm and dry, some began to forget that there had indeed been a few good things about classic masculinity, things that had long served as complements to the feminine attributes of rootedness, receptiveness, empathy, and practicality. Things like honor before accommodation, principle over the merely exigent, risk before gain, duty before comfort, and always, the hard truth over the easy lie disguised as relative, "personal" truth.
The masculine muscle began to atrophy, finally reaching its current state of torpor and flaccidity at the millennium. Low T. And there were some in later, angrier versions of the Women's Movement who almost seemed to be encouraging this deterioration, as if it might finally prove the essential point that men were pretty much without value. except as seed stock. These were the dead-enders, the daughters of Kate Millet and Andrea Dworkin, and before them, the Women's Temperance Leagues. The women who those on the right deride as "feminazis," but who are in fact just the proverbial nosy neighbors and church ladies: the busybodies whose priorities are propriety, predictability, and keeping the bull in the stall.
The feminization of the American male has resulted not in a return to the Garden or a New Alexandria, but a nation of ninnies. Men learned from women, all right, but from the wrong examples. Just as there has always been a dark side to masculinity (that jutting-browed, clueless quality that's become a staple of TV sitcom, the cruelty of the insect-mutilator and the rapist; egotism and recklessness), there has also always been a shadow side to the feminine: excessive caution and craft, furtiveness, vindictiveness, valuation of kinship over cause and the material over the ideal. So much of this seems rooted in hunter-gatherer society, where it was a matter of survival for men to play offense and women defense. But these things get perverted when there's no longer a need. If the archetypal bad man is someone like Richard III, then his feminine counterpart is Lady MacBeth.
Men have lost their mojo. I have now been employed in two work environments where men literally cowered before shrill, brassy, overcompensating women who possessed none of the empathetic or collaborative qualities that were advertised. In the first of these, I wound up being forced out by the same woman who had, at the start of my stint, sashayed up to me at a faculty party with a martini in her hand, plumped her cleavage, and whispered, "if you weren't married, I'd be all over you." In the second, my antagonist was a woman who had gained her job as a result of a harassment charge, and had become something of an expert in the use of Title IX as a weapon of individual destruction. The click of her heels outside the meeting room was enough to cause the men around the table the visibly shrink. Reflexively, their chins would duck inside their collars like turtles and they'd slip down in their chairs and inch or so. I can only imagine that the more tender part of their anatomy was also in retreat. One day I objected to her high-handedness. She flinched as if physically assaulted and said, "You are bullying me." She could go from harpie to victim at the drop of a hat, and the men were buying it.
Whatever it is that men have become in this new age, it is certainly not braver, or bolder, or more forthright. They are chicken hawks, "bawk, bawk, bawking" at the slightest offense to what little remains of their once lordly privilege. Bushmaster, the makers of the assault rifle that killed the children in Newton now proudly issues a "Man Card" to anyone who purchases their product. On the obverse is the following manly assertion: "The bearer of this card has averted complete humiliation. Today he is a man. Fully entitled to all the rights and privileges duly afforded. To belch without apology. To leave the seat up without shame. The way is before you."
Go ahead, Killer Joe. Leave the seat up. Be a man. And don't forget to switch the alarm system on before you tuck yourself in for the night. There are monsters in the dark.
January 19: Manti Te'o and the Holy Grail
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If it wasn't clear four decades ago from the premonitory visions of writers like Philip K. Dick, and later, William Gibson , it should be clear now: we have entered the age of the ambiguous identity con. This is not so much a new trick as a new variation of the grift made possible by the internet and the second life we all live on line. Con men have always worked the gray zone between doubt and faith, using smoke and mirrors, shell games, and other manipulations of perception as tools of the trade, but now we've stepped through a whole new kind of looking glass. At some point, the avatar becomes the agent of our narrative, the real protagonist in our story, and our virtual life becomes more compelling than the flesh and blood original. Like the characters in "Inception," we begin to occupy the dream.
We're drawn to the sad story of Manti Te'o because he's that most idealized of celebrities: the athlete (one not yet tainted by pro sports), and very much a man of the moment. But what keeps us coming back to the tale of Te'o and Lennay Kekua, his fake dead girlfriend, is not only a fascination with how easily the good are corrupted and the innocent fooled, but the possibility that this story involves a kind of double-back loop of deception in which the target may initially be an unwitting victim, but must then take command of the plot in order to make the better story the "real" one and thus enlarge his life. As Philip Dick might have said, if you find yourself stuck in an alternate reality, and everyone around you seems to accept the facts of that reality, it's probably best to act like you do, too. It worked for Dorothy in Oz and Neo in The Matrix, and maybe it will for you.
Was he in on it from the start? Or did he begin to co-author the invented reality only after Lennay had "died" and he saw what effect his grief and triumph were having--not only on his career, but on our measure of him as a man? It will be a fascinating end, whether Te'o turns out to have been a cyber-smitten innocent or a willful participant in the hoax. If the former, we will wonder how someone can "commit" (his word) emotionally to a phantom, to the extent of winning a football game for her. If it's the latter, it will take "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend" ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") to a whole new place. We, the "subjects" of the story, can now be the fabricators-in-chief of our own myth. We can wrap ourselves in the world wide web and spin lives lived more authentically. This is the holy grail of postmodern existence: that even the small events of our lives will merit a movie.
Like a politician caught in a honey trap and inching his way toward full disclosure, Te'o has now admitted to Katie Couric his complicity in one layer of deception. He continued to play the story out even after learning that Lennay was a spook. He claimed, essentially, to have been too embarrassed, or too compromised, or too frightened of the consequences, to tell the truth. There may also have been an element of wistful self-deception (assuming he is telling the truth about the lie). After all, it was such a great story. Such a deep and redeeming love. Maybe deeper than it will ever be possible for Manti Te'o to have with a real girl. Tough to let go of that. The most recent wrinkle is the revelation of more than 500 hours of phone conversation between Te'o and someone in the 661 area code masquerading as the purportedly dying girlfriend. Now this puts more flesh on the bones and more human heat in the story, because in order to log 500 hours of phone time, you need a voice on the other end of the line, and that voice has to be pretty damned convincing. (This calls to mind the great "Miranda" hoax from the 1980's that snared such notables as Robert DeNiro and Billy Joel) Now we're dealing not only in tweets and texts, but in a bravura performance. Unless, of course, those calls were all part of a plot to make Manti Te'o America's football hero. "Truth or illusion, George?" asked Martha. "Snap!"
I've recently had a brush with invented narrative. A narrative in which I am not so much protagonist as perpetrator. A narrative that seems to have cost me my job. When this happens to you (and in a era in which Facebook is the world's water cooler, it will sooner or later happen to most of us), you wander for weeks afterward in a Prague-at-night fog of gnawing uncertainty as written by Kafka, Rod Serling, and Stephen King. What element of the story convinced my superiors to believe the plainly unbelievable? Or did they subscribe to it because it was the story they wanted to hear? The exigent story. Worse: if a narrative in which I play the heavy is credible enough to claim my job, is it possible that from some Rashomon-like perspective to which I am not privy, some angle of view to which I am blind, there is some Jekyll-Hyde element of truth? Or can there be, in some manner, equally genuine versions of life that occur in tandem, in triplicate, or in an infinite onion skin of layers? I have never believed in the relativity of truth. Like Scully and Mulder, I'm inclined to think that "the truth is out there." But in a world where fame and public standing are the grail we seek, and their demolition the sport of jealous rivals and "Day of the Locust" onlookers, the truth is going to be in for some serious competition. To steal a line from the after-the-Revolution act of David Lean's "Dr. Zhivago": "The private life is dead."
Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear. And even less of what gets tweeted to you, if that's possible. By that measure, Manti, you should have known better. And so should we all.
Why We Get High
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For a very brief period of my life in L.A., I drove a Dodge Durango. I don't know what possessed me. The thing handled like a bus and got, at best, eight miles per gallon. It was impossible to park and it didn't have the pimp appeal of a Hummer or the snob appeal of a Range Rover. My wife loved it (what is it with small women and big SUV's?) and it took on the earthquake riven crevasses in L.A. roads as if they were puddles, but within six months, I'd traded it for a miserly minivan. My short-lived stint as commander of the freeway did, however, yield one epiphany.
One afternoon, I stopped for a red light at San Vicente and Doheny, and happened to glance to my right (and down: the Durango's windows were at the level of a sub-compact's roof). Behind the wheel of a rusted and cratered Datsun from somewhere in the distant Eighties sat a young working class guy in a state of great agitation. He was evidently on his way to or from some awful job in the sales or service sector because he was wearing the regulation white "dress shirt," although without a tie. He was less than half my age, earning less than a sixth of my income, and driving a piece of crap. The only thing we had in common is that we were both smoking cigarettes. And that we were smoking because we were scared.
And here is the first of two reasons we seek to inhale, ingest, imbibe, inject, huff, snort, or pop intoxicating substances. They fend off the fear. Most especially, anticipatory fear, better known as anxiety. Fear of social engagement, fear of exposure, fear of what's around the bend, fear of the future in general, because for some of us, the future is always a disaster-in-waiting. Anticipatory fear breeds worry, and the guy in the beat up Datsun probably had a lot to worry about. A job he was late for, and that in any event he couldn't quite handle, creditors on his back (they'd start calling as soon as he got home), a girlfriend about to walk out, no health insurance, no protection. The only thing between him and the pit was that cigarette. And it was the same for me, and has been for as long as I can recall.
If you ask most people why they get high, they'll answer: to feel good. But that begs the question: as opposed to what? For some, it may be a departure from the quotidian, from the same old numbing normal. These are your social drinkers, weekend smokers, and those who occasionally cut loose on the dance floor. For a very fortunate few, who feel pretty good most of the time, getting high may be a way to feel gooder. These are the hale fellows who can down six Jack Daniels shooters at 3 am and chair the sales meeting at 8:30. But for those of us who have any sort of "habit," whether it's cigarettes, a nightly cocktail or two, prescription painkillers, or heroin, the high may be the only way we possess of insulating our conductive skin and psyches from the killing current that flows through the very air we breathe. Here, we are talking Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, and a throbbing galaxy of others whose names will never be known, like the guy in the Datsun.
