Klick!! Klack!!

Milwaukee Art Museum

Listen to the sound of tree limbs clashing deep in the primeval forest. ‘Klick!’ – It’s Doctor Strange on the offense, striving – ‘Klack!’ – to drive off the nefarious mystical spell castings of Baron von Mordo. My brother and me among the giant virgin pines in a Pennsylvania forest in 1963, acting out our favorite comic book fantasies as our parents set up our overnight camp. In those days we played at adventure and wandered magical worlds that are always open to imaginative travelers and children. Our family roamed the highways from Cleveland and the Midwest, circling the Great Lakes into Canada and driving south to Florida and east to Maine and the coast and along Appalachian ridges. We stopped at ocean beaches, floated in ‘glass bottom boats’ among the Everglades, gazed across rural landscapes from high mountain perches, peered up at the tall canyons of Manhattan and took in the futuristic wonders of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.

Growing up in the shadow of World War, I remember military aircraft flying in formation over the neighborhood when I was very young. Every Sunday we drove past an enormous parking lot filled with surplus tanks parked in the General Motors lot on our way to church. The weeks were punctuated by air raid sirens and school was interrupted by ‘duck and cover’ drills designed to stimulate the vivid nightmares of those of us who could contemplate the final fate of humankind.

An older boy who lived down the block kept pigeons in a coop on his upstairs back porch. The pigeons would circle over our houses every day. We kept a turtle in the back yard that our grandparents brought back from the road on one of their exotic yearly trips to California. This was before the Interstates were built, and the turtles were found crossing the two lane highways that made America interesting. In the winter the turtle would dig a hole in its little enclosure in which to hibernate. Every spring we anxiously awaited the resurfacing, coaxing the displaced beast with offerings of earthworms. Sometimes the turtle wouldn’t appear and that year our grandparents would bring us another.

My mother told me stories late in life about my very early childhood as an infant caught in the midst of a rivalry for attention between her and my grandmother, her mother-in-law. I carry almost no conscious recollections from those very early days when my parents shared a house with my grandparents. I have one dim memory of being pushed in a baby carriage by a very nice young woman who was my babysitter. She died of leukemia when still a teenager. Perhaps this was my first taste of grief. It could be that my mother only told me these stories in dreams. Maybe I’ve mixed up her stories with those of other relatives who are long gone.

The house I remember growing up in was located in an older part of town across the street from my great grandmother’s large corner dwelling. I spent hours upstairs in her kitchen, drinking coffee tempered with evaporated milk, listening to her tales of coming to America from the old country with her brothers early in the century. They opened a butcher shop in the neighborhood, when that part of the city was still mostly rural, the streets mostly dirt, yet to be covered in red bricks and later with asphalt when I was a teenager. There was still a butcher shop on the corner downstairs in the front of the large house, run by another family at the time. The large back yard was full of fruit trees and flower beds that my family would help her maintain. Just outside of the second story kitchen windows was a cherry tree that became the centerpiece of every summer when we climbed and picked the ripe and sour cherries. My younger brother fell from it one year and broke his leg, spending the remainder of that summer as an invalid perched in a bed that was set in our narrow downstairs dining room.

When I’ve gone back recently to visit the old neighborhood our old house still stands, in the very center of the block, slightly raised above the neighbors, and incredibly small. It’s hard to believe that four kids and two adults occupied that space for so many years, while my mother dreamed of the suburbs and argued with my father, who always hesitated, not one to take chances risks. Only after I had moved on into my independent life and my father died of lung cancer did my mother finally make the move that she dreamed of.


An Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser careens through the night along the rural roads of northern Ohio carrying three boys, almost men, probably stoned or drunk on something, composing poems out of the romantic words on road signs; “Pass With Care”, “Soft Shoulders”, “Narrow Curves.” The car was borrowed from someone’s parents. With the windows wide open and the moist breezes of northern forests wafting over us, we exulted in our futures and the promising scents of freedom and all things that grow.

