Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

The well known Christmas azaleas
Today is Independence Day. Congratulations to all of us.

In American Samoa, today is two days, as the islanders decided that the calendar should go from December 29th to December 31st, with no December 30th in between. They can do that, and they did. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, they "lost December 30, 2011 forever." That's right: it's gone, and it's NEVER COMING BACK! What's more, they lost Friday.

"The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation." -- Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #203

We just had Christmas, of course, and I am sure you all enjoyed my constipated philosophical traction-pull on time and tide. Based on the number of comments I got, I would say that it managed to make a month at Mal-Wart shopping for Air Jordans seem like a healthy occupation. It's ok. At least I agree with you: it was boring. This time, I promise to only be repetitive.

Do you remember December 31st, 1999 or 2000? Did you feel a tingle when the clock switched from 11:59 to 12:00 AM? If so, were you touching an electrical wire or engaging in a sex act? When you woke up the next morning, did you find that all of your prior notions were subtly different? Did you find that your attitudes toward, say, cutting and pasting information in a business report or a scholarly study were softened? Did you notice that your memory was worse (permanently, I mean)? Did you say, "Hey! I'm not in the same country I went to bed in! I feel like the nation-state has lost its boundaries as a meaningful geopolitical unit?"

I ask this because, just as "by the year 2000, the #1 problem for Americans will be too much leisure time," so also "in the twenty-first century" everything has changed. You didn't notice? You thought that these things were slowly moving, some on a glacier and others on a surfboard? Well, that's because you weren't looking at the calendar the right way. You were being Samoan.

Call this the "Samoan version" of the same photo.
I don't blame you if you ignore the quotations I sometimes include in my essays. Johnsonian quotations in particular can sound so balanced as to be self-negating and nugatory. However, his quote this time is about the present and how we're not busy enough (by the year 1800, excess leisure will be the #1 problem for the English, someone surely predicted) to occupy our full attention, and so we either remember the past or dream of the future. For Sam the young man, that was a cue to wag a finger at the folly of vain imaginings and delusions. For me, though, it's something else.

I've made the point many times that you rarely or never see a map with "You Are Here" at the corner. That label is almost always in the center, because the sneaky truth is we make the maps, not nature. The terrain is as it is, but we organize it for our maps, and we make sure to spin the world's expanse out from our observing pens. The map is a reference in two senses -- we refer to it, but also it is a marker of a spot we occupied when we constructed it.

The calendar is a reference as well. Time is the thing we live in, through, and with. It courses through the blood firing out from the heart and fitfully returning. It allows all that metabolism to take place. It makes for growing and growing old. It says warm and cold. It doesn't care about our calendars. Instead, our calendars try desperately to match it.

He put away childish things

The New Year comes along, by the calendar, but nothing will change this time more than another time. Any given packet of time that we call by name is just an agreement -- a handshake whereby we agree on when to arrive and depart the party. However, we can use these names because we all learned them, all agreed to them. If the town clock were ten minutes fast, and every citizen set his watch by it, the clock would not be ten minutes fast until someone from another town came by.

Samoa has done what any one may do. They have decided which position in the calendar they will agree to. They had been in the United States's day, and now they wish to be in Australia's day. The BBC World Service has been interviewing people and expecting them to act the way that the British did when they updated their calendar by Act of Parliament. in 1752, when the British were supposed to have rioted and demanded their eleven days of life back. The Samoans seem to be "happy campers" with regard to the calendar change, and well they should be. They have made their own decision on where they are, and when.

Time as it goes through us, as nature makes it and as it pumps through the veins of the world, cannot be argued with. As I grow older, and as my charge has new complaints, I know that there is no arguing with biology, no prevailing on time. If the weather says that we will have water and sun enough for azaleas on Christmas, then so it will be, and if January 1 happens, the world does not know or care.

We are not twenty-first century women and men, nor twentieth century. Like calendar dates, those are references -- words meant only to themselves (the words) stick to one position while their subjects (time, nature, people) move on. You are free, reader! No Mayan, and no abacus clack of days, can master time as it flies, as it slows, as it endures, as it pulses and beats upon our broken shores, nor signal when we recollect or anticipate. We are free of dates, days, and time even as much as we are their subjects.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Let us make it clear: this is not about the Christmas spirit, or about the solstice, or about a Fox News personality's paranoid frisson. This is, first and foremost, about time. “Time and tide,” we say, when the words are synonyms in Old English. When it's “Eastertide” or “Christmastide,” the “tide” means “season” and “time.” This, then, is about Advent tide, and why that isn't Christmas.

I will acknowledge right off that I am peculiar. I am an anti-rationalist (which has nothing to do with irrationality, by the way) and a Christian humanist, and so I'm attracted to mysticism. I follow a long parade of better minds in this regard. From Kierkegaard to Wittgenstein, philosophers who have dealt with the insane limitations of enquiry have come to the conclusion that IF there is a Something Grander, reason won't go there.

However, liking mysticism is rather like being an inhabitant of Greenland. Someone lives there, you know, but they'd have a devil of a time getting you to visit.

Like Anglo-Saxon, Greek had more than one word for time. “Chronos” is the word used for time in general, and it's the customary word. However, the New Testament famously (ok, famously in the circles of people who read Greek) uses the other word, “kairos.” Even if you reject the tradition of Christian writing on the New Testament, the word “kairos” carried with it a sense of “right time” or “particular moment.” Therefore, a translator might say, “And at one particular time she was to be delivered,” but that can also mean, “She was due” or “When it was correct” (Luke 2:6).

W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (or vice versa) have an essay in The Dyer's Hand about /kairos/, and I read it when I was young and impressionable. I didn't like it. I hated it. Consequently, it has informed my outlook ever since. Auden ties the breakthrough between supernatural reality and quotidian reality to separate cycles of time, whereby our natural, plodding time will assemble itself through myriad acts of free will and necessity into these few shocks of transcendent history, when God's history and our history converge in the “fullness of time.” (It turns out that I am a liar or a doddering fool, as I have searched electronic versions of The Dyer's Hand and found nothing, but I have found “For the Time Being” by the author. I have also discovered that Kierkegaard had quite a bit to say about “fullness of time.”)

Precision is impossible with these concepts because of how fluid they were. W. B. Yeats wanted to find history circling itself in “gyres,” where there would be moments of contact between the coils of the unwound spring. These contact points would be transcendent, as a single grand narrative played out over and over again. The French Symbolists, especially as they suffered revival by T. S. Eliot, saw a second world's signification lying beneath the scattered and broken objects of the war-ravaged landscape. While they silently held onto a priesthood of art by having the Poet be the one who could see the hidden, they also overtly secularized transcendence. It was supernatural, anti-rational, profound in the literal sense, and timeless.

By The Four Quartets, Eliot's mysticism was more classically Christian. He had, instead of a counter-narrative in life, the counter-narrative of humanity and, even below that, a rhyming, pulsing sense of spirit in time. I think Eliot would not have liked Kierkegaard, or anything that denied essence, but the two visions fit well.

The reason I am rambling through all of this is to show that this feeling, “like a splinter in your mind,” is hoary and persistent. Some of our more sensitive and thoughtful people have also found in it not a grand illusion, but a grand truth. For myself, I have to go back to the real before I can find anything super-real.