There's a great line from "The Master," spoken by Amy Adams (as the wife and co-dependent of cult leader Lancaster Dodd) to Joaquin Phoenix (as a cult follower who is also one of the most thoroughly fucked up human beings ever to inhabit the silver screen). Phoenix stumbles into the office, stoked on paint thinner, lighter fluid and God knows what else, and she looks him dead in the eyes and says, "You just can't take this world straight, can you?" He's an extreme case, of course, but think about it. Can you take this world straight? I can't. Not completely, anyway. There's just a little too much ache in it.
The great British novelist, Graham Greene, in his research notes for "The Quiet American." wrote the following about an experience with opium: "After two pipes...unhappiness and fear of the future became like something dimly remembered which strangely I'd thought important once..." Fear as something dimly remembered. What a great way to describe the narcotic high. The constant background hum of anxiety and apprehension abate, and for a brief while, life is sweet. Now I've never been a junkie. Never even tried the stuff. But I did once smoke a bowl of opium, and I still remember feeling the fear melt away. For the better part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, Europe and Asia, and much of America, were addicted to opiates. They were sold over the counter in tonics, lozenges, baby food, creams, and of course, cakes. Society women carried stylish little green ampules with the needle already attached and could inject themselves beneath the dinner table if the occasion became too onerous. Heads of state were rarely without their stash. At least a half dozen wars fought between 1850 and 1950 were made endurable by opiates. Troops mutinied if their fix was denied. For all of these people, it was a given that the world could not be taken straight. Has the world gotten better, have we adapted more successfully, or have we just found a new class of drugs?
The second thing that drives us to get high is not so much the opposite of the first as its obverse. The desire of a fear-ridden person is to live fully in the richness of the present moment, without the dread that it might all fall to shit in the next one. Oddly, but not accidentally, this is also the desire of the mystic, whether his thing is Zen, Vedanta, Cabala, Sufism, the Jesus Prayer, or California crystal vision. The seeker after mystical experience wants to distill from the cacophonous jabber of multiplicity a unity, a oneness, a sense of being in its most reduced and rarefied form, which is being at one with G_D, whatever that may mean for a particular seeker. On the way to that lucid simplicity, the mystical traveler may experience sensory euphorias: colors, celestial music, erotic delights, out of body experiences, extreme empathy and a recognition of self in others, the joy of dancing, the whirl of the galaxy, the feeling of knowing that some call the gnostic fire.
The serious practitioners of spiritual discipline--the Zen masters, Hindu rishis, and even the higher Tantric adepts--will caution us that all this dizzy, kaleidoscopic, pagan ecstasy is just a carnival sideshow on the way to the main event, which is an empty tent filled with a clear light. They will warn us not to let ourselves get distracted by the dazzle. The ravers on E, the mycologist sampling his own magic mushrooms, the earnest college student on acid for whom the quadrangle becomes a labyrinth of delight and terror, or the amateur tantric healer who introduces his nubile disciples to the yab-yum sex position: THIS, the sage will say , is not THAT. But if he is a genuine sage, he will also say this with a twinkle in his eye, because he has been there, too, and knows that all of these experiences and sensations occur on the road to the sacred. And the sacred is a human need. As real as food.
We get high not only to kill fear, but in order to sacrilize our world. It can be a cheap sort of sacred, like the one drink too many that causes you to confess your adoration to a pretty co-worker at the office Christmas party, or the bong hit that makes you sing and dance a dithyramb on top of your friend's mother's mahogany dining table. It may be the short-lived discount satori you get from a good snort of uncut cocaine. Or it may be something considerably more life-altering, like the mescalin experiments that led Aldous Huxley to write "The Doors of Perception," which led a poor beach poet named Jim Morrison to name his band The Doors and later say, "I do what I do because the people need something sacred." It may lead you eventually to a place where the spiritual rigor itself becomes "the high," and piece by piece, you begin to shed all unnecessary things. All but those that bring you to that single moment of absolute now-ness, where there is no fear, no dread, no apprehension. Only love and being. And if they find a drug for that, I'll gladly take it.
January 15: Comfort in the Dark
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My wife is one of those people who thinks that going to see a depressing movie when you're depressed is the height of idiocy. And so when I proposed we blow out of the apartment last Saturday to see a film that opens with a twenty minute torture sequence, her big French eyes bugged out as if I'd suggested we drink paint thinner. We'd been hit with some bad news just before the holidays, and Christmas in Valencia was a little like the Cratchit's without Tiny Tim. The cinematic cure for this in my wife's book is anything with Will Ferrell, Rowan Atkinson, or the French guy who spoofs the Bond films.
But speaking of paint thinner, not only did I finally see Zero Dark Thirty, but The Master, in which Joaquin Phoenix virtuosically plays a character so completely fucked up that it hurts to recognize him as a member of the same species. If I could have made it a triple and seen Natural Born Killers, too, I probably would have.
And this got me thinking about why so many of us find a weird sort of comfort in the very darkest literary and cinematic visions of humanity. Even when life is at its bleakest. This isn't something new. Consider almost any Sumerian myth, or the illustrated demonologies in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts; a Hieronymus Bosch canvas, gothic horror, true crime shows, and especially, film noir, in which everyone is trying to screw everyone in every possible way, simply because they can. Fine and popular art that affirms how bad we can be has an enduring appeal to our race.
How can this be? What's inside us that responds to this horror show, this cracked mirror? Some experts will say that objectifying evil on the screen or on a page reinforces our own sense of goodness, as in, "I may not be much, but I know I'm not a serial killer." The stark contrast fools us into thinking that we're not made of the same gnarly stuff. This may be true, at least in part, of pulp drama and fiction, popular mysteries, mass market material where the smell of death and suffering is kept a safe distance from our noses by skillful tradecraft and ellipses. But there is a reality that these entertainments facsimilize, a schism in the human psyche that's not so easy to cozy up to.
How can it be that, right now, in some part of the world, a woman is being gang-raped, and in another part of the same world, a father is reading his 7 year-old daughter a bedtime story about a bear named Pooh? And this world might be as small as the same neighborhood, or the same block. I've explored, in my own fiction ("The Last Days of Madame Rey") the notion that the cruel, the callous, and the sociopathic are in fact members of a kind of parallel race, a species clone that went bad in God's petri dish. That's scary, but ultimately in a comforting way, because once again, it's not us. In "Madame Rey," all you had to do to be certain that you were one of the good guys was reach around and make sure you had a vestigial tailbone. But I'm afraid the truth is more disturbing than that.
"Mmm-hmm!" my grandmother would say, lips pursed, from her rocker when the local news announced yet another grisly murder. "I told you the world was going to hell in a hand basket." And then she'd pull the shades lower and lock the doors more securely, but what she couldn't lock out was the beast inside. Only one who knows evil intimately can be so certain of its existence. We have met the enemy, and they are us. Inside every Jekyll, there is a Mr. Hyde. For every good sister, an evil twin. In the chambers of every heart lurks a killer. How many newly separated husbands have said, "I thought I knew my wife, but after the break-up, she turned into a she-demon." How many women have said, "I married him because he was so thoughtful and kind. Now he's like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining'." We are not pure souls fallen from some paradisal state of perfection, or sinners in need of redemption. The universe may be split between Manichaean poles of good and evil, but we are not. We are both. Sometimes, only a thin veneer of civilization and shared interest keeps us from doing truly awful things to each other.
This is why, in "The Master," Lancaster Dodd's (L. Ron Hubbard's) recipe for lifting man from his "silly animal" condition to his "true state of perfect" is so fraudulent, laughable, and pathetic. After all, look who's selling this concoction: a man so "abberated" that he blurts out "Pig fuck!" at an uptown cocktail party the moment he is mildly challenged. The only thing sympathetic about this character is that he invented a religion to save himself.
But if all this is true, why bother pretending? Why not just rape and pillage or, better yet, blow your brains out as Albert Camus suggested? If badness is ingrained in the fabric of our own souls and can never be purged, no matter how much time we spend on the prayer rug or the Stairmaster, is there any reason to try to be good to one another?
Yes. Because in this garbage heap of a world, there are diamonds. Through the small chinks between acts of greed, venality, cruelty and hate, there is to be heard truth, there is to be seen beauty, and there is to be felt love. "There's a crack in the world," sang Leonard Cohen. "That's how the light gets in." According to the gnostic worldview, which is the most beautiful and terrifying worldview there is, that light comes both from a long, long way away and from the core of our being. We've traveled very far from its source, and yet there remains an ember of that original fire in our hearts, to keep us a little warmer through the long, cold nights. To guide us home one day. Unlike Scientology's Thetans, this little spark is not something that a rigorous program of self-control will fan into superhuman flame. That snake oil is as dangerous as the cocktails of turpentine, darkroom chemicals and gin that Freddie Quell mixes up for "The Master." But there is a way to live that allows it to shine a little brighter. And the more brightly it shines, the less likely we are to do awful things to each other. At the risk of being obtuse, your little light has to be directed with laser precision toward the big light. And the more little lights are aimed in concert, the stronger and more coherent the big light becomes, and the less a shadow is cast over the world. In this way, mankind perpetuates God, and God saves the world.
It's because I believe this that I can settle into a darkened movie house with my popcorn on my knee and watch something like the opening 20 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty without feeling utter despair. Like those illustrators of medieval manuscripts, I "see the face of God through the jaws of the dragon." And when I have been the target of one of those random acts of cruelty, and am hurting, I can sometimes even draw comfort from the darkness.
January 14: Why I Teach
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I'm a long way from home. It doesn't ever get really cold in Valencia, Spain (a little colder than a California night in January, though still warm enough to let the palm trees grow), but lately I've been needing a sweater to fend off the chills of another kind of winter.
Tonight, though, I felt my face flush with something like the pride of love when I learned via Facebook (yeah, it's a love-hate thing) that Mychael Danna had won the Best Score Golden Globe for Best Score, and thanked my former student, Duncan Blickenstaff, for his efforts as score programmer (and from what Mychael tells me, "a fountain of knowledge") on "The Life of Pi." Duncan! Damn if the good ones don't win in the end after all! Duncan Blickenstaff was intellectually and emotionally present for every single word of every single lecture in every single class I ever gave him. And I can see his face in my mind as if he were sitting right beside me. I can see the smile light his kind eyes as his work is acknowledged.
It's the sweet privilege of a teacher to have such talent come briefly under his baton for a moment in time. To brush the dust off his wings, give him an updraft, and watch him fly. And to get back from that student a radiance equal to or greater than what you give, the way the moon outshines the sun at night. I prepared for those classes like an actor preparing for a role that a hundred great actors had done better before, and when the lectures connected, I saw ten, or twelve, or fifteen, or twenty bright lights shining back at me.
