Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's Like an Ouroboros Made Out of Words

One does kind of have to admire the balancing act being attempted here: make God transcendent and ineffable enough to remain above criticism and rejection, yet actual and specific enough to actually mean, you know, something instead of nothing. But even the big guns like Aquinas sound more like the Mad Hatter when called into service:

"God is what sustains all things in being by his love, and ... is the reason why there is something instead of nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever."

Hm. Maybe it's better if you're high. Anyway...

(Eagleton) describes Jesus as a Jewish "lifestyle revolutionary" who urged his followers to love their enemies, give away their possessions, and leave their dead unburied, who expressed his love and solidarity for whores, criminals and other "shit of the earth" (the phrase is Paul's), and was tortured and killed for it.

Such a figure, Eagleton suggests, represents "the truth of history," and those who deny it "are likely to adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress," a naive Enlightenment ideal expressed in our time by the likes of Ditchkins. [...] And what are the greenhouse effect and the melting of the glaciers, if not artifacts of the Enlightenment?

So... the "truth of history" is to be a (quite possibly insane) apocalyptic prophet/cult leader preaching the imminent end of the world and violent retribution to all his enemies ("a man who preached a message of love", according to O'Hehir, after having accused Dawkins and Hitchens of knowing nothing of the beliefs they attack. Luke 14:26, anyone?) and anyone who disagrees is superstitious? And the apparent answer to problems such as global warming, caused by science and technology, is not further application of reason and science, but a retreat into some discount-store Joseph Campbell mythological wankery? You know, I don't really have anything to add to that.
Yes, fellows, I know it's embarrassing to have the overwhelming majority of believers insist on a God that actually answers prayers and provides a literal, eternal paradise, but they're the only reason anyone has to take this garbage seriously in the first place. The irony being that one of the most common accusations hurled at the New Atheists is of being condescending and dismissive of something so important to so many people; yet here are people like Eagleton and O'Hehir brushing them all off as, well, literal-minded rubes who aren't privy to the secret, esoteric knowledge necessary to appreciate the Almighty. 
Hey, assholes, the Gnostics lost, get over it. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Gathering of Hermits

Whatever kind of bizarre ideal one may follow, one should not demand that it be the ideal, for one therewith takes from it its privileged character. One should have it in order to distinguish oneself, not in order to level oneself. […] Whereas true heroism consists, in not fighting under the banner of sacrifice, devotion, disinterestedness, but in not fighting at all – "This is what I am, this is what I want – you can go to hell!"

 - Nietzsche

I first encountered that passage years ago, and it has long served as a bulwark against any tendency I have to proselytize for an issue I care about or a value I hold. As long as the basic idea here is simply to assert oneself against a hostile and bullying majority opinion, to carve out a space where one can be respected and left alone, then I'm all for it. I agree that there probably are a lot of people who are basically godless but shy away from thinking of themselves as such, preferring to keep some vague, inchoate version of Pascal's Wager at hand, just in case the source of all life does turn out to be an insanely insecure, jealous psychopath. Empowering those kinds of people to feel good about not believing, and not compelled to make excuses or justifications for it, would be a good thing in my eyes.

Barring that desire to convert people to the cause, I do find it difficult to imagine belonging to any sort of atheist group, club, what have you -- I'd imagine you run out of specifically atheist things to talk about pretty quickly, and who wants to listen to a bunch of similar stories of conflicts with religious relatives and acquaintances? I'm always glad to know if someone is an atheist because it indicates to me a healthy amount of intellectual independence (and therefore, and more importantly, a strong likelihood of an overall interesting personality), but I don't have a desire to be part of any herd for any reason. I'll just hope that expressions of disbelief remain for the most part a defensive action.

Friday, April 24, 2009

No, Winthrop, No

"...our moral compass..."

"...reclaiming America's soul..."

Krugman takes our oh-so-resilient national soul to the cleaners and discovers that oceans of bloodstains will wash right out with a gesture towards shallow introspection, some tongue-clucking, head-shaking, and well-I-never-ing. And don't forget the historical amnesia! Out, damned spot! Out, I say!