I left home with a cloth sleeping bag slung by a rope over my shoulders, on my back my uncle’s old Korean War rucksack, the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and an ‘Oxford Annotated Bible’ from my college years, a change of clothes and a few sandwiches and provisions stuffed inside. I’d spent three and a half years at a prestigious institution (Case Western Reserve University), learning much and experiencing much during years of upheaval (1968-1972) and finally left after my number came up late in the lottery for the draft. The experiences I had were mostly outside of classes that were interesting but appeared rather irrelevant at the time.

I said farewell to my mother (my father was at work) and walked down to the embankment alongside the brand new interstate. (As a teenager I’d watched it tear through my neighborhood several years before. We’d watched the bulldozers turn my best friend’s house into a pile of broken pieces, set fires to excavated piles of discarded brush, fought snow battles in abandoned dwellings, stalked and vandalized the huge road builders in the middle of the night.) I put out my thumb and was subsequently propelled across the whole wide land, to Colorado and California and up the West Coast through to Oregon and Washington to Canada, across the Rockies and the great wide flat northern plains and along the pebble beaches of Lake Michigan and back toward Cleveland. (My dad drove out from Cleveland to meet me and we had a glass of wine together in Ann Arbor. Between that meeting and my later departure toward the beaches of Florida I felt our connection deepen as we had grown beyond our frequent ideological conflicts over the war and he had come to acknowledge me as an adult.) I was young during my travels and learned very little, but I took it all in with a feeling of constant awe, collecting inside of me a map of memories, of North America and so many of the people that drift within it.


After all of these travels and all of these adventures, where have I arrived? Who and what am I exactly? Where do I live in relation to the boundaries between order and chaos? Am I descended from the sweet young boy that I see in an old picture feeding the gentle deer at a petting zoo? Am I the instigator of plots to vandalize the enormous machines that cut their way through my neighborhood to build the Interstate? Am I the respectful Zen practitioner bowing before his teacher, or the smartass student telling the President of the University approaching a student occupied ROTC building that I was a ‘gargoyle’ guarding the doors? Do I prefer to wander along the edges of civilization where artists and pirates, nomads, shamans and assassins are created?

I passionately defend what I believe in but hold all beliefs lightly. I welcome the challenge of argument. I’ve always been a terrible student, unable to stick with a specific teacher or any specialized program for very long. My mind is both expansive and contrarian, drawn to whatever knowledge threatens to challenge the prevailing view. Learning for me is a labor to fit what is novel into the larger pattern of what is known. Having found an accommodation between them my intellect has to move on. I’m open to all possibilities and apply equal amounts of skepticism and belief to anything that opens the doors to new encounters. I absolutely won’t tolerate the tunnel vision that substitutes repetitive memes of ideology for actual thinking and I avoid such as I would a reeking mound of decaying garbage.

I’ve been called ‘narcissistic.’ Perhaps anyone who parades their thoughts in public is a bit narcissistic, presuming to believe that anyone else would be interested in them. In a world of so much diversity and argument one has to be a bit narcissistic in order to call attention to oneself.

I’ve also been accused of being terribly judgmental and even intolerant. I believe that the good of the whole transcends the good of the few, but that the few have the absolute right to speak and I have the absolute right not to listen. I can’t decide for others the difference between right and wrong, true and false, sense and nonsense, but I reserve the right to exclude from my presence those who insist on unquestionable absolutes.

Also true is that I possess an undercurrent of terrible anger, passed down to me through generations of injustice, unkindness and the undercurrents of loving abuse. My primary struggle in this life is against being governed by the rage, instead using it as a barometer that fuels a kind of hypersensitivity and compulsion to expose the undercurrents of lies and tension encountered in the environment around me. This has lead to the most profound progress and the deepest damages in my life. It’s a catalyst that moves me from states of stasis to states of movement and change. For those around me and the collectives and organizations in which I participate it uncovers the cauldron, and my passion provides some of the fire and the heat.


