Friday, September 30, 2011

Lucubratio (VI)

More from The New Buddhism:

The Beats emulated the cool reserve of the African American jazz musicians they idealized, favored dark-colored clothes, and displayed a good deal of existential angst. The hippies, on the other hand, wore every color of the rainbow and valued above all the openness and emotional expression reflected in their famous slogan "Peace and Love." While the Beats saw themselves as a collection of individual artists and bohemians struggling for survival in conformist America, the hippies believed they were on the cutting edge of a new ethos of sharing and communal living that would remake the world. The Beats preferred poetry and the introverted sounds of cool jazz, while the Haight-Ashbury counterculture centered on the celebration and rebellion expressed in its flamboyant rock music.

In many ways, the Beat subculture provided a more sympathetic environment for the spread of Buddhism. Unlike the Beats, the hippies had few intellectual pretensions, and as we have seen Buddhism has often had its strongest appeal among the intelligentsia. Moreover, the reserved style of the Beats certainly fit far better with the traditions of Japanese Zen (which was the only form of Buddhism with which Americans had any familiarity) than the more emotional and expressive hippies.

This reminded me of the recent essay that's been making the rounds about the time Jack Kerouac met Ken Kesey:

Jack was 12 years older than Ken, and there was a marked difference in their energies and interests. Jack had been living in a house with his mother in Northport, although he still had to deal from time to time with the public adulation inspired by the 1957 publication of On the Road. His was a relatively passive life.

Kesey and the Pranksters, on the other hand, were on an extended high that peaked in New York. According to one of the Pranksters, Ken Babbs, every place they had stopped on the bus trip, they had gotten out their musical instruments, donned their regalia, turned on the cameras and tape recorders, and broken into “spontaneous combustion musical and verbal make-believe shenanigans.” The Pranksters were still doing a version of this in the New York City apartment.

This was the atmosphere into which Kerouac walked. Unlike the intrepid Pranksters, Jack sat quietly on the side, “slightly aloof,” as Babbs told me. They draped a small American flag over Jack’s shoulders, but he took it off, folded it neatly, and placed it on the arm of the couch.

There was absolutely no serious or colorful discussion between Kesey and Kerouac. Jack was never loud, or critical, or indignant. He seemed tired, but he was patient with the Pranksters’ antics. Still, an hour after he came, he left. In the end, he was uncomfortable with Kesey’s overwhelming display of exuberance.

...The Beats and the Pranksters showed us different ways of opting out of society. They were both countercultural movements. The Beats were trying to change literature, and the Pranksters were trying to change the people and the country.

I Was an Iron Age Anarchist, Lookin' for a Sex Solution

In light of this I wanted to open up a conversation on the topic: How do sex and anarchical thought intersect in light of Jesus? How and when does one’s sexual life and practices truly reflect the anarchical teachings of Jesus?

For those of us who clearly recognize that Jesus is a deeply political figure (bringing the reign of God to earth), we have no choice but to face up to this reality: sex is a deeply political act. In fact, if “politics” is nothing more than the dynamic of how we relate and connect to one another as people, then sex may be one the most politically charged acts in this world. You and I owe our very existence to this political act, to the communal interactions of our parents that brought us forth into this world.

In my own readings of anarchical thought the only author who has addressed the political implications of Jesus’ teachings on sex was Leo Tolstoy. In his My Religion: What I Believe he wrote,

Jesus declares that debauchery arises from the disposition of men and women to regard one another as instruments of voluptuousness, and, this being so we ought to guard against every idea that excites to sensual desire, and, once united to a woman, never to abandon her on any pretext, for women thus abandoned are sought by other men, and so debauchery is introduced into the world.

Tolstoy was a rationalist who clung to the teachings of Jesus with the utmost literal interpretation. Though there are deep holes in his rationalism, there is much to learn from his simplistic adherence to the words of Jesus. In Tolstoy’s eyes Jesus is teaching us that sex is nonviolent and domination-free only when found in lifelong commitments of love, for in every other instance the partners ultimately “regard one another as instruments of voluptuousness.” Is Tolstoy’s analysis right? If so, what does this mean exactly for those of us attempting to conform our lives to the politics of Jesus?

I'm not sure why he feels the need to stretch the definition of politics to the point of vague-beyond-usefulness to make his case that you should only have sex with one person during your whole life and stay married to them without ever feeling any sensual desire. But I'm impressed by the way he seems to borrow heavily from Kant in order to claim that relationships based on mutual consent and the best knowledge and communication available to both parties at the time aren't pure enough. Did I say impressed? I meant appalled.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Be Lamps Unto Yourselves

From The New Buddhism:

It is never possible to be sure if the statements attributed to the Buddha in the Pali Canon and other early scriptures are really his, since they were not set down in writing until centuries after his death. On the matter of sex, however, there is little doubt about his attitude.

...In one of his most famous statements on the subject, the Buddha is said to have told a monk who was seduced by the wife he had left behind when he joined the sangha: "Oh, misguided man, it is better for you to put your penis in the mouth of a hideous poisonous snake than into the body of a woman."

...The Buddha warned his monks: "The one thing that enslaves a man above all else is a woman. Her form, her voice, her scent, her attractiveness, and her touch all beguile a man's heart. Stay away from them at all costs." When a monk asked the Buddha how members of the order should act toward women, he replied, "Do not look at them." "But what if we must look at them?" the monk asked. The Buddha replied, "Don't speak to them." "But what if we must speak to them?" he persisted. "Keep wide awake," was the Buddha's final response.

I'm sure that, just as with Christian apologists, there are people who will stubbornly insist that notable quotables like this are either the result of mistranslations, or inaccurate transcriptions of stories that had been passed around orally for hundreds of years, or whatever it takes to preserve the image they need their idol to have. Personally, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that even a wise man living more than two millennia ago harbored some attitudes that we today would find repugnant. But it really doesn't matter to me one way or the other.

The book is fascinating for the way it sheds light on the way Western concepts of Buddhism are, in many ways, Western concepts of Buddhism. I've been aware myself that the sort of writers whose explanations of Buddhist thought have influenced me the most, like Alan Watts, Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, and Sam Hamill are filtering their understanding and valuing of certain aspects of Buddhism through a Western consciousness that values things like individualism, rational scientific thought and political liberty. The thing is, there's nothing wrong with that. The most valuable thing about Buddhism as a tradition is that it's an ever-evolving work in progress. It adapts to change, as it should. Take what's useful to you and leave the rest. The Buddha doesn't need to be the most perfect human who ever existed for many of his ideas to still have value.

