(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Some thoughts about race

Some of my best friends were black – and some of my worst enemies too. And it took me a long time to wake up to my complicity in racism. I went to school in affluent middle class suburban environments in Minnesota. I don't remember any black students in my elementary school, but I do remember learning about slavery and racism while I was still young, and being horrified. I also remember before going on a family trip to Chicago to visit my brother in school, a friend told me “be careful if you go to south Chicago. There are a lot of black people there.” -Well, so what? I asked, incensed at his insinuation. Though the only black people I met personally in my childhood were those in Chicago – or in Columbia, Missouri, where my other brother was in school – I did watch movies with black characters, like Ghostbusters, and I watched the Cosby Show, and I thought that black people were cool. How could anyone hate them, I wondered, when they were so cool?

[Someone needs to make a meme with Danny Glover's character in Silverado saying "Son, you've got a lot to learn about people."]

In eighth grade I became friends with the only black student in my junior high school except for a girl from Africa. He was an amateur rapper with the stage name “MC Carpet,” adopted in reference to his flat-topped hairdo in the style of the time (this was in 1990). Being one of two black kids in a white school where the cool kids listened to gangster rap and everyone listened to MC Hammer, I think he felt like he had to emphasize his racial traits to make him stand out from his white classmates who idolized Eazy-E. My friend wasn't into gangster rap, but he had a bombastic persona and some of his lyrics were quite sexual. All this shielded an awkward and sensitive character that made him as much a social outcast as me. To make matters worse, he wore some kind of orthopedic brace, which in junior high never helps. I still remember him in the locker room after those humiliating gym classes, in his metal and plastic frame, cold and white against his bare brown buttocks – fragile flesh in that concrete cave. “Watch out for the black moon, y'all!” he would shout before disrobing.

Being the only black guy in school, you'd think all the white kids who listened to rap would look up to him as the real deal, but I repeat: he was one of the outcasts like me. His posturing was dismissed by those of the higher strata. He was not strong: I once saw him get beat up by our lunch table (none of the rest of us dared to intervene). Once he shaved “WORD UP” into the hair on the back of his head and it backfired about as spectacularly as my covering my jean jacket with buttons, i.e. it drew nothing but gleeful derision. But I wasn't aware of that derision having a racial aspect: I thought he was picked on for being a nerd and a wimp, not for being black. Maybe his loud flaunting of his blackness helped shield him from overt racial malice? At the time, Steve Urkel was making us all laugh on TV and getting white audiences used to the idea of black nerds. Or maybe I just failed to see a powerful racial undercurrent. Maybe everybody had to pick on the only black kid in the school, to prove that they wouldn't discriminate in their cruelty. There was plenty of cruelty to spare, so maybe they felt that it would be reverse discrimination (which as every good white person knows is twice as bad, right?) to spare a target because of his color.

I lost touch with my junior high friends when we moved to the Cities, and I started 9th grade in a huge but affluent school with many more black students. Many more in absolute numbers, but relatively they were still a small number. It's true that a lot of them sat together at lunch, and of course some of us white students sometimes commented on that, but the classrooms were inescapably integrated. The black guys in choir made me laugh and left me alone. I got along pretty well with the studious and religious guys who put Bible quotes in their lockers: with one of them by my side I actually had the nerve to debate theology with an agnostic in one of my classes. But there was also a big bully in Social Studies, who provoked me to one of my immature attempts at violence and then had the nerve to ask me if I was racist. “I'm not!” I sobbed. “The last thing I am is racist!” In American Government I got along just fine with one black girl, but another one teamed up with her blonde friend to make my life miserable.

It didn't help that I was one of those adolescent boys that teachers like to complain about: I mean I was still lax in my personal hygiene. I figured that since I wasn't growing yet, I still hadn't hit puberty yet, so why should I waste time on deodorant? Especially since I was already missing too much sleep by having to get up early for the weekday religious instruction that we Mormons get as teenagers.
My classmate and her friend were not shy about expressing their disgust at my smell, or how long I went between washing my clothes. Once she grabbed a ball-point pen and wrote on my knee with it: “there! I'm writing 'Friday' on your jeans, so you can wash them over the weekend, and if you don't I'll know it the next time you wear them because this will still be here.”

It may have occurred to me to protest this invasion of my personal space, but I didn't stop her. It could have been resignation to the fact that I just didn't have what it took to resist what everybody dished out without making a big scene, or it could have been some kind of masochistic pleasure at getting this kind of intimate attention from a girl. I think it was more the latter.

I didn't like these girls. Besides being mean to me, they were raunchy and obnoxious. But I wanted to like them and for them to like me, and if I couldn't have that, then at least I was getting attention from them. I wasn't aware enough of my feelings or feelings in general to recognize that sadomasochistic attachment lurking under the surface of our interactions, and there was no encouragement or time to develop a conscious understanding of it, what with classes, homework and report card angst demanding so much of my time and attention. Role-playing scenarios in Social Studies only scratched the surface, and an awkward boy who got a C in the class didn't look likely to have interest or aptitude for psychology. Even our kind-hearted teacher could not have taken the kind of time and attention with me that might have called out my interest and native empathy to develop beyond the immature behavior that marked me as a prime target for harassment. Teachers in a school of 2000 students simply cannot afford to give that much attention, even if it is a “school of excellence.” In fact, the school's excellence accentuated my poor performance, casting it all the clearer as sinful rebellion against a benevolent authority that “really wants to see you succeed.”

I was better served by Neil Peart, who deserves some kind of honorary education degree for all the learning he has fostered in nerdy Anglophone teenagers fed up with school over the last 38 years. As I sat glued to the radio one night in 1993 for a special program in honor of the release of Counterparts, I heard him mention Carl Jung and Camille Paglia. While it took me almost 20 years to follow up with my own investigation into these visionary voices, the song they inspired, “Animate,” became one of my all-time Rush favorites and remains for me one of the best songs in an album that suffers at times from a heavy-handed didactic tone.

One of those socially virtuous songs, “Alien Shore,” resonated with my experiences at the time: “You and me, we are thrust into these solitudes: color and culture, language and Race. Just variations on a theme, islands in a much larger stream . . . for you and me race is not a definition.” Race was not a definition for my black classmates in high school from my viewpoint, and I didn't think it should be. Our shared social class was a commonality that made comfortable inter-racial mingling the order of the day – at least that was how I saw it. So when the students at my school put on a cultural awareness program my sophomore year I saw it as divisive, making a big deal out of differences I felt that I had accepted and learned to ignore. It happened during my sophomore year, when I was at my most reactionary. That was also the year that I had a black study hall supervisor. He professed a reverence for Truman Capote, but I don't think he would have known what to do with a student like him. Catherine Woods he was not. Confronting me once about something I didn't do, he refused to allow me a word in edgewise and seemed compelled to remind me who was boss: “if you give me any more nonsense, I'll come down on you like a ton of bricks.” In a silent bout of l'esprit d'escalier which I would never have dared to voice, I imagined asking him “Is this because I'm white?” I remain grateful that in that case my fear saved me from saying something so stupid.

Of course I not only had something to prove, but a limited frame of reference to work with. I could have benefited from some sustained, well-informed and calm discussion of not only race but economic class, and their interrelationship. What if the cultural awareness presentation had dealt squarely with economic class as well as race and ethnicity?