“My fellow Americans, the last 50 years have been an uninterrupted sequence of dark, painful chapters. We institutionalized torture right after World War II and we exported it everywhere we could, from Vietnam to Greece to Iran to Latin America. We remember the Phoenix program; we remember the multibillion-dollar CIA torture project in the 50s; we remember El Mozote; we remember the CIA torture manual, KUBARK, and its wise recommendation, "The electric current should be known in advance"; we remember our training of SAVAK; we remember the School of the Americas; we remember our Salvadoran trainees who raped and killed nuns. The one thing we don't remember is if there were ever a time when we didn't teach and practice torture.
"The only difference this time is that top government lawyers were dumb enough to authorize this crap in writing. I promise to return to the good old days when torture was conducted in an environment of plausible deniability. And so I'm ordering a transfer of Gitmo prisoners to Bagram, an Afghan hellhole no one can locate on a map. I am banning all torture memos. Memos are bad. I solemnly swear that CIA personnel will be granted full immunity regarding all past, present, and future crimes. Let's close this dark, painful chapter, so we can open a brand-new dark, painful chapter -- so dark none of you will see it."
Could we just simply talk about obeying laws because it's what a nation of laws does by definition? Could we simply talk about doing the right thing because, well, it's the right thing to do, tautology be damned? Does it always have to be about us and our goddamned feelings? Can we just stop with the endless need to couple our brief forays into introspection with the self-centered need to praise ourselves for doing so? Do we have to stick our fat, greasy American thumb into the frame of every picture?

I have a feeling this is going to become an enduring theme here: stupid fucking progressives who are just as deeply invested in our national mythology of being a shining city on a hill as any reactionary right-winger. I would like to go back in time and torture the shit out of the Puritans for gifting us with this theme that simply will. not. die.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To See a World in a Grain of Sand

You said it, brother.

Why, I've even said it myself a couple times. And, as always, Hullabaloo is still your one-stop shop for all your garment-rending, breast-beating needs.

As I said, the interesting question for me is: how do people like Digby, Dday, et. al. explain away all the macro-level atrocities while pretending that we would absolutely, assuredly draw the line at holding down an individual in a room somewhere and making him scream in agony? Why would a nation that has shown itself capable of murdering millions of innocent victims balk at that? Why did nuking Japan not cause us to "lose our soul"? How did we retain our "moral legitimacy" while brutalizing Southeast Asia and Central America? Since there was no blogosphere at the time, I wonder what people like them thought about the sanctions on Iraq -- were they wailing nonstop throughout the '90s about this stain on the national soul? And for the love of all unholy, how do they persist in pretending that "the world" is somehow just as shocked to hear about this as a certain segment of middle to upper-middle class liberal Americans?

Go talk to some powerless people sometime, guys and gals. Ask them how those with power act when they don't fear retribution. Or go experience it yourself! Dress like a hobo, borrow some old jalopy and go violate a traffic law. See how the cops act towards you when they don't think you look like the kind of person providing their salary through your taxes. Then think about how easy it would be for power-hungry bastards like them to act even worse to voiceless people from another country while sequestered away in a secret location, especially if they've convinced themselves that these people are guilty of some crime against the fatherland.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Credos of a Quantum Pantheist

Knowledge increases unreality.—Yeats

Are you or aren't you
That cloud-chambered God whose substance
Is a quark’s is-and-isn’t-ing?

I think of the cool sparks
Of fireflies adrift
On a summer’s evening…
Thy justice and Thy mercy,
O Indeterminate One or More,
How shall they be reckoned?

The Lord giveth
And the Lord taketh away
So many times per second.
Are you that Nothing-from-which-Everything
Whose bones are made of light
(Light, which has Nothing up its sleeve)?

We believed in you a minute ago
But that’s history.
The atomic clock ticks and again we believe.
You open your eyes
And look us alive.
We occur.

We are, because you believe in us.
You doubt we ever were
And we never were.
God in Limbo,
Humanity in eclipse
Circle endlessly

In a mutual orbit
Anchored only
In Uncertainty.

There once was a childish deity
Of freaks and tantrums,
Supernaturally carnal.

He splashed
In the stream of time
And his laughter seemed eternal.

Time was your toy,
Immortal boy
Who with jubilant cries

Captured stars
In Mason jars
Like fireflies.

Now you have minions in sacerdotal
Business suits trafficking
In the raw actuarials of existence.