My most influential teachers have been the cities I’ve lived in. Cleveland taught me that I could swim against the strongest tides of family, of religious and societal expectations, of powerful and destructive establishments, of accepted reality itself. In Cleveland I first walked through the doors of perception to glimpse the hidden schematics of the brain and its relation to the universe. Denver taught me about the irrefutable strength of collective will and how it can be activated, directed and abused by effective and charismatic voices. In Denver I learned about the secrets of leadership and it’s ability to channel the collective will. Since coming to Santa Fe I’ve learned to approach the world with a larger degree of skepticism and to examine every belief carefully before confusing it with ‘truth’.

In Santa Fe I’ve lived for 35 years, longer than anywhere else. Here all the previous lessons and teachings have coalesced, as I’ve been brought repeatedly face to face with myself and my shadows. Through two marriages, the raising of a child, my interaction with organizational structures both large and small, and in my most recent confrontations with cancer, disunity and extended solitude, I’ve come to view myself more clearly in all of my urgent creative and destructive glory. In the process I’ve gained and lost friends, loved and tormented myself and others, tasted the mechanics and powers of leadership and the dynamics of failure, and come to understand and accept the role I’m here to play.

Through all of this I’ve learned the deepest lesson of real magic; that it’s primary fuel is the human will. How, like the mysterious force of gravity it can bend and reshape the contours of the universe in strange and subtle ways. I’ve arrived after all these years at the boundaries of a world of perception that my comic book hero would find familiar.

Klick! Klack!>


In these days there’s a growing atmosphere that breeds bad mojo – bad magic born out of magical thinking, along with an army of con artists who thrive on fear and fantasy. It feels increasingly like the universe of Doctor Strange, where delusions and demonic forces constantly seek to break through and disrupt all sense of order, enslaving the populace to chaotic forces by encouraging their worst tendencies. In the process those whose greed for power compels them to pull the strings strive to gather more influence to themselves, using the maze of politics to entrap our best collective intentions.

I’ve long observed that the rules of our politics are almost identical to those of magic, both being forms of a somewhat occult practice of weaving spells of language intended to influence and manipulate perception and reality. The tools and technologies are the same, revolving around the language of signs and symbols, fueled by elements of human desire, collective will and the necessity of belief. Neither practice is inherently good or evil, although both magic and politics are concerned with an accumulation of power, and there are inherent dangers in such pursuit. The division between our intentions toward compassionate and self serving ends can become very cloudy when certain rules and cautions aren’t respected.

When battling demons or conjuring new possibilities it’s important to remember that no matter what we do or what we intend, the rule is that any consequences, intended or not, will inevitably come back to us. (This is the rule of karma.) It’s also important to realize that those around us, even our ‘enemies’, are mirrors, and we must strive to show them the same compassion we have for ourselves. It’s most important when exercising power to stay awake, to remember where we are and what is our intention. Aside from these three, all other rules are subject to change at any time and it’s a wild and utterly changeable reality out there.

Ultimately the barriers to our imagination and our creativity will continue to be thrown open. The more they open the faster we must collectively adapt to the changes entailed by new technologies and new ways of thinking and perceiving. I’m optimistic that we will ultimately succeed and survive, only because we always have up to this point.

Meanwhile we drift, moving across worlds of fantasy through the outer space of our imaginations, with David Bowie’s song ‘Life On Mars’ rising behind us, the cold star-flecked blue screen backgrounds making us feel contained within a dark velvet sparkling blanket of the infinite. We travel through imaginary light-years, our sense of security wrapped and belted within capsuled contraptions, religions, ideologies and conspiracy theories, breathing through failing apparatus, imagining new colors and new planets in the dark. At this point we require more than a destination. We need redemption and forgiveness for one another. I know there’s better light far ahead, but I don’t know what remains to be seen. When truth has been abandoned to illusion its anyone’s guess what will survive when daylight comes.