I keep wondering: what might have my experience been in a mostly working-class, or inner-city high school? I had some working-class friends, thank God, even in my privileged upbringing; but they were all white. There may have been apartment complexes in my school's area, maybe even trailer parks, but no black ghetto. Students of all colors wore skewed baseball caps and saggy baggy pants as well as neat sweaters. “Cross colors” was a hot new clothing brand that did just that.
Some of the things I remember from that cultural awareness presentation: “why do black people change songs so much when they sing them?” A blonde cheerleader dancing enthusiastically to hip-hop and then saying “I'm glad they brought over your ancestors as slaves!” A monologue portraying the life of one of the first successful black women entrepreneurs.

Aha! Being a dutifully aspiring young Republican I worshiped entrepreneurs, and so I came out of my defensive conservative shell to rejoice at this shining light of good example (I remember also admiring how the presenter kept her poise when confronted by mild heckling). See, I wanted to say, this is what I'm talking about!

Looking back, I don't recall any discussion of systemic racism in relation to politics and economics: the students' grievances centered around “the way they are treated because of their differences.” Because I felt that I didn't treat them any differently (I, who didn't have many friends anyway), I didn't think anyone else did either, and so these provocateurs weren't acknowledging my generosity. How dare they be so ungrateful!

Year later, in Pittsburgh, I worked with a black woman, an attorney who had two sons named Thurgood and Langston. It taxed her patience to talk to people on the phone who “can't speak the king's English,” and she often disparagingly talked about the attitude that “The Man is keeping you down” as “complete bullshit.” I have wondered what she would have thought of that presentation if she could have gone back in time and visited my school. Would she have told them to quit whining about The Man keeping them down and just get on with it? Would she have thought they had a better deal in the suburbs of Minneapolis than in Pittsburgh? I really have no idea. I don't know what her experiences were like living in Pittsburgh, which, though it has its problems with racism, also has a much, much higher black population than Minneapolis. It may be full of bigots, but the objects of their bigotry aren't as exotic as they were where I grew up. Still problems, but different kinds.
The part of the presentation that got me the most steamed was where the white students were saying how grateful they felt thinking about all the settlers who came over on the Mayflower and so on, and then the black students started bursting their bubbles: “People! Open your eyes! Not everyone came over on the Mayflower! Our ancestors were packed into the hull like sardines!” And the white students covered their ears, so the black students had to come closer and speak louder.

On a human level of course I couldn't help but recoil at the horror of the slave trade, so why did it get me so angry that the descendents of slaves were expressing their own horror at it? The guilty take the truth to be hard, and that reminder of the historical injustice underpinning my privileges cut me to the quick. You see it every day: people try to excuse themselves by taking offense. So few have learned how to debate responsibly that it works too often: the moment someone takes offense at what you say, you have to give up the moral high ground? (Seems to me a dark-skinned prophet had something to say on that subject on a city wall a few hundred years ago.) I thought there must be some malice in their bringing this up to manipulate our emotions and make us uncomfortable. I had been taught to believe that whenever black people brought up the past in that way that there was some Hidden Agenda at work, or at least rudeness: couldn't they see that it wasn't nice to make us polite white folks uncomfortable? Didn't they want to put the past behind them and be friends?

There must have been some mention of Columbus in the presentation too, because I wrote in my yearbook, and I quote: “if 1 more fyag bashes Columbus I will drop out of school & egg their house!”

I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I woke up about this, but it was really always there, the human recognition of injustice. I didn't want to admit it because it went against the doctrine I had submitted my mind to at the time. Despite learning of the evils of mass conformity in my Great Wars class and reading A Raisin in the Sun in English, I didn't yet have the nerve or the strength to apply the lesson with consistency. The anger with which I smothered my conscience speaks to the same stunted psychic growth that locked me in sadomasochistic relationships – and which does the same for too many people. After all, that's what school really teaches.

It also has taught the descendants of 19th-century Scandinavian, German, Italian, Irish, Slavic, etc. immigrants to ignore their own family histories in favor of Mayflower mythology, which is another problem. Some southeast Asian immigrants took part in that awareness presentation 20 years ago, and I imagine that if they're still doing them, that recent ones will include Latin American immigrants as well. Those two groups come of their own free will, but aren't able to blend in just by learning the language either, as most Europeans could.  An education which truly encouraged, or at least allowed each young person to own and explore their individual ancestry and its culture (partly by not crowding their time with schedules, assignments and tests) would give a better environment for the kind of empathy; or patient, respectful admission of its limits; that these students were right to wish for in their peers – that every citizen is right to demand in a society with any kind of pretensions or aspirations to freedom.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Typecast: Spiritual struggle

If you know any teenagers I highly recommend The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn.  There used to be an easily accessible PDF online, but I think it got taken down.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A talk I gave in church last year

 Brace yourselves, because I'm going to tell a J. Golden Kimball story. Like all folklore, this has several versions. Here's one.

One day Elder Kimball was waiting for a chance to cross the street near Temple Square. When he thought the coast was clear he stepped into the street, but at that moment a car whooshed by him, narrowly missing his leg. Shaking his fist at the retreating car he shouted “Damn you!  Have you no respect for the priesthood?”

I'm going to approach the topic of priesthood by talking about respect, and about authority. Now there was a time when an idea of “respect for authority” was very important to me, but those days are gone. My growing respect for children of God has broken down my misplaced reverence for the authority they have a bad habit of presuming. At the same time though, my respect for the priesthood has strengthened, and in the next few minutes I'll try to explain this.

There is cause for confusion in the word “respect,” the first of several that I will dissect. The original Latin meaning – to look back – has grown several branches after being grafted into our mongrel tongue. In one sense it can mean treating someone partially – with exclusive favor, as a result of their wealth, class, ethnicity, credentials, whatever. The apostle James warned against this in his letter to the primitive Church. When Cornelius was converted, Peter had a vision that showed him that “God is no respecter of persons,” in other words, not one to show partiality. “All are alike unto God,” we read from Nephi. In Luke we read from Mary, mother of Jesus: “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”

God is not impressed by whatever priesthood titles we claim either, as is clear in the final segment of Section 121, that essential text for proper priesthood conduct amplifying the words of Peter and James: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.”

It seems that for every abstract concept expressed by our language, there are pure and corrupt meanings. Someone recently wrote a definition of respect that covers a wide span, and rings true for me:

“To respect is to understand that the other person is not you, not an extension of you, not a reflection of you, not your toy, not your pet, not your product. In a relationship of respect, your task is to understand the other person as a unique individual and learn how to mesh your needs with his or hers . . . Your task is not to control the other person . . .”

In this sense I am satisfied that our Heavenly Father respects all of us quite deeply, particularly children. Let us never forget the special attention Jesus showed to them.

Modern revelations are quite clear about the Lord's respect for our agency. Alma the younger caught himself in a sinful wish to make everyone repent, which came from his commendable missionary zeal. I would never accuse him of unrighteous dominion, but he reminds us how easily even our love for others can erase our respect for them. He looked back and remembered that the choices other people made were not really his business: his business, and ours, is to perhaps bring a soul to repentance. Not to force a man to heaven, nor to demand that others recognize my right to their favor. You look again and see children of God for what they are: spirits which, in kinship with God, naturally wish to follow God's will. A true dominion is born from such respect, flowing “without compulsory means” from spirits who know that your love for them is stronger than death. For some, that takes a long time.

