Monday, September 17, 2012

9/11/12, the hangover

What is wisdom? We speak of it as a product of age or experience or perception, and we should know it as an uneasy ally of intelligence. It can be, though, an entire enemy to knowledge.

The lectionary readings this last Sunday had us reading Proverbs 1:20-33, where Wisdom “cries out in the street: in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out: at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you: I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, . . . and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity . . . For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.'” Wisdom, at least for the translators, denotes something different from simple accumulation of information.

The wise course is to avoid cigarettes. It is wise to use moderate language. Prudence is wise, but sensing an outcome by empathy and projection is wise. Wisdom is also reverence and obedience to God.

This year, I have had a 9/11 hangover rather than a 9/11 reaction. I was prepared to let the day slip into the oblivion of time's countless pile, where names and numbers are the follies of desires, but this year it was Tuesday, and it was Tuesday in 2001. I was low that day, mind you, but vaguely. Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday, were worse.

I have had no evolution in my thinking about the month of harrowing begun on the day, as thinking is merely a paddle for the stream. Instead, I have remained in the same position: there are moments of suffering, and suffering is different from pain. This is my position.

Suffering has no agent to blame or object to remove. Suffering does not achieve a thing. (If it does, then it's endurance.) Suffering can never, ever know or achieve a meaning or a lesson itself. The value of suffering comes entirely from grace. (Be very careful with reading that last sentence. When is wandering in the desert forging a nation and the grace of God, and when is conquest by a neighbor the hone of pain? The people involved do not get to decide.)

The lectionary paired this reading from Proverbs with Mark's description of the revealing of the messianic secret 8:27-38: … he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark's description is really interesting. When Peter names Jesus as the messiah, Jesus speaks openly of the divine, of the true messiah, of the suffering and humiliation and death and resurrection. Peter wanted to correct Jesus on the meaning of the messiah, for he had knowledge, and Jesus scolded him with a dual statement. First, he was scolding the temptation to conform to human expectations (human kings work like that), but then he was also explaining something that the Gnostics would exaggerate and get entirely wrong: there is God's kingdom, and man's, and the messiah is God's savior of men.

Suffering does not teach the sufferer anything. We who looked with fear, with dread, with sad stones in our throats, at the orange moon permanently crashed in lower Manhattan, where the pile burned night after night, could only pray, volunteer, cry, and cringe. We could not look for Superman to turn the globe around. When the salty smoke came our way, or when the people of Brooklyn endured weeks of the burning buildings and dead blowing a shroud upon them, we did not have faith that the EPA told the truth, nor that we could use duct tape or surgical masks or anything else. When we encountered the abandoned things. . . all those cheerful witnesses to an ordinary person's busy day's aspirations and graven expectations, and as each demanded an homage as much as it demanded back its owner, we could only feel it. Insulting apes, driven blind by instinct, reacted to the suffering and were themselves endured.

Will this make me more wary or prudent? It cannot.

Wisdom shouts at the gate and at the traffic lights. The mentally ill endure suffering for lifetimes, and they neither chose nor were chosen for their lot. The hungry cast shadows around the fed, and they keep their dignity by suffering through insult after insult. The laid off worker was no failure in any way, but the company's failure condemns him in the eyes of others, and so she suffers.

Suffering changes those who go through its course. They know what others do not. They know what a world without a horizon is, and they are less likely to see missiles that appear and destroy as just, less likely to see the support of the weak as a burden for the strong. There is wisdom in that.

However, we have only this as consolation: ours is not to know, even, what purpose suffering serves. We think as humans and see as our eyes allow. Our knowledge forbids our awareness, and there is a scale of justice and a motive of value that is God's alone, and we can have faith in its rightness by honoring those who suffer and judging them not.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

I Wanna Be Normal People

Meet the new writing companion.
Photo taken Sept. 7, 2012
She had a name at the animal shelter. She was called "Erin." Since my first dog was "Bounce" (same name as Alexander Pope's dogs), and my second was "Uncle Toby," and my third was "Macheath," it's pretty clear that "Erin" could not stand. However, the name that my heart had decided upon for my next American Eskimo Dog was Garm, and the dog in the photo above is not Garm. For one thing, this one might howl well before Ragnarok or Judgment Day. Also, Garm is supposed to be male, Hel female, so I was going to give the name to a female, just for symmetry's sake.