Evolution never passes at a familiarly comfortable rate. The entire world can leap forward in an instant, or else changes take decades and centuries longer than human memory can track. If my great grandmother, who told me stories over the kitchen table, were transported to the present a good part of her sensory apparatus would no doubt go into shock, able only to process small quantities of totally unfamiliar data at a time.

Evolution doesn’t stop for us or for any other part of this ever changing universe, or for anything on this infinitesimal pebble we call the earth. Energy becomes matter, matter becomes atoms and atoms molecules. Molecules evolve to become the elements and elements combine to become life. Life goes through billions of years of creation and extinction, followed by resurrection, and so it goes, over and again. Evolution in matter becomes evolution in biology, plants and creatures emerge out of the earth and perish in amazing spectacles of life, struggling through extremes of hot and cold and countless changes.

Various proposals have been made for the start date of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which marks the significant impact of human culture on geologic ecosystems. Some proposals date this as far back as 12 – 16,000 years and the birth of agriculture, and others to the rise of the industrial revolution in the last century. I believe both of these views to be extremely short sighted.

About six million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, heading toward the ice ages, appear the hominins, our most ancient biological tribe, largely defined by the length of our legs being greater than that of our arms as we began to walk upright. While the biosphere was coming to resemble what exists today our ancestors struggled to come to terms with their expanding brains until, age after age, we arrived in our present form of homo sapien around 315,000 years ago, and evolution at long last crossed a critical threshold. While biological evolution proceeded in obscure niches and mostly through extinction, life entered a new phase, one that can no longer be adequately comprehended outside of the mental space of the self-reflective human mind.

Human beings have taken evolution in a new direction, possibly beginning with the emergence of the first tribes and the creation of the first cultural artifacts. When we began to shape the objects around us to reflect the images that appeared in our minds, we moved beyond the instinctive collectivity of the insect colony, the herd and the protective hunting community and began to consciously and deliberately reshape the world around us in our own image. Human evolution can’t be understood in strictly biological terms, for it occurs within the complex interface between the self-conscious individual and the ever changing forms of the collective. Humans are artisans of culture.

What’s become evident in our time is the pervasive effect of our evolutionary process on the atmospheric and geologic environment that surrounds us. It’s becoming obvious that human culture is now the dominant influence in the ecosphere, as our collective decision making largely determines what will perish and what will survive on our world. We are the caretakers and the destroyers. The dialogue between the individual and the collective has come to fully govern the dialogue between human civilization and the natural world. In the end, nature itself becomes, in effect, a human artifact.

Evolution is generally depicted in visual models as a vertical structure, where simplicity advances through complexity, leading to ‘higher’ developments along a continuum of molecules, organisms, species, etc. The focus of evolutionary theory in biology is on the structure and development viewed through the lens of individual organisms or species. Human evolution is no longer determined by individual divergence and biological mutation, but by collective structures and behaviors in which the uniqueness of the individual can’t be separated from the circumstances and influences of the social construct of which they are a part. The visual depiction of this structure could be more appropriately horizontal, characterized by recurring themes that arise periodically along a timeline, then disappear, only to arise again and again amid novel historical contexts, their ‘permanent’ influence determined by the qualities of the interchange and the impressions left in a particular time and place.

There is a quality of ‘eternal return’ in the unfolding of human societies. It’s as if the species is on a quest to replicate externally hidden structures already present in human consciousness in order to perfect them within the contexts of ever new levels of social organization. In light of this I recommend pulling back from the insanities of the present to take a long view toward the possible future.

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden.

⁃ ‘Woodstock’ Joni Mitchell


Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

Reflections On The Work Of Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis considers his films to be strictly journalism. 

Having unlimited access to the vast archives of the BBC library, Curtis snips and cuts the myriad fragments of visual history to arrange them around themes guided by his own narrative and analysis. To relegate these works to the narrow field of conventional reporting would be to entirely miss their import and effect. The subjects of his films dive deeply into the wilderness of inherent contradictions between reality and the artificial reproductions of reality, between fact and imagination, between linear narrative and memory, and the many ways we rearrange our perceptions of reality to serve our own agendas. His most recent work, the six part series titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head focuses on the dialectic between historical and psychological forces that drive individuals into increased feelings of isolation and helplessness and the barriers to effective collective action.