Flight of the Dragonfly

For the third time in the last few weeks, my front yard is absolutely swarming with dragonflies. It's been going on for the last couple hours. Dozens and dozens of them, swooping and darting this way and that, snapping up insects like mad. I've never seen more than one or two in the same place before. Does this have something to do with climate change? More bugs than usual in the area? Jeebus's imminent return?

Oh, you laugh, but I know how these things turn out.

Foghorn Inkhorn

Louis C.K. is a comedian with balding, red hair. He has a television show that I’ve seen a few times and I enjoyed. I don’t know what his initials stand for or why his show is called Louie and not Louis. My guess is this is a typo that no one noticed until it was too late, and then they were embarrassed to change.

Ah say, ah say, I think this qualifies as irony.

Friday, September 23, 2011

All My Friends are as Sharp as Razors

My friend Arthur once studied under Harold Bloom at Yale, so when I saw this article taking the piss out of Bloom the other day, I passed it along to him. What he wrote back was so interesting and erudite, I figured it deserved to be brought forth for dozens of eyes to see rather than languishing in my inbox.

This is a devastating critique, and I agree with it more or less entirely. Bloom needed to be called out for the high-brow tabloid celebrity he has allowed himself to become over the years.

Deresiewicz mentions “narcissism,” a subject I’ve been looking into in connection with the pathological behavior of an acquaintance of mine, and Bloom came to mind when I read the following quote in a Wikipedia article on “Narcissistic Defenses:” “Sartre’s heroes represent variants of a primitive narcissist who ‘saves’ his self by petrifying it.” It as if the gaze of Narcissus at his image in the water turned him not into a flower but into stone: the narcissist’s mirror is a Medusa. Bloom in his spoiled, sheltered, un-reality-tested complacency writes as if he had some very heavy rocks in his head.

The vulgarity of out-of-control egotism consists partly in the self-caricature the vainglorious celebrity represents without seeming to realize it. At least pro wrestlers vaunting in front of the camera are fully aware that this is show biz, that the macho, phallic, “heroic” male ego is both developmentally primitive and culturally archaic, almost atavistic, and playing up its cartoonish aspects is part of the fun. Donald Trump, on the other hand, isn’t joking, and that’s precisely what makes him the joke he doesn’t get.

I’m reminded of a description in Simon Schama’s book on the French Revolution, Citizens, of “the Elephant of Revolutionary Memory,” a monumental statue of a larger-than-life pachyderm placed next to the Arc de Triomphe by the Jacobins in a gesture that already contained an unintended irony (once revolution becomes a memory, the revolution is over, just as Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party encodes an oxymoron no one in the party seems to appreciate). Anyway, as years passed this memorious plaster-cast effigy became sadly tattered; rats took up residence in the hollows of its feet, and eventually it had to be dismantled and removed. In the case of Bloom’s current reputation, based on over a decade’s worth of self-promotion at the expense of the genuine intellectual passion he once possessed, Deresiewicz is the one-man demolition crew.

Two things about the “Elephant of Revolutionary Memory” seem especially a propos here: first an elephantine memory (like Bloom’s) can be as much a hindrance to creativity as a spur to it. It was because of this that Nietzsche praised forgetfulness. Second, Bloom was indeed something of a revolutionary in his earlier period, especially in his championing of the Romantics, and I’m completely with him there. But like that decaying elephant, he has become merely a monument to his earlier originality.

And maybe a third thing suggests itself in the hollowness of that statue: the hollowness of pure ego. It is not just that too much learning, like a little, can in some hands pose a danger to creative originality; dwelling exclusively in the narcissistic hall of mirrors of the self-aggrandizing ego cuts you off from the source of creativity within yourself: the unconscious. At least as much great art has been created by the willed loss of the self as by attempts to consolidate it. Irony of ironies, Bloom’s very God, Shakespeare, had in seemingly infinite measure that capacity to lose himself in his imagined characters—what Keats called “negative capability”—that Bloom so conspicuously, comically lacks. A Shakespeare in Bloom’s image could not have created Hamlet and Lear. Like Bloom, he would have been (in Stevens’ words, criticizing an unnamed poet) “too exactly himself.”

Eliot said that it was only those who have too much personality who want to be rid of it, and The Waste Land is an uncanny exercise in literary “channeling,” with Tiresias-Eliot as the medium.

Joyce achieved greatness more through negative capability and artistic empathy than through the artist-as-exile posturings of his ego, as necessary as these may have been to carve out a space for his art. The artist, he writes in A Portrait of the Artist of the Young Man, should be hidden behind his work, like a god, paring his fingernails. A god, yes, but a chameleon god, a shape-shifter, a Mercury, and not a grouchy megalomaniac like Yahweh. Ulysses is a vast cosmos in which the autobiographical figure of Stephen Dedalus is just one among thousands of characters, and the streets of Dublin he so accurately describes, and Dublin itself, are characters subsuming the egotistical Stephen among their often tawdry splendors. Lacan called Joyce “Saint Homme,” alluding to his concept of the Symptom (or Sinthome, to use the archaic French spelling Lacan with typical eccentricity preferred to use) because like the Surrealists to whom Joyce was spiritually akin and among whom Lacan himself grew into intellectual maturity, the author of Ulysses achieved “jouissance” in relation to his unconscious; instead of fighting the promptings of his dreams and occult urges, he laid back and enjoyed them (in an almost sexual way, as jouissance strongly implies in French.) Jung spoke of Joyce’s willed schizophrenia. In none of these descriptions do we recognize the monolithically Oedipal Bloomian ego, whose crude nakedness conjures up Frank Sinatra’s hymn to macho egotism, “I Did it My Way.”

Proust is fascinated and appalled by the multiplicity of his selves as they evolve and disappear over time, just as he is by the multiplicity of his lover’s selves.

Even Wilde, no shrinking violet himself in the ego department, had a kind of internal negative capability, a capacity to move from one self to another in his endless quest for new sensations and ever-more daring adventures sexual and aesthetic.