But this is available to all who will take the time to watch themselves as King Benjamin urged. You really can respect people even without feeling the slightest admiration toward them. In fact, does not admiration also lure us toward a corruption of true respect? Because to regard someone as an ideal figure denies their full dimensions as a fellow human being.

And of course, when we watch ourselves, we see also the sin in trying to control or impede another's life as revenge for hurting our feelings or not giving us what we want.

“Without compulsory means.” That phrase is one of my strongest anchors. William Blake wrote: “prisons are built with stones of law,” which you could parse as a powerful paraphrase of Paul: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor 3:6). Compulsion spawns defiance as your hand casts a shadow in the light: much of what we call “discipline” is a fundamental insult to a spirit that comes, as another William, Wordsworth, wrote:

“from God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy” . . .

May God have mercy on us all.

If you grow up being “compelled in all things” (Section 58:26), with scant chance to develop beyond the role of slothful servant, it becomes very difficult to find out who you really are. The concept that command and comply is the bedrock of human society sets a course which, depending on your temperament, leads to a role of oppressor or oppressed – or both. You may come to believe that all your feelings are dependent on external approval, and then you will be ripe for the picking by con artists. I speak from experience, and that might help you understand the source of my own authority problem.

There is no shortage of people willing to tell you what they think you should do. But telling you “all things what ye should do” belongs to the words of Christ, given by the Holy Ghost, which, as Nephi reminds us, is a gift we all receive after baptism.

Questioning authority in fact has good scriptural precedent: “trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister,” says Alma, “except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14). He said this to a group of people who had just fled from their kingdom after breaking the law of their sovereign. What's more, this sovereign operated under what, by all indicators, was a theocratic order. When he went against the principles of righteousness he didn't do away with priests, he “consecrated new ones . . . such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts” (Mosiah 11:5). And most of the people, used to following a king as a religious authority, were “caught in a snare” (Mosiah 23:9). No wonder Alma did his best to deprogram the 450 who broke away: “stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free,” he said, “trust no man to be a king over you” (verse 13). Years later, king Mosiah the second dismantled the monarchy that had been in place for half a millennium, “that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part. . . . Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins. ”

Joseph Smith had his own authority problems, so I count myself in good company. “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul” he said, “civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. Love of liberty was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, Chapter 29) And of course we have Captain Moroni's memorable letter to Pahoran: “we know not but what ye yourselves are seeking for authority . . . behold, I do not fear your power nor your authority, but it is my God whom I fear” (Alma 60:18, 28).

Authority, dominion, lordship, power, and related words: they all have histories, and they bear the scars of history. Throughout this web of interconnected meanings you'll find the same divergence between pure and corrupt. On the one hand, trust in the wisdom and goodwill of a respectful, exemplary elder; and on the other, the meddlesome impulse to despise or violate the agency of others.

You can follow a trail from the word “authority” through “author” and back to the Latin auctor, which, being interpreted, is "enlarger, founder, master, leader," literally "one who causes to grow,” cognate, in fact, with “augment.” While our “authority” has strayed from that meaning, you can discern traces of the concept in, for example, the way an author brings forth a book.

Hold that thought while I bring up a use of “authority” in library science – because if I wasted a ruinous sum of money on an advanced degree in that field, I might as well use it here. Actually I'm rather grateful to have learned the concept called authority control in library school. It's basically this: in order to help people find the book they're looking for, you have to come up with a standardized way of describing them. This means not only fixing the spellings, but all sorts of really picky specifications on how you phrase names and subjects. It's kind of like making sure that all the keys and locks are shaped just so, in order to open the right doors at the right time.

I think of such catalog control as a very crude mimic of something like DNA, which causes things to grow into the dazzling array of living things that we're so blessed to share the earth with. An analogy is irresistible here to the personal tree of life that Alma the younger called on the Zoramites to grow in their souls: Christ as the author of our faith causes this to grow within us as we “nurture it with great care” (Alma 32:37). But even with all of our nurturing we recognize that we are not the force behind the growth. We have authority to nurture and welcome the growth that proceeds from an eternal auctor, which is beyond mortal reach. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8).

All this is to try to invite our immersion in the lesson that Section 121 laments men's slowness to learn. We know it intellectually of course, but that is no guarantee at all that we will internalize it. It takes time and courage to quiet the mind enough to sift through all the inherited ideologies, bad habits, our comfortable illusions about ourselves, even the well-meaning praise of others, and get to touch on those “principles of righteousness” that hold the key to controlling and handling the powers of heaven, which show humanity's proudest achievements as mere child's play.

I mean no disrespect to the holy act of child's play!

The priesthood on the earth is a sort of apprenticeship, and as part of that, our master calls us, at a young age, to assume roles that seem beyond our years. Considering etymology again, we may recall that “deacon” comes from a Greek word meaning “servant;” and our modern English “priest” may be traced back to the word the Greek-speaking saints of Jesus' dispensation used for “elder.” We still call young men to be “elders” when our society has just legally recognized their adulthood: the Lord calls up a maturity which earthly powers too often fail to recognize or allow.

I remember my dear old mission president – whom we all loved so much that none of us wanted to disappoint him – asking us not to use the word “greenie” anymore and reminding us that we all have eternal spirits. “Let no man despise thy youth” - we remember the young age at which Joseph Smith had his first vision. We see examples of temporally young people rising to greatness throughout history. If we all can take upon us the name of Christ, then surely a boy of 12 can take on a role of greater age and wisdom than the state imagines.

How to take it on, how to shape our locks to fit these keys of age, assume the ageless splendor of our eternal spirits?

The maturity of the world, which discouraged children from bothering an important man like Jesus, is of limited use in this question. The principles of righteousness that Joseph Smith named are worthy of quiet and careful consideration by everyone, alone, from time to time. This list bears comparison with Paul's list of fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians: look it up, there's homework for you. I feel a resonance between all of these and Alma's teachings. How can you trust anyone to be your teacher or minister, unless that person shows persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge? How can you trust someone unless you see them as lacking hypocrisy and guile?

The priesthood is administered on earth through a kind of authority control that we call keys. Keys are essential for opening locks, and often we lock doors or chests because there is treasure inside. The key is a device, a tool that allows you to get at what you're after. To quote an ancient Chinese archivist, in one of several translations:

Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.

Priesthood keys may be conferred on a man quite easily at the right time, just as learning to read in an alphabetic script is simple when undertaken at the right time. To what end do we learn to read, or add and subtract, or build elaborate catalog schemes? Because they are keys that unlock treasures of knowledge. Without a clear framework to encode that knowledge, the lack of order would obstruct learning. Still, the treasures of knowledge are what give life to the letters; without those what good would it do to manipulate abstract marks, or worse, to subordinate our souls to strict structures?

I hope that the application of this metaphor is readily apparent, because it's time to close, and I wanted to close with one more thing about keys. I call to mind again the passage in 2 Nephi 32 that I mentioned earlier: “Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels?”

John the Baptist told Joseph and Oliver that the Aaronic Priesthood holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and I am convinced that a significant part of this comes in the form of the acts of service we do for others. Certainly my family has been blessed abundantly by mortal angels who sit in this room and others. Their love has gained our gratitude, and I thank them for magnifying the priesthood.