It was my habit to give each of my students "an avatar." A sort of nom de guerre that would both remind them of who they were and shield them from the slings and arrows of a fickle and promiscuous bitch named Hollywood. Duncan's avatar was The Painter, because I heard his musical gestures like those of the finest horse hair paintbrush on a fresh canvas. Sometimes, they were the brushstrokes of a Wyeth, sometimes a Turner, sometimes a Constable or a Singer Sargent, but these were just studies. The real painter was Duncan.
I'm toasting you with Spanish brandy, Duncan. One day, it will be your Oscar.
12/25/12 Christmas a Humbug?
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After more Christmases than I care to count, I've come to the awful realization that not one of them has been "the perfect Christmas." My parents' marriage was in freefall before I reached the age of four, and since child psychologists now tell us that the tablet of our psyches is etched in those first three years, I ought to have come to the age of awareness with few illusions about the season of joy. After the divorce, my siblings and I were bundled off to live with a bipolar grandmother who was equal parts Cyclops, Miss Hannigan from the musical "Annie," and Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." From 5-15, I don't remember a single Christmas that didn't feel like it had been written by Eugene O'Neill, except that his dialogue was a lot better. And yet, somehow I entered adulthood knowing precisely what ingredients made for a perfect Christmas. The recipe was one part set decoration and aesthetics (snow, glow, and mistletoe), one part material abundance (enough money to be at least a little lavish), two parts unrestrained sentiment (a little like the way the ravers feel on Ecstasy), and three parts of what I would call the Bethlehem Effect, a quasi-Christian, quasi-Pagan turning-of-the-year feeling of extraordinary potential for kindness and grace.
Where did this knowledge come from? Surely, Hollywood gets some credit, but Hollywood was only spinning yarn long in the loom. Music, of course. Always music. Most of the old carols are modal, many decidedly minor, and minor modes are signifiers of mystery. They conceal more than they reveal, but they promise epiphanies. This is one reason why the music of the Middle East strikes Westerners as so dark and obscure. And much Christmas music is Sephardic in origin. And then, of course, those two great myth-makers, Charles Dickens and Clement Moore, especially these lines, which always enchanted me:
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And the Christmas Story, especially as told by Luke, with all those crazy angels, and shepherds dropping to their knees in awe like characters in a Spielberg movie.
Oh, how I've wanted this Christmas pudding each and every year, and how I've grieved when excessive drink, family dysfunction, commercial rapaciousness, and cynicism have kept it from rising. The only times I've seemed to be able to conjure it up were when my children were young and I was able to borrow their eyes for a couple of days. And this works only because children are very ritualistic little creatures.
The perfect Christmas is largely a matter of ritual and willing suspension of disbelief. These things require a certain amount of production design, as the churches and temples have always known, and as Mr. Fezziwig knew, too. Few people these days seem willing to go to that much trouble. But still, I wait. I wait for the horse-drawn sleigh with its hooded driver to whisk me away to lands unknown. Maybe, maybe, this will happen when I die.
One thing I know about the perfect Christmas, whether it is secular or religious, Frank Capra or the mighty Vatican: if the qualities of humility, sacrifice, and atonement are missing, it can't happen, regardless of how much egg nog we pour.
There will be plenty of humility in my home this Christmas, as I am far from home in a land that is still exotic and alien to me, and I have lost my job. So, yes, this will likely be another deeply flawed Christmas. But knowing what I know, I am going to try and fool myself--and my family--just a little.
February 1: St. Brigid's Day
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If it means anything, Andy, I have always loved the taper of your fingers, the arch of your neck, the small of your back, the sound of your voice, and the mayhem in your eyes. Always.
; ) Denny
Thoughts on The Impossibility of Love in Advance of St. Valentine's Day
Disclaimer: The only perspective I can offer is one colored by X and Y chromosomes, and accordingly flawed. Much as I wish I could slip into a pair of Louboutin pumps, shimmy into a VS camisole, and feel for one night what it's like to be adored, I am helplessly male, and heterosexual, to boot. Therefore, I invite women and those of all sexual predilections to challenge, question, and counter my thesis.
I would love to be proven wrong.
Depth psychologists urge us to discover and explore our "personal myths," that is, those timeless stories and archetypes that lurk like long blue shadows behind the drama of our own lives. In most matters of existence, this works pretty well to lend a longer view. At various stages of life, I have felt myself to be Sisyphus, Job, Pan, Theseus, and on really good days, Dionysus. But the therapy fails when it comes to love. All the great myths and legends of l'amour recount passions that are short-lived and inevitably tragic. Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, to name just a few. And I think this is for good reason. After many years of utterly non-scientific observation, I've come to the sad conclusion that the good stuff, i.e., genuine, world-shaking, soul-deep love is, to use a fashionable (and increasingly tiresome) term, unsustainable beyond a period of 83 days--roughly three menstrual cycles--the approximate length of time for which a woman's libido can remain congruent with her stratagems.
Not long ago, during a time when I was feeling especially wrecked by love, a smart, secure and enormously attractive Jewish lady friend of mine made the observation that while she had found a way to be "in love with life," I was "in love with love." As with many such pronouncements, delivered with the best and sincerest of intentions, there was a hint of reproach. Her way was better than mine. She was the grown-up and I was Peter Pan. But I could no more alter my condition than I could change the color of my eyes, and she...she was simply verbalizing the biological imperative of her gender.
From my experience, limited as it is by caste, family history, and physical endowment, no woman ever falls in long-term love with the actual, physically embodied, materially extended man so much as with the aspirations she attaches to him. He will "give her a better life," "take her to interesting places," "enrich her existence," "father her children," "illuminate her mind," "fulfill her desires." And as long as the physical actuality of the man is in synch with these projections (the 83 days), there will be bliss. This is the origin of the misogynistic "gold digger" myth. But no woman is really a "gold digger." Women are nobler than that. It's a life secure from want they are digging for. Women are just different versions of survivor, some of a higher order than others.
And yet upon these maxims meditate:
All women dote upon an idle man
Although their children need a rich estate;
No man has ever lived that had enough
Of children's gratitude or woman's love.
The reasons for this have and will provide material for supposition in dozens of books on evolutionary psychology. For any man intrepid enough to explore the subject, there are humbling stats on "sperm competition," the "functionality of orgasm" (it's more intense and more likely to encourage fertilization with a tall dark stranger than a familiar), and the enduring erotic appeal of cads. But I think it comes down to a pretty simple calculus. It seems to me that a woman's love-sight is more teleological, i.e., more calibrated to future than present, more focused on what a man can promise than on who and what he is in the present, living moment. The man himself, in a somatic sense, doesn't exist. If you doubt me, go back and read Jane Austen. Even in a hot confessional like "The Surrender," the paean to the transformative glories of anal sex written by former Balanchine ballet dancer, Toni Bentley, the male figure is an identity-less agent of the author's epiphany, known only as "A-Man" (A for ass, I guess) The story is all about where he takes her. There is not a word about his eyes, his arms, his torso, his voice, or even his taste in movies.
In stark contrast, men fall in love--and often remain in love--with the physical immediacy, the tangible reality--of the woman, and never tire of extolling the wonders of her eyes, her hair, her breasts, her laugh, her walk, her tenderness. And they will see these qualities equally in the lowborn and the high, the classy and the classless, the stars and the gutter. There is rarely any thought given to "prospects," except with a certain kind of man who "marries up" and whose wife's temperature is usually only a few degrees above hypothermia. "Of Human Bondage," "The Prince and the Showgirl," Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, "Kane Marries 'Opera Singer'." It is beauty that slays the beast. Men are constantly being "leveled" by love, even abased. And in case you're inclined to the reductionist view that this is all because "with men it's just physical," bear in mind that romantics from Ovid to Scott Fitzgerald were as likely to worship a woman's voice, the tilt of her head, or the mischief in her eyes as the curve of her ass.
The most popular "women's television shows" of recent years have been "Sex and the City" and "Desperate Housewives." Oughta tell you something. Carrie Bradshaw has to be the most un-erotic character ever to stride across the screen in Manolo Blahniks, and yet she is adored by women (and, for some reason, gay men). Her sex is all about ratings and metrics and "is her or isn't he 'the One'." Other than Samantha, the women are bloodless. Are there truly any women like the lead in John Fowles' "French Lieutenant's Woman," who love because they can't help themselves, or is that a 19th century male fantasy?
I can remember the electro-chemical charge from every inner thigh my fingers have ever danced across and every pair of lips I have ever kissed. I can remember the texture and contour of every nipple. I can remember the warmth and the smell that every woman exudes from that lovely place just beneath the earlobe. I love the whole woman the way the French love making a meal of the whole animal. But I can't help but wonder if I am remembered by any woman in the same way. It seems to me that women do not love so much as aspire to love. I suppose what I'm asking for is to be loved by a woman the way a woman is loved by a man. Maybe, just maybe, this isn't possible.
I've been married twice, both "long-term" attachments. From each, I've received my 83 days, and the hope of reprise kept me in the nest a whole lot longer. I don't regret them. They were the best 166 days of my life. But just once, I would love to be loved for something essential and enduring: the taper of my fingers, the arch of my neck, the small of my back, the sound of my voice, the mayhem in my eyes. These things remain despite the rise and fall of fortunes. They endure long after the "thrill" is gone, and long after I have proven myself not to be Prince Charming, but just a man in love with love.
Rated R for Redemption
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In my line of work, which is show business, despite the fact that I now teach circus tricks rather than perform them, it's considered bad form to talk about bad fortune. This is because show people, whether they admit it or not, are practitioners of sympathetic magic, and fear that your bad luck, like head lice or a primitive taboo, might leap onto them if you get too close. To acknowledge the capriciousness of misfortune is to reveal the shaky foundations of the shared myth that lured us all into show business to begin with. In Hollywood, where I worked for 20 years and where a piece of my heart remains, that myth sustained me through more than one downturn. And so, when I recently suffered a dip in fortunes, I practiced the creative denial I'd learned there.
Ronald Reagan told us we could all be millionaires. Figures. He was a creation of Hollywood. It was snake oil, of course. The prolonged recession we're now enduring is as much his stepchild as anyone's. For the vast majority of the world's huddled masses, life is a tattered, flea-ridden blanket soiled with night sweats. No matter how much we launder it, it remains stained by the wine of hope, the blood and piss of loss, and the effluent of lovemaking, spilled in a desperate attempt to keep death at bay. It's the blanket that swaddled Grandpa when he was born, and the one that covered him when he died. And yet, it's precious to us, and we'd sooner sell our souls than lose it, because this ratty tapestry of experience is redeemed by the small acts and instances of grace that are also embedded in its fabric. It's this grace that presidents and popes ought to be peddling, and it's this that we ought to remember at Christmas.