The emotional power of well selected images poised in sharp juxtaposition has been  explored as long ago as in the montage techniques pioneered by early filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein. The use of montage takes us out of the illusory realms of objectivity and well into the territory of ideological expression. Directors like Jean Luc Godard and the ‘underground’ filmmakers of the sixties made radical use of the technique to purposely challenge the conventions of narrative film. While their work was perceived at the time as radical, our immersion in the frenetic medium of television makes them appear prophetic. The rapid disorienting shift between scenarios, the intrusion of seemingly unrelated sequences in commercials and the use of sound as compliment and contrast has increased our ability to shift attention rapidly from one image to another without loosing the narrative thread. Adam Curtis takes advantage of the growing sophistication of our visual language while pushing the form further with each successive work, encouraging us to take larger leaps along with him.

(My favorite film makers of the sixties were the French New Wave’director Jean Luc Goddard and the English director, Nicholas Roeg. Being a contrarian by nature I was always thrilled at the premier of a Godard film on my college campus and particularly pleased when a third to half of the audience walked out in bewilderment or disgust. This I deemed an indication of the film’s success. Both Godard and Roeg used techniques of radical montage to pit direct and sometimes disjointed, emotionally charged images against the linear revelations of plot. Godard went the farthest, often rejecting the very structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’ in films like 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, Sympathy For The Devil and See You At Mao. Nicholas Roeg managed to corral these techniques into challenging narratives interrupted by out of synch and out of time sequences taking the viewer out of the linear present into realms of memory, imagination and pure emotion. His use of popular musical icons as actors in films like Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth became immensely popular with the psychedelic generation. 

At least since 1992 with Pandora’s Box, followed by the more ambitious Century Of The Self and into the present Adam Curtis has employed montage with increasing ambition to deliver films that offer historical analysis along with imagery that comes across with devastating emotional impact. To Curtis the purpose of journalism is not merely to report, but to explain. His method is to distill and arrange out of the many sounds and images of a given historical period a presentation of coherent themes that persuade the viewer that his interpretation matches the reality. Journalism in this sense is the art of persuasion. 

Human beings are addicted to narrative. If presented with a random set of images our minds will eventually assemble them into stories. If we stare at a wall long enough our minds will weave narratives out of the imperfections in the paint. This is a key to the methods of psychological testing that is critiqued in much of Curtis’ work. Ironically perhaps, it’s the key to his own art and his approach to journalism. When the reporter in a war zone decides to point the lens of their camera they are continually selecting the elements of their own narrative. When Adam Curtis wades through the BBC archives the images he selects are made to fit the preconceived patterns of a story he wishes to tell. 

Episode four of his most recent work is titled ‘But what if the people are stupid.’ It’s primary theme is how our disillusionment with institutions born out of the emphasis on individualism in the sixties and seventies morphed into a retreat into nationalism in the eighties and nineties. Curtis pulls together accounts that range widely across the period, from the unsuccessful coup of the Gang Of Four in China to the somewhat tragic life of a transexual pioneer in England, the rise of Al Queda in Iraq, disappointment in the wake of the Live Aid effort and events that led to the crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square. All of these events are bracketed by accounts of psychological experiments carried on by Daniel Kahneman in the seventies leading to the thesis that people’s choices aren’t made primarily on a rational basis but are determined by their previous experiences and how they effect the deeper, mostly subconscious structures in the brain. By focusing on the personal dilemmas and contradictions faced by particular individuals against a backdrop of massive social movements Curtis dramatizes a specific and worldwide shift in our collective experience serving to frustrate our ability to organize coherent resistance to the growing power of elites. This sets us up for the next episode, ‘The Lordly Ones’, which explores the comforting national myths we construct to justify the blunders and atrocities carried out to maintain the rule of dominant capitalist elites over the rest of the world.