 So let us all, in this apprenticeship of the priesthood, aspire to the errand of angels.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dream, Dare, Do

The morning of September 9, 2013 I saw a stream of sixth graders walking in front of the building in the lovely cool morning – first hint of autumn, magic magic magic. Even walking past the school building later that afternoon and not forgetting the terror and captivity, I felt magic from the red bricks, from the cool air, from the memory of pencils. Shouldn't there be a place for the honor of that, as part of autumn's enchantment in childhood?

But I was thinking about the morning first. Those sixth-graders filed past the door in tune with the morning's loveliness. Then I heard an adult voice bark “single file straight line!” as if they were a bunch of jailbirds – reminding me that, in fact, they are.

When I called the sixth-grade school they said that these students had attended an assembly at the middle school, some anti-bullying thing. Very much on everyone's mind these days. I called the middle school and found out they contract with some outfit to come and give them this presentation every year.

Apparently it's a big deal: they set up three big screens in the gym and have a powerful sound system. They're very proud of it, saying it “will encourage students to clarify dreams, look clearly at obstacles, and through hard work and determination, turn their dreams into a reality. Students will learn positive methods for dealing with the pressure, stress and fear they feel inside, and they'll understand the importance of setting short-term goals for their lives.” And of course there's the personal responsibility that adults never tire of invoking when it comes to making younger people do things: this show “will help students realize that it's time to stop passing the blame to someone else and start taking responsibility for their futures.”

Their website offers a shrunk-down version of the presentation, which I watched. They certainly do try to make an overwhelming show of sight and sound. The shrunken preview can't match the experience of the real thing, they say, and I believe them.

A powerful, high-impact character lesson, they say. What it is is loud and vapid, the art of saying nothing over forty minutes refined near to perfection. I can imagine sitting in the bleachers in the gym with those sights spread out over huge screens and the sound blasted into your head – no escape. I imagine all the adults, having their ears pressed flat to their skulls by the angry-sounding pop metal music in the thing, maybe not enjoying it at all but thinking that these guys who made it sure must be legit cuz they've got all this badass-sounding music that the teenagers like.

I sat through plenty of clumsy agitprop while I was in school, and of course we saw through the grown-ups' feeble attempts to appropriate our vernacular and poured derision thereon when they were safely out of earshot. I'm 36 and have only the vaguest idea what kids are listening to these days, but watching this it looks like (alas) the propaganda engineers have gotten much better at what they do over the past quarter century. The music in this presentation sure didn't sound like the cheesy stuff that tried to inspire my generation to love school. This stuff was like a hammer to your brain, along with the rapid editing of shots (including plenty from action movies) smashing away at any attempt by a viewer to formulate and consider any thoughts of substance or consequence.

-Which served its purpose, since what would happen if too many people really started asking questions like: what if my hopes and dreams are in fact blocked by having to go to school every day? Just how exactly do my good grades in each subject prepare me to reach my dream? How do the standardized programs of learning even help me to find what my true dream is? Are the grotesquely-amplified examples of athletes and singers really relevant to my life? How would the authorities over me react if I dreamed of a life outside of this system and dared to do what I had to in order to bring that about?

How much can the school environment even bear the concept of an individual life's calling?

And on and on. I haven't the energy to write much more about it; I don't know if it even deserves the dignity of a detailed consideration or rebuttal – there's not really much to argue against, because it's damn near impossible to argue against emotion.

 Of course this thing doesn't show any sex or tantalizing views of certain body parts, but it's as pornographic as anything, stroking the feelings of your lower chakras in a calculated move to make a flood of feelings that will drown ideas. People pay for this kind of opiate in theaters or in their own homes to escape the meaninglessness of their over-regimented lives, or in the case of music, the powerless band together in communities around angry protest songs: punk, heavy metal, rap. I don't know if this production company really pulls off a convincing appropriation of that protest in the perception of its young captives. Despite the in-your-face, no-escape presentation method, I hope that the young people saw through it.

Maybe it's vain to hope too much: we constantly hear complaints about today's youth: about their apathy, their addiction to screens, their susceptibility to the persuasion of violent and titillating images on those screens – this presentation was tailored exactly to such, and depends on non-thinking recipients for its success. But I still hope. I hope there were a lot of closed eyes, and mouths in cupped hands pressed to ears, during the onslaught: respectful human touch is the best antidote to pornography.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Some thoughts after reading The Fountainhead

(One of these days I'll get back to typecasting.)

So I finally read The Fountainhead. I stayed up past 1 in the morning to finish it, and in fact I even cried at several points throughout. I want to buy my own copy of it and underline passages and write all sorts of things in the margins.

This book has been staring at me for about 20 years from library shelves, mostly through the editions with Art Deco covers. Those were terrifying Apollonian arrows pointing to a destiny that I put off for too long (like Thomas Pynchon, but that's another story). So finally I checked out a copy from the local library and got sucked in. Today, a day after reading it, I wrote the following.

Producers and parasites. In the Fountainhead Ayn Rand shows (somewhat melodramatically, but that isn't a bad thing) model characters or characters as models of these principal types in their purity. I find myself unable to dispute the core of the principles in their purity, but what I think is the cause for worry about Rand isn't the truth in the “selfishness” that is essential to every individual soul (and I want to write more about that, also parse Lehi's “men are that they might have joy” in relation to this), nor is it the core principle of whether one produces or not. Of course in real life when one person produces something and the rest of us benefit. I think of Robert Fripp's words: “Music so wishes to be heard that it calls on some to give it a voice and some to give it ears.” Civilization has been around long enough to make the manifestations of these principles – in pure and perverted forms – so complex that applying them to real-life situations entails doing everything you can to trace each economic interaction and relation back to its roots. This is why mainstream partisan politics are so dissatisfying, and why TV news and talk radio are such dismal ways to try to be informed about what's going on in the world and what you can do about it. This is also why parlor politics rarely if ever gets beyond a ritualistic bashing of everyone's favorite imagined villains, backed up with appeals to everyone's favorite authorities.

I've certainly seen Ayn Rand cast as a villain, a Korihor-like prophetess of greed and callousness. In the purity of her concepts, I accept that she wasn't advocating racism nor greed for money and power (at least not in The Fountainhead). On the contrary, she exposed those as betrayals of self, mere variations of “second-handedness.” So why does she get such a bad reputation? I haven't studied her Objectivist philosophy, so I don't know what else she wrote that attracted such ire, but I intuit the following scenario repeating countless times: a man goes out and makes a load of money in some business, reads Rand, and then says: look, I have made stuff, employed people, ergo I'm a producer. How many people completely miss the lesson of Gail Wynand? How easy it is to assume that the producers in society are not just the entrepreneurs (which is already too narrow) but the ones who have become wealthy. And how easy it is to use the label “parasite” as a politically correct justification for dismissing any concern or basic human empathy or at least rational consideration of whole swaths of people. Are they the ones making the money, making the jobs? Are they among the few, the proud captains of industry? No? Are they in misfortune, are they (or do we see them as) dependent on any kind of assistance? Do they have the impudence to procreate without having steady means of their own self-sufficient heroic make to support them materially (according to our standard of living)? Yes? Why then they're parasites. Q.E.D. And we don't have to worry that we're being racist by going along with the wink-wink nudge-nudge because Rand (or whoever) Said, so we're absolved of any effect our actions have of perpetuating collectivist oppression. Of course we'll put ourselves in the camp of producers as we whine in our parlor talk or radio call-ins or at the voting booth, even if we're working at jobs we don't really want, even if our political involvement is really an attempt to prop up some sense of meaning in our desperate lives, because we think we Get It. It's so easy to slip into this.