They consult the Tables, calculate
The optimum Window-of-Opportunity
To feed us a soupçon of your Providence.

You have second thoughts.
And we who are so anxious for your mansions:
How deeply we pretend to care!

Is it still good, Father? We ak.
Yes, it is good, you say,
An old man growing vague in a lawn chair.

A car swerves down
A winding road.
The driver slaps the steering wheel and cries.

Swaying back and forth
Above the dashboard,
Entangled with a pair of foam-rubber dice,

How can you help her, God made of polymers
Scaled down to Christ-Man
Hanging from the windshield?

God who relents, who sends us an angel—
Or is it that good-luck cricket
The boy brought home from the cornfield?

Now and then he opens
His Schrödinger Box:
Is it still alive in there?

Still alive. Set it free.
A chorus of crickets rises and falls.
Fitful annunciations glow in evening air.

Speaking of angels:
Have you seen the one
Who comes in the night to jumble our pawns?

He puts them back
Where they were
Just before day dawns.

The pieces are in place,
But we suspect that the substance
Of ordinary things is slightly transsubstantial—

Our arrangements
Seem strange, though nothing is changed.
This is your work, O Angel.

God riddled with holes
Who gave us fragments
Of a thousand commandments,

Shalts and shalt nots
Pieced here and there
Into meaning, scattering into nonsense

In the flick
Of a scholar’s eye:
Is this your will,

Elohim of the Shattered Tablets?
Is the only law
The Law of the Codicil?

And religion is there
Because we slept through our origins
And do not know our destiny

And I awoke
To find myself
In this candle-light procession by the sea.

Helmets glimmering like plunder,
The Greeks emerge
From the barbarous dark.

Their gods? Having no name
For their many names, the priests march
With a toy chest full of myths for an Ark.

The number of angels
On the head of a pin
Approaches infinity.

I pricked my thumb
The other day
And now I’m infected with divinity.

Recording Angel, whom some call Thoth:
Because you wrote down my deeds
Some are good and some are evil.

God of Ambiguous Hopes:
You measured the water in my glass
And now it is half-full.

When I looked out
The mouth of the cave
My view was blocked by a giant angel’s toe.

What did it profit me to lose the world
When I gave my soul to You,
Merciful Allah, my Refuge—my Bafflement—my Woe!

William Blake:
Your God flourishes in his fire
For an artery’s pulsation—the length of a vision—

Sharpens along the sight-line
His blades of fierce delight:
Forever only there and then.

Nietzsche in Turin
Walks the streets
On a sunny afternoon,

Smiling at strangers:
I am the god
Who created this cartoon!

A God in a hurry
Glanced us into being en passant,
On his way to another world, another sky.

We are window-reflections—
A flash in the corner
Of His eye.

Pilgrims, did you come all this way
Just to stand on the porch of the temple,
Trading heavenly gossip? Where is it written

That you must loiter here, blocking the entrance?
Shadows lengthen and the sun goes down.
But this is our religion.

Sixty-four octaves below middle C,
A black hole’s laying down a filthy groove—
Bass-line for the music of the spheres.

Pulses of a savage rock-and-roll
Scramble poor Palestrina’s pale strains,
So dear to angel choirs.

Flip a coin, and many different you’s
Make heads or tails of it—in many worlds,
Neither far from us nor near us…

We choose, from many gods, God.
Monotheism is what happens
When pantheism decoheres.

The gods we worshipped
Worshipped gods of their own.
And their gods? It went on and on…

We never suspected
Ours was a pantheon
Within a pantheon.

The temple is a labyrinth. It is an image
Of the god. If you wish to lose yourself there,
Three points are essential:

The devil who guards the entrance isn’t dangerous.
The self at the center—the central self? A stranger.
The angel by the exit is no angel.

At the center of the stone
Is a stone.
Some religions are religions of stone.

At the center of the bone
Is something that is not bone: call it air.
This is the founding Mystery of Bone.

A religion that makes light
Of itself at the center…
On an altar in the Holy

Of Holies
Sits a bowl
Of guacamole.

Those who circle the perimeter
Of the Miracle
Are worshipful.

Those who work at the center
Of the Miracle
Are more skeptical.

Let me try on
This religion
You so cozily rely on.

Is it Hindu or Mayan?
Do you worship the Lamb
Or the Lion?