On the surface Curtis’ approach resembles that of an historian or archaeologist as much as that of a journalist. All are storytellers and agents of artifice, weaving our perceptions into coherent streams of interpretation and all deal with data fragments from moments gone by. The stories Adam Curtis chooses to tell center on the influence that modern psychology has  had on the manipulative techniques of advertising, the growth and dominance of consumerism, and most importantly the isolation of the individual in the shadow of the capitalist state, rendering concepts such as personal freedom and choice almost entirely irrelevant.

We’ve become helpless as collective societies to effectively act to change our circumstances. Instead, our every activity is measured, tabulated and arranged in predictive models that serve to anticipate and then to manipulate our behaviors. Human behavior has been programmed into machinery that uses algorithms to further the power and wealth of economic elites. Only by breaking free of the conceptual prison of the techno-capitalist state can we even begin to imagine a future that meets actual human needs.

Perhaps we expect that journalism and documentary gives us a more accurate glimpse of the real and the true. What we should have learned in an age of propaganda, ‘fake news’ and the Internet is that in the selection and manipulation of images just about any version of ‘reality’ can be made to appear as truth. In the view of Adam Curtis the true value of journalism is to ‘make sense’ of the world in new and original ways that evolve continually with our continual appetite for the new. This is the only way that we can cast off the oppressive chains of the past. We might do well to make his revolution our own.


Thoughtmaybe.com for access to a full catalogue of Adam Curtis Documentaries and many other worthwhile films.


An outstanding interview with Adam Curtis at: Jacobin.com

The Ministry For The Future – A Review

The Ministry For The Future
by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry For The Future’ is much more than a novel. It’s a book on Revolution, the closest thing to an ecological manifesto I’ve ever read. As a work of fiction it’s even more ambitious than his much acclaimed ‘Mars’ trilogy, which could be seen as an early preparation for this book. Like the Mars books it unveils a complex weave of systems embracing every aspect from molecular biology and atmospheric science to human psychology to political and economic philosophy.

But ‘Ministry’ has no interplanetary or futuristic disguise. This is a book about the present and the immediate future of our civilization, specifically projected over the next 30 years. There are chapters on ecology, economics, geology, political philosophy, environmental devastation, human exploitation, mass extinction and geoengineering. There are chapters addressing all forms of resistance and revolution and the inevitable dismantling of capitalism through systemic collapse, civil disobedience, sabotage and assassination. Central to everything is informed speculation on the likely consequences of climate change and the forces that have already been set in motion.

The future is a puzzle and we need a framework in order to make coherent sense of our daily diet of news in the present. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said, “It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” At a time when such visioning becomes increasingly urgent, Robinson’s novel is a bold attempt to see our way to the other side of disaster.

Perhaps not since Karl Marx has there been such a bold and compressed dissection and set of proposals for the total reorganization of society toward a sustainable future.

The Ministry For The Future

A Conversation with KIM STANLEY ROBINSON:

Arclist? The Name

Arcosanti Performance Space

Driving west across the long and high desert landscape of northern Arizona with nothing but clouds on the horizon one passes occasional reminders of a distant prehistoric past. The landscape is briefly broken by flat windswept mesas and ancient water scored canyons where pockets of the ravaged and looted remains of petrified forests linger. Most of what was here when European nomads encountered these magnificent ruins have long since been removed and scattered elsewhere. What’s still preserved in shrinking pockets reminds us that the land has changed drastically over the eons. There have been oceans here, and forests and beasts that now exist only in souvenirs and billboards and plaster replicas occasionally parked along the side of the highway.

On the route west are a few small cities filled with retirees and refugees from big cities, visited by tourists and travelers, traveling fairs, flea markets and gun shows. After a long flat journey the road enters another kind of landscape of steep ridges, craters and deeply carved and colored canyons, and then it turns south near Flagstaff, winding downward following carved watercourses on the long twisting route toward the Martian valley that contains the city of Phoenix.