The dog above (and at my right ankle now) is female. She is spayed, although she went through her first estrus at the time of the spaying. (Oops, as they say.) (That must have been a relief to her, albeit a confusing one.) So, I thought of other names. "Glumdalklitch" was top spot (just called "Glum"), but I finally settled on "Stella."

So, meet Stella:

"Stella" is a stealthy dog, and the name is deceptive as well. I'm sure that you are thinking "Astrophel to Stella," and that's a fine thing, but "Stella" is also the generic 'beloved' name in every bad poem of 1680-1780, so there's that. However, for the really geeky 18th century theme park consistency, there is Esther Johnson. Jonathan Swift's teasing, flirting, but never abused female friend, whom he called Stella in his writings, has left her mark on the public through him, but she obviously left a deep furrow in his life. (If you want more information on Stella, there isn't much. Do NOT go to the Wikipedia page, which uses a fiction as its source.)

Stella was rescued from the needle, for she had been at the animal shelter since May with "zero public interest." The shelter in question tries to ensure that no dog gets euthanized, so she was not in imminent peril, but the choices were stark. As for what she is. . . I don't know.

I know she's at least half a Pointer. The other half could be anything from Border Collie to Labrador. She likes water and sociks. She is a sock collector of the first order. She does not chew them, eat them, or do anything else except own them. Similarly, she wishes to have one shoe of every pair, simply for ownership. (You can't leave without your shoes, I think.)

This is the first dog I have had that is part or whole Working Dog. In short, it is the first "normal" dog I've had. For once, I'm normal. I'm like the average person, and my dog has a normal name. I will do all that I can, of course, to be as subversive as possible so that, like the name, the dog is only a strange critter abiding in a normal wrapper, and she certainly seems inclined that way.

For a decade of my life, my greatest desire was to be one of them -- the normal people. What on earth possessed me, I don't know.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

It's a Trap!

I watched "The Hunger Games" movie. I thought it was astonishing that they went to all that trouble to make an actress who isn't Shelley Duvall look exactly like Shelley Duvall, and the star was an amazing simulacrum of Ellen Paige, although more likeable. The film constructors had to create both effects, too, so these shouldn't have been accidents. Woody Harrelson's scalp wig, on the other hand, freaked me out.

I haven't been able to stop thinking back on the movie, and I think my subconscious is worrying over it. There was something down there that bothered me -- something I'm not ready to articulate. On a superficial level, there is the political recall.

In 1948, George Orwell wrote 1984 about how a nation can use war as an excuse for constant privation and a cover for the misdirection of funds. That same year, London was the host of the Olympics, and they referred to the events as the Austerity Games. This year, the E.U. is facing "the New Austerity." It's not a repeat for any but the British -- for the other nations it is a reminder of desolation and conquest, not victory -- and they held Austerity New Games, where professional athletes and sponsorships changed the appearance of everything and the context of nothing.

Because today's Olympian is professional, she can have a logo on her fanny at the beach volleyball. There can be wealth on the tributes. However, the wretchedness of the austerity games was that a nation that had to ration cheese was asked to celebrate the perfected form of man and the amity of nations.

That's superficial, though. I don't think The Hunger Games is aware of the connection, although it has benefited from it. No, what had me going this time was another parallel. The books and movie concern an evil central power and hard scrabble provinces upholding their independence. In fact, the political structure could as easily come from George Lucas as reality, because "district twelve" could be Dantoine. For that matter, it's not far from Josh Whedon's "Firefly." Nor is it much off from some of Heinlein's corrupt central powers.

Let's face it, rebels are sexy.

If I drew political parallels with today, then what parallels would others feel? "Corrupt state that takes all our work and lives in high fashion and makes fun of us, while we do all the work" is a summary not only of The Hunger Games attitude toward the capital but the TEA Party's attitude toward the I-95 megalopolis. That got me down. Yet another way for the ill informed to feel ill treated and go on ill advised, I thought.