If there are people living in poverty we don't have to cathect to our images of them in a show of pity and meddlesome “charity,” but neither do we have to dismiss them as feckless failures because they're not all independent workers (though what if we all could be?), with the gumption to stick with their work through the tough times without complaint, facing the world alone like Roark did until enough of us finally come around to reward their contributions (through fair media of exchange that might not be available, which we might not want to admit).

Everyone is born with their own gift to give to the world, and some are more prominent than others (after reading The Fountainhead I feel I now accept the parable of the talents better, and have a new appreciation for Alma's mission to the Zoramites too), but it has to be remembered and acknowledged that the forces that so stifled the gifts of the producers included entrenched money interests, impersonal boards of directors and other features of the capitalist system. How easy it still is for second-handers at the helms of powerful corporations to cravenly claim that they are the real producers, while continuing to suffocate the world under mediocrity. It's no longer drippy Progressive preaching of self-sacrifice, it's brazen praise for “self-interest,” meaning the appetites and dictates of false, non-individuating selves: blind egos, contemptuous introjects, unacknowledged complexes, possessive archetypes – but not the true soul of every Self. A lazy appropriation of the terms of “self-interest” and “selfishness” makes it so easy to fall back into the conventional semantics that Rand took so much trouble to take apart that I wonder if it was worth her trouble and she might as well have coined a new term.

For a similar reason I currently have no interest in Objectivism as a philosophical system, because it still stinks to me of Intellectual Property, which I don't believe in. Looking briefly at the character of Roark: there is no need to impose a fiction of “intellectual property” on the architectural designs of someone with such a unique vision. If someone were to copy one of his buildings it would be imitation as tribute, flattery or incompetent servility – but it would not be theft. It means much that Rand includes the dialogue about individual private ownerships of our experiences with the world: Roark owns his buildings irrevocably, but so do those who use them or even see them, each in their own inviolate way. For Roark to act like too many so-called libertarians do, he would have to post guards outside all of his buildings to charge fees for walking in or even looking at them.

This has to do also with the struggle I've long had with reading or talking about philosophy. I like reading about it, and about psychology, and I don't dispute giving credit where due. But I return often to the words of Montaigne (in translation): “Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: 'tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them.” (Essays Chapter XXV “Of the Education of Children” trans. Charles Cotton)

Even Howard Roark, who others see as cold and antisocial, takes for granted that if you saw a drowning man you would try to rescue him. It means a lot that in connection with this, when the young Gail Wynand is crawling along the sidewalk after being beaten nearly to death, the one person he asks for help dismisses him in “bovine indifference.” That adjective is important, because it is certainly an inhuman act to be so callous towards a fellow being. Rand showed this here and I'm glad to have read the book in order to have seen her acknowledgment of this truth.

Even so, the fact that she spent so much effort justifying her unorthodox use of phrases like “self-interest” and “selfishness” might not be enough to defeat this danger: the bare words stick in minds when their substance has ebbed, and then people are quick to attribute the conventional meanings to them and justify their inhumanity by the same kind of servility to a creed, this time a secular one: Rand – or whoever – Says. It is the exact same phenomenon as “the Scriptures say.” Any such vague appeals to authority should immediately put your internal radar on the alert. I can't help but think of the parable of the Samaritan when I read that episode in Wynand's youth, and I don't know if Rand had it in mind, but I'm glad she didn't have the scene take place at the door of a church, with a reverend wrinkling his nose at the human trash importuning him and slamming the door. Whether Rand meant to or not, she shows respect to Jesus' parable here, by letting it stand as a definitive statement of how religion so often leads people to do evil. She respected the parable by rounding it out, and showing how the betrayal of self which leads to such callousness can come from other sources besides religion.

The bar-keeper's refusal to help the young gangster is a betrayal of himself. It seems like selfishness and most of us would describe it as such, but it's the same kind of second-handedness that the young victim swallows and which sets him off on his meteoric rise to power. In refusing to help a young man nearly dead at his doorstep, the barkeeper is not listening to his human self in recognition of another human self, he is listening to the blindness of an ego that pits itself against others, that judges the worth of souls according to criteria inherited and accepted from others without question: gangsters, street trash, worthless. This is the turning point in Gail's life, when his refusal to accept incompetence fermented into his resolve to rule. Who knows what his career might have looked like if he hadn't started it out with such a foundation, and if whatever enterprise he began allowed room for other producers to work within it true to themselves? Do I mean something like Silicon Valley? Well, what would it take for such conditions to flourish and purify all over, not just in such pockets of privilege? I find answers to that question in E.F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, Kevin Carson and others. For one thing, you can't get there with so much of human knowledge and invention locked up in copyrights and patents.

My working hypothesis is that most of the wealthy businessmen who are so adored by conservatives and so-called libertarians are more like Gail Wynand than Howard Roark. I wonder what kind of world we would have if half of them had the courage to make the kind of restitution that Wynand makes at the end of the book. Are Carnegie libraries enough?

One of the features in Roark's design that makes him so pure is that while those around him see him as a hero struggling against the world, he doesn't. He refuses to accept the charge of defiance that others try to pin on him, or even to feel the resentment that others feel in his behalf. He doesn't do his work out of defiance (as Wynand does), he does his work because he has to. When his first buildings go up, he faces accusations of faddishness, willful whimsy – the kind of thing that has put up monstrosities like the Information ScienceBuilding at the University of Pittsburgh. But through the book, it is evident that his love for buildings is inextricably linked with human empathy: he designs buildings with the consideration of what it will be like to inhabit them. The concern for others may be unconscious but is none the less powerful for that – in fact it may be its unconsciousness that makes it so effective. After Roark finishes the Heller house, his client says “You were very considerate of me.” Roark replies: “I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house. . . . Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you.”

One of the bits that brought tears to my eyes was where he sat with Dominique watching one of his buildings go up – a humble five-story store in an insignificant Midwestern town – and she expresses misguided sorrow at seeing such a brilliant architect stuck doing such insignificant buildings. He points out that it doesn't matter: he loves each building for its own sake. In fact, it bugged me, reading the book, that his Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit is built so close to the earth, at such a human scale, as opposed to the intimidating grandeur of religious buildings throughout history which always tried to make people feel small and despicable (and there my straw man alert sounded the loudest of any point in the book), yet of course Rand has to have her characters gush about skyscrapers. And of course she also takes pains to qualify how skyscrapers don't make Wynand feel small but give him a sense of the “heroic in man.” What if the Stoddard Temple had been a tall skyscraper then?

When I read the part about the Stoddard Temple I thought of one of my Humanities teachers talking about Gothic cathedrals: their uplifting effect on the spirit as opposed to the intimidation of the older Romanesque buildings. Stepping into a Gothic cathedral, he said, is like getting on board a spaceship. (And it's interesting how Gothic architecture gets such scant mention in the novel.) I think I have come to respect skyscrapers in the way that Camille Paglia respects religion, but I'd still prefer a Gothic cathedral, or something like Simon and Jasmine Dale build – or Jung's Bollingen Tower. There's a temple of the human spirit for you!