When my son was twelve or so we visited Arcosanti, architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri’s experimental prototype for a city of the future, located on the edge of a canyon about 70 miles north of the sprawling air conditioned metropolis of Phoenix.

We took the exit at Arcosanti Road, a gravel paved track that heads into the backcountry and eventually arrives at the destination. We parked, entered, signed in and located our room along a balcony that overlooked a long and inviting looking swimming pool. The room was cheap, comfortably simple and functional. After settling in we set off to explore the facility and the grounds of Arcosanti. I can still picture the impressively arched and vaulted structure overlooking the shallow canyon and featuring sweeping concrete forms of arches, chimneys and balconies surrounding a wide central well. That day we explored the bell casting workshops, the cosy and cool living units around the core, a communal kitchen and coffee shop and a gacefully vaulted concert and performance space ringed with beautifully tall forms of Italian cypress trees. At the edge of the desert were a couple of cranes for hoisting sections of concrete onto the still incomplete structure. Off the central well with its ascending balconies overlooking the commons there was a bookstore and gallery that featured the iron bells and artifacts made in the foundry that provided some of the funding for the project. It all had the feeling of a high tech commune.

While watching my young son scampering atop sweeping concrete walls and taking in the canyon views from the suspended balconies I had a revelation. I was surrounded with an architectural expression of a distinct set of evolutionary and philosophical ideas that I’d encountered years before and had fundamentally reshaped my views of the world, of cities and of the future. When I standing on the balcony looking down upon the floor of the commons at Arcosanti I could sense the life that flows through veins in the concrete and the movement of air and light through the central structure. I looked into a space that resembles a living organism, one that couyld be embraced by my limited individual consciousness and yet fosters a physical identification with community. Here is an experiment, a prototype, a demonstration of what’s possible. Arcosanti is a kind of high tech commune made of concrete and living ideas.

When I attended Case Western Reserve University in the late sixties, while studying english and history and anthropology, I was radically distracted by adventures in the world of psychedelics and cultural revolution. In my quest to integrate these divergent realms I’d came across a book,‘The Phenomenon of Man’, by the scientist, philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit cleric Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. He wrote following the Second World War, a time when enormous destruction was followed by a vast reorganization in world affairs. I encountered his ideas when my world extremes of urban decay and suburban expansion. Cities were going broke, rivers and lakes and air were filling with industrial waste, we were caught in Vietnam, the first of our endless failing wars. While the moral and ethical foundations of the American dream were being questioned, new realms of possibilities were opening up. I needed an assist to help me straddle the gulf between rational thinking and the revelations of a wider world revealed when constricted barriers of conventional thinking are left behind.

Being both a man of the church and a scientific thinker Tielhard strove to weave together two trains of western thinking that had been sundered as far back as the times of St. Augustine. On one hand the pursuit to understand the workings of the material world through experimentation and empirical thinking was seen to be entirely separate from exploring the mysteries of faith in God’s Kingdom. He strove to reweave the two streams of thought by demonstrating that a careful empirical study of the processes of evolution revealed an ultimate and inevitable movement toward a divine revelation.

From the earliest stages of the physical universe being illuminated by modern physics Chardin described two interwoven and distinct trends. First, he perceived the material universe trending toward increased complexity and ultimately toward entropy. Counter to this he theorized an opposite movement manifesting within matter and connected with the spiritual destiny of all creation and the ultimate impulse behind evolution. As the universe initially expanded the simplest elements of atomic substance multiplied in density, combining into increasingly complex forms, from atoms to molecules to the entire table of elemental matter. The dust and gases of creation coalesced into stars and suns and planetary bodies. Within the primeval ooze on the surface of a planet, complex molecules combine to form the first elements of biological life. Ultimately, within the carpet of biology covering the earth consciousness emerges and eventually self-awareness. In this view the earth that we know can be viewed as a multilayered sphere with matter at its base, enveloped in a shell of biological life and a layer of consciousness and ultimately a collective consciousness that he referred to as the ‘noosphere’. All is drawn toward a final coalescence of spiritual awareness and transcendent unity that’s resolved in what can be conceived as the consciousness of Christ.