Metaphors of Life
How do we speak of life and time? We speak of the “circle of life” and the “river of time.” Sometimes we use a metaphor of a train, a journey, or growth for life, and the interconnected events of nature are sometimes phrased as a balance. The Magna Mater is kind of rare these days, but sometimes Mother Nature shows up, if only in advertisements for personal hygiene products.

The circle of life is both value neutral and nullified. It is purposeless, perpetual, and indifferent. We can only break it by caring or evading it. Further, it is a metaphor of biology and science, as it focuses upon eating and reproducing as the meaning of living. Since every time we speak the language, our language speaks us, this metaphor betrays our desires or infects them.

The “river” of time has been around for thousands of years. While Heraklitus might himself have meant to propose a stoical and mystical end, the metaphor is quietistic. It is fatal, as it suggests the particulate nature of the speaker, the hopelessness of understanding, much less commenting upon, the current, and the inevitability of events.

I was out in the managed wilderness yesterday, and I closed my eyes and listened. To listen, there must be sound instead of noise, and being far from a highway allowed me to hear things as they were without our intentionality splattered across them.
Digression for pastoralism
I apologize for being a self-indulgent jerk (it's ok: I forgive me), but this is what occurred to me while I was out there.
Most of all, the birds and the wind sound. The wind does not sigh, at least not here, not often. It swells a chorale, the chords shifting gracefully like curtains sweeping across the land, and the tree limbs and leaves, those freed corpses rolling about as tides of memnto mori until they bed in graves about the path, sing and shake rhythm and counter melody beside. And when the wind falls silent, it is only thinking of the next long syllable to play on the world. The lake's surface knows in its body what we cannot hear in our ears: there is always a breeze, for what else is the current?

The birds play tree specific notes. Sp! Sp! Is all the straw-blended sparrows say, until one says, Food. As each peeps and sings, the songs clash, but that mixture and burble is the hillside in winter. Besides, the loudest call, and most common, comes from the one who respects no season: the red tail hawk who is always complaining to no one in particular about the one that got away. When it is silent, it is only because it has no complaint.

The respiration of nature
Nature's order is each of the things we have said of it, but it is something more basic, too, something we carry in ourselves. It is wax and wane, ebb and surge. The natural world respirates, and respiration carries within it the cycle and the motion, for we never have the same breath twice.

When we humans set out order, we plan, and we will. We intend, and we let either a goal or a past event (history) set forth our intention, but the natural world accommodates by allowing any individual item to be whatever it is and still set the growth/release model.

The Anglo-Saxon tide is a period of time, a season, and an area of time when things are right. Like /kairos/, it is fullness, fitness, appropriateness. It can also be “area of time surrounding on a calendar,” but that is only true in a very limited sense. This is Christmas tide.

The Advent, for Christians, is not a time for simple meanings. The signal events in the Christian story are the ones most difficult, most ambivalent, calling for joy and grief simultaneously, for awareness of birth and death. I heard a young man pray in thanks for Christmas, because “Fathagod” it was “the time when you took all that sin on yourself.” For that young man and his dualist theology, he could only think of Advent as the birth of the crucifixion. The life of Jesus was hardly there at all.

The birth's meaning is far greater than his understanding, I think. As Auden and the others were saying, this is a moment, for Christians, when the three times intersect, when the natural order and the narrative order and the divine shatter. The moment of incarnation is parallel, proleptic, and also unique. Mary's response to Gabriel in the annunciation mirrors Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and the taking up of her flesh mirrors the words of institution at the last supper. (In other words, the flesh is important, in all its suffering.) At the same time, it is when the first sin, when Eve and Adam wanted to know what evil was and got their wish, is given the complex answer in the new humanity. All of that is involved, and so every sign repeats, leaps forward, calls to something from before, and evokes in such a way that any effort at pinning it down to “Happy baby” or “Whew, the cross is coming” or “He will ascend” is missing everything for trying at something.

No one knows when Jesus was born, not even the year. The traditional mass and feast for Jesus was set for December 25th in the west. For many Sundays prior, traditional lectionaries have readings to prepare for the feast, as this is not a question of Christmas, but of the Advent, nor of a day nor time, but of a tide.

Monday, December 19, 2011

First miracle/ First sin

"If the light is,
It is because God said, 'Let there be light'" - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "At Sunrise"

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that light is the first miracle, so my constant reader will not be surprised that my title refers to that. In fact, I don't care if my readers are pagans, Zoroastrians, or Raelians, (a church whose founder names himself after "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" and recruits via "go topless day" is something North America deserves), the Hebrew account of Genesis is an amazing organization. I personally do not view it as a scientific or historical organization, or at least not as we routinely use those words, but that is because the Hebrews were quite capable of writing science, quite willing and able of writing history, and they had these genres already (the question goes to 10th and 6th centuries, extant texts, and internal indications of generic conventions that would mark a structural history). They simply didn't need Genesis to be either of them in our sense. (As I said, this is a personal view and not one I want to push. It has nothing to do with the foolhardy "evolution" spat, either.)

It should be apparent by now that I'm attracted to mysticism, but mysticism is something like Greenland: you know that it's there, and some people love it, but it's really hard to convince anyone else to visit. The creation story in Genesis is logical, emphatic, and also reflecting some pretty deep mystical realities. In other words, what may be true in physical science and what is certainly true in perception, affect, and interpersonal communication are sometimes at odds, and, when that happens, it is better to know the latter than to insist on the former. People who insist on mathematical and physics-based realities when the hot confusion of the world throws dung at them tend to end up in a wooden shack in Montana. (That the Unibomber was a mathematician has more than some logic to it.) (Don't take this from me, by all means. Ask Sartre (both of those links were interesting) and read that nasty little Camus's tale of shooting innocent Arab men.)

In the case of the first miracle, though, we're in luck, because physicists shouldn't have too much of a fit if I say that light is a miracle. I am probably wrong (and we live in a probabilistic universe), but my understanding is that there is light and dark. The paradigm of "on/off" still applies. Light either is or is not, and it does not allow for "0.5 of light" or "potential light." There isn't a calculation with "0.2 photon applied to 2.4 roetgens."

June, 1998
We have to retreat, when we want light, to "let it be." We either have light, or we cry out for it. We either have relief from light in a time of true dark, or we suffer for the overload. Either way, light itself is too basic to be understood in any component part. All we may do is accept it as a whole and find attributes to it, like color, wavelength, and diffusion, but it is either there or not.

I said, above, that Genesis goes in emphatic order, and you probably thought that I meant it went from least to most important. In a sense, it did -- a moral sense -- but in another sense it is organized from most powerfully complex to least. Light out of the continuum of darkness, the land from the continuum of sea, the starry sky heavens from the terrestrial, then grasses before angiosperms, division of terrestrial time into its familiar seasons, days, nights, etc., fish and birds (and God told them to multiply that day, and by the next day they have populated the seas and skies and earth, which is kind of a clue that the readers of the story originally would not have thought of 24 hours), then we get cattle and insects, and then man in God's image. This order reflects the systems that require greatest interdependence, in many cases, to those that rely upon the prior. Man is the last and least in some sense -- the island creation, sitting atop the mass on the throne of the garden. (Genesis 2, you know, tells a different story.)