The triumphant ending of The Fountainhead brought tears to my eyes, but it wasn't because the Wynand Building was the tallest on the earth. For me, Roark's greatest triumph is Monadnock Valley. That triumph flows from an explicit empathy for a human need, as Roark himself expresses in his presentation to the developers. By doing his work he has performed a true service to his fellow beings. So when later he lectures Peter Keating about how his design of Cortlandt Homes won't be motivated by concern for the poor slum-dwellers, I know what Rand means, and I accept that she felt the need to clear away the fog of Progressive sentimentality that surrounded her when she wrote. But it still reflects the truth that when you do find your own life's work and purpose, and are true to it, you inevitably benefit others – and I affirm the rightness of rejoicing in that and calling to that, even as I agree that boasting of it and taking it up as a sign of superiority over others corrupts it.

I choose to take as a sign of maturity that when I read the portrayals of sentimental praise for “the common man” in The Fountainhead, I didn't so much protest with the youthful idealism I might have once had – hey what's wrong with the common man? – but I reflected on the soul-sucking effects of state-imposed mass instruction, standardized testing and Common Core standards (which of course award lucrative contracts to a few winning business interests – are those people then Producers? Hell no!). I thought of an editorial by a retired teacher: “Please widen achievement gaps.” I thought of Sudbury Valley School and its dedication to democratic order which produces uncommon people, of Daniel Greenberg's statement that a right to vote is meaningless without mutual respect, of the self-fulfilling fear of mob rule by those who exercise their right to vote without exercising their brains.

“You are unique – just like everyone else.” “If everyone's special, no one is.” Such sarcasm is, to quote Jung, “the prerogative of habitual grumblers with bad digestions” (“Psychology and Religion” trans. R.F.C. Hull, Collected Works vol. 11, p. 105). Take time to reflect and to imagine what a world might look like where everyone really was equal in their right and opportunity to be unique. Let that dissolve the justifications you've accepted of everything that chokes such individuality – not only prevailing fashions in dress and so on, but the political and economic structures that support those who arrogate to themselves the undeserved title of Producers and betray themselves in imposing their mediocrity on the rest of us with state-backed protections of their so-called property.

 Ayn Rand might turn in her grave, but she is in agreement with Alma the younger in this: the outrage and impatience that come from seeing just how badly the world is run, how much individual human potential is wasted, should not be taken as an excuse to hate, but should strengthen the resolve of each of us to dedicate ourselves to the growth of our individual souls. Alma's tree metaphor (like that of the wise and foolish virgins) is self-centered in that way: you are the only one who can grow that tree, and you are the only one who can eat of its fruit.

So now I wonder if I'll go find out who John Galt is.

Also I have to wonder if Blixa Bargeld or any of his bandmates ever read the book.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In which I quote obscure songs and philosophize (also not a typecast, sorry)

You run to the gate but you'll be marked late.
It's for your own good. It's for your own good.

You're likely to make the grandest mistakes.
You suffer alone in the skin and the bone.

Let's sharpen those new sets of arrows
for the next generation of playground martyrs,

and join in the game of intolerable shame,
'cos everyone shares in the sins of their fathers.

School bell rings. Single file in.
Trade you my unhappily everafters.
So bring out those things to hammer out the wings
of the next generation of playground martyrs.
-David Sylvian, “Playground Martyrs” (Steve Jansen, Slope)

I'm an art-school witness, witness this device.
I always feel so helpless lost in this episode twice.
-Justin McBride, “The West in Despair” (Finngerhutt, The Secret Life of Bookworms)

We are all of us, who have been wounded by the device of school, witness to it, though some of us have suffered more for our testimony than others. Some of us might not even be aware that we are martyrs: what we went through doesn't mean anything now that we're “grown up.” Or whatever it might mean is just that we went through an unavoidable part of life, an institution, a part of the set-up taken for granted.

In the aggregate we are an archive, a fonds, a record group, a body of evidence witness to the device that has shaped life in the US and in the industrialized world for so long that nobody remembers a time when it did not.

I always did feel so helpless, in those classrooms, on those playgrounds, lost in the episode countless times. I remember playing some sport in the gym, in fifth or sixth grade, and imagining I was in a TV show. My life went on in my mind and body as independently as was possible from the world around me and the experiences of those in it, but they had to coexist to some extent. I had to do dramatic poses and facial expressions in a freeze-frame every time the ball went by me: it was the only way I could make my life into something meaningful, the only way I could redeem it. By acting in my own private little TV show in gym class, I was the star of something. I drew a magic circle around myself, and for a time the derision of the others was an acceptable price to pay for the little bit of mastery that I owned in pulling off those poses. At first I paid the price but I did not count the cost (Neil Peart), but then after a while as it became more clear to me how ridiculous the others found my actions, and how completely they failed to understand why I did them, I think the pain of that overrode the benefit of doing it.

Magic circle, but in some way I had expected my peers to understand what I was doing, because I often assumed that the contents of my private fantasies were openly apparent to others. For a time this made it very difficult to bathe or use the toilet, because I was convinced that acquaintances could magically see through my eyes and would therefore see my private parts if I looked at them. I still have not come to any sort of workable hypothesis of how this kind of thing could have been treated. But what I am satisfied in hypothesizing is that this kind of fantasizing is rampant among children, especially introverted ones, and most especially among introverts who feel insecure packed in a classroom with other children their age and kept there by force, feeling the effects of the authority-imposed pecking order, all the more terrifying and rigid for being imposed by an authority unconscious of its actions, or whose spokespersons sometimes vocally deny the authority's unconscious unspoken actions, try so hard to go against them. Teachers often try so hard to protect children from the effects of the system they serve that it is tragic to see.

Benevolent mothers smother the child, the benefactors are in denial.
-David Sylvian, “The Banality of Evil” (Nine Horses, Snow Borne Sorrow)

Their words and wishes show themselves as powerless.

Powerless I stand before the ocean.
-Craig Bench (Pilot – Provo, 1998-2000, unfinished LP)

I want to get some students together in a safe place, sit down with them and tell them: I know of this. I understand that some of you carry within yourselves these fantasies, these private worlds, things that you cannot share with anyone, that if your parents see a hint of it they immediately judge, they may panic. If your peers see them they attack. If your teachers see they “intervene” and generally make it worse. Let me offer sanctuary. I won't even ask that you share secrets with me. Let me offer a way that you can face them, own them, manage them. I hope that in doing so you can give a space and a time for what drives them to let off steam, to vent, to find an expression that will ease the pressure on your soul and allow you to live a more purposeful, directed, awake and confident conscious life.

Writing in journals? That would be one way. Sitting still with eyes closed, daydreaming, maybe even Active Imagination? Is that appropriate for adolescents?

Dear old Mrs. Harmer in my 7th grade art class had all of us sit in a group and put our palms over our eyes to meditate – even the inveterate offender who muttered “bitch” at her back. You just can't make that kind of thing work if any of the children feel unsafe, and they will as long as there is that dynamic of unequal power relations in a room. And you can't expect to find out those dynamics with clumsy adult attempts to get children to talk as if there were nothing under the surface, however good your intentions.

Maybe that was why I was so interested in the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot as a 7th-grader, because I knew for absolute truth that we stand powerless before the dark water which holds mysterious beings, monsters that don't heed our wishes and which we cannot measure, no matter how many times we look, no matter how sophisticated our equipment is. That monster is there but the deadened eyes of a materialist-minded man cannot hope to see or discover it. It refuses to reveal itself to his arrogant probes.