Peter Ackroyd compares Bloom adulating the literary great to a sports announcer shouting into the mike: “Wow! did you see how far he hit that one?” (And doesn’t the very founder of the Western Canon bear the name of Homer? All great poets are prophets.) It is necessary to remember that there is such a thing as greatness, if only as an antidote to the ressentiment currently poisoning our culture, which wants to level everything and everyone to a homogeneous conformity to politically correct “diversity.” But too much of this aggrandizing of greatness also degrades it. Merrill in The Changing Light at Sandover is told by one of the spirits who communicate with him (he half believes, half doubts) through the Ouja Board that the great thinkers and artists are “5’s,” the closest human equivalents to the angels and other enlightened spirits that dwell in the beyond and sponsor human destiny. Athletes are 6’s, he adds as an afterthought. You do no service to great poets by, in effect, calling them the Babe Ruths and Sandy Koufax’s of literature.

Returning to the emptiness Deresiewicz mentions: it is the corollary and nemesis of the narcissistic ego. If it’s your self against the universe, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover to catch up with that boundless immensity. Your emptiness, your unfulfilled desire to be greater than the Universe, to be God, becomes an insatiable hunger that can only solace itself in ever-renewed attempts at appropriating new territory from the not-me and internalizing it as your own. It is a hopelessly asymptotic quest romance. Imagine a psychotically megalomaniacal baseball pitcher boasting about his career achievements while in his cups. He begins by claiming to his drunken admirers that his career record was 800 wins and 10 losses. “The team let me down ten times,” he adds by way of explanation for the losses. “How many shutouts did you pitch?” asks one of his credulous admirers. “Every win was a shutout,” he replies. “How many of the shutouts were no-hitters?” “They were all no-hitters.” “How many perfect games?” “They were all perfect games. In fact I struck out every batter I faced. Not only that, I did it on three straight strikes…” Inch by inch, detail by detail, but hopelessly, all the same, one approaches to a delusion of infinite greatness through ego-fantasies that can never themselves be infinitely grandiose enough to equal the absurdly, outrageously grandiose grandiosity of the most famous show-off celebrity in the universe except for itself, I mean, the Universe.

Anyway, thanks! I enjoyed Derewiecz’s writing a great deal, and I can’t wait to read the article in which he takes down that sodden Marxist poseur, Terry Eagleton.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I finally finished that excellent book by Peter Watson last night. One last section that I thought deserved to be excerpted:

But there is another - quite different - reason why, in the West at least, the soul is important, and arguably more important and more fertile than the idea of God. To put it plainly, the idea of the soul has outlived the idea of God; one might even say it has evolved beyond God, beyond religion, in that even people without faith - perhaps especially people without faith - are concerned with the inner life.

...Plato has misled us, and Whitehead was wrong: the great success stories in the history of ideas have been in the main the fulfillment of Aristotle's legacy, not Plato's. This is confirmed above all by the latest developments in historiography - which underline that the early modern period, as it is now called, has replaced the Renaissance as the most significant transition in history. As R.W.S. Southern has said, the period between 1050 and 1250, the rediscovery of Aristotle, was the greatest and most important transformation in human life, leading to modernity, and not the (Platonic) Renaissance of two centuries later.

For many years - for hundreds of years - man had little doubt that he had a soul, that whether or not there was some 'soul substance' deep inside the body, this soul represented the essence of man, an essence that was immortal, indestructible. Ideas about the soul changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, as the loss of belief in God started to gather pace, other notions were conceived. Beginning with Hobbes and then Vico talk about the self and the mind began to replace talk about the soul and this view triumphed in the nineteenth century, especially in Germany with its development of romanticism, of the human or social sciences, Innerlichkeit and the unconscious. The growth of mass society, of the new vast metropolises, played a part here too, provoking as sense of the loss of self.

...Here, therefore, and arising from this book, is one last idea for the scientists to build on. Given the Aristotelian successes of both the remote and immediate past, is it not time to face the possibility - even the probability - that the essential Platonic notion of the 'inner self' is misconceived? There is no inner self. Looking 'in', we have found nothing - nothing stable, anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive - because there is nothing to find. We human beings are part of nature and therefore we are more likely to find out about our 'inner' nature, to understand ourselves, by looking outside ourselves, at our role and place as animals. In John Gray' s words, 'A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.' This is not paradoxical, and without some such realignment of approach, the modern incoherence will continue.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Shape of Sound

I'm jealous of synesthetes, damn it. I wish I could see colors along with music, but I've always visualized music as shapes. Not like circles and squares, though -- more like waves, ripples, snaking lines and expanding dots. In fact, it's kind of like a mix between sheet music and those psychedelic screens in Windows Media Player that pulse and shift in time to whatever music you're listening to. Except without color.

I really, really wish I could get some color in my interior audio/visual experience.

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (II)


There must be a lot of people who, like this blogger, read more than one book at once. Perhaps there is one in the bathroom, one on the bedside table, one for the daily commute. There are books that are left unfinished but sit there as guilty reminders of failed endeavours; in my case a history of the Thirty Years War, which was so plodding and detailed that I gave up somewhere around the arrival of Gustavus Adolphus. There are difficult, stylised novels that one knows one should read but can only manage a few pages at a time; hardbacks that are interesting but too heavy to lug on the train; thrillers that are good page-turners but are saved for long plane trips.

The pleasure of a Kindle is that many fat books can be contained within one slim device. But in this blogger's case, it has made many things worse. The ease of ordering books on my e-reader means that I am tempted to buy more. Yet I am even less likely to complete any of them, given how easy the device makes it to switch from one book to another. When "Mao's Great Famine" becomes too depressing, I've found it all too enticing to switch to George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" saga; when Mr Martin's books get silly (all those dynasties and monsters), it is time to educate myself with Ian Morris's magisterial "Why the West Rules—for Now" (reviewed by The Economist here). And my reluctance to carry a £110 device on the tube, where it might be dropped or stolen, means I use my Kindle mainly at home or on plane flights.

So whereas in the old days I might have been tackling two or three books at a time, it is now six or seven. And the feeling of guilt only builds; will I ever finish any of them?

Well, that settles that. Not that I was in any danger of buying an e-book reader anytime soon, but gods know I have a couple dozen dead-tree books on my bedside table and bookshelf waiting resignedly for their turn to be read, so I will use this cautionary tale to fortify my resolve. Where's a mysterious benefactor when you need one? I need to get paid to sit at home and read for pleasure if I'm ever going to get all these done before I die.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I like a lot of this interview with Vanessa Veselka:

This identity obsession is a really strange modern thing, where we get our identities reflected back and marketed to us in such a particular way that there’s such a sort of ka-ching moment for taking on an identify. Taking on an identity feels like an arrival, and it feels like a solution in certain ways.