The order presented in the two accounts is harmonized. It is essential. In this creation, there is a dynamic order at work rather than a rigid one. Like light, like respiration, there is an order of wax and wane, growth and sustenance that needs no rule in order to reflect a very real rule.

As for the first sin, we all know what it was. It was the desire to understand, to create, to "be as gods, knowing good from evil" (Gen. 3:11). It wasn't any apple. the disobedience is in the acting on a desire to take on the responsibility God had of knowing what lies on the other side of creation. Inside the paradiso, mankind is part of creation, united with it in being innocent -- unable to create and murder, unable to create goodness because unaware of evil. The enemy offers them the chance to be creators, to take on the responsibility, to wear God's shoes, to find out about what one creates from and what parenting keeps at bay.

So we have an elaborate doctrine of original sin. (If you're dusty on why babies are damned, etc., then read that: it's the Roman Catholic doctrine summed up pretty well. This is not my view, but it's the view that all the other churches in the west are reacting against.)

There are a lot of things to say about the first sin. All I want to focus on, though, is the fact that we can't handle the truth.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality. -- T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

We cannot handle very much, indeed, of that sort of reality, because we remain inside of the created universe, the physical universe, and if we ask questions about its nature, about the state of "not/is," we are asking ourselves to take on a perspective beyond that state. We cannot question God without being like unto gods, and we cannot be like unto gods so long as we are ourselves. We are imperfect. We do not know, any longer. We do not hear the song, rise and fall with the divine breath, see the light behind light.

Our fellows read Paul's epistles and fixate on the change of "nature" from "sin nature" to a heavenly one and miss entirely the fact that we still see as through a glass, darkly. We're still small vessels with cracks in them. Paul's epistles are like,
"...that wonderful piece de Interpretatione which has the faculty of teaching its readers to find out a meaning in everything but itself, like commentators on the Revelations who proceed prophets without understanding a syllable of the text.”  – Jonathan Swift, Tale of a Tub, Section II

In every thing that we do, we repeat our first sin. We now can create, but broken things. Our hands, hearts, and minds are incomplete, broken, and so we have the urge we asked for, the knowledge of both the chaos and the order, but we only make ourselves over and over again.

We strive for Eden and make dictatorships, because our orders never manage dynamism. Worse, we amplify ourselves in our creations. We magnify our desires with our assemblies, exaggerate our loneliness in our social networks, and testify loudly about the brittleness of our attainment when we claim to have found solutions.

I fear this has become a rant. I did not start out that way. I, too, will never overcome flaw.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Welcome, Bald Spot

"This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more."--John Berryman, "Dreamsong 149"
I detailed, some way back, my adventures with andropause and its ready remedy. I suspect that either that remedy (shooting myself in the arse with testosterone just like a big leaguer) or the present semester has triggered the pate of my fathers. All men lose a great deal of hair and fret that they are going bald. It is their version of worrying about getting fat. However, there was, has been, and is a sudden increase in the weight of the sink's tribute. Some people have pay toilets; men have pay sinks.

The added chemicals of someone or something's testicles could have convinced my body that it had done the deeds of manhood that make a bald spot apt. I haven't. No children, house, career, retirement, heartlessness conceived as 'toughness' and boasted of as sincerity, like Mitt Romney strapping the family dog to the roof of the car, but I have had stress.

[This section link free. Ed.]
Two years ago, nearly, my employer's inability to pay interest on the loan it took out to cover interest on a loan from a very controlling lender (a certain religious group) meant that all of its money was going to covering the viggorish, and so the place began to collapse. 20% of the faculty lost their jobs. An entire division was erased. The process took half a year, so there were six months of terror before the blades swung and the bodies fell to the ground.

A year later, the loss of a fifth of the faculty and the crippling of reputation had not, miraculously, gotten the interest payments to go down, and so the president left. This meant that the people who owned the primary loan -- the ones whose loan the other loans had been taken out to prevent having to deal with -- asserting control. Their move was to fire another 20% of the faculty and to institute increasing demands of religious purity. ("Purity" is an important term.) (To me, it sounds like a medicalized inspection of a wedding night bed.)

I won't criticize the controllers of the debt or the institution. Both rounds of firings were suspect. In the first case, other than the division, all of those let go had a medical diagnosis of cancer. The people doing the firing can't have known that, of course. The Trustees would have no knowledge of it. The only catch is that one of the trustees who did the firing owned the health insurance company the school used. In the second case, morality of a peculiar sort appeared to be working, where videre quam esse triumphed. [No translation of the Latin? Ed.] [No, Ed. It's the NC state motto, but I'm punning on it.]

The Curious Spear fends for Chaos
 However it may be, it was. And this semester I have had the entire freshman class. (Actually, I had all but one section. However, I had one section of sophomores, so, numerically I did manage the whole first year.) I love students, love my students, and want each one to become wonderful, instead of merely a wonder. The thing is, though, that the sacred teaching load of 4/4 (eight classes a year) is now ?/?. In my case, it's 5/6. Also, the school has stopped contributing anything to retirement, has not given a raise of any sort since 2006, and now does not pay for classes beyond 4/4. This means that I am paid for four classes when I teach six. [A link to the 13th amendment, perhaps? Ed.] [Butt out, Ed.]

Even that I can say is part of the misery of life, but the truth is simply that five sections of freshmen is impossible to grade. I do not mean that I don't want to, or that I'm dragging my feet. Both of those are true, for me and any human being. Grading is obnoxious.
  1. Smart people don't like reading the same thing over and over, and grading means reading virtually the same paper covering a single assignment.
  2. Nice people do not like judging others, and grading means calling bad bad.
  3. No person likes to waste effort, and there is a deep sense that anything one says on a paper will be misunderstood or ignored.
  4. No one wants to do a bad job, and those who care about teaching want to improve the student's work by writing comments, which take a great deal of time, and yet are going to be duplicated on the next paper.
  5. Advice is like advice to someone on making a foul shot in basketball. It can be good, but it won't do any good until the person receiving it practices... a lot.
No, it's not because of that. It's simply a matter of time. Our Thanksgiving break began Friday, 11/18. I was in at work, and on the 19th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. I put in 35 hours of work in my office during break to catch up with where I should have been on grading on the 17th. It also means that I have no time to prepare new lessons for my classes, to adapt to their needs.

I have been, quite genuinely, broken down, even as two more parties have begun garnishing my wages and my benefactor brother has announced that we must move from the house.

The shaft of entropy lights like a match

It has been a semester that has, I feel, cost more than fifteen weeks of life. It has been a harrowing of my head. My soul went through its pains of isolation, meaninglessness, and all the other thrills of enmeshment long ago, I think (one can never tell about these things), but this has been a grating of the head, a wearing, scratching, frazzle. America is in a non-capitalist system right now, in a system without a name, and suffering is written across the walls.