Now that my most recent bout of misfortune has passed, I guess it's safe to talk about it. For three months, I was on the unemployment roles, but since--like so many working people these days--we live from paycheck to paycheck, the bills came due fast and hard. The phone began to ring day and night with creditors almost immediately, the condo association served notice of intent to foreclose, and the cost of prescriptions went from $10 to $200. During this time, two things--two of those small instances of grace--occurred that I will weave into my own "blanket." The first was when I contacted the Obama administration's "Making Homes Affordable" hotline to find out if there was a way to keep our condo, and found myself on the phone with the sort of everyday angel that would have made Tom Joad's chest swell with gratitude. I've spent some serious coin on therapy, but this was the best hour and a half of solace I've had in a long time. She understood that the issue was dignity. After hearing so much from Republicans about how people who fall behind on their mortgage payments deserve whatever befalls them, this was like balm in Gilead.
The second instance occurred at, of all places, the Walgreen's pharmacy counter. When we lost our health insurance, I learned through the Chicago public school system of a relief program that would provide temporary coverage to kids and, in some cases, their families. I suppose now that it was a program designed for truly poor people and that maybe my pride should have gotten the better of me, but I wanted to make sure my son was protected should anything horrible happen. One day, after we'd been approved and issued the little yellow slip, I went into Walgreen's to pick up a couple of prescriptions--one for myself and one for my son. They'd have cost over $200 retail, but under the program, they were $3 each. As I handed the yellow slip to the pharmacist, I must have muttered what sounded like an apology. Or maybe it was my body language. I was ashamed, and she, a pretty young woman with an Arkansas accent, could clearly see it. "I...uh...lost my job a couple months back," I said under my breath. The gentlest look came into her eyes. "Hey, now," she said, softly so that no one nearby could hear. "That's okay. My brother's in the same boat. Hard times." Then it was her turn to apologize. "I'm not sure they're gonna cover the ninety day refill, but we should be able to squeeze thirty through. Will you be okay?" I nodded. She told me it would be ten or fifteen minutes, so I walked the aisles, feeling slightly criminal, until I heard my name over the intercom. I returned to the counter and took my debit card out. She handed me the two prescriptions, and said only, "You're all taken care of. Good luck." Two 90-day refills. No charge. A couple of weeks ago, income restored, I brought her a caramel frappuccino from the Starbuck's across the street. I waited for her to finish with a customer, and then waited to see if she would remember me. She did. "Merry Christmas," I said. "I hope you like these."
Not too long ago, I got a good laugh out of the fact that Lars Von Trier's broodingly beautiful "Melancholia" had been rated R for "language, sexuality, and hopelessness." It is, after all, about the end of the world. But the world ends for someone every few seconds of every day, and life truly is an R-rated affair. Not for hopelessness, though. As long as those small snowdrops of grace continue to fall, we'll continue to receive our "quantum of solace." I had one just this morning. Got in the car, feeling Scrooge-like and preoccupied with some matter of debt or obligation, when on the radio I heard the shepherd's pipes of the first movement of Beethoven's Pastorale. Beethoven's hearing was already going when he wrote it. A shiver ran the length of my spine. Oh, joy. Oh, great surpassing joy of life and all its blood, piss, and jisum. Music, I reminded myself, is the greatest and deepest source of grace, and it is there for us anytime. The fact that I'll once again be able to teach that to eager students is the sweetest redemption this man could have hoped for this Christmas. God bless you, every one.
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Thank you for the no-charge prescription of antimelancholia. Merry Christmas. - Dan
11-7-11 Sex, Politics & Newton's Third
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At somewhere around the age of 10, via grade school science class, we are first introduced to Sir Isaac Newton, alchemist, physicist, world-shaker. Of course, the thing that Newton is best know for--the first formal attempt to quantify "action" and "force" in the universe--will by then have been part of our experience of the world for a decade (maybe longer, if you count our nine months in utero). Like all true Renaissance men, Newton was an enormously expansive thinker, but his essential discovery would have leant itself well to the age of the internet and the notion of knowledge in a blink, because it can be reduced to his Three Laws of Motion. 1) in order for something to move, a force has to act upon it; 2) there is a relationship between how much force something has and how much mass and acceleration it has (think of a six-ton truck with failed brakes coming at you you down a 30% grade). The first two laws are no-brainers, a quantification of the self-evident. But the Third Law of Motion is a bit more counter-intuitive, as many great discoveries (e.g., the rotation of the earth) seem to be. The third law states that anytime force is applied, an equal and opposite force responds. This means, quite literally, that when you push on the wall, the wall pushes back. When you pull on the rope, the rope pulls back on you.
Now, here's my ten-cent epiphany: if you truly understand Newton's Third Law, you understand just about everything. Why dogs pull against the leash. Why people tend more to argue than agree. Why women tend at first to resist the act of love, and why pleasure is inseparable from resistance. Why nothing is ever really easy.
Newton's Third Law goes a long way to explaining karma, too. For example, I have recently found myself the recipient of some good career news, coming almost directly out of one of the most stressful periods in my professional life. The specific action that created the good news is almost inconceivable without the preceding action that brought the bad news. The linkage isn't always this tight, but eventually, if someone pushes on you, you are going to push back. Knowing this makes things like getting dumped by the love of your life a little easier to bear. Newton isn't telling us that we're going to "even the score." The Third Law isn't about revenge. It's about how Nature seeks to equalize force. Nature is the great leveler.
The Third Law is the only possible explanation for the utterly surreal spectacle of the Republican presidential campaign. Who the hell are these people, and where on earth did they come from? Michelle Bachmann? Really? Herman Cain? Seriously? Rick Perry? Not a chance, unless the Republicans decide to nominate Elmer Gantry. What we're seeing this year is only possible as a massive reaction to the force of the Obama election, and specifically, its psychic impact on a certain type of nativist American personality. If not for the blowback from the rise to power of a mixed-race intellectual (and a Hawaiian, no less), we would be seeing a far saner Republican field: John Thune, Mitch Daniels, even Chris Christie. But those guys, I suspect, intuitively understand Newton's Third Law, and know that this is not their time. They'll wait for the forces to equalize and run in 2016. And speaking of forces being equalized, look at poor Herman Cain. Years ago, he pushed. Now the ladies are pushing back.
Newton's Laws, of course, operate in the world of what is called Classical Mechanics. In that world, it's possible to determine exactly where a billiard ball will go if it is hit by another billiard ball at a particular velocity and from a particular angle. If only it were that easy with sex, politics, and human history. These realms tend to operate, or be operated upon, equally in the domain of quantum mechanics, where the indeterminacy principle rules, and there aren't "laws" so much as a vast array of probabilities, some of them leading, perhaps, to alternate universes. Herman Cain may be elected president in one of those universes, but I strongly suspect it won't be the one I'm writing from right now. And even in the quantum world, nature seeks a balance. There is exactly as much negative energy in the universe as there is positive energy. So, if you're looking for a rule of thumb in life, you could do far worse than Sir Isaac's #3.
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Its really just "condo faggot," Andy, a sub species of gay when you fall behind on your assessments. Been there, been gay. Looks like you met Chris Cooper in American Beauty.
I can't remember the last time I had to deal with one of these types. However, somewhere along the way my initial reaction changed from anger to pity and compassion
Jeez, I didn't realize there were still regions of the country, other than perhaps the deep south, that had that word in their lexicon. What a loser that guy is ... a very tiny mind
I was raised by a woman who found pretty much any expression of human cruelty intolerable. My mother could be mordant, even caustic when she was in her cups, but she was incapable of cruelty. When she was on the receiving end of it, as was often the case with my grandmother, an embittered and petulant woman, she responded each time with stunned disbelief, as if to say, "this cannot be happening." When she witnessed it in the world, as in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama or in the jungles of Vietnam, she did not shield me from it, but made sure to remind me that "man's inhumanity to man" was an aberration, practiced by people of poor breeding and inferior character. Thugs. When I came home in tears because someone on the playground had called me a fairy, a flake, a foreigner, or in the Midwestern parlance of those times, "a femme," she assured me that I was the better person, and due to my forbearance, had gotten the better end of the encounter. A soft answer turneth away wrath. There was no father in the household, no one like the Brad Pitt character in "A Tree of Life" to take me aside and whisper the harsh truth that although my mother was a good soul, the world itself was a hard place, survivable only by hard people. There was only mother, floating beneath the leafy boughs.
Needless to say, I grew up lacking certain survival skills, and to this day, common cruelty dumbfounds me almost as much as it did my mother. When I heard the Republican debate audience jeering the gay soldier and cheering Rick Perry's execution record, I felt less as if I were watching people of a different political persuasion than creatures of an entirely different species. When, not too long ago, I found myself the victim of academic skulduggery at the college where I've been teaching, it took me months just to absorb the fact that trusted colleagues do, in fact, behave like characters on "Damages" or "Desperate Housewives." I can't stand competitive sports other than those where the athletes are competing against themselves (hence my love for running. climbing, jumping things and loathing for anything that involves a ball). From my perspective, "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" are exercises in cruelty, and hearing Donald Trump say "You're Fired" makes my skin crawl.
For the past six weeks, I've been out of work, and for the year prior to that, my family has struggled with what the economists politely call "contraction." We live in a nice condo building in Lincoln Park which happens to have astronomically high homeowners dues, and recently, we've fallen behind and become the object of some scorn from the condo board. On that same board sits a thirty-something commodities broker with a square jaw, cornfed torso, and the same Marine buzzcut that my dreaded high school gym teacher, Bif Kreiger, used to sport. His condo sits two floors directly above our patio and my beloved jacuzzi (which, thanks to his efforts, is no longer swimsuit optional), and he's made it abundantly clear in the past that he finds my smoking on the patio noxious, notwithstanding my insistence that there's a far higher concentration of particulate matter in the typical gust of Chicago air than in the tiny filaments of cigarette smoke that might find their way into his third floor window. Last night, however, armed with the authority of his position as secretary of the condo board and no doubt predatorily sniffing out my weakened state, he decided to make his true contempt known.