We see things now like: “I am a vegan.” I’m a really bad vegetarian. Sometimes I’m such a bad vegetarian, I’m not a vegetarian. I constantly move on this spectrum. But this idea of “I am a vegetarian,” is much different than “I usually don’t eat meat.” There’s so much weight that comes with it.

Rumpus: It’s black and white.

Veselka: It’s black and white. It’s a line you never cross. I see this as cultural signaling. It’s cultural signaling to try to find who you are in the world and who matches you. It’s just another courting ritual, like the blue feathers and the funny shiny rings that the birds bring around. It’s not that different. But part of that becomes alienation, and separation, and intolerance, which is nothing to strive for.

...The dark side of identity politics circles is that you use these kind of totems, expressions, and billboards of who you are to avoid talking about anything—rather than to get closer. It’s actually to say, Don’t ask me anything because you can see what I am by what I’m wearing. You can see what I am by the totems I carry.

There’s very little communication in that form. In some ways it seems like it’s meant to alienate people within a culture of a certain similarity rather than bind them together.

Rumpus: What about Buddhism? Is being a Buddhist an identity for you? Is that something you fully embrace?

Veselka: I haven’t taken refuge vows. I’ve come close at different times. For me, it’s not an identity and I think that’s exactly why I haven’t taken refuge. I can’t say I’m a Buddhist for the same reason I can’t say I’m a vegetarian.

Rumpus: Because it builds up more walls?

Veselka: I think it builds up walls, and I also think I just can’t do it and have integrity because I’m not 100% anything. There’s no way for me to say that and feel like I’m speaking honestly. I would feel like an imposter. That is a bit of my own nerdy puritanism, or something like that, that 70% is not there. The truth is that there are days I am 100% Buddhist, there are days I am 10%.

You could, of course, say that there's nothing at all wrong with striving for some consistency between one's principles and actions. But I know what she means about the limiting effects of strong identification with a group, a cause, an ideology. I'm vegetarian for principled reasons, but I don't strongly identify with it, at least not in the sense that I feel myself to be morally superior to carnivores or that I honestly believe that we're slowly but surely progressing toward a glorious future when animals are all treated humanely and the environmental impact of using so many resources to produce meat for wealthy nations is negated. I call myself an atheist because I do think it's as clear as can be that nothing worthy of the name "God" as a distinct entity exists, and because I think it's an extremely hard-won cultural freedom to be allowed to openly disbelieve, one worth asserting and protecting; yet I don't think that religious/mystical belief will ever die out, and I'm deeply pessimistic about the brave new rational world many hardcore atheists look forward to. And I've said many times here that I could never fully identify as a Buddhist, no matter how much Buddhist ideas have influenced me.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of identity as being more chameleon-like -- we adjust our sense of self depending on our circumstances and the company we keep. Most people would probably have an instinctive reaction to call that shallow and superficial, but is that just another lingering inheritance of the Socratic/Platonic notion that we all have a unique essence to which we must be true for integrity's sake?

The Power of Prayer

It would take a big man, a great-souled man, to not chortle in delight over this sort of news. Fortunately, I am not big or great-souled!

Vick's concussion, caused when an Atlanta Falcon knocked the quarterback backward into his beefy Eagles offensive lineman Todd Herremans, reveals the limitations of this exercise. For the NFL, this was the worst kind of head injury—one it's impossible to spin as a consequence of rule-breaking.

Oh, I don't know about that-- I'd think that, say, swinging him by his heels to bash his skull into jelly on the concrete might be just a smidgen worse by any objective reckoning, but nonetheless, I'll take it. Thanks for listening, Jeebus, Odin, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, or whichever minor deity finally answered my pleas!

But wait -- how are they sure it's a concussion? I mean, they're certainly aware that he displayed sluggish, slow-witted mental activity and slurred, incoherent speech before this, right?

Old South Order, New Northern Horizon


This reliance on immigrant workers has farmers lobbying against a bill that would require them to verify migrant workers' status and employ only legal workers, saying such a mandate would cripple the industry.

If American growers are so dependent on illegal labor, would strict verification drive up prices for labor and, ultimately, produce? Are consumers too accustomed to inexpensive vegetables and fruit to accept the cost of legal labor to produce it?

It's so cute, isn't it, how some people seem to think their charming, quaint cultural nativism will avoid the fate of labor and environmental regulations when push comes to shove with the invisible hand. Practice saying it en español, motherfuckers: ¡¿Quién se ha llevado mi queso?!

Monday, September 19, 2011

In the Hushed Moments When the Nameless Draws Near

Jonathan Rée:

And in any case, religion for James was more a matter of subconscious experience than explicit doctrine. “Feeling is the deeper source of religion,” he wrote, and “philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.” Philosophical theologians who tried to “construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason” were missing the point, and chest-thumping atheists who tried to refute these intellectual constructions only compounded the error. James liked to define religion by contrast: it was the opposite, he suggested, of the smug facetiousness and cackling je m’en fichisme cultivated by 18th-century philosophes like Voltaire, who treated any display of tenderness or solemnity as a sign of weakness or folly. But most of us have a capacity for respectful attentiveness, and we can, on occasion, “close our mouths and be as nothing.” Anyone with the courage to say “hush” to “vain chatter and smart wit” – anyone who could prefer “gravity” to “pertness” – was, James thought, ready for religious experience. Becoming religious was like falling in love, he said: not a process of intellectual persuasion, but not a delusion either, and it lent new aspects to the world, “an enchantment which is not logically deducible from anything else.”

Sigh. Okay, let's try a different approach. What if we agree to think of religion as a poetic experience? For example, and perhaps surprisingly to you, one of my most favorite books of all time is Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Here's a passage I love:

But when I lean over the chasm of myself—
it seems
my God is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots
silently drinking.

This is the ferment I grow out of.

More I don't know, because my branches
rest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.

Beautiful, yes? An earthy description of God as the silent, subterranean roots, the poet as the tree; subverting the usual image of God being above and beyond, removed from the world, as we grovel in supplication below. Or how about this one?