So what is the kind of humble probe that can reveal it? School personnel just want to know how they can diagnose and treat. That's part of the problem, because the reason they want to do that is in order to get things going efficiently again, move in the direction of a program that would keep everyone safely and neatly on the road to a “success” that they can't really define. Their blind pursuit of progress and uniform success is dumping all sorts of mutogenic ooze into the water to create even more monsters.

What is the monster? I thought of Nessie as benevolent, a sort of guardian. Like Napoleon Dynamite, I thought of her as an underwater ally against the monstrous depredations of my classmates whose souls had been driven into an animal unconsciousness by the larger leviathan of the school.

Let's not insist on a coherently logical structure of metaphor here. I don't know how much I thought of Nessie as benevolent, but being so far away she couldn't get at me even if she had a mind to chomp people. Maybe it was that I felt I could hold onto something mysterious: that there were these mysterious things: monsters, aliens that I felt I could know or at least know something about. And by reading those books about monsters and aliens I felt that I had a way of managing them. At the least it was empowering to feel that I had a knowledge of things that were mysterious, maybe. Or it was a way of affirming the truth of how much that shapes life is unconscious.

Mystic rhythms, under northern lights or the African sun.
Primitive things stir the hearts of everyone. . . .
Mystic rhythms under city lights or a canopy of stars.
We feel the powers and we wonder what they are. . . .
We feel the push and pull of restless rhythms from afar.
-Neil Peart, “Mystic Rhythms” (Rush, Power Windows)

Few of my peers accepted the stories of literal monsters below the surface of factual lakes. Looking back, does it just show how little they thought of the reality of things shaping our lives that went on unspoken, impossible to challenge because they were impossible to articulate, unless in ways that could be dismissed as childish? Were my peers more interested in finding a place in the order where they could have comfort, find a place at the table, gain the favor of the king, a seat on the bench in the mead hall? Some of them were obviously going somewhere with their lives in a way that I wasn't. Some seem to have set themselves up pretty comfortably after having passed all the requirements set by that unconscious beast.

Ich bin das letzte Biest am Himmel.
-Blixa Bargeld, “Letztes Biest (am Himmel)” (Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch)

The school leviathan swirls over us like the clouds – not out of a death-eater skull, because that would show too plainly what it was up to. Some sort of imperial Chinese dragon. A superior force hovering over like a facile god: above=greater, superior in every literal sense, self-evidently our ruler. The heavens where the invisible being dwells in a place no scientific probing can ever hope to discover (another reason why I was susceptible to cryptozoology? And the shame at seeing the extents of credulity to which faith might lead was keener for my friends than for me?), and whose dictates are to be obeyed without question.

The waters above the firmament as well as those below: those unconscious processes, the mystic rhythms or the sinister forces that drove us, were not just subterranean. Subterranean were the forces that set my peers against me, that drove our conflicts with each other, that tried to find expression in what the ready guide in the celestial voice (Peart) made permissible and possible. There were unconscious forces above us that ruled over those below, and made the vessel in which the lower forces cycled and fermented.

Ancient idolatries born of natural psyche are wholesome and benevolent compared to the modern ones born of the machine which made bold to exist in the spirit instead of obeying (Rainer Maria Rilke). And it is one of the saddest ironies to me that those who shave their faces and straighten their ties should ally themselves so fully with the modern idolatries in denouncing the ancient ones as wicked, should assert that the God who brought the human psyche into being is identical with that leviathan which swirls invisibly in the skies above the school building and the skyscraper, the one that cooks children in its vessel that I don't want to call hermetic. A celestial dragon that wears smiling masks but puts the lid on us in the pot, fires below, heating the waters of our psyche in an industrial recipe. Some of the dragon's acolytes have written cookbooks and now their heirs are following those recipes, without question, because this dragon is a god to be obeyed without question. We leave the judgment to the experts, we defer to something above us, also unknowable.

This is hard, because certainly the true God is also unknowable at the core, but I hold to a segment of Rod that Nephi wrote: he doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world. I also think of Alma's seed metaphor: something is true because it is light, is discernible. It leads you along but in a way that you see plainly, even if it is only one step at a time. A kindly light leading through a dark night, instead of a prideful, garish day (John Henry Newman) – I have always found that image of the garish day to be very interesting in light of our habitual symbolism of day and light. Spiritual metaphors are like language: if one talks about above=good, below=bad, light=good, dark=bad, that's a discreet system. Within its own boundaries, those signs are valid, but it's not a universal truth, like a map might show Minnesota as purple and it works within the map, but the land isn't really that color.

The Earth's core is a second sun underground, the cthonic sun? The invisible sun?

There has to be an invisible sun. It gives its heat to everyone.
There has to be an invisible sun that gives us hope when the whole day's done.
-Sting, “Invisible Sun” (The Police, Ghost in the Machine)

Like Robert Ingersoll I want to stand on a rock of surety in this: there is a plainness like Nephi says, a basic benevolence or rightness that is discernible to everyone, the capacity to spot a naked emperor; and that this doesn't ever truly die even if we ignore it. I want to believe that no matter how deep we might try to bury this, it will keep speaking to us, and I accept that its voice speaking like familiar spirits out of the dust (Isaiah), coming out of those deep layers might sound so spooky that we will be even more likely to fear it, shun it. We could trivialize it (like using Tibetan monks' chants for Hallowe'en sound effects), or we could condemn it as evil in the same hasty judgment that one of my youth leaders showed in saying Queensrÿche's Batman-like logo looked Satanic. Or my fear that King Crimson's “Thrak” and “VROOM VROOM: Coda” were Satanic when I first heard them – and my roommate said as much: “this is Satan music!”

It certainly was eye-opening music that King Crimson gave me: they beguiled me, and I did eat. (And then learned about Thrace, which has Turkish-influenced folk music in asymmetrical meters. Robert Fripp referenced Bulgarian music as part of his European musical heritage. Like I wrote before: orcs-Turks.) Here was something that gave eloquent voice to those immeasurable monsters in the deep. And over time, I have learned that some of them indeed are our allies.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes (no typecast this time, sorry)

An adolescent's concept of the middle ages, or an adolescent boy's concept: how many are like mine? A lot of my imagination has always centered around food, and my fantasies of Medieval meals owed their bulk to the pot roast dinners we often had in my family while I was growing up. There seemed something anachronistic and archaic about a huge hunk of meat on a platter; I think this is universal, judging by the portrayals I've seen in popular media and the wide appeal of turkey drumsticks at Renfaires. Eating large quantities of meat is typically understood as a manly taste, and there is something nearly exclusively masculine about the appeal of a mythical Dark Ages that goes hand in hand with an enjoyment of fantasy role-playing games and their derivative fiction, as well as the accompanying art that teeters on the edge of the pornographic. It's more cave man than anything, and that adolescent male attraction to the Dark Ages has little to do with chronology and almost everything to do with the shagginess that Umberto Eco astutely pointed out in “Dreaming of the Middle Ages.” Cave men with castles for caves and iron swords instead of flint axes. Yet somehow their women achieve modern nutrition and hygiene.

(A Dungeons & Dragons manual I once had, Creative Campaigning, suggested setting a campaign in a stone age and included a reduced magic system to go along with the primitive conditions. I now think that's totally backward: the more primitive the technology and economy, the more pervasive the magic. That game designers should fail to see that speaks to the psychological, historical and mythological ignorance of their society.)