In the dark of night, he appeared suddenly on my patio, a voice from the hedge demanding, "So when the fuck are you moving out, anyway?" When I suggested this might not be a great conversation starter, he responded with the cry of the verbally impotent everywhere: "Fuck you. Fuck you and your fucking smoking" "I said, "I want you to leave my patio, now." Then he gave me his best shot. "You little faggot," he spat, loving the way it sounded on his lips. "You little fuckin' pussy. Just come 'n try me." "I'm giving you one minute," I said, "and then I'm calling the police." That's when he delivered the coup de grace. "You sorry broke-ass motherfucker." I must have gone slack-jawed and all dumb-faced the way my mother did when my grandmother called her a whore or a worthless floozy. because he propped his hands on his hips, gave me an idiot's grin, and boasted, "Yeah. That's right. I said it." The only thing from the playground bully's repertoire he didn't add was, "And what're you gonna do about it?" Instead, he backed away, hissing, " We don't want you in our fuckin' building. Faggot."
Now, as everyone who knows me knows, I am a dyed-in-the-wool hetero. I'm still trying to figure out what people liked about Madonna, let alone Lady Gaga. I generally don't like to sit next to men in economy class because their pheromones give me the willies. And I fall in love with practically every woman who says, "Hey, there" to me. But at this moment, I stand proudly in the lineage of all those who've ever been told, "We don't want your kind around here." At this moment, I am proud to be a faggot.
American Gangland: Thoughts On The Ideal of Civility
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“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer” -- D.H. Lawrence
It snowed 20" in Chicago this week. The city shut down for the better part of two days. Being the type who habitually looks for the romantic in even the bleakest circumstances, I decided it would be a good time to break out the cross-country skis I'd purchased before leaving L.A. in order to take full advantage of the heartland's winter wonderland. Until this week, opportunities to use them had been infrequent.
Skiing down Cleveland St. in upscale Lincoln Park, face against the wind, lost in some daydream of myself as Dr. Zhivago or Admiral Perry, a horn blared behind me. It had the timbre of the claxons on those big Ford or GMC pick-ups, so I sidled over as quickly as I could to let it pass. "'the Fuck!" the driver growled. "Whaddaya want me to do, asshole? Follow you?" And as he spun past, spitting slush, it hit me again for the thousandth time:
Most Americans aren't romantics. Never were. Never will be.
No, the American people--that great body of corpulent flesh, clenched muscle, and acid reflux--the same body that presidents and pundits are obliged to call "wise," "patient," and "generous," are mostly big jerks. Poor Barack Obama. He's trying to "connect" with them, but he doesn't really have a clue. He's so obviously refined, so clearly of a different species that it's no wonder the Birthers think he was born somewhere else.
I first noticed what has come to be called "the coarsening of American culture" with the coming-of-age of the generation born in the mid to late Sixties, the kids who were bitter about having missed the era of free love and compensated by making their girlfriends wear Frederick's of Hollywood bustiers and respond to questions like, "Who's Your Daddy?" But it isn't a generational thing, and truth be told, people my age bear more than their share of responsibility. Martin Scorsese, for instance. Credit where credit is due: he is one of the half a dozen greatest filmmakers of his age. What I can't forgive him for is making Joe Pesci not only a star, but an icon.
Nothing against Joe personally. Anybody who could play the rattiest character ever on screen--conspirator David Ferrie in "JFK"--is probably a truly self-aware guy. No, it's the Scorsese characters he raised to apotheosis and who now sound exactly like the dude in the next office cubicle. Lowlifes. Thugs. In short, assholes.
We are swimming in assholes these days. And, believe me, not all of them are men. Take Nancy Grace, for instance. Or Michelle Bachmann. And if you want someone from the left end of the spectrum, Keith Olbermann. Oh, wait. He's a guy. Well, those of you in Hollywood can look at any number of women running major production companies. They all lay on their horns when something gets in their way, swear like sailors, and generally fit the description of the nastiest characters played by Barbara Stanwyck in 40's and 50's B-movies.
Everybody talks like a gangster these days. I remember once hearing Michael Eisner, who was raised on Park Ave and attended prep school, say of a recalcitrant producer, "Fuck 'im. He's a dead man." Right, Michael. Now say it in Compton with the Mouseketeer hat on. Not only are we fascinated by Tony Soprano--we IDENTIFY with him, and with his long-suffering wife who knows her husband kills people and continues to sleep with him. And then there are the characters who populate Judd Apatow films, such as any played by Seth Rogen, surely one of the least charming men ever to loom from the silver screen. "Why? Why? Why?" I kept asking myself throughout "Knocked Up," would she sleep with him? Maybe it goes back to Andrew Dice Clay. I remember a very bright and attractive young woman telling me that she thought the Diceman was "honest about male-female relationships."
Really? Silly me. I thought the way to get a woman into bed was with charm, wit, erudition, and maybe a little bit of worship. You know: chivalry. Lest you think that I'M the one who's envious now--that is, of the guys who can score by texting drunken booty calls at 2 in the morning--let me set the record clear. If I could use a text message to get laid, believe me, I would. But it would probably say something like: "I can't stop thinking about you." I wonder. Would a twenty-four year-old woman even respond to that now, or would it be too subtle, like the inability of people who pour hot sauce on everything to taste the cherry and rose blossom in Pinot Noir?
No, I'm not letting gansta rap or the elevation of pimpdom to masculine paragon off the hook. They've played their part. But it's white American pop culture that drove a lot of it. If Al Pacino hadn't looked so natty in his fedora in "The Godfather" or said, "Say hello to my leetle friend" in "Scarface," I'm not sure NWA would have hit so close to the American sweet spot. We like cons. We like bad boys and bad girls. We like self-made kingpins.
And that's all right by me--as long as the cons and kingpins have class. As long as they know how to treat a lady, order something besides a hamburger, and punctuate a sentence. This ties into the current rage on the right against cultural "elites." Another example of the mainstreaming of the lowbrow aesthetic (if it can even be called an aesthetic!) George W. Bush and Sarah Palin have actually TRADED ON their ignorance. Hey, dimwit: to be in the elite of one's profession, craft, or calling is a GOOD thing. What the Founding Fathers you claim to so revere wanted was for every American citizen to both aspire to and be eligible for membership in the "elite."
But, in her heart of hearts, I doubt that even Sarah Palin would want Bristol to marry an ignorant jerk. And maybe one day it will be stylish again to be "cultivated." In the meantime, it's really no surprise to me that neither the Eqyptians nor any of the world's aspiring people look to America as the hope of civilization. We created "Jersey Shore." In fact, if the progressive elite wants to understand the rabid, frothing, incoherent anger of someone like Glenn Beck, it might look to the despicable characters it has created as dramatic avatars of its dark side. The Glenn Becks of the world don't get the irony, and can only return the poison in kind. Along with the recent calls for a "new civility," I'd like to offer a "new chivalry." In the old sense of the word, we should "suffer" to be kind to one another. It should hurt to be in love, and we should wear hairshirts when we do something awful. And if you encounter a crazy romantic on skis in the middle of the road, honk gently. He'll move.
12/23/10: THE UNINVITED GUEST
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If you boil it down to the vapors, Christmas is a ghost story. Charles Dickens knew that, didn't he? It's also a mystery, although not the sort Sue Grafton writes. Mystery with a capital M. Spiritual noir. And like all good noir and most good ghost stories, the Christmas story is also a cautionary tale. A tale about what happens if we deny the poor wayfaring strangers room at the inn, or fail to set a place at the table for the Uninvited Guest.
The legend of the Uninvited Guest is one of my favorite Yuletide spook stories. Like "The Woman In White/Hitchhiker Ghost" story thread, it's universal and comes in many versions. The gist of it is this: an unexpected knock comes at your door on a bleak Midwinter's Eve (or any suitably inclement night). A stranger stands on the threshold, often in rags, a soiled hoodie, or some garment that not only provides inadequate protection against the elements but identifies him as coming from "somewhere else"--maybe even another world. There is something unsettling about him. If you're white, he could be black; if you're rich, he's probably poor. If it's a modern variant of the story, his car may have broken down and he needs to make a phone call. In any case, he's the last person you want to let into your house at this hour of the night. But all he asks is a little shelter from the storm. Reluctantly, you allow him to enter, on the condition that his stay is brief.
Time passes with little conversation. The shivering stranger sits by the fire rubbing his hands, but can't seem to get warm. For one reason or another, you take pity, offer him a blanket, and permit him to spend the night on your floor. It's a risk--after all, he could rob you blind or murder you in your sleep--but some mysterious force compels your generosity. When you awake in the morning, he is gone, but has left something wonderful behind. Perhaps a sack of gold coins, perhaps the money to pay for your operation, maybe a pair of concert tickets, or maybe just an aura of grace. Whatever the case, you know who the stranger was. It was Jesus. Or St. Nicholas. Or Bruce Springsteen. There are versions of the story with all of those and more. You are changed by this encounter, and from then on, you set an extra place at your table, just in case he should happen by again.
Common to every variant of the story is the uncanny and slightly threatening mien of the stranger. I'm not an expert on folklore, but my hunch is that this tale may go all the way back to the Jewish dybbuk legends, where the dybbuk is a disembodied soul in search of a body to attach himself to for one more crack at living a good life. The later version might be a New Testament spin on this, wherein Christian charity overcomes the fear of being possessed and delivers a boon. Whatever the case, I think the story captures the essence of Christmas.
Let me tell you two true stories. One happened to me, and the other was related to me by Laurent Eyquem, a terrific French film composer who has recently moved to Los Angeles. Both are Christmas ghost stories.