I love you, gentlest of Ways,
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

You, the great homesickness we could never shake
you, the forest that always surrounded us,

you, the song we sang in every silence,
you dark net threading through us,

on the day you made us you created yourself,
and we grew sturdy in your sunlight....

Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

There's a suggestion here of outgrowing God, leaving him in our shadow as we grow, yet still retaining gratitude, as one would toward a teacher or a parent. But does the poem mean anything, in the way we normally think of the word? Of course not. It's just a lovely evocation of contemplative images. Like this one, which suggests an almost-Taoist sensibility in the way it paints a circle of imagery around its subject rather than trying to pin it down, the metaphors negating each other in order to make us look past them. I love the last two lines especially:

You are the future,
the red sky before sunrise
over the fields of time.

You are the cock's crow when night is done,
you are the dew and the bells of matins,
maiden, stranger, mother, death.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days—
unsung, unmourned, undescribed,
like a forest we never knew.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship.

If this is all people mean when they speak of God - a surging sense of joy, a desire for a feeling of balance and harmony in one's life, an ability to still be impressed by the odd twists and turns our lives take, despite our attempts to plan them out in detail - then even obstreperous atheists like me can smile and nod along. But that's just the thing, isn't it? To the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship -- as much as the William Jameses of the world might wish it to be otherwise, for many people, religion, especially the monotheistic varieties, is very much about truth claims upon the world, not feelings about it. Even many of the more liberal kinds of believers who would agree that a poetic sensibility is an integral part of the religious experience would still likely find my suggestion demeaning that religion could be "reduced" to poetry.

An inexpressible experience of beauty and harmony isn't threatened or nullified by scientific knowledge or rational thought. People who have a problem with vocal atheists should take the time to consider why they seem to think otherwise. I have an idea why that might be, but I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Clear I-sight

Kerri Smith:

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. "I'll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this," he says. "How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?"

The only reason this seems so unsettling to people is because of the ingrained assumption that "I" am distinct from "my brain", and that my brain would do one thing if it were allowed to run on autopilot, but "I" would do something differently. This research doesn't deny that we choose between alternatives, it just demonstrates that more of the decision-making process is unconscious than we thought.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Beethoven Reaches for the Heavens, Mozart Lives There

Another good section from that Peter Watson book I've been reading all summer:

The great difference between Beethoven (1770-1827) and Mozart, who was only fourteen years older, was that Beethoven thought of himself as an artist. There is no mention of that word in Mozart's letters—he considered himself a skilled craftsman who, as Haydn and Bach had done before him, supplied a commodity. But Beethoven saw himself as part of a special breed, a creator, and that put him on a par with royalty and other elevated souls. 'What is in my heart,' he said, 'must come out'. Goethe was just one who responded to the force of his personality, writing, 'Never have I met an artist of such spiritual concentration and intensity, such vitality and great-heartedness. I can well understand how hard he must find it to adapt to the world and its ways.' Even the crossings-out in his autograph music have a violence that Mozart, for example, lacked.

...However, what the Eroica and Ninth symphonies have in common, what made their sounds so new and so different from the music of, say, Mozart, was that Beethoven was concerned above all with inner states of being, with the urge for self-expression, the dramatic intensity of the soul. 'Beethoven's music is not polite. What he presented, as no composer before or since, was a feeling of drama, of conflict and resolution...The music (of the Ninth) is not pretty or even attractive. It merely is sublime...this is music turned inward, music of the spirit, music of extreme subjectivity...' It was the Ninth symphony, its gigantic struggle 'of protest and release', that most influenced Berlioz and Wagner, that remained the (largely unattainable) ideal for Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Debussy confessed that the great score had become, for composers, 'a universal nightmare'. What he meant was that few other composers could match Beethoven, and perhaps only one, Wagner, could surpass him.

All praise for the immortal Ludwig; let there be no doubt. I was watching the movie Immortal Beloved again last week, and once again felt my eyes welling up over the gorgeous Ode to Joy scene from the triumphant premiere of the Ninth symphony. And I later played my favorite movement from the Eroica for someone who hadn't heard it before, feeling the chills run rampant up and down my spine as we listened.

But I still despair a bit over the way Mozart and Beethoven are so incessantly presented as being almost diametrically opposed to each other.† I can't possibly improve upon what my friend Arthur already said about the topic, so I'll just link to the post again. The link therein to the clarinet quintet still works, and I implore you to take the time to listen and enjoy it.

And let me further impose upon you and ask you to listen to two more of my favorite pieces, the third movement from the 35th symphony, and the third movement from the 40th. I ask you: does that sound like superficial frippery to you, technical virtuosity with no soul? Does dramatic intensity always have to equate to bombastic self-aggrandizement?

†Including, coincidentally enough, a scene from the movie Leon: The Professional, where Gary Oldman, who starred as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, has this exchange (Oldman as Stansfield):

Stansfield: I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It's like when you put your head to the grass and you can hear the growin' and you can hear the insects. Do you like Beethoven?

Malky: I couldn't really say.

Stansfield: You don't like Beethoven. You don't know what you're missing. Overtures like that get my... juices flowing. So powerful. But after his openings, to be honest, he does tend to get a little fucking boring. That's why I stopped!

[laughs and sighs]

You're a Mozart fan. I love him too. I looooove Mozart! He was Austrian you know? But for this kind of work, [imitates playing the piano] he's a little bit light. So I tend to go for the heavier guys. Check out Brahms. He's good too.

Friday, September 16, 2011

With Ourselves at the Center

Any heaven we think it decent to enter
Must be Ptolemaic with ourselves at the center.

- W.H. Auden

My understanding is that Carl Sagan wasn't an atheist. I'm not either. But this is about the most effective argument for atheism that I've ever seen. It's actually deeply spiritual. Perhaps it's just me, but many of my encounters with atheist remind me of my encounters with the born-again. Indeed I often suspect that the latter was once the former, and is really angry about it.

Yes, this again. Check your metaphysical bingo cards; it looks like we might have all the usual tropes in this concise paragraph! No, I'm not going to bother addressing it directly; these days, I'm afraid this tired old fanatics-to-the-right-of-me, fanatics-to-the-left-of-me dichotomy only merits a bored, masturbatory miming motion while rolling my eyes. Oh, wait; it does give me a chance to post one of my favorite Jesus and Mo comics again:

But I do find it interesting how people really seem to need a sense of psychological balance like that; there always seems to be this urge to ideologically position oneself squarely in between two polar opposites. Always splitting the difference. You say 2+2=4? And you say 2+2=12? Then clearly the answer must actually be eight, and why can't you two be more flexible and understanding?