Sudden turbulence.
We fastened our seatbelts, prayed
For the wings to stop shuddering.

The plane had entered
A cloud of Hindu deities
Furiously rutting.

We made a pact, my God and I:
Believe in me
And I’ll believe in you.

Now this is absolutely true,
Or Truth’s a lie
And Krishna isn’t blue.

A pet god who was once a wolf,
A god who worships us.
We say Sit on your throne and he sits,

And with a thousand hands
To do the bidding of hypocrites.

I know a country
Where they worship
A candy-coated Savior—

Not the Savior so much
As His flavor: the delicious
Vanilla Communion wafer.

The preacher’s speech balloons
Floated to the ceiling,
Filled with his scented breath.

Words soft as angel food cake
Yielded sweetly
To his tongue and teeth.

In homage to Christ’s Vicar
You sprouted leaves, O pilgrim’s staff.
October came: you shed them.

Deciduous caduceus—
Just one more
Autumn victim!

30. IsaiahThey chattered on
And would not hear
Of the approaching threat—

Until they saw
The naked statesman
Walking down the street.

Who would have believed
The credo of the Quantum Humanist
Would be so tenuously provisional

It could only be expressed
In the subjunctive-future-perfect-

His credo included the Dream Time;
The International Dateline; that when
The fridge door’s shut the light stays on inside;

That a shadow remains
On the wall of Plato’s Cave
Where the Buddha died.

He jotted down so many Scriptures,
He did this so many times
Founding religion after religion

That one day, on his travels,
It occurred to him:
In the Beginning was the Repetition.

This happened halfway down
A long, dry road.
My sight was dim

From the weariness of my walking
When I looked up and saw the Buddha.
I was too tired to kill him.

35. Sky burialThe Unknown Pilgrim
Died at Lhasa,
Leaving only an empty satchel.

They took him
To a mountaintop
And fed him to an angel.

My death and I sit down one day
To play a game of Tarot.
A formidable foe is death: a Rosicrucian—

A man well versed in both Arcana,
Major and Minor, thoughts
Hermetically sealed behind a mask of concentration.

My future is at wager here.
I scan my hand, I pick
A card. Sweet luck! I trade the Fool for the Magician.

It issues boldly from my lips:
I call. He spreads them out:
King Skeleton, King Skeleton, King Skeleton…

Dwarf god hatched in a Klein bottle,
Demiurge playing Maxwell’s demon:
In the litter of gods, this is the runt.

There is an Infinity, plus one
That rides piggy-back: he is the one.
The Aleph-Ant.

He sits enthroned in his cloud-chamber.
Every fluctuant picosecond
With his strobe-light fiat-looks

He conjures neutrinos
Like fireflies from the dark.
Oodles and googles, too, of startled quarks.

Across a Kingdom
Nanometers wide
He walks in strangeness and in spin,

Picks molecules apart like flies,
Tortures atoms
Into furious Brownian motion.

A genie, perhaps.
But no genius. A fragment
Of a genie. An elf,

Or excerpt of an elf,
Trapped in a fractal
Of himself.
Cut to nanobot Noah on his silicon raft,
Rescuing the beasts of the periodic table,
Breasting the photon flood with that rowdy crowd

Till the miraculous micro-event
Of a rainbow precipitates
From a probability-cloud.

I meant to say: Hunchback Demiurge,
King of the Gargoyles,
Charles Laughton-medieval, Belfry Billy.

Of less than average intelligence,
He’s riding the cast iron beasts of the bells,
Has bells for a back and a belly.

Ah, there is squalor
And thievery below
In the Court of Miracles

And his ugly stone angels
Are vomiting down
A torrent of oracles.

He exults in his deafness, laughing insanely,
Riding the God-cups,
Spilling their holy racket

Over a city
Blind to the beautiful pity
Of a dwarf with the world on his back.

The Big Bang: wasn’t that a hoot,
When out of less-than-nothing
You conjured all-the-things-that-are

And out they burst,
Obstreperous as a host of clowns
Sprung from a circus car?

(O consternation
And hilarity,
That we cannot simultaneously

Determine its position
And velocity!
O vroom and doom! O woe and whee!)