Therefore, if my hair is burned away, my crooked smile's ugliness now braced by a flash of light from the top, then it is only fairly foul to reflect the foul unfairness.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hymn to Morning

The first miracle is light, and each day gives a microcosm of creation -- or our tales of creation must fall upon the resurrection of dawn as their inchoate and coeval models. Either way, light is the pulse and breath of awe. Before vision, and far earlier than awareness, there is light soaking and being shivered off of every thing that we will know. Thus it is that light had to be and not grow from constituent parts. Fiat lux is the only way.

 Just some trees.

In morning, crisp bird wing cracking from the limbs as each tests its voice in an alarm, a call to the tree and leaf, as the owl calls its last for mates, the sounds on the wind are indistinguishable from the hopeful light, ingrafted thoughts and breezes and glimmers, with the colors -- even the dead browns -- dipped in hue again because of the teasing fingers, the question of the light. Then especially I cannot help seeing with the special sight daylight and nightlight deny. I have to see the skyward vocal of geese as part of the rustling trees and a foil for the hammer-fall of a barking dog shouting to absent or sleeping owners that he has seen a threat. The swirl of pinestraw in the roadway is an accident of eddies in rainwater and microclimate, but in the morning light I cannot miss the way that the pinestraw has repeated the shapes of the clouds against a gray sky of ashphalt.

The swirl.

The "infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing" is not here, but only because here would become a place. From freedmen in Herculaneum to indebted and suborned Americans, men have stuck single trees in front of their houses, and the wind has shaken the trees for thousands of years. The leaves sparkle like exploding tinsel as their starved trunks swing wildly, acting as if they had a mind to break free and get out of the place at last, though the wind always slides away before the sapling can snap. . . or fly. A few more decades, and the tree will no longer try such things but will stand still, acting as if it felt nothing at all. The same wind will blow. In fact, the same wind is blowing now that blew the freedman who lived safely outside the crime and corruption of Rome, for it has never stopped. The air is always stumbling down the stairs, and we breathe the breath our heroes let fly, ourselves only rooted to one place and time and waving about.

I ask my memory and imagination for an explanation that will stick, for a metaphor that will shatter words and images and alarm the reader enough to make the fire leap, but every metaphor has been worn to the nub of catachresis. My memory and imagination come back to me, chiding like Lazarus: the reading world has better counsel than yours, so why would a court listen to one with so little wergild?

Autumn's flares

The symphony, the song, the rhapsody that remains a poem no matter how various -- every new accident becomes part of a plan that always was -- all are reflections. Each is a word in a new sung voice. Each is a hymn to the glory of God. Let some new, arbitrary, accidental, curious, ugly, sound or shape or shade fall into the light, and the light makes it part of the song, and now it was always part of the harmony, always a rest in the measure or a cross hatching in the brush stroke. Such is the greatness of the first miracle.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Challenges of Mormonism to Fundamentalists

The reactions we are encountering to Mitt Romney from "evangelical" Christians are not surprising, largely because of prior experience, for the nonreligious and apathetic and parochial. They sure don't surprise me. I actually think the pastors who say that Mormons are nice folks, but doomed to Hell, are simply following their convictions. No one in favor of tolerance has much of a position for denouncing someone whose monotheism is jealous, simply because it is jealous.

No: people in churches are allowed to think members of the congregation down the road are all heathens. Speaking as a person who is viewed locally and increasingly as "unsaved" because not having a conversion experience but rather believing in the truth of Christ Risen, I know that opposing the right of people to think what they want will do no good anyway. I also know that making fun of Baptists and Assemblies of God folks is missing the mark. The outrage is not that a group has an identity with an include/exclude criterion. That another group disagrees isn't news, is it? For how many centuries have there been groups that think of themselves as Christian but which other Christian groups either wish to or do exclude?

We don't need to start with Martin Luther for that one. We can go to the Docetists, if we want.

In churches with hierarchy, any revelation has to go through channels, as it were. Further, any logical argument with dogma must also go through the process. This means, of course, that the channels limit what gets through, and what comes out tends to look like the pipe it traveled through. Dogma strengthening bishops is approved by bishops, etc. Sometimes, though, some really revolutionary material gets through. Sometimes the power, the spirituality, or the popular spirit of a revelation or reform will overtop the levees, and reformers like Francis of Assisi or visionaries like Julian of Norwich or Juan de la Cruz or Theresea of Avilla will pass into the body and change the world.

However, when churches without "papist" hierarchy encounter revelation, they depend upon the Bible, naturally, and the congregation to discern the revelation.

 Further, the nature of the "evangelical" movement is to assume a few critical intellectual positions that are by no means common to all churches:
  1. When Jesus commissioned His disciples to go out and heal the sick and spread the news, that commissioning is open-ended to all who would follow Jesus always.
  2. When Jesus commands that His followers carry the good news of salvation to the corners of the earth, that is a specific sanctification of each believer to be an evangelist.
  3. The Apostolic Age either has never ended, because the Holy Spirit performs the same miracles now as before and the same state of "spiritual warfare" exists now as in 32 AD, or because there is a special dispensation due to "end of days" whereby a new Apostolic Age has emerged.
  4. "Witnessing," which is to say telling another person about one's own conversion story is the principle form of spreading the Good News, as this Good News is a converting news.
  5. Exposing the unbeliever to the Good News is efficacious by itself in affecting a conversion.
  6. The efficacy of the Word is known by the converting of the person from sin to non-sin, accompanied by a change of essence, whereby an old human nature is lost and a newly perfected one comes in, accompanied with a vast emotional change.

Many Christians can and do argue with several of those assumptions. This is why we have separate denominations and churches. I do not want to argue these points, except that I, myself, am growing weary of 4-6 in their effects on me. You see, I recall that Jesus also had a story about the "good seed." The seed (the Word) is good, and the sower may be fine, but that doesn't mean that there is a return.

Anyway, to return to my subject, these assumptions are very important. It means that we know the truth of the message from the response to the message. In other words, the way we know that the minister's vision and visitation were holy is that he "brings people to the Lord." Efficacy is attributed to holiness.

We have all long ago noted the consequence of this assumption. Elmer Gantry and "Dusty Rhodes" are examples of this natural, if not superstitious, habit of assuming that the person who sells a lot of units must have divine blessing. What Sinclair Lewis noted first has not changed: the emphasis on gathering bodies to the church encourages the adoption of hucksterism and puts a pressure on the minister to study advertising and psychology and sales. It takes the slight theater that is inevitable in any positioning of a priest before a church and turns it into full on circus, as the speakers go into trademark gestures, patented cadences, and jumps and leaps that would surprise an orthopedist.

The ministers are sincere, I am sure. However, the assumptions of their church put a pressure on them to conform to a Westmoreland-like body count. "Last night, forty-two young people came to the Lord!" someone gushed recently and concluded "___ is a really special speaker." Hrrrm.

So far, it probably seems more like I'm interested in belittling evangelical churches than I am explaining the heeby-jeebies they get with Mormons, but I really do need to explain these peculiarities of practical theology (beliefs about God as they are manifest in action) before I can explain. You see, if the message's validity and the messenger's holiness are both proven by the convert without any hierarchy or history to check it against, then the Mormons are frightening.

How do you -- yes, you -- explain the fact that Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the world? How do you explain the relative uprightness of the flock?

It's tough for anyone who isn't a Mormon.