Once, on a bitter Christmas Eve, I drove out to western Maryland from my home in Washington, D.C., in search of a part I needed to repair my furnace. The supplier was located in a strip mall in the boonies, and I'd failed to check on the store hours. En route, a ferocious winter storm blew in from the north, dropping the temperature nearly twenty degrees and bringing blizzard conditions. When I finally found the strip mall, I wandered for what seemed a long time in driving snow, looking for the shop, which turned out to be closed and dark. Moreover, the entire strip mall was closed, the parking lot deserted, not a soul anywhere. In the blizzard, it took at least fifteen minutes to find my way back to the car, cursing all the way. Stupidly, I'd worn only a pullover, and the temperature was now just above zero. The worst was yet to come: due to the sudden change in temperature, the locks on every single door of my car had frozen solid, and I could not get in. After ten minutes of trying, my fingers were as blue as the twilight snow, and I began to panic. The parking lot might as well have been Siberia, and "D.C. Man Dies In Snowstorm Fifty Yards From Shelter" was the headline I saw in my mind's eye. That was when he appeared, materializing right out of the raging blizzard. My angel. He was dressed even more poorly than me--a short-sleeved t-shirt and a worn zip-up hoodie is what I remember--and had a few days growth of beard and very little meat on his bones. He was no more than twenty-five. He saw the fear on my face, flashed me a wide, gap-toothed smile, and held aloft the instrument of salvation: a Bic lighter. He went to work immediately, using his scrawny body to deflect the wind while with flick after flick after flick of the lighter he warmed my car key up little by little. With each degree of heat, he'd slip the key into the lock, wiggle it, and wait in hopes that the mechanism had thawed. He had no gloves, no hat, no boots, and no reason to risk his own well-being. After twenty agonizing minutes, the lock finally gave. "Let me get the car started," I said, "and I'll drive you home. God bless you, man. I owe you big time. Jump in." But he did not jump in, and when after the ignition had wheezily turned over and I went to look for him, he had disappeared back into the blizzard, asking no thanks and expecting no reward. Wherever you are, friend, God bless you.
The story Laurent told me (and which I hope he won't mind me relating) takes place on a deserted two-lane highway in the winter woods of northern Maine. He was at his wit's end, down to his last dollar and his last gallon of gas, illegally in the country and hell-bent for the Canadian border, driving 88 mph and half-hoping that an icy curve would end his misery. Kind of like George Bailey with a French accent, believing he was "worth more dead than alive." Everything that could have gone wrong in his life had gone wrong. He saw the cherrytops in his rearview mirror and gradually slowed to pull over for the Maine Highway Patrol, resigned to his fate. Without a proper visa or driver's license, he was headed for at least one night in jail. The patrolman was alone, and seemed barely old enough to drive himself. A frail, skinny kid who was dressed more like a homeless person than a state cop. "Do you know how fast you were going?" he asked. "You could have been killed and left your little girl an orphan." There's mystery number one. There was no little girl in the car, but there was, indeed, a little girl. "May I see your license?" A few tense minutes passed as the young cop examined the French license. "They spelled your name wrong," he finally said, handing the license back. "It's missing the 'y'." There's mystery number two. The cop, of course, had no way of knowing the proper spelling of the driver's name. "Slow down and live," the young cop said. "And Merry Christmas." When Laurent checked his rearview mirror before pulling off the side of the road, the patrol car had vanished, and the snow had already covered the tire tracks.
Keep the door open to the otherworld. You never know who might walk in. Especially at this time of year.
December 23, 2010: The Uninvited Guest
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cue twilight zone theme
July 9, 2010: Zero Degrees Of Separation
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Correspondence was once an art practiced by just about anyone who was literate. People had writing desks with inkwells if they could afford them, dining tables if they couldn't, and they corresponded religiously with brothers and sisters and second cousins and lovers (who were sometimes second cousins). They also corresponded with perfect strangers. A letter could, after all, be posted to anyone, anywhere in the world. If you were an aspiring artist, composer, writer, scientist, philosopher, etc., you sent (using the forms of address and protocol that everyone had been taught) a "solicitation" to the art dealer or agent or duke or duchess or celebrity whose patronage you sought, and as often as not, you received a reply.
Then the telephone took over communication, and suddenly it wasn't so easy to reach people. If you wanted to connect with someone above your weight class or outside your social circle, you needed to know someone who knew someone who knew the object of your quest. Moreover, a telephone call is an imposition, and people who might have been quite willing to read a letter in their own good time didn't always want to be imposed upon. A telephone conversation requires that both parties respond more or less instantly, since pregnant pauses on the telephone tend to signal hesitation or disagreement rather than reflection or consideration. If you're one of those people who's fast on your feet, you can give good phone, But most people aren't that slick.
The internet has taken us back to the future. Correspondence is back, via e-mail of course, but also via the socialnet. It may not have the elegance of a hand-written letter on fine linen bond, but a well-considered phrase will still open many doors. I have found that there's almost no one (short of world leaders and master criminals) I can't write to and get some sort of response. There are people I've admired and wanted to meet for years that I'm now a click away from.
One of these people is a British writer named Patrick Harpur. Some years back, he wrote a book called "Daimonic Reality" that not only turned my head (in the Greek sense of "metanoia") but put me in an altered state I still haven't emerged from. His new book, "A Complete Guide To The Soul," may be less of a game-changer, but for anyone whose world has drained of color, it's the right prescription. I now have an ongoing correspondence with Patrick, and all because I sent an e-mail and took the time to make it sing a little.
So check him out at patrickharpur.org. Who knows. He might even write back to you.
March 23, 2010: The Misbegotten
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Sometimes a snapshot is all you need to see, and sometimes a blurt is all you need to hear. When Congressman Randy Neugebauer shouted "Baby Killer!" at the dramatic peak of last Sunday's health care debate, he not only defined his movement, but his sub-species. If and when video replay becomes available, I expect to see the congressman with hand cupped to mouth as if at some savagely contested youth sporting event. If Neugebauer had a grandson playing middle school soccer, he'd be one of those leaping from the bleachers to berate the coach. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that babies annoy the hell out of him. Rep. Randy and his cohorts in the Tea Party and Patriot movements are deeply, deeply unhappy people.
The debate over health insurance reform has laid bare the great schism in American society. I don't mean Democrat vs. Republican--although those labels have now become emblematic--or left and right, or even the collective vs. Ayn Rand's cult of the sovereign individual. The split I'm referring to is Eros v. Thanatos. The life force versus the death urge. Love against nihilism. Curled like a tapeworm within the worldview of a Randy Neugebauer is a more startling and terrifying kind of identity politics, a politics which--I'll venture to say--issues not just from nurture but from nature and maybe even from a particular human genotype. Let's bring back a great old English word to describe this genotype: these, the Randy Neugebauers of our world, are the Misbegotten. The misborn, or rather, those poor, unfortunate souls who carry a recessive gene of suspicion, deep down in their corroded hearts, that they should never have been brought into a place as nasty and brutish as the world, and that if they have, then, by God, they may as well be just as nasty and brutish. Their battle is with the world itself, the whole sweaty, steaming, yearning mass of it, because they do not feel at all comfortable here. Just beneath the topmost layer of their skin lies an affliction, a prickliness that becomes inflamed when the lives of the grateful born entwine with theirs. By grateful born, I don't mean well-born, or "chosen," or even biologically selected. I mean those who think that life is, all things considered, a pretty good deal, and that it's generally a better deal if its bounty is shared by all.
"Government takeover." "Socialism." "Hand-out." "Humanist." And from the same snarling mouths, "Nigger," "Fag," "Communist." "Freeloader." Nothing new here. Nothing that wasn't heard during the days of the civil rights movement, or before that, The New Deal, or before that, the Reconstruction. All code words for contempt, all semphore for "Thou Shalt Not Cast My Lot With Theirs." My take on Barack Obama is that he's just a guy who wants to use his transitory power to make things a little less harsh for the rest of us, because he is one of us. He's not the social animal that Bill Clinton was, but he was a community organizer, and community is the keyword. He embodies the old idea of noblesse oblige, that those who have should give, and the misbegotten absolutely hate that. They hated it in Kennedy and killed him for it. It messes deeply with their notion that people are intrinsically fucked. Want more code words? Take "Liberty." Forget the original Latin. Among the Tea Party and Patriot Movement crowd, liberty = property and "Don't Tread On Me" equals "Don't Take What's Mine." Self-described centrists on the airwaves are making excuses for the Teabaggers ("People are angry out there...angry and confused.") You bet they're angry, but "confused" is the wrong word. "Conflicted" is what they are, as anyone who does not feel at home in the world would logically be. Watch as the videocams bob and wobble past the crowds of epithet screaming protesters. These are not especially attractive people. I don't mean to suggest that the grateful born have a monopoly on beauty (take one look at Barney Frank's mug), but an empathetic face is always more pleasing to look at than a bitter one, isn't it?
Finally, ask yourself this question: why is it that the misbegotten identify strongly with just two types of human being, 1) the unwanted unborn; and 2) corporate cutthroats? Cruel though it may seem, I think they identify with the unwanted unborn because they themselves feel unwanted, and suspect that had their mothers had their druthers, they might have been aborted. They reserve their shallow pools of empathy for the unborn at the expense of the living because loving the unborn requires no positive social action. Moreover, the unborn occupy the uncorrupted realm before delivery into sinfulness, and are therefore, in a sense, better than the rest of us. The misbegotten's affinity for robber barons, oil tycoons, crony capitalists, and all-around scumbags is a more complicated thing. This is a masochistic love affair, conceived by Ayn Rand and nurtured by a full-bore social Darwinism that's downright bizarre considering the movement's general rejection of Darwin. What they like about these guys is their ruthlessness, cynicism, and immunity to shame, all of which give evidence of a shared belief that the world is such a fundamentally irredeemable place that it deserves to be raped and pillaged for all it's worth.
But the strangest thing about the misborn is their unshakeable conviction that God is on their side. All the great religions recognize humankind's common plight; none celebrate individuality, enterprise, or success at the expense of one's fellow man. All were conceived as comforts, as salves for the pain that inevitably touches us as we pass through life. Why would someone who quite obviously feels none of Christ's compassion for the poor, the wretched, and the wayward embrace Christianity? Why would a man who spends his breath railing against the flesh evangelize for the most carnal of religions, the one that made its savior human enough to die? Here's an idea. For many years, I've had a fascination with what is broadly called Gnosticism, a maverick outgrowth of second and third century apocalyptic Judaism and early Christianity. A Gnostic seeks the gnosis, which is the realization that we carry within us the spark of our divine origin--a little piece of God--and that our life's work is to fan that spark and, ultimately, to carry it back to the place from whence it came. This is a surpassingly beautiful idea, and all in all, strikes me as a pretty groovy way to think. But there is a flipside to Gnosticism, a darker current, and in a troubled mind (and in an era lacking all intellectual subtlety) it can take a malign form. In this view, life is hell, the earth is a place of exile, and the only thing worth longing for is annihilation, because that puts us back where we started. Much of America's native religion derives from a sort of bleak Calvinist gnosis, wherein anything that makes life on earth more pleasant, less dangerous, or more sensual is looked upon as a denial of the hard knocks truth of existence. To be out alone on the high prairie, under the merciless sky, prey to wolves and reliant only on one's own resources, is real and manly because it reflects the harsh fact of our exile. To be in the city, among people, cocooned by a social safety net, is effete illusion. And those goddamned Democrats...they just keep trying to make life sweeter.