In our white coats we circle,
Circle like a whirlwind
Buffeting the ancient crux:

Will God ever put
The Jack-in-the-Box

40. Dem bones, dem bones…
Lord of the Loony Tune Sublime,
With rubber mallets in your hands
You zigzag through the Valley of Dry Bones

And silence suddenly
Grows replete
With bonkings of a billion xylophones.

These hard white facts,
These petrifying souvenirs the life force
Withers at the sight of:

Set them alive
As if they were a brace of birthday candles
Made to be made light of.

Connect, connect, Lord,
Bone with bone and bone with bone
Till with a clicking and a clacking noise

We stand and face the sun
And sway in the breeze like rickety
Little houses made of Tinker Toys.

Resurrection’s Virtuoso:
Refresh the once-so-procreative sand
With your miraculous water-squirting rose.

Dress us again in coats of skin, we’ll stroll
Through Eden’s renovated public gardens
In these Intelligent Designer clothes.

(Some, alas, will wake up
In the Adversary’s camp
Where lurid watch fires glow like cans of Sterno.

O tragic slapstick! How their souls
Slide-whistled down and landed with a tiny poof
In Hell’s Canyon (a.k.a. Inferno.)

Re-flesh, especially, those toothy caverns
Over which once wiggled
The expressive signature of lips,

That we may smile, because we get the joke:
Hilarious, the way you juggle
Apotheosis and Apocalypse.

I visited the Lonely God-in-a-Tower:
He bears the burden of all he sees.
He looks out at the world through our eyes

And fills them with tears and pity.
Saints and poets climb to his side
To share in his helpless sympathy.

The plagues and wars:
He watches them through his telescope
Of dented brass.

He paces, tortures his wits for ways
To conquer the Conqueror Worm.
The skeletons amass.

One day we will all
Climb to his side
In the Tower of the Bleeding Heart

And this will be
The consummation of all we see
And say in love, science, art.

There is an ordinary God who says:
Let there be lawns and kitchen tables.
(Just give me a minute.)

Let my nuclear family look out the windows
Of their Father’s Ranch House
And read newspapers in it.

I’m just sort of what I am, your basic God-Guy,
Well-liked and respected
God of Honorable Mentions—

Oh, and why not a Brownian motion
Of puppies at tussle, pleasantly tweaking
Silence’s surface tensions?

Let them sit on the sofa.
(Oh yes, let there be sofas.)
Let the lovely and talented daughter

Come down the stairs
And play on the upright
Her parents bought her.

(It will be slightly
Out of tune,
But that will not matter.)

Let her pause
At the keyboard,
Cradle that fermata

Till all the time in the world
Rests sweetly exhausted there;
And space is warm and candle-lit.

Stillness moves.
Amid quiet breathing
The Minute Waltz detaches itself from the infinite.

Arthur Chapin

Signifying Nothing

Liverpool have never won away from home in Europe against an English team, they have scored only twice in four previous Champions League games at Chelsea and they have not scored three goals there in 20 years.

And Liverpool will have to create history by becoming the first visiting side to ever score three times at Stamford Bridge in a European match.

That is the measure of the task facing Liverpool with everything stacked against them as they face their 300th match in European competition, and their 169th in the European Cup.

I don't watch any other sports, so I don't know if this is the case for announcers and commentators anywhere you go, but jesus, I'm so fucking sick of hearing irrelevant statistics and trivia passing for informative commentary.

All that matters is what these particular 22 to 28 players do on this field on this date. The rest is just gravy for people with far too much time on their hands. As often as players change clubs, it doesn't make a frisky fuck's worth of difference what Liverpool teams from five years ago did, let alone teams from the late '80s. It has absolutely no predictive potential for this game. None. Zero. Zilch. Liverpool will either win or lose, and it will be because of, again, what the two teams do on the field, not because of what players representing the same club did when today's stars were still in elementary school. You could flip a coin and have just as much chance of predicting the result as any of these data-hoarding pack rats will. Anybody remember that helpful saying, "Correlation, not causation"?

I was ready to firebomb my tv last summer during the Euro championships, having to listen to incessant yammering throughout the last half of June about how Spain hadn't won the Euro title since 1964, how they didn't win often when wearing their mustard-yellow away jerseys, how they had never won a game in Switzerland when the temperature was below eighty degrees while fielding a team in a 4-4-2 formation with a striker born with his sun in Aries and his moon in Aquarius. The fact that absolutely none of that ultimately meant the slightest fucking thing won't matter. I'm sure by next year, in South Africa, they'll be babbling about how Spain has never gotten past the quarterfinals at the World Cup, how they don't do well against France, and on and on.