I was driving today (told you all my ideas come in the morning), and I was thinking about how I could explain "kairos" in "Little Gidding," and I was reflecting on the fact that, in the 19th century, a lot of people were beginning to see History as a series of circles. I then thought, "The Mormons are big on that 'it happened before and will happen again' thing." I then thought about how that religion started and spread. Here's the problem: the foundation story of the religion is very, very... implausible [warning: link auto-plays].

So, a man in New York claims to have seen an angel who led him to buried golden tablets that he can only read with magic stones and in the bottom of a hat, and from that he can dictate the Book of Mormon, which is a sequel to, or "further adventures of," the New Testament. No one can see the golden tablets, or the magic stones, and no one sees the angel but him. The revelation consists of giving permission for multiple wives, commands for clean living (a common 19th century temperance movement feature), and gleeful mistreatment of American natives. It gains adherents, is immediately attacked, gains more, and begins moving with, and then ahead of, the frontier.

Why did it keep growing?

A person with access to "secular" theories would say that the religion incorporated many of the movements of its age and so appealed to many of the psychological and social pressures of its adherents. Such a person would point to other groups nearby who had similar calls. However, that doesn't do much. Then, of course, there is what having multiple wives and as large a family as possible will do for a religion. Then there is what mandatory mission work will do.

What, though, if you do not have such a theory to use? What is using such a theory is fearful, because it might be used against oneself?

Mormonism puts revelation and enthusiasm into the crucible. If the only test a person has of the validity of a belief is the Bible and the effect on a person, then Mormons are hard to challenge. Mormons fall all to pieces if they have to be squared with tradition, with the writings of the Fathers, with rational analysis, and with the test of confirmation (does no one remember that Paul says that a person with a prophecy has to have corroboration? the Holy Spirit isn't, so far as I know, in the business of keeping the truth a secret from those who seek).

When a Christian evangelical looks at a Mormon, it is looking at a mirror of fear. Mormonism itself is an extension of evangelical assumptions, and so there is nothing that an evangelical may say, except, "You're going to Hell." There is no mechanism by which she or he can speak with the Mormon, no reasoning he or she may offer, because, at base, there is too much similarity in frame.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The borders of Paradise

This morning, and I have all my essay ideas in the morning before thoughts can side track the natural impulse, I heard an Iranian-German artist lady talking about filming dancers in Iran. She said that dance is absolutely forbidden in Iran, but they have something called "rhythmic movement" that is allowed.

"No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art." -- Ruskin

We can take Ruskin's quote and nod sagely. "Yes, yes," we say, "and out of the crooked timber, what-what." The later Victorians were full of awareness of imperfection, situated as they were in the satiated and regretful phase of empire. Category and clarity had swept away the sights of beggars, but not the beggars themselves, and "The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness, than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings," as Hazlitt wrote in 1829. Many had come to realize that the noise could not be shut out, that, as Horace said, "Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret" (in Epistles) ['You can drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will return again']. Cover the nudity, and it's still under the covers.

Nevertheless, when we persist through these ages of empire, of decay, of self-conscious sadness, there is a tendency on our parts to turn from a red faced public servant with a sack full of fig leaves to John Cage. We go from purists to artists of Autotune. This produces its own dialectic, if not enterically then exotically. The religious fundamentalist and the political fundamentalist alike appeals to any population that is awash in too much embracing of porous borders. Each generates its own idealistic ideology, its own Zion Celeste.

The political idealists are easier to talk about than religious revolutionaries, as they seem to conform to readily understood causes that have economic and material bases, and they often transform into other parties, other organizations. Thus, it's not so hard to talk about fascists in Germany (but you'll have a heck of a time nailing them down in Italy), and it's not that hard to talk about the John Birch Society in the U.S. or the National Front in the U.K. These groups all set out to be puritanical -- to achieve an ostensibly conservative goal by the eradication of all accumulated state apparatus and the imposition of a morality and clarity that had been muddied by Them and the agents of evil.

The political groups want to stop the flow of population, the drift of genes, the spread of culture, the transformation of economic structures. In that regard, they are not conservative, but Utopian. They are not, and never have been, summoning glories of the past but promising a thing that cannot be: a frozen moment of security. To achieve any of their goals would require immense power, tremendous abridgments of liberties, and endless regulation -- as both Italian and German manifestations of fascism have attested (and the latter also required a reiteration of slave labor for its economics to function). This is because they are attempting the impossible: they want to stop nature.

It is natural for people to mix their genes, to mix their tongues in more than one way, to invent and forget, and to flow as far as they can to opportunity, because humans are opportunistic.

Is the same true of political purists of the communal variety -- the socialists? Since these groups begin by embracing paper work and rules and the state's place in administration, it is hard to see how they are betrayed by their actuality as much as that they fail by siphoning off their potential in their implementation. The ideological and idealistic energy behind their endeavor lessens with each aparatchik, each factory boss promoting his buddies, each rigged election, and each set of police necessary to monitor these.

In Iran, they had a completely idealistic revolution. It was simple: they would have a real theocracy. In Afghanistan, the same thing, more or less, from a different branch of the religion. In 17th century England, too, they had a clean, clear idea: the Lord's own nation, led by saints inspired by the Holy Spirit. We know from history that the English were unhappy with their government and, because of the semi-feudal nature of the remaining state, were able to affect a second revolution to restore, but with changes, the prior government and nation state structure. That is not to say that Cromwell failed, or the Taliban failed, or the Ayatollahs failed, because "fail" depends upon the goal sought.

I know that it's convention for the Marxists to reject religious socialism as being non-revolutionary, it's also true that the power of the supernatural ideal powers the endeavor once in place far more effectively than a philosophical system. The problem, though, is that they have a problem of ensuring that their ideology extends into the subject. In other words, when Christianity or Islam ceases to be a religious choice and becomes your employer or your state, then your state and your employer have to, as a matter of existence and operation, extend religious faith into the mind and soul of the employee and citizen.

The ideal, which is lovely and functioning when idealists join, becomes state power when those idealists triumph and make the ideal the innervating element of the state.

Once Oliver Cromwell became Protector General, it became necessary to ensure the Christianity of the people. Instead of trusting the people to be Christian, the state now had an interest, and therefore it had to have proof. Further, it needed to specify for its functionaries how and what would be considered moral. Idealized states spin paper as a precondition of their existence. Perfection, after all, is only perfect if it is protected in a static position, and that means ruling out change or ruling in qualities.

Therefore, the Iranian "rhythmic movement" and "approved hairstyles for men" are examples both of the native authoritarian extension of power into an ideological space of the subject and the deterioration of the subjective ideal that frames the power impulse. A state may start out with the simple ideal of good men and women, but it will need to say what constitutes good, and then what constitutes bad, and then it will make the soul of the individual, as well as the body, its concern.

Our dilemma, then, as humanity, is that we accept the blood and pus and confusion of allowing each other to sin, and thereby create a call for our overthrow, or we strive to a perfection that, by its nature, is death. Either that or, more sensibly, we worry about the neighbors' health and happiness and our own goodness.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dude, You Can See, Like, Everything!