So, is it possible to write a story with a central power as a hero? Is it possible to write a pro-Union story? One can write an anti-rebel story (there are such), but one that proposes the use and joys of unity and stability? It's not very likely, is it?

 This is the problem that Milton ran into, isn't it? From a narrative point of view, the center of establishment or power is a lousy her. The only way to tell the story is by making the speaker for power a rebel him or herself. Bedford Forrest the slave trading rich Memphis man was hardly a figure of romance, but Nathan Bedford Forrest the Ku Klux Klan founder who would never give up against the repression of the state warmed hearts.

Are we going to be doomed to sagas about how great it is to resent the government? Is the best we can hope for a William Gibson novel, where corporations take the place of the Empire? Is that as near to reality we can hope for?

1. What does the novel do?
Ian Watt famously argued that novels are separate from other genres in their development of "psychological realism." By this he meant that the novel features interior experience, growth of character and mind, and an individual. There are other definitions, and Watt's is not the gospel account it once was, but this is at least a critical observation of a thing novels do and have done as they have grown.

I would point to the fact that the genres that fathered the novel are a) biography, b) stage drama, c) satire, d) hagiography, e) history, f) travelogues. Think of the earlier novels and their lines, and you'll quickly recognize that most of the early ones offered a frame tale of biography -- the life of David Copperfield, or David Simple. When the Licensing Act of 1737 made the English stage an entirely Ministry affair, the playwrights turned to writing up their plays as stories. This gives us Henry Fielding, but theater strikes had earlier given us Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. The structures inside the drama-derived novels therefore had long established histories. What did Defoe do but bring the criminal biography to great glory? All that remained was for the satirists to get into the game and for Walter Scott to create the historical novel.

Novels, in short, worked around following an individual. Whether they were bildungsromans or not, they had an interest in showing revelations and realizations and interactions that would grow.

2. No one with the answers can ask a question.
A person with power has a hard time with a dramatic agon. When your hero is Superman, it gets ridiculous the amount of Kryptonite you have to invent so that there's an interesting fight. When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" has hyper-warp phasers and teleporters that don't malfunction, they have to go play 19th century on the holodeck to have any conflict.

A novel needs a weak or bewildered or imperiled protagonist. It doesn't have to be an underdog, but we're bored if the Invulnerable Man faces the Average Robber.

3. You break the world, you bought it.

Rebellions give any author an opportunity to present a monster that is omnipresent and monolithic. Furthermore, it allows a motivation for the monster to do almost any wickedness against the heroine. The hero of such a saga serves to embody the political principle that the author wishes to promote, and yet the author is never forced to answer all the nagging details that would show up if he had to have that heroine win and become queen.

Frank Herbert's Dune series has the same "corrupt central world sucking dry the lives of the provinces" that is familiar to "Star Wars" and "Hunger Games" and TEA Party, but he was working from sociology and history, and so his fantasy world was literally feudal. The others are much more vaguely gestural. The impossibility of governance with virtue was Herbert's theme, in the end, and so he had his hero rebel (who was also an aristocrat) win. For four books, the message gets clear: one may be good or powerful, and one may serve one's people or be good, but goodness itself changes with a time frame.

The audience reads into the rebel, but most authors cheat and make their heroes, like Paul Atreides, blue bloods who convert or royalty in disguise ("Luke, I am your father" is not much different from "That... that birthmark! My own child, the heir to the throne had just such a mark!"), so readers get to feel clever, refined, cultured, and able to lead the rebellion.

4. Leading a rebellion is like winning a peace.
The "rebel leader?" Actual rebellions tend to be disorganized because they're rebellions and filled with rebels. I invite any and all to review the glorious Civil War career of Joe Brown, even if you look at a Bowdlerized version of it.

In romance and saga, being the leader of a rebellion allows one to be a reformer, warrior, and guide and to not merely overcome overwhelming odds, but to establish the glorious reign.


We are doomed, I think, to these narratives. For us, our fictional governments will always be the enemy, and all our fictional rebels will be wide eyed innocents driven to extremity.