Because these light and dark twins of gnosis (the glass half-full and the glass half-empty) stem from the same realization--that we are far from our spiritual birthplace--I am not without sympathy for the misbegotten. I don't much like the idea of abortion and I think that prayer is generally a good thing. I, too, sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land. The misbegotten are often charitable on an intra-tribal level. But I can carry my sympathy only so far. I have never been able to tolerate bullies. John "Jack O' Lantern" Boehner, to name just one, is a classic schoolyard bully if I ever saw one. Who called Central Casting anyway?
The misbegotten are fond of deceptive labels like "pro-life," and of words like freedom, and liberty, and sovereignty. But don't be fooled. Their deepest impulse is anti-life. They are the assassins among us. If they deny global warming, it's because they yearn for the planet to fry. More than anything, they remind me of the pod people in "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." When Randy Neugebauer yelled "Baby Killer!" at Bart Stupak, he might as well have been pointing his finger and shrieking "Die, Human!"
January 6, 2010: Twelfth Night
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In France They Kiss On Main Street
Today, January 6, is Epiphany in the old European calendar of Christian feast days. In the Eastern church, which stays a little truer to ancient timelines, it's Christmas. Oh, goodie. I get to do it all again.
People talk these days about having "epiphanies" all the time. "I had an epiphany at work today. My boss is a cross-dresser." Etc., etc. It's another word that's been stripped of its magic, like alchemy. Like "mystery."
But there are genuine little epiphanies, falling a few degrees short of the revealing of the Son of God to the Magi, that come our way, usually when we find ourselves in altered circumstances, as happens when we're traveling in foreign lands. I spent the holidays in what's at once the most foreign and familiar of places: France. Specifically, in Paris (though I did get out to the hinterlands a bit). Paris is familiar because, well, you know, it's "every man's second home." It's foreign because they eat snails and because the Reformation never took hold there. There isn't a drop of Protestant baptismal water in the Seine. Even a non-practicing Catholic is still a Catholic, and Catholics get to be bad and good at the same time. In Paris, you get to have your cake and eat it, knowing you can purge it with holy fire.
I was felt up by a beautiful woman in a Paris bookstore. In all my years in America, living and working in crowded cities, taking crowded subways and buses, boogying on crowded dance floors, I have never once been unabashedly groped. But there I was, on the Left Bank just opposite the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame, standing at the bookshelf in the venerable Shakespeare & Co. bookstore (first publishers of James Joyce's ULYSSES) with a Michel Houellebecq novel in my hands (it seemed like the right thing to pull off the shelf, but I now realize it presented something of an invitation), when I experienced the unmistakeable sensation of fingers passing over the left cheek of my ass, dropping lightly into the crack, and lingering on the right cheek before departing. I finished the paragraph and then looked to my right with some trepidation because, of course, I figured it was probably a guy and that I would have to give him the universal I'm not gay sign and that would hurt his feelings and embarrass me. Gay men sometimes think I'm one of them because I'm small, keep my hair cropped short, wear an earring, use words like "sublime," hate professional sports, and do things like standing in Left Bank bookshops reading Michel Houellebecq novels. To my great surprise and delight, I found myself eye to eye across six feet of otherwise empty plank floor with a beautiful, petite blond woman in a red coat, more German or Danish-looking than typically Gallic, the faintest flush in her cheeks, the loveliest of smiles on her lips. She stood in place for a beat or two, awaiting my response, and only after I dropped my gaze did she turn and disappear into the crowded back room of Shakespeare & Co. I'd let her go. Had to. I was traveling with my wife, whom I insist on adoring in spite of it all, and was in the company of our nine year-old son, who had just come to my side to beg for the latest installment of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. But for that moment, everything had been possible, and that was enough. In a counterfactual world, we'd started with Sancerre and oysters, talked about the sterility of Houellebecq's fashionable nihilism and Catherine Breillat's feminist pornography and how there is still room for romance in the world if only you can see the angels on the willow branch, and then gone back to her one-room flat in Odeon and fucked crazily against the wrought iron bedstead before finishing with a kiss and strong coffee.
A little epiphany. God wrapped in red wool and draped with blond curls. ibn Arabi would know just what I'm talking about--he had the same vision while circumambulating the Ka'ba. So would Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote Oh, Russet Witch after a similar bookstore encounter. These things happen rarely and only in places like Paris, but they are the water of life and, along with mountain mornings and the laughter of children, maybe the only reason to put up with its crap. I lit a candle for her in Notre Dame. Not for the dead, but for the ever-living.
While my son and I were in the cathedral, we passed an illuminated wood carving of Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection. "What's going on there?" Nathanael asked, and I told him the story as I knew it. "Could that have really happened?" he asked. "Could he really come back from the dead?" I answered, "If you're a Christian, you believe it happened...and that there's another world after--or maybe right alongside--this one." Now, Nathanael has never been baptised and has set foot in a church only three or four times in his young life. No Sunday School, no prayers before bedtime. And yet, at that instant, he spontaneously dropped to his knees in front of the wood carving in Notre Dame Cathedral, with crowds milling all around him. There was nothing showy, or stagy, or ironic about it. Just a kid being wowed by the power of the numinous, as I had been only thirty minutes earlier when that gentle hand had grazed my derriere. Take. Eat. This is my body.
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THE CABIRI--A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups
If you've gotten a kick out of the Raszer series, subscribe to FORTEAN TIMES or STRANGE ATTRACTOR, or just plain have a yen for the fantastical, check out this site: http://www.phantasmaphile.com/ It's run by Pam from Brooklyn, the new home of indie rock and Bohemian (in the original sense) culture.
Some news: Counterpoint Press will reissue a new and updated version of the second Raszer book, THE LAST DAYS OF MADAME REY, in winter of 2010. It's my personal favorite of the three books, mostly because of APRIL BLESSING, the woman who steals Raszer's heart and maybe his soul, too.
As ambivalent as I am about the whole POLANSKI affair, I have to say that this is one of those cases where law and art are in irreconcilable conflict, and we ought to come down on the side of art. Polanski did his penance with thirty-two years of creative output. Artists, like the shamans of tribal culture, are IN society but not OF it, and if we value their trips to Hell on our behalf, we must sometimes grant them a pass back to the land of the living. That doesn't mean forgiving the act, but forgiving the actor, So, SET ROMAN FREE. Besides, the whole thing went down at Jack Nicholson's house, so Polanski can honestly say that the Devil made him do it.
If you ponder the question: "Why does woman love a mystery?" for long enough and in a suitably altered state...you may experience a kind of satori. Or if you prefer, gnosis. Try it.
I learned this past week that Johnny Depp is reading my TESLA screenplay, and it feels like fate. Now, no one knows better than me how ephemeral the promises of Hollywood are, and I no longer bate my breath when this sort of thing happens. But I swear, this is the role he was born to play. Thank you, Ryan.
ROCKIN' IN THE NEW AGE
Gary Lachman, a founding member of one of my fave 80's bands, BLONDIE, has written a very cool book called POLITICS AND THE OCCULT (Quest Books ISBN 978-0-8356-0857-2), available at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, where I'll be signing my own flaps this Thursday evening. Just goes to show the ever-present connection between rock 'n roll and magick. It's said that no less a personage than Elvis kept a copy of Manly P. Hall's THE SECRET TEACHINGS OF ALL AGES on a bookstand in the main parlor at Graceland. A king is a king, after all. No accident that "Mystery Train" came out of those pipes.
HOW I MET THE GODDESS
The pretty girl came to me on the playground with a folded note in hand. She was 13, I was 13, so we were equals in age if not in experience. Girls are always older, no matter the age. "Don't open it yet," she whispered, with more than a hint of mystery. Mystery in the ancient sense of an unfathomable thing. She was gone with a swish of skirt around bare legs. She was the new girl in school, having come from Paris, where her father had been the rep for Carnation Milk. For whatever reason, she'd singled me out: the shy boy who kept to himself.
It's probably fair to say that my course as a future writer of speculative fiction was set that day, as I haven't since stopped asking myself, "What if?"
The note burned in my pocket through fourth period, and passing to fifth, I ducked into the Boys room and opened it. "Will you go to the woods with me?" was all it said. The fifth period bell rang. I stared at those eight words with no less awe than if I'd been considering a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My skin knew what they meant. The flush in my cheeks spelled it out. But my brain wasn't quite ready for the message. It scared me to the marrow, and I knew from that moment I'd been stung and would remain stung forever. I see the words in front of me every time I sit down to write, and every time I write, I write to right the wrong I committed that day. Because I didn't go to the woods with her. I went home with a fever and tossed and turned and puked all night.
My youthful lack of intestinal fortitude has had its upside. Practitioners of tantra know all about the rewards of sexual sublimation. The serpent power Kundalini rises through the chakras, ultimately exploding through the crown of the head in a mushroom cloud of ecstasy. You "make the Ganges River flow backward," which is to say, you invert the orgasm, dam up the flow of semen. Cool things happen. Creation happens. If I'd gone to the woods with her, there's always the chance that things would've gone badly and I wouldn't still be thinking about those eight words today. At least that's what I tell myself to chase away regret. Of course, goddamnit, I should have gone. When a girl invites you into the woods, you go, even if there's a chance you'll never come back.
The pretty girl from Paris stayed only for a semester and never spoke to me again, but as I grew older and finally lost my fear of sex, my mental image of her matured and morphed along with me in fantastical ways. She lived in the woods. She grew out of the forest floor, part of the foliage, but more exotically blossomed than any of the local flora. Her fair complexion darkened, her cheekbones rose, her breasts ripened, and she acquired a scent that was part wild honey and part damp fruit cellar. I went back to the woods again and again to find her, and each time, her message was the same: "You let me down once, baby. Do me right this time. Worship me." Then she'd raise her sword and say, "Kneel, motherfucker, and let me knight your sorry ass."
Thus did I come into Her Majesty's Secret Service. She demands a lot, but when she gives back, she gives.
I believe there's a bedrock vision at the trailhead of every fantasy writer's career. For some, it's a safe place, a spired and shimmering refuge from whatever shit surrounds them at home or at school. For others, it might be a cliff's edge and the twin urge to step back and fall forward. Or a bejeweled cavern diminishing to a point that is both end and beginning. For me, it's the woods, and the presence there of that dark, sly sylph/sprite/nymph with the soil between her toes, vines in her hair, and a strawberry patch where thigh meets belly meets thigh.