". . . the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions. . . . " -- Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
I make no secret of the fact that I am working on a time machine solely for the purpose of going back in time to shoot the inventor of the cell phone. Mr. Motorola and his wife, Nokia, are in my sights, in the past. The dim glow neighbors see coming from my bedroom at night must be understood to be such lucubrations.  The main hindrance to my plan is not any dictate from Dr. Einstein, as, like all creative types, I do not respect his right to make a rule binding on the future, especially now that he has been shown to be a party pooper, but rather the difficulty of finding the moment of creation for the infernal machine. Therefore, I have a fall back position. I will go back to kill, or have the dewclaw removed from, the inventor of SIP.

I have many reasons for this work, but there is a a mission to it. This is a vendetta. All teachers feel the hatred, I know, and college teachers feel the special rage, when the cell phone appears. All those little thumbs diddling themselves to bliss as an alternative to education or responding to the class are infuriating. We liked it better when they whispered to each other all class. Now, they still do, but with their thumbs, and they're whispering to whomever, wherever. That would be enough, but it is not what has given my madness genius.

I have recently acquired "Mcluhan's Wake," and I give it a 5 star review. Phillistines above all others should watch it, but every conscious or semi-conscious being should watch it. The philosopher's books are very, very dense, and this movie makes his thought comprehensible to any audience. McLuhan predicted that there would be a transformation/recreation in media, whereby there would be the recreation (in a transformed way) of the village as we lose our village. Because technology is unexamined, we are destroyed by it. This is the "global village" that McLuhan coined (one of the few things people can quote of his). He was not really predicting, there. He was describing. He was saying that we have already externalized our nervous system (perceptions) in external eyes and ears with television and radio, and that means that someone else now owns parts of the ego. His prediction was the global theater.

Welcome to that, but also to what, in a way, McLuhan never saw.

After McLuhan's books, some people grabbed hold of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and combined it with him to make observations about the process of the invention of the subjective self. These critics and scholars tended to follow McLuhan in locating it in the Elizabethan age, too, even though that locus is pretty arbitrary. What fewer scholars have followed is that next, tragic element of McLuhan's analysis -- mainly because no one wants to be caught dead speaking future tense in a scholarly article (and the dead rarely speak of the future), the transformation to global theater.

Yeah, it's a photo. I took it.

My students report to me, quite frequently, that they "never go on the Internet." Instead, they "just go to Facebook." Similarly, many will tell me that they do not use web browsers or any of that. They have no opinion on those matters, because they only chat and "Facebook" (v.) -- and neither one involves the Internet. At the same time, they are increasingly finding reading five pages from the textbook "too long." While it's true that students in 1989 complained about any reading, too, they tended, back then, to simply complain at the outrage that freshman English required any of their time, where today students are complaining that five pages are wearying.

Their complaints are false to some degree, incidentally. The same length, more or less (which is to say, very, very short), is tolerable for them if there are pictures. The textbooks they have grown up with have as many photo inset boxes, illustrations, and break-ins as commas. 

They expect a literature book to come with an audio CD, a Chemistry book to have a DVD-ROM. They are not on the Internet. Take each of these incidents of "misprision" at face value and look at them analytically rather than satirically.

Students, if not "people today," have gone that next mile toward a visual addiction. A long time ago, people were weeping that "kids today" would soon speak a purely pictographic language (heard that in 1988). A full generation later, and that prediction has not come true. Instead, what we see is a pictography rather than a visual language. I would argue that the cell phone is emblematic of why the visual reliance of people today, and young people in particular, is not pictographic, but insensible.

[They say my essays are hard to understand because of the digressions. I say that that's part of the subject under discussion in this essay.]

When I was living in the Bronx, the god of wealth, Pluto, sent out a new plague as a way of marking the flesh and scarring the soul of the poor. We had the appearance of "push to talk" phones. These are a way of turning one's cell phone into a very nasty walkie-talkie. Most importantly, they sound out each transmission with a loud beep. In a dense urban mass, the purpose and evil of this "feature" was quite clear.

First, poor people were monitored by their bosses.
BEEP-Salvatore! You need to go down to Queens after you're done to see about another job.-BEEP! 
No one ever saw the crowd at Lincoln Center BEEPing at their families, and no one heard Bloomberg BEEPing his way toward elected office. Second, it took the natural horrors hidden in the clam shell of the cell phone and amplified them among those fell in love with the tool.

  • The evil of the cell phone as a cell phone is that it removes context. 
The wall of "home" falls, and the power wall, ideological locus, of "work" evaporates. The worker can be obtained any time and any place, thanks to the cell phone, but, also, the people who choose to use cell phones have no knowledge or acknowledgement of when and how they are at home or work. The push-to-talk phone thus took the old problem of people saying, aloud, in public, their halves of a private conversation ("private" being a cultural category developed after literacy and industrialism) and added the other side of the conversation and, just in case you had managed to hurry down the street without noticing, an ear-splitting BEEP! to announce each.

BEEP! [female voice] I don't know, Sheila. He says that he's out with Ray. BEEP!
[Woman standing in doorway of her apartment] Well, you tell moy so-called husband that he can shove it up his Aasss!
BEEP!I know, right? I can tell you this much, if moy husband thinks he's getting any....
At this point, your correspondent chose between only two options and, instead of rubbing his ear cartilage off on the sidewalk, ran away.

Think about it. The two women were reacting to the natural pressure of New York City, which is to erode personal space and to daily attack the concept of the private, and then were numbed by technology's novelty. The telephone assures one of a private, personal conversation, but the cell phone erases the location. The push-to-talk was simply another disguise for the cell phone, and so the two women were willing to speak of providing sexual access to their husbands and the states of their marriages to the street.

"If Jesus Christ were to come to-day, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it." -- Thomas Carlyle, Table Talk.

Carlyle is commenting on the high point of privacy, when decorum demanded dissembling in all places. Today, either Joe Wilson would scream "You lie!" or an audience member would shout "Let him die!" but the reaction would be ejaculatory.

I should go back to wipe out the cell phone for its assault on the hearth, if nothing else. However, it, along with the world wide web, demolished the sense of location and distance, including the very concept of "access" and "inaccessible." The most common personal question I have had to answer this semester has been, "Why do you buy CD's."  I'm serious. Earnest, Christian youngsters cannot understand why I buy CD's. This marks a complete switch in the debate, does it not?

The RIAA has continued its terror tactics. Cato would be pleased. However, ten years ago, students would argue with me that they were not criminals for downloading music, and now students argue with me asking me to justify why I am not a cultural criminal for not downloading music. Similarly, the talk among the young is not -- spectacularly not -- for the first time in human history not -- bare flesh.

I cannot tell you how amazing this last is.

Let's add the two together, though. Flesh is available on the Internet -- upon which the young do not know that they have been, and so they do not need to seek or visit pornographic magazines, pornographic movies, or anything like that, because friends have e-mailed them all of these. Therefore, they are still looking, but there is no challenge. In fact, there is so little challenge that there is no awareness that there could be a challenge. The same is true of music. Music simply is. Musicians similarly just are. Instead of only an eternal "now," there is an eternal "here."