If you actually have principles, and aren't simply attracted to compromise for the sake of compromise regardless of where your arbitrarily designated midpoint lies, sometimes you find yourself agreeing with the world, and sometimes you find yourself standing alone in opposition to it. Neither one has anything to do with the truth or validity of your stance. And self-righteousness can take many forms, such as in the barely-disguised condescension of those who place themselves above the fray, levitating on a lotus blossom, tut-tutting at those of us down in the muck and the mire.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Innocence, in a Sense

That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. Try it sometime.

- Holden Caulfield

I spent a pleasant morning hiking up a small mountain to a steep overlook from a rocky outcropping. The fog was too thick to take any good pictures, but I didn't mind. It was overcast and breezy, hinting at rain, just chilly enough to let you know that fall would be here soon. I only passed four other people along the way, so for most of the walk, there was nothing to listen to but the susurrus of the wind through the trees and the first leaves beginning their gravitational pilgrimage. After an hour, I got to the top and sat for a while to eat a banana and sip a thermos of coffee flavored with vanilla cha'i. The fog was thick enough to be vertiginous; if not for the rock underneath me, I could have just as easily imagined myself lost at sea.

So after sitting and meditating for a bit, I headed back down, only to see something etched on the rocks that I had missed on the way up:

Alas, ol' Holden was right. But it made me wonder: what kind of person makes the arduous trip up the mountain, surrounded by all that natural beauty, with enough hate in their heart to make that the crowning achievement of the journey? There were worse defacements, many with spraypaint (Did you know that Ozzy Rules? Someone painted it on top of a mountain, so it must be true), but this was the only one I saw that was so angry. Not an affirmation of their existence, but a rejection of yours. Not a vain plea for attention and validation from indifferent strangers and an uncaring universe, but a denial of everyone else's. This was the distilled essence of our unknown author's eloquence, the depths of his or her poetic soul revealed to us, perhaps even to be found millennia from now by future archaeologists studying the collapse of Western civilization. A textual middle finger of salutation offered to the world.

As I pondered Caulfield's words, I was inspired to a similar vision of being a protector of innocence. I wanted to do my part to shield unsuspecting children from having an enjoyable day in the mountains sullied by profanity etched into the splendor of the forest. I wanted to help preserve this little enclave of peacefulness for those who came out here to get away from the madness of day-to-day life.

So when I saw a small group of twenty-somethings coming up the trail, talking loudly, texting away on their phones, I became suspicious. Maybe I'm guilty of profiling, but it seemed to me that here we had a perfect example of the kind of people most likely to declare their eternal love for each other with a Sharpie on a rock, or a carving in a tree. These were likely the kind of people who left the empty beer can, ziplock bag and mismatched pair of socks I had passed on the trail below. Could I take a chance that the forest would be defiled further, right under my nose?

Of course not. So I waited for them to get directly underneath me before pushing one of the larger rocks loose, down onto their heads. One of the guys was only dealt a glancing blow on the shoulder, though, so to my severe annoyance, I had to give chase for a while through the undergrowth before I caught up to him. Luckily, his shrieks of terror and labored breathing made it easy to find him in the fog. Unfortunately for him, I wasn't about to lug his heavy carcass back to his companions, so he had to be buried separately. And to top if off, I got a really painful scratch on my calf! But at least I could rest easy, having done my duty as a vigilante park ranger.

It occurred to me as I was heading back to my car that I had apparently mixed my memories of Catcher in the Rye with Lord of the Flies, but please, let's not quibble over the minutiae of classic literature.

Monday, September 12, 2011

We Sell the World to Buy Fire

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

- Wendell Berry

Todd May:

If a life has a trajectory, then it can be conceived narratively. A human life can be seen as a story, or as a series of stories that are more or less related. This does not mean that the person whose life it is must conceive it or live it narratively. I needn’t say to myself, “Here’s the story I want construct,” or, “This is the story so far.” What it means rather is that, if one reflected on one’s life, one could reasonably see it in terms of various story lines, whether parallel or intersecting or distinct.

...In an earlier column for The Stone, I wrote that we are currently encouraged to think of ourselves either as consumers or as entrepreneurs. We are told to be shoppers for goods or investors for return. Neither of these types of lives, if they are the dominant character of those lives, strike me as particularly meaningful. This is because their narrative themes — buying, investing — are rarely the stuff of which a compelling life narrative is made.

...In what I have called an age of economics, it is even more urgent to ask the question of a meaningful life: what it consists in, how we might live one. Philosophy cannot prescribe the particular character of meaning that each of us should embrace. It cannot tell each of us individually how we might trace the trajectory that is allotted to us. But it can, and ought to, reflect upon the framework within which we consider these questions, and in doing so perhaps offer a lucidity we might otherwise lack. This is as it should be.

You know me; I'm all about the whole life-as-narrative thing. Searching for meaning outside the material concerns of buying and selling tends to lead one into an airy-fairy, mushy-gushy discussion of spirituality, though. And honestly, there are plenty of consumer products that facilitate my ability to live a meaningful life. Ferzample, I'm the kind of person who never used a cellphone except when absolutely essential, certainly not for just calling someone up to shoot the breeze while driving home. Why, I may have even been known to sneeringly remix George Carlin's remark about pagers when the topic of cellphones came up, saying that they were "electronic leashes, one more way for your controllers to control you, one more sign that your life belongs to someone else." Yet when I saw how having a smartphone enabled me to be involved in the world of independent bookselling in my free time, it was an easy choice to make to get one. You can sound your barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world; I'll take a quiet, domesticated existence browsing contentedly on the computer and in libraries and secondhand stores.

People have always lived lives dominated by economic concerns. Idealists have been complaining about the corrosive influence of Mammon for quite some time now. So it's worth remembering that the luxury of being able to travel just about anywhere in order to pursue an occupation tailored to your exacting preferences is a very recent one, and the problem of being tempted to spend disposable income on consumer goods is a pretty nice problem to have. A lifestyle that fits somewhere between Epicureanism and voluntary simplicity works well enough for me without veering into otherworldly asceticism.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

God Thinks I Don't Exist


However, I came across an interesting new (to me) perspective on this. The American magician Penn Jillette argues that there are two questions here:

1. Is there a God?
2. Do you believe in God?

The first question is the one I would answer with agnosticism. I don’t know. However, if I consider the second question, Jillette argues there are only two answers. Belief is ‘active’ – you either do or do not believe. He then argues that if you say you ‘don’t know if there is a God’ then you cannot actively believe in God, thus you do not believe in God. Making you an atheist.