Watching the FSC anchors - the worst of the bunch - try to make predictions from goat entrails, tea leaves and numerology couldn't be any more mind-numbingly stupifying. Maybe, to some extent, it's the same problem as it relates to regular news and cable -- with 24 hours of airtime, you gotta talk about something. But oh, how I wish people could just refrain from talking when they don't have anything worthwhile to say.

Not just during a televised soccer game, but during life in general, for that matter.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Memento Mori

Head, meet desk. Head, desk. HeadeskheaddeskheaddeskjesuswhatafuckingMORON.

If you only go around once, then the main thing is to have fun. If you start by admitting that from cradle to tomb it isn't that long of a stay, then life is a cabaret, old chum, and so, by the way, is Wall Street. There is a bumper sticker favored by some of the recently rich that proclaims "he who dies with the most toys wins." This is indeed the moral philosophy of those who believe that death is the final closing bell. Materialism, hedonism and Stairmasters are what people do until the clock stops ticking.

Hey, fuckwit, ever heard of Epicurus?

Back to our wretched economy. We are in this sorry state because those managing our production and our wealth are in many cases free from moral constraint.

Sort of true, but not in the way he means. Actually, we're in it because of thirty years of deregulatory fever, which, though bipartisan (thanks for repealing Glass-Steagall, Bill!), was primarily sponsored by the party that prattles on endlessly about, um, morals and values and Jeebus. If you want to argue that they aren't really true Christians because they don't interpret an ancient book of fortune cookie sayings the same way you do, if you want to put on your Grand Inquisitor robes and go root out all the impure people corrupting the faith, well, then go on with your bad self already! If you need me, I'll be over here not giving the faintest fuck.

When people believed in heaven and hell, there was no doubt as to the preferred destination. The point of life was to build a stairway to paradise. Which doesn't mean that everyone behaved perfectly. The world was a very cruel place. But most people did treat others better than they might have, especially as they grew older, because they really did believe in a Judgment Day.

Wait, "most" people did treat others better than they "might have"? Where did this specifically vague assertion come from, other than somewhere far up your colon? It sure wasn't from history. And let me make sure I have this -- monotheism gets the credit for humans not existing purely to murder and torture each other for fun? Animals don't have religion either, you stupid motherfucker, and they don't even act like that. And are you aware that "belief in the afterlife" is by no means a simple thing to summarize?

Perhaps the answer is a leader who speaks to our shared values. We are individuals, but if we can also see ourselves as part of a whole, we can put down our toys and concern ourselves with that whole, which will go on forever.

Hey, fuckwit, ever heard of Buddhism? Or even Taoism?

Anyway, what this idiot seems unable to grasp is that this absurd caricature he uses, this image of a guy furiously rutting at orgies every day while trying to jab a syringe into his arm without dropping the turkey leg he's frantically devouring, is based in fear. Someone who acted anything like that would be betraying a fear of death that probably doesn't apply to people who have thought long and hard about God, the universe, and the nature of consciousness, only to conclude that there is no "you" when the brain shuts down and the heart stops beating, and that your thoughts and feelings don't exist independently of the brain and sensory organs that gave rise to them to begin with. The only reason for someone to worry about death would be for the sake of any dependents they're leaving behind. And as the previously-mentioned Epicurus knew thousands of years ago, immediate sensual gratification is not the only kind of enjoyment, and maybe not even the best kind. Scintillating conversations with good friends, contemplation of art, and yes, even the inherent pleasure in helping others and making them happy - unrelated to any self-serving ulterior motive, such as the desire for a reward from a deity - are all good enough. What a pathetic, shallow, limited mind someone must have to not understand that.

Frankly, I'm always glad to hear from these people who automatically assume, like Dostoevsky, that "without God, everything is permitted!" I like to keep one eye on bastards like that, because this transparent projection tells me that the only thing keeping them from indulging those barbaric appetites is fear of cosmic retribution, so should they ever lose their faith, make sure to never turn your back on them.