What began with the destruction of location has become the destruction of all locations. The world wide web and the free market desire to make each website "your one stop on the Internet" have combined with this, and with Facebook's rape of the American youth, to lead to the vanishing of context. I do not mean the context of this or that, but context itself.

Why are kids not hot to go here or there, saying you can see her ___? Because seeing her ___ is going to be an e-mail attachment, or a flash picture. Why not concentrate on pictures and what they mean (becoming the foretold pictographic language)? Because that would mean that pictures must either mean in isolation or must combine for a semantic stream. Such streams must have a grammar. A grammar, even a pictorial one, implies rules of relationships, and the coherence of single experiences and disparity of separate experiences means that no one has the right to create a rule and no one will ask for it to be obeyed. Why do pictures make five whole, long pages easier to read? They break that difficult (really) tendency of the work to demand setting up a set of walls (past, future; expectation, memory; reference, instruction) necessary for context.

So, if you see me working on my time machine, please don't Friend it or Like it or Tumblr it. Just let me go and find some context.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where do babies come from? Your Levi's

"Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our powers shall never establish,
It is so frail." -- John Crowe Ransom, "Blue Girls"
Hold that thought.

On the television, they have medicines more various than any Wild West show tent. At the break of the 20th century, men adventurous and adventitious went about with products to cure each malady, even the ones that people hadn't any idea they suffered from. (Be aware, O ye historically naive, that the wild west in 1825 was Alabama, that it did not go to Texas, Arizona and the like until the 1840's, and the people who showed up fully grown malcontents were already twisted criminals back home in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi.)

The television makes money for people today as surely as the newspapers did then. Why, now you can not only cure your iron-poor blood, but you can make your eye lashes grow! The huckster's old claim that "it" will restore youth has turned into "Regeneris" face cream to putty-in wrinkles or Botox to freeze them, and his pitch that "it" will grow hair on a bald man is, at long, long last, a dream come true. O brave new world that has such creams and potions in it! In fact, the same pill can relieve the blues or relieve your pain, and this is revolutionary, because, in the past, we were only worried about nasty, evil people who, when sad, would go buy illegal drugs that would make them happy and relieve their pain.

Well, among the illnesses we have discovered once we found their cures on the television was "man-o-pause" or, for those wanting language that sounds less like a joke, "andropause." ("Andros" is the Greek word for male, but that "pause" is a problem.) Here is a typical discussion, guys. It will help you with "that little problem."

Now, me? I entered into the shadow of death long ago, and time's umbra covered me in its numbing wing. Like the noble mosquito, "it doesn't hurt when it begins," but, of course, it does not merely begin. I was never particularly over dosing on martial prowess, or any other sort, but a few blood tests showed the infamous "low T." I thus found a ready supplier of injectables and began a few months of imitating Barry Bonds and other heroes of the game.

My motivation on the surface was to rectify biochemical abnormalities and to achieve triglyceride reduction. My ulterior motivation was the relief of fatigue. Really, it was. Ok, and some awakening of desire, but not in any way the other. That, alas, has not been a concern.

You don't care about why, though. You want to know what happened. Well, after a full summer of shooting the dope every two weeks, I have decided to return to my old self. The effect of exogenous testosterone was....

Do you know where babies come from? They come from lawn mowers. Now, I have never seen a lawn mower directly involved in the insemination or ovulation or carrying of a fetal human, but I have noticed an overwhelming correlation between young couples purchasing a lawn mower and producing a baby. Newly weds beware the John Deere salesman! Unless the purchase is of an ATV -- which is a well known contraceptive and cause of sterility -- any purchase of a lawnmower is likely to cause conception.

Not many people are aware of this correlative relationship, but I figured it out about the time my friends Bill and Donna bought a lawn and then a lawn mower. I had no proof of causality, no isolation of the agent, but I knew the phenomenon. I could not isolate the cause... until now! You see, taking testosterone made me want to mow the lawn.

I'm serious. All summer, I watched the grass grow, hoping for it to recover from its last scalping so that I could go inflict more savagery upon it. I loved the soaking with sweat, the smushing of dog poo, the face slap of tree branches, the stings of the ants. I stomped and chopped and was smelly, wet, and manly.

I was not, however, more lusty. Not in one way or the other. Nor did I grow large. Not in one way or the other.

So, do I quit shooting it because autumn will be coming in two or three months? No.

Remember that quote from John Crowe Ransom? Well, compare it to something I wrote recently: "The youth of beauty, and the beauty of youth, demand those who lost years to watch and demand them to seek out the joy of their own vital pulse, the concerns of the overhang and undertow that remove their exceptions, and who can blame either party? The one who missed and misses longed and longs and surfaces briefly in the filling of senses, and the one in potential is compelled and curtailed, devoted and dovetailed by and in time. Nature could allow no exception, and will complies." Pretty whiny, isn't it?

What both of them are talking about is that men and women who grow older as they stand before college audiences notice, more and more keenly, the beauty of young members of the opposite sex. The desire increases as the distance from the competition for them does. Now, there certainly are creeps. Make no mistake: some people are creeps and maladaptive fools. However, every one I have known has been content to sit in the stands and watch the game, has loved walking through the gallery and looking at the paintings. None of them has grown confused and tried to grab the merchandise, run onto the field, or believed that he or she was in the game.

Actually, I take that back. Very recently, I knew of a teacher who was by no means on the field nor artist. However, every female student reported that she was creeped out by the way he looked at her. They were not able to articulate precisely what it was, but they knew what they experienced, understood what was conveyed. The pornographic gaze wishes to take. It wishes to strip, to dissect, to grab, and to own. The other one... the aged eye, I suppose, wishes to linger and to revel and is shy; it wants the original to remain. (It can be as guilty of objectifying as anything -- is guilty -- but not guilty of malice.)

John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt saw the pretty girls. This is no surprise. Robert Herrick saw them too. Whether a man has the years to justify it or not, the same feeling is the same: presence calls to loss, loss longs for surfeit. Surfeit never knows itself. These are truths abiding. However, the sweet melancholy plays an artistic tune in even the dullest woman or man.

At the same time, Levi's Jeans company is running commercials, has been running them, which purport to be American (TM). They have Frosty sounding recitations. "You (glug glug) are a god!/ The gods (glug) dance before you (glug)/ Hoping to catch your radiance (glug glug) on their tongues/ The dumb jerks," the poet says, and we see truly spectacular images of youth.

I'm amazed. The pictures are exactly like the poetry. Both are seductions. Read the Whitman, or the Ginsberg. These are poetic lines in praise of the young American, and of American youth, that is primarily flattering, not celebratory. Instead of taking a real quality and showing its beauty, it takes a quality and gives it hyperbolic, mythic, supernatural qualities. Instead of, "You weave through the air," it is "her skin is like nature dipp'd her hands in milk." Everyone knows that the lover gets the beloved by compliments.

The message from Levi's is not "go, do something," but "come here, you." The visuals celebrate the bodies of youth, youth stretching, contorting, sweating, and doing other physical functions that show the body's shapes and features alone, and they do so wonderfully but synecdotally. Each is a clipped fragment rather than a montage. The message is, "Your blue jeans want to have you," rather than "you want to have blue jeans."