Since in my childhood home we generally had mashed potatoes and gravy with pot roast, I took for granted the Medieval character and even provenance that I projected on them. Not just mashed potatoes but those soggy ones that have been cooked with beef and onions in a slow cooker, absorbing the juice. The whole package of meat, onions and potatoes, whether the meat stays in a chunk or gets cut up for stew, is unconsciously imported into masculine fantasies. In the past few years I've done NaNoWriMo there's been a running joke about stew on the fantasy forum, stemming probably from a question in David J. Parker's Fantasy Novelist's Exam: “Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an 'on the road' meal?”

Even to this day, when I hear or read the word “Lombard” I have to fight to keep the taste and feeling of mashed potatoes and Tabasco sauce out of my mouth. That particular association comes from history books I read when I was 17: the fall of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the desert fathers. But they said nothing about food, so all throughout I held in my mind a picture of barbarians newly established in appropriated Roman castelli, eating mashed potatoes. This was also shortly after I had taken a great liking to Tabasco sauce and often put it on my mashed potatoes, mixing it in until they turned pink. So for me the Dark Ages came to taste like two American things that were unknown in Europe at that time. I didn't know that; I had only the vaguest idea of the history of food and didn't realize how enormously important staple food crops are in economy, technology and politics, what a difference potatoes really made in Europe in the modern era. My interest in history was a means to an end of fertilizing fantasy; it still is to a great extent, as I think it should be for everyone if the world is to change for the better. But my fantasies then were more narcissistic than the utopian dreams that my spiritual conversions have since engendered, and I had less factual knowledge to help me emerge from the ethnocentric Anglo-American adolescent dreams that I swam in.

So I didn't know the difference between old world and new world crops. I don't want to pin the whole rap for that on Tolkien: as a mythical world, Middle Earth has no reason to pretend to any historical accuracy, being a mythical creation (and Sam cooking rabbit stew in Ithilien makes sense in its context).

But the way the fantasy genre has evolved since then has led to the irresponsible behavior lampooned so well in the Fantasy Novelist's Exam: trying to copy your inspirations without doing your research. Over the past few years there's been a lot of debate online about the race or color of characters in fantasy fiction vis-a-vis “historical accuracy.” I haven't dug deeply into that or followed very closely, mostly because it has always seemed self-evident to me that if you're writing or playing fantasy then you don't need to be “historically accurate.” But if you are writing a fantasy actually set in medieval Europe, then you're obligated to take into account the relations of trade, religion and scholarship that brought people of different races in contact with each other then and there. As a teenager I got an education about Saracens from Judith Tarr's Ars Magica. That novel was published in 1989, and of course Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels with their multiracial cast are even older, and not beholden to any concerns for historical accuracy, whatever shallow resemblance their props might have to medieval stuff.

Is the stereotype of a medieval European fantasy landscape – full of castles, monsters, knights errant and damsels in distress all white – more of a notion in the minds of amateur male authors than a reflection of how the genre really goes? It might go back to Ariosto after all, as I mentioned in a previous post: Orlando Furioso is a classic adolescent male fantasy and its European point of view recoils in disgust from black characters and even paints the Princess of Cathay as blond. But I'm not well-read in modern fantasy; I hardly touched it for years until I started on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series about 11 years ago. It was a welcome re-entry for me because of all that it does right: a multi-racial cast, world-wide trade networks over millennia of history (so potatoes, tobacco etc. make sense, though he keeps maize and tomatoes isolated in the desert to add color in winking asides), and only the most superficial resemblance to “medieval Europe.” It's such a popular series I guess I figured it was typical of how the genre developed while I wasn't looking (I wonder if he was inspired at all by Delany's subversive Return to Neverÿon series with its blond barbarians and child empress).

I fear I'm wrong, based on what I have read from people about what is considered “typical” fantasy – people who I assume have read much more of it than I have. I might like to call it something like White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes: adopting medieval trappings like long swords, armor and castles, and even trying to make these as “accurate” as you can, while blithely including in your misty “northern European” setting blatant anachronisms like potatoes (or pumpkins, like I saw in the Gargoyles TV cartoon series), sewers, cheap soap, or the grosser absurdities like chicks in chainmail . . . but keeping everyone white (with the possible exception of black-skinned evil underground elves) because, forsooth, there were no black people in northern Europe “back then!” This does deserve criticism as narrow-minded: there's not much excuse for it in this century, and I think it's the real butt of Parker's jokes in his exam, much more than Robert Jordan's feminist heroines. White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes might draw from Tolkien, but it leaves off from the mythic resonance that gave his work its sense, settling its roots more in modern American experience. WBFwP is a product of 20th century industrialized middle-class teenage life, along with drive-through fast food, high school romance movies and prog rock. It's gratifying to think that I might extrapolate from my own psychic experience to understand the appeal of a typical and popular genre, but it's sad to think that it should be so typical.

 I have to state that my experience with fantasy as a teenager was more with gaming than fiction, and I wonder how many others have experienced similar. The “Fantasy Novelist's Exam” takes obvious aim at the practice of importing game mechanics into novels, as in the series built on the D&D franchise: Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and probably others that I don't know about. I read Dragonlance books as a teenager and I bristled when others dissed them. At the time I found a lot of value in them (I liked them much more than Forgotten Realms which I abandoned halfway through the first volume). I don't know what I would think of them if I were to re-read them now; my intent here isn't to judge their literary value. I believe that, whatever literary value they may achieve, they still ought to be considered as belonging to the gaming world, separate from “the fantasy genre” as a whole, inasmuch as authors working in the wider genre, though they may be building from common tropes, have more leeway than those who are bound to a set of game mechanics. Some things are more appropriate for games than for novels, and I've become convinced that what makes for good gaming and good fiction are usually opposites.

How many of the authors writing in the freedom of the wider fantasy genre have really taken that leeway though? Again, my ignorance. I turned my back on the genre because I judged it as I have seen it judged by others: overrun by white boys who want to rove through northern European or North American-looking settings, slaying monsters (including orcs who sound like Turks, or is it the other way around?), eating meat and potatoes, and making love to centerfold models in fur or chainmail bikinis – all without encountering inconveniently different people who would challenge the comfortable demography of their actual suburban lives. I might have judged unfairly; I would like to think so – again, I'd like to think that those white boys (whom I can totally empathize with, alas) are mostly the fans and amateur writers rather than the published authors.

But whatever the genre's past might have been, I'm discovering exciting new work by authors like N.K. Jemisin, whose Hundred Thousand Kingdoms I recently read. There's some fantasy for you! - drawn from an obviously wide foundation in psychology, politics, economics; and a rich life experience of living, working and studying in many places. I've recently read others whose settings are modeled on earthly history and geography away from the misty wilds: the eastern Mediterranean for Megan Whalen Turner, and the urban Renaissance for Rachel Hartman. They show evidence of conscientious historical research and that is gratifying, even if they come across more as fenced gardens than as worlds (how much more do I have a right to expect? The pioneers of the novel form itself didn't do years of exhaustive world-building: they focused on a few people in one time and place). There seems to be a growing appreciation for historically-modeled fantasy, which is what I started trying to write over 10 years ago. I'd better finish it soon; I'd hate to miss the right moment to get it published.