Clever, but I do think there's a bit more nuance in the way most people use the word "believe". It can often mean "I think so, to the best of my knowledge," but there's also a sense of wishful thinking involved too, an "I hope so." Sometimes when you say that you believe in someone, you mean that you not only think they'll act in accordance with your expectations, but that you're placing some trust in them to do so. Saying it to a loved one can be meant precisely to that effect, your profession of belief acting as a hopeful gesture to inspire them, a way to prod them to be worthy of your faith in them.

And in a more typical religious sense, people can think of belief like an arrow aimed at a target -- it's another word for the effort they make to attain whatever they think a perfect state of bliss or grace or understanding would be, expecting they'll fall short in the meantime. In both cases, you might even profess belief precisely to mollify any doubts you have.

But either way, an atheist version of tricky wordplay equivalent to Anselm's ontological argument isn't likely to have much effect on the murky soup of desire and fear that constitute most people's religious beliefs.

Fuckem's Razor


Occam’s Razor, in Newton’s formulation, says that ”We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Put more directly, this means that when trying to understand things, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Occam’s Razor is credited to 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham.

Fuckem’s Razor, on the other hand, derives from the teachings of another Medieval monk, Robert of Fuckham, and it posits roughly the opposite of Occam’s Razor. To wit, when confronted with a problem, the most complicated and obscure explanation is probably correct. At the very least, all conceivable factors must be debated, on an equal footing, regardless of their plausibility or how much evidence supports them.

I’m sure this is all fairly confusing, so let me illustrate with a couple of examples. Say you’re in your house, it’s hot as hell and the place is collapsing around your head as you try and make out what’s going on. Occam’s Razor would note the flames leaping into the sky, the clouds of choking smoke and distant scream of approaching sirens in suggesting that your house is on fire. Fuckem’s Razor, on the other hand, obliges the objective observer to consider all the possibilities. Since scientists have not been able to conclusively rule out the possibility of either alien life or the existence of parallel dimensions, we must, in the interests of intellectual rigor, admit to the extreme likelihood that your house is under attack by bug people from the 18th Dimension.

Brilliant. From now on, when presented with yet more evasive hairsplitting from agnostics (especially those who get overcome with the vapors due to the impudence of those New Atheists), I'm just going to mutter "Fuckem's Razor" to myself and crack up giggling.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lucubratio (V)

On this slightly chilly September night, I can't help but sit and reflect on the momentous significance of a certain anniversary coming up. One that changed the world as I knew it forever, with the ripples still evident to this very day. I don't usually care for all that sort of melodrama surrounding arbitrary attachments to big round numbers, but life-altering events like this are so few and far between, I feel it's only right to pause and acknowledge them. I do know people who were devastated by the seismic changes that followed in the wake of this event, clinging to their memories of what they feel was a happier, purer, more innocent time before, and I raise my glass in tribute to them tonight.

Yes, I speak of September 24th, 1991, when Nirvana's Nevermind was released with an initial run of only around 200,000 copies (though it would later sell about 30 million copies worldwide). Within the next few years, L.A. hair metal was all but extinct as music fans everywhere shook their heads as if waking from a MTV-induced dream, twisting their fingers in their ears in disbelief that a decade had passed in collective musical madness as image completely trumped substance and bands produced what would quickly become some of the most atrocious, dated sounds imaginable. Hairdressers all over southern California were reduced to lives of homeless begging and sales of hairspray plummeted; landfills overflowed with skin-tight, zebra-patterned leather pants and purple suede high-heeled cowboy boots. Occasionally, one could hear guitar solos from the stereo of a passing muscle car, drifting forlornly on the wind like tumbleweeds composed of excessive, frenetic fretwork.

Has it really been twenty years already? O, youth...

Thursday, September 08, 2011

How Yuh Like Them Apples

"Boozing Mooses" is totally going to be the name of my band, that's all I've got to say.

This World of Dew

This world of dew
is only the world of dew
And yet... oh, and yet...

- Issa

The propensity for reflection also goes deeper still. Insofar as we reflect on our lives, we need to be able to make sense of them in the context of some wider framework of beliefs. This is a role which has traditionally been played in most societies by systems of religious belief, but these have over time become increasingly implausible, and the need remains. Most people are not intellectuals, and their alternative to religious belief often turns out to be an exceedingly vague and inarticulate thought that “There must be something”.

But there are questions which cannot be evaded, even if our answers to them are, like our life-narratives, implicit in the ways we live our lives. We need some way of understanding the place of human beings in the natural world, as a part of it or as set apart. We have either to see ourselves as subject to some higher purpose or as responsible for our own lives and our world. We have either to see our lives as a prelude to some future mode of conscious existence, or as ending with death and the merging of our bodies with the rest of the natural world.

...In conclusion, though, I want to switch perspective and say that as a humanist I find it annoying when people claim, as they frequently do, that none of this is enough, that a life of creative activity and supportive relationships, taking on a determinate shape over time, is not enough, because it lacks the essential element. It leaves out “spirituality”, people say, and has no room for God. What basis do they have for the claim that it’s not enough?

Regardless of what name they give it, what people seem to be saying is that it's not enough because it's not permanent. If the things that matter most to us don't have some sort of everlasting, unchanging significance, they're pretty much worthless. But this is a problem that comes from viewing time as an abstraction, something to want more of. It diminishes our sense of importance to think of the world moving on as always once we're gone, erasing us from its collective memory. But the things that matter most to us can't be justified by recourse to longevity or unchanging essence. They are their own explanation. They exist, at least for a brief period of time. That's enough.

Mad, Bearded and Dangerous to Know


Beardedness was associated with older age, greater responsibility, and leftist political ideas. In Study 2, respondents were 50 Brazilian personnel managers (28 men and 22 women) who made hiring decisions at different companies in the city of Saõ Paulo. Personnel managers clearly preferred clean shaven over bearded, mustached, or goateed men as prospective employees. In a hiring situation for a conservative occupation, a man who signals disposition to conform to rules may be preferred by personnel managers over another who signals nonconformity.