I write about spiritual bungee-jumpers. People who want to get lost in order to find--to be taken to the edge of themselves. And I write about the guy who brings them back from that edge because he knows it so well. They sell me as a mystery writer, but it's only mystery in that very ancient sense of the note being passed to me on the playground before I was old enough to understand what it asked of me. I write stories that are equally fact and the most extravagant fantasy, because what lies in the middle ground--what they call "fiction"--doesn't interest me very much. You see, when it's all over, I want to go to the places I write about. When it's all over, I want to go to the woods with her. I hope to Christ she'll still be there, and I'm still sorry I didn't go the first time.
The whole world thinks it knows Los Angeles, but almost nobody does. It is at once the most exposed and most hidden of cities. People who say they hate L.A. wear their disdain like a merit badge, and even those who say they love it feel they need to add a note of distance. "I love L.A., in spite of...well, you know," and we're all supposed to know. This isn't about the traffic, or the smog (long since surpassed in places like Denver), or even the presumed superficiality and duplicity of the people, particularly those living west of La Cienega. It's about the fact that Los Angeles is home to a peculiarly American form of native religion, a creed rejected by right- thinking rationalists everywhere: the belief that we can transform ourselves from the inside out. "We are what we are!" cry the realists. "We are what we can imagine ourselves to be!" protest the ladies of the canyon and the countless script and song and headshot and prophecy-carrying waitresses, bank tellers, bag boys, and messengers. Now, granted, a belief in the vulgar truth of this leads to all sorts of human silliness, from boob jobs, vaginal rejuvenation, and penile enhancement to Scientology and A Course In Miracles. But singling out this stuff as evidence that the whole thing is a sham is like citing the Christian Coalition as evidence that Jesus was a blowhard. I can testify as one born-again in the hidden laurel groves of L.A. that it's all true. At certain times of day, the air shimmers with the potential for transformation the way Star Trek's teleporters did in the midst of beaming up Kirk and Spock. The unsolid earth heaves and moans with the ancticipation of our germination as something closer to the sprouts we were meant to be. Out here, said Jim Morrison, we is stoned, immaculate. Out here, we get to be who we thought we were before somebody told us different. That's why I keep coming. Never the same river twice, and never the same face in the mirror. Lord, make me over.
O, Magnum Mysterium
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Mystery. From the Greek Mysterion. Dictionary definition 1. a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand. Dictionary definition 2. something not understood or beyond understanding
I'm not sure I'll allow my work to be marketed as straight mystery again. I think the word has lost its meaning and is now code for "procedural." I think I write fantasy, or myth or Yankee magical realism. Or something. Just not mystery...even though I love the word and hate to give it up. Mystery readers like plot. They expect to be led on an evidentiary trail to gradual suspension of disbelief, whereas fantasy and horror readers know that behind every armoire or broom closet is a secret passage to the shadow side of oneself, and are ready to crawl in with the slightest inducement. Mystery readers need the blood evidence. They could never accept "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit," which I thought was pure artistry. Mystery readers need to be seduced over a long and arduous night of dry martinis and drier wit, and I've never had the patience for seduction. I prefer the smoldering look across the crowded dance floor that says instantly, "We were made for each other--at least for tonight." I have a theory that fantasy people are Scott Fitzgerald people and mystery people are Hemingway people. Romantic that I am, I never should have tried to Trojan Horse my way into their hard-boiled world. Mystery people like "L.A. Confidential" and sci-fi/fantasy people like "Mulholland Drive." I think David Lynch is a fucking genius, and that Philip K. Dick is Jesus, and that hearts are best worn on sleeves. And so, right here on this blog, I hereby announce that I am officially bidding a fond farewell to the mystery genre and declaring myself a...a.... Oh, hell, you decide what I am.
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There's a great story that legendary film producer Robert Evans tells about the first distribution of Robert Towne's "Chinatown" screenplay. The movie, as everyone knows, is an enormously complicated tale of corruption of body, soul, and spirit in 1930's Los Angeles. Long before the cameras rolled, the script went out for a weekend read by studio executives, agents, financiers, and other people critical to the project's approval. According to Evans, half the readers loved the script and half hated it, but the comments betrayed the fact that not a single one of them had understood it. In both cases, opinion flowed from a desire not to be perceived as unhip. Those who said they loved the script saw virtue in its obscurity and wanted to be "in the know,", while those who hated it felt shut out of the clubhouse and wanted to punish Towne for making them feel stupid.
Nobody wants to feel stupid, least of all book reviewers. A critic's authority rests on the perception that he or she is, if not superior, then at least intellectually equal to the work being reviewed. This makes writing about all things obscure, occult, and arcane an extremely hazardous occupation. There are two common ways of presenting such material, and both risk the critic's most pointed barbs. You can do it in the breathless, gee whiz! style of a Dan Brown, in which case the reviewers dismiss you as simple-minded, or you can handle the esoteric from an insider's perspective, in which case they're likely to get good and pissed off.
I write about hidden things. Hidden things have always fascinated me. Locked rooms, diaries, double lives, cabals and conspiracies. I write about small, highly secretive groups of people who hold privileged information with potentially world-altering implications. It's taken me three books to figure out that if you're going to write about secret societies, you are obliged to let the reader in on the password. This goes double for reviewers. They have to be invited to the party, or they're not going to have anything nice to say about the hors d'oeuvres.
Because the whole point of my books is to share secrets without spoiling their mystery, this is something of a tightrope walk for me. If you shine too much light on numinous things, they have a tendency to evaporate. But in the new Stephan Raszer book, NOWHERE-LAND, I've struggled to find a balance. No doubt the critics will let me know to what degree I've succeeded.
November 18 (from NOWHERE~LAND, A Stephan Raszer Investigation):
The laptop’s screen came up with a file icon flashing against the Moorish desktop pattern. He opened it to a hypertext version of Revelation 14, with underlined passages linking him to pages of exegesis by scholars and theologians from the 5th century on. The passage Monica had highlighted in red was from Verses 1-4:
"AND I looked, and lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads."
"And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the Elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth."
"These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins."
He clicked on the hyperlinked word, virgins, and was taken to a display of related passages from Revelations, as well as a quote attributed to Jesus in Matthew 19:12:
Hearing his pronouncement against divorce, the Pharisees had protested to Jesus—in so many words—“if we’re not free to dump our wives, maybe it’s not such a
great idea to get married in the first place,” to which Jesus replied in cryptic agreement:
“All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. There are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heavens’ sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
Raszer read the passage repeatedly and with increasing speed, until its archaic syntax morphed into a kind of non-verbal vernacular, a direct feed from page to brain. It was a technique for reading sacred texts he’d been introduced to when first undertaking his study, and now he did it automatically. The fact was that unless you read the original Greek or Hebrew, Sanskrit or Arabic, everything was bastardized by the translator’s biases, and even in the maiden tongue, most scripture and sutra was secondhand news and at least twice-removed from meaning. The real meaning was esoteric. As Jesus had said time and again in the Gnostic Gospels: “He who has ears, let him hear.” If this was not the case in the matter of eunuchs, it was surely true of an even stranger quote Monica had pulled in from the Gospel of Saint Thomas:
“When you make the male and the female be one and the same, so that the male might not be male nor the female be female—then you will enter the Kingdom.”
In just two degrees, Raszer’s separate queries about the identity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ “Little Flock” of 144,000 and the history of sacramental castration had been drawn together in a way that put a new spin on Aquino’s virgin sex ring theory. Suppose virginity—of one sort or another—was a factor, but suppose it wasn’t about the lust of middle-aged men for young girls. Suppose it was about devotion. Or control.
He left the thought there, reminding himself only of what he’d already learned on so many previous cases: that given half a chance, the predators would always use the tools of religion to augment their power over the prey. It was the same story with every clique that deserved the pejorative of “cult,” whether it was Manson’s Family or Jim Jones’s Temple or L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. There was always an agenda, and if it wasn’t about personal power it was about power on a broader scale.
The castration material was more extensive and more eye-opening than he’d expected, and there would be a few nights’ work in digesting it. Several items, however, jumped out of Monica’s hastily assembled list of bullet points:
• The earliest evidence of ritual castration was found in Sumerian texts from the temple of goddess INANNA at Uruk in present-day Iraq. A sample quote from high priestess Enheduanna, dated to 2300 BC: “Inanna turns a man into a woman and a woman into a man.”
• The priests of the cult of Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, instituted around the time of King Midas (725-675 BC) and fashionable in Rome of AD 295-390, were known as the Gallae, and castrated themselves in imitation of her divine son/lover Attis, who had done so in penance for his betrayal. According to myth, the birthday of Attis was December 25. Unlike other pre-Christian Mother-Son cults, the cult of Cybele and Attis was a cult of abstinence.
• Origen, the great scholar and theologian of the early Christian church, also “made a eunuch of himself” for the kingdom of heavens’ sake.
• In the mid-18th century, an ecstatic Christian sect known as the Skoptzy or Skoptji arose in the Oryel region of Russia, with ritual self-castration as its badge of membership. The sect attracted military officers, merchants and the nobles of St. Petersburg, and by 1874, counted 5,444 members (incl. 1,465 women) and tens of thousands of sympathizers. The Skoptzy claimed that they were following Christ in Matthew 19:12, but that their mission would not be complete until their numbers had reached the 144,000 of Revelation 14:3-4.
• Just as castratis had guarded the harems of the caliphate, the Holy Ka’ba of Islam and its black meteorite are to this day secured by an elite guard of eunuchs.
Raszer poured himself another glass of wine and lit a cigarette. The business about the gelded priests of Cybele he’d vaguely recalled, and it had been on his mind since seeing the morgue photo of a neutered Henry Lee laid beside the black “baitylos” rock on Aquino’s desk. But Raszer hadn’t been able to make the connection to Iraq until seeing that the Sumerian Inanna had also demanded the family jewels. And the gospel passages with their bizarre echo in the Russian sect seemed to suggest a trail of cognitive cookie crumbs that led right to the door of the Witnesses by way of their belief in the special status of the 144,000.
Could a cult of sexual negation born at the dawn of history have survived, like a viral spore, into the twenty-first Century? Monica’s accompanying weblinks seemed to hint that it could have, because there were sites—many related to the transgender community—with names like alt.eunuchs.com and Men Without Balls. He who has ears, let him hear. Sex and gender had always been big issues in religion.