Perhaps young buyers are flattered by the commercials, but it's more likely that men and women of my age are stricken by sympathy pains. We, like the commercial, long for what is lost, and we will buy some jeans. We will need some help, perhaps, need a supply, but we will avoid that longing and shovel dirt into the hole.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Job and the Neutrality of Suffering

“'Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before
his Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he
charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth.
Between morning and evening they are destroyed; they perish for ever
without any regarding it. …they die, and that without wisdom'” -- Job 4:17-21
On his birthday every year, Jonathan Swift used to read from Job 3, where Job curses the day of his birth. It's a long way to go for a joke, but it might not have been a joke in jest. John Gay's epitaph, “Life's a jest, and all things show it./ I thought so once, but now I know it,” is similarly mirthlessly funny. One of the reasons I like these writers so much is that they had been made unafraid, had been plunged into the miseries and truths we would like to avoid, and had gotten a humor that was neither gallows nor false out of it. Samuel Johnson wanted epitaphs to be dignified and to elevate the sentiments of the reader, and so he did not like Gay's, or Swift's, but Gay's, at least, was a last bit of conversation between the dead and the living.
I could expound on the ambiguous “now” of John Gay's grave marker, but there is no point. Instead, I have been thinking about Job. The book of Job is pretty ancient, and the textual folks think it may be the oldest part of the Bible. Those who notice that invariably go wrong by then doing source studies and looking at analogs. They have a project of reconstructing the True Meaning of “the adversary” as the composer of the book meant it and battling a received wisdom about the story. Those are interesting things, sure enough, but they're not really so revolutionary. After all, the text gives it to us. To me, though, stands out because of the story itself and what it tells us about humanity and divinity and the non-Western nature of morality, as opposed to ethics.

Clear your mind of the "God did it!" folderol. It isn't important, unless you entirely miss the  point of the book. Is a person good for having stuff? Is a person evil for lacking stuff? Is illness a sign of being bad? In other words, is Donald Trump a saint? Is a five year old with leukemia  an especially sinful child? If you answered "no," then saying that God's causing sores and losses is no indictment.  

We're accustomed to beginning from the premise that suffering is bad. In fact, in Plato's Republic, Socrates gets a group of rebarbative and wary customers to agree that the good is  that which decreases suffering, alleviates suffering, and avoids suffering. Upon that basis, they could reason forward to other propositions. We tend to agree with the dinner party on that head. However, Job seems to indicate that the good is not in relation to suffering, and that's what is so strange, so revolutionary, so perplexing. 
When we were little, we might have said "that which reduces broccoli and squash is the good." We might now laugh at that conclusion, but we shouldn't laugh too much. We would have been using our reason on our data. Our senses affirmed that the greatest bad was being chained to a dinner table with a horror-food before us. Socrates and company are merely doing the same. The reason Job doesn't is that he is asking for a different judgment. Our parents judgment, as the ones > looking over our heads, seeing beyond our senses and our present moment, might say that the vile squash is "good for you," and they would be right on the basis of perspective. Job differs from Western philosophy by beginning with the idea that there is a God who sees beyond all of our abilities in time and space and judgment.

Think about that human reaction to suffering. We tend to react to it based on deserving. The friend of Job's who I quote at the top is taking a position that today's Calvinists would embrace, and he grows angry when Job refuses to admit that he, as a sinner by nature, must confess sins by commission. Job's friends can make no sense of his sufferings without a more primitive belief than Eliphaz is willing to admit. Eliphaz might say, in effect, "Everyone is sinful and deserves a kick, so don't defend yourself," he seems to believe that not admitting some active sinfulness (not marching up to the altar rail to confess) is the reason that God is punishing Job. In other words, he thinks that all deserve punishment, and none get it. However, by refusing to say you deserve it in a specific way (by not committing sins willfully), you will be punished.
Job, of course, is in a position of being forsworn. If he confesses to sins against God that he has not committed, then that would be sin. Further, his faith is in the uprightness of duty, and doubting that justice would be doubting God.

Still, Job's friends are true friends. If we look at what they do, not how they do it, we can see something to learn. Each wants to help. First, they weep with him (more later). Then, they try to put his sufferings into reason. Then they want to fix the situation for him. Indeed, what makes them angry is not that he suffers, but that he won't take the fixes.

To me, they've always been a perfect illustration of our own responses to random suffering. We should do more sympathizing, but we spend most of our time, like them, trying to eliminate the problem by giving it an explanation. Like Voltaire's doctors, who "pour drugs of which (they) know little into a body of which (they) know less." If we can only put the think into a system, regardless of fundamental understanding, then it will have a place, and a place is a position in relation. What we cannot tolerate is that which eludes the "natural order," even if we have to place it into the "divine order." Death, of course, is, as Alexander Pope said in Essay on Man (ii 135-6), the "young disease, that must subdue at length,/ Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength." It is the natural order.

Similarly, though, it is in our native cast to avoid death, both in our thoughts and in its grisly effects. This means also the alleviation of suffering. The dark lords of our economies who suggest that we are happiest when standing on the smoking corpse of our neighbors or that we have no natural concern for another's welfare are wrong. Sociopaths and narcissists exist in unnatural profusion, the truth is that we hate hearing, seeing, or being near a suffering person.

Rich lawyers complain that it's "depressing" to see a homeless shelter across the street from their social club. Americans wince and give phenomenal amounts of money when they see starving children, homeless hurricane and earthquake victims, and meanwhile the masters of talking-about-politics swear that those same Americans would never agree to a fraction of that amount going to taxes. In fact, we do not want suffering to occur. We want to stop it. The worst thing is suffering we cannot affect.

Men may be worse than women in this, but we're all pretty lousy friends to the wounded. Job shows that we have learned to be bad friends. We want to repair the hurting. We want to say, "Here's what you do, Job." "If you introduce an austerity plan for your children and get your sanitation situation under control by reducing the number of dogs who lick your sores and going without food, we can lend you some money, and everything will be fine," we say.

Job denounces his friends as false counselors in the end because, in the end, they are not counselors, but accusers, and so are we.

When you see a person suffering and reach for the shelf of cures and fixes, what you're doing is complaining that the person has given you sympathy pain. You are saying, "You violate the order of how things should be, and so you must be sanded down or built up." The suffering person is in pain, certainly wants aid, and you are seeking to help, but when you or I cross from helping from love of the other and helping from disquiet, we have gone from friendship to overseer, from supporter to accuser, from beloved to judge.

"Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home -- Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. they met together to go and console and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."
Job 2:11-3, RSV

The man who shoos the beggar away shoos Christ from his heart, but the man or woman who insists on fixing the poor is certainly cold, as surely refusing the healing power of consolation. One of the bitter herbs of technology is that our sadness and suffering drive us ever onward toward medicine, psychology, appliances, and travel, and we get better and better at amelioration and alleviation. In the process, we lose dying, willfully forget that dead is a noun, but dying a verb of duration. We get so facile at fixes that the irreparable baffles us and then enrages us. The men and women who lived in an age of infant mortality earned their jokes with death, deserved their wide-angle view of joy and murk intermingled, understood that a man who wrote like an angel might suffer like a devil with an infected spine. We could do worse than read again, and this time with feeling.