Oh, you have no idea how subversive my dark heart really is. I'd like to bring back some Civil War-style facial hair, myself.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Just a Short Pause Before the Next Horror

After every horror, we’re told, “Now the healing can begin.” No. There is no healing. Just a short pause before the next horror.

- George Carlin

The closure narrative assumes that grief is bad and that it’s something that needs to end, and it assumes that closure is possible and that it’s something good and something that people need to have. Grief is a difficult, messy experience and can be very painful. A lot of people carry loss and grief for much of their lives, but that doesn’t mean that the pain is as intense as it was the first few months. You carry that loss and grief, but you learn how to integrate that into your life … .We grieve for a reason. We grieve because we miss the person who died, or because of whatever loss we’re experiencing. Our grief expresses how we’re feeling and allows us to acknowledge that loss. So asking or expecting someone to try and end that quickly is really misunderstanding the importance of those emotions.

Yes, thank you. "Closure" is one of those terms that make me want to punch people in the throat when they say it. Time doesn't heal so much as bury.

Monday, September 05, 2011


Like contemporary anti-Cartesians, Nietzsche believes that the idea of objective knowledge as a "view from nowhere" is incoherent. He tries to bring this out by comparing knowledge as we actually have it to seeing a visual image, which is "perspectival" in a more straightforward but analogous way. When I look at something, I have to stand somewhere, and so what I see is only the image as it appears from that angle. I cannot see the back (or maybe even the front), nor can I see the whole thing at once.

In this sense, no perspective is "truer" than any other. If a snapshot taken from that angle results in an inaccurate image, this must be due to a faulty camera, not my standpoint. Nor can there be such a thing as a complete visual image, say constructed out of all the individual ones. (Of course I may move from one place to another until I have seen enough; but that is not at all the same thing.) Yet I may find one angle more revealing than another, and some of them may be misleading or useless. Still, these judgments and manipulations are after the (photographic) fact: they are not reducible to purely disinterested registering of how things are, visually speaking.

If cognition is like vision in this way, then just as there is no such thing as a single complete visual image, to be seen from no particular vantage point (which yet preserves the idea of accurate or faulty representations of what can be seen from each), then there is no such thing as a single complete way things are for us to know (a "world-in-itself"): all there are are interpretive perspectives and what can be seen from them.

One of my SNR friends uses a similar definition of "God" -- she suggests it being something like the sum total of all the knowledge in the universe. But, as I tried to argue with her, knowledge in and of itself is senseless; knowledge means nothing without a knower, an interested perspective, a particular point of view. Facts matter to us not for what they are, but what they're for.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Quiddity Quest


Everyone talks about “spirituality,” but less often is it especially clear what we (or they) actually mean. That’s why, together with The Immanent Frame and the historians of religion Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, Killing the Buddha has been quietly working since the beginning of the year to develop Frequencies, a new online “collaborative genealogy of spirituality.” Today, finally, the site is being unveiled.

While at times our task might have seemed as opaque as our object of study, the majesty of what we’ve managed to come up with will speak for itself. Over the course of 100 days, 100 never-before-seen essays will be appearing on Frequencies, each taking on some facet of the bigger-than-sky-sized constellation of things that came to mind when we dared say the word in question.

I am licking my chops and sharpening my utensils in anticipation of the most savory, Ouroboran word-salad ever assembled.

Let My People Go


Officials in the rural Virginia city where Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson are buried voted late Thursday to prohibit the flying of the Confederate flag on city-owned poles.

After a lively 2 1/2-hour public hearing, the Lexington City Council voted 4-1 to allow only U.S., Virginia and city flags to be flown. Personal displays of the Confederate flag are not affected. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose members showed up in force after leading a rally that turned a downtown park into a sea of Confederate flags, vowed to challenge the ordinance in court.

..."I am a firm believer in the freedom to express our individual rights, which include flying the flag that we decide to fly," said Philip Way, a Civil War re-enactor dressed in a Confederate wool uniform despite the summer temperatures. "That's freedom to me."

Now, I'm no historian, but I have a dim inkling that the concept of "the freedom to express our individual rights" is more typically associated with the nation that the Confederacy was, uh, revolting against to begin with. Even more astonishingly, I suggest it to be the case that life in a theocratic, patriarchal, ancestor-worshipping agrarian society built on a permanent class of forced laborers would not be nearly so enamored of honoring one's right to display whatever colored fabric of their choosing. Should I care to don my herringbone deerstalker cap and my pipe and go about some sleuthing, I suspect I would find that Mr. Way is as white as a catfish's belly, and has never considered life from outside that privileged perspective.

I say it's high time for secession to move beyond the boundaries of right-wing crankdom and become a mainstream, bipartisan issue. It should be encouraged. Not only that, but we should give additional fuel to their martyr complex by reenacting a Trail of Tears, if you will. Gather up all these Johnny Reb-come-latelies and put them on the road. I'm going to get things rolling by suggesting that we march them all to Texas and then sell the state back to Mexico, where they can pick marijuana buds in the fields for the drug lords. Sorry, my couple of Texan friends, but the wheels of history take no heed of lowly individuals, and it's for the good of the nation, after all. I'll make sure to secure you safe passage back to civilization anyway.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Nothing to See Here, Move Along

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

...A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Hey, I'm not going to tell someone that they can't indulge their masochistic fetish for being suspended indefinitely on existential tenterhooks, but, yuh know, on that note, it seems to this observer that those of us who have serenely accepted the nonexistence of any God worthy of the name are the ones who have moved on to the more pressing concerns of how to live in this world with only our fellow fallible humans to rely on for love, support and justice, whereas it is this particular type of doubter who wants to encase religious questions in amber, leaving them incapable of being resolved to any practical satisfaction. It's people like Lane who dogmatically insist that anything less than 100% certain knowledge on this issue means we must remain open to the possibility that something like the Abrahamic religions just might be true after all. And I still say that if it weren't for the oppressive, overbearing presence of a jealous, vindictive God haunting our collective cultural memory, no one would think it such a big deal to consider the matter settled for all intents and purposes and get on with it.

What I found really funny, though, was seeing yet another essay using Dawkins as the prime example of strident, intolerant atheism... with a link in the sidebar to related articles, including an interview with Dawkins on the same site that totally belies the claim.