Monday, March 10, 2008

Miscellany 1: Stars and Nuts

Why do the heathens rage?

"The horror of getting up is unparalleled, and I am filled with amazement every morning when I find that I have done it." -- Lytton Strachey

My first question is about the morning star. If you're up before dawn, and it's easy to be up before dawn these days, as the clocks have changed, but the sun hasn't, then you've seen, there in the East, a bright point. That's Venus. It's a "wandering star," because it seems to wiggle in the sky, unlike the "fixed stars."

The Babylonians and the Greeks saw the planet as the very essence of the feminine. The former called it Ishtar, and the latter called it Aphrodite. Why they associated the morning with women is beyond me, as both also associated the Moon, for pretty doggone obvious reasons, with women (because both are unapproachable, of course). In Latin, it was called Lucifer, the light bringer, and in the Masai, it's known as the "orphan boy."

Why is Venus important? It's important because it is above the horizon just before dawn, of course, and because it's easily seen in the early evening before disappearing. That makes it somewhat mysterious, but it also makes it important.

I don't care.

I do care about the Fallen Angel's association, because it suggests, like the Masai, that its position as not-night and not-day is an ejection. If you had to figure out why this very bright star was there some of the time and seemed to be away from the night proper and away from the day, you could either conclude that it was the Sun's harbinger or that it was suffering some sort of punishment. Thus, the fallen angel thing works.

What bothers me enough to write, though, is a really awful explanation of the importance of Venus I got from edumucational filims back when I were a laddie. You see (or I saw) shaggy cavemen in hairy clothes grunting in a cavern opening, and a Voice of Authority (a Metatron simulacrum) saying, "Primitive man lived in fear of the darkness, and this is why the morning star was so important to him. It assured him that day would return, and this is why tribes worshiped the morning star, which we know is actually the planet Venus."

Similarly, the explanation for the Fenris Wolf and such is that solar eclipses frightened the stupid clods and made them afraid that the light would never return again, and therefore they had to come up with the wolf, although in some places and people the Sun is the evil one.

Now tell me, reader, when you have noticed a solar eclipse, how worried did you get? Did you have weeks of worry and uncontrollably sweaty palms? Did your crops wilt, and did you fear that they would? When night has fallen, have you worried, even once, that it would never end? Now, I know that there are experiences that can make you think that the night will never end, but that's different. Indeed, Myles na gCopaleen said that he knew a man who was caught at a poetry reading who ripped his own face off as the only course commensurate with honor. However, have you noticed any animals, even the ones that are most susceptible to getting gobbled up, exhibiting any signs of fear over the possibility of eternal night? Well, I haven't.

As I looked up at Venus this morning, I noticed that my dog was peeing on the grass and sniffing where the neighbor Dachshund had peed, that she was intrigued by his medical conditions and concerned that he might be making an incursion into her property. To prevent this hegemony was her greatest concern. She didn't notice Venus and couldn't be persuaded to care. The invasion of the Dachshunds is much more relevant, she tells me. Why on earth would our ancestors be dumber than dogs, dumber than birds, dumber than deer, and dumber than cows? Why would they build civilization on inferential logic, only to forget every evening?

You know why early civilizations cared about Venus? It's because our circadian rhythms are 23.5 hr, and the day is 24 hr. In other words, left to our own devices, we wake up a bit earlier than we should, or we go to bed a bit later than we should. Before electric lights, guess which one was more common? So, there you are, donning your shaggy coat and wondering why no one has invented haircuts, and you need to go out to do some violence: when do you start out? You want to get to the place before the enemy (whether it's a Woolly Mastodon or the Persian Army), and so you pay careful attention to the light bringer. This is not because you're in the mood for love, but because you need to get going before dawn to be there at dawn. Far from grunting, autistic, amnesiac subanimals, the earlier civilizations were strategists who knew how to steal a march.Topic 2: Stars

The other thing pressing on my mind lately is how irate people get when high profile actors and singers and actresses and spokespeople endorse a political cause or other. They get furious. They declare curses upon whole cities, industries, and denounce all previous films and songs because the composers or actors in them disagree. (Warning: many of those links are to extremely nasty sites.) It's quite something.

I was thinking about this as I considered telling a student who is interested in sad music about Joy Division's "Atmosphere," (link is to YouTube video) which is one of the saddest things around (although "The Eternal" (nicest of the sites, there) is probably even more elegiac). I was thinking that this student is very determinedly conservative, and I realized that I could tell her that Ian Curtis was actually very much a conservative, too. I then thought about how I found his politics surprising, dubious, etc., and I realized that, in my own way, I was falling into the trap.

It wasn't the first time.

I'm a Jonathan Swift specialist, which means that I am also an Alexander Pope specialist. I recently gave a paper where I discussed how miserably Pope failed in the job of theodicy in The Essay on Man and how the cheerful, tug-your-forelock view that seems to be espoused in the poem is not Pope's, that Pope's view is actually just a big melange. The problem is that these guys were conservatives, and I'm not. Now, with Swift, it's easier. Swift was more of an anti-change person than a conservative. He didn't want to go back to anything. He just thought that all the people coming along with ideas to improve the world were venal, stupid, and arrogant, and he was right. In fact, he would be somewhat liberal today, as the people he fought as liberals are now the conservatives. Pope, though, was much more of a power magnet. He liked to be on the winning side, and he liked order, and he wished that order liked him more.

My temptation was to remake them, to save them from their limited perspective, to either make them secretly like me or to make excuses. However, in the end, I had to remember that what Swift and Pope and Fielding stood for lost. What Aphra Behn wanted was wrong. I had to get over it.

I think, when people get all upset about their radio stars or screen players having a view, it's because they confuse enjoying the art with endorsing the artist. That singer's song sounded just like your life, so she simply must be like you. When she isn't, you get mad at her managers, or you get mad that she was only pretending to be like you. She isn't "really from Texas," or isn't "really country," and Clooney must be "trying something," and Susan Sarandon must be "on a secret mission," just as Jane Fonda was a "secret agent." It's the fact that the person isn't like you, and yet you identified with him or her, that makes for the hatred.

It doesn't help that, when we read a novel, we have to project ourselves as readers into the text. We have to identify and assume an illusionistic mantle. With films and television, the illusion is cast at us: This is You, and it takes only a child's amount (or a caveman's grunt's worth) of imagination to make the connection. When you hear a song like "Atmosphere," where your own feelings of desolation match entirely the singer's, it becomes inevitable that you identify. When you do all that, when you become the artist and assume the artist as you, to find out that the artist is actually Not Like You can be traumatic.

There isn't much to do, when all is said and done, except hope.

We can hope that all of those throwing DVD's and CD's into bonfires get out of their childish inability to dissociate themselves from the experience of art, although such dissociation diminishes the pleasure. We can hope for the rise of a less totalizing artistic experience than the film. We can hope for a diminution of the star system in music so that fools don't get a chance. It's a vain hope, though. Congregations fall when their pastors turn out to be diddling themselves or the church secretary, and fans have a crisis when the star turns out to be Bruce Willis or George Clooney, and that's how things stand. The message is the message still, and the art is still as pure and true and as much You as it was before. Even in an age so overdosed on irony that no one knows what they mean, primitive identification is the normative value.

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