This decidedly Christian vision of a universe that has a distinct beginning and middle, with a final spiritual resolution, offers (a particularly Eurocentric) perspective that one can accept or reject without discarding some of its essential observations about the processes of evolution. Most relevant as a central tenet of Tielhard’s vision is the concept of ‘miniaturization’. In evolutionary terms, things become increasingly complex while occupying less and less space by arranging themselves in more centralized and adaptable structures. We see these trends in every branch of the evolutionary tree, from single cell to multicellular organisms, dinosaurs to hominids, to computer chips with their ever increasing storage capacity.

Paolo Soleri offers a reformulation reformulation of these concepts in his own words:

“Miniaturize or die had been the key rule for incipient life.”

“Society is still an awkward animal suffering from a kind of ‘flat gigantism’ that nails it to the surface of the earth.”

“Society must become a true organism that will perform adequately. This will be made possible through the power of miniaturization. The physical miniaturization of its container, the city, is a necessary step to this end.”

The principle of miniaturization is at the center of Soleri’s architectural ideas. The city is seen as both a container of human culture and as an evolving organism that must be evaluated in relation to the total environment. Like any organism our future depends upon efficiency and adaptability against the background of environmental conditions and environmental change.

My visit to Arcosanti was not my first contact with Solari’s work. From 1968 on I’d read every issue of The Whole Earth Catalog from cover to cover, and I’m pretty certain that it was in those pioneering pages that I first came across his thinking. In 1973 after moving to Denver I came across a full-size M.I.T. Press edition of the book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man’ in a local bookstore. It was full of wide formatted drawings and plans for futuristic cities that resembled enormous spaceships tucked into wild landscapes. While crouched in basement hallways in elementary school, confronted with the possibility of nuclear winter in elementary school, I’d filled my head and later notebooks with my own sketches of vast self-contained underground cities. Solari’s cities seemed like a fulfillment of my own fantasies. I carried around a ragged paperback version of the book for many years and recently purchased a 50th Anniversary edition of the original tome.

The term ‘Arcology’ combines the words architecture and ecology. In Soleri’s vision the requirement for human survival is in the balance between the congruence of disparate elements in the natural world and the pursuit of equity in society. When this balance isn’t achieved the result is instability, chaos and eventually self destruction. When society fails to understand its congruent relationship with the natural world the pursuit of equity is bound to fail. The role of architecture is to provide containers providing a buffer between the factors that foster stability and survival.

When I returned briefly to Denver a few years ago I witnessed a monstrous example of incongruity, unfortunately typical of many if not most American cities. I lived in a suburb that had once been a small town which had been surrounded and absorbed by urban sprawl. The inherent efficiency of the city is offset by the amount of energy and stress required to accomplish anything. The scale is inhuman, based more on the needs and necessity of the internal combustion engine than the natural interactions of human commerce. As the city spreads across landscapes without limit the distance required to meet a person’s needs become greater while problems of congestion and pollution put increasing strain on resources and human stress. People are more isolated from one another as the street is given over to automobiles. The life of sidewalks and the commons is shifted to distant shopping centers. There remain only scattered pockets of centralized commerce not dependent on superhighways and vast parking lots, strip malls and rubber stamped franchises. Convenience is seen more and more in terms of parking rather than walking. I do not know my neighbors. I commute to work. I sped too much of my time in slow moving traffic. This way of life is neither congruent or equitable.

In the present we are confined collectively in this long march to overcome the plague. We are confined and isolated and the distance between us appears to have widened. In one sense we seem to be moving faster toward extinction. On the other hand the pandemic has exposed more clearly the inherent instability of our hitherto unconscious dash toward collective oblivion. It has in some ways moved us forward as we awaken to a sense of collective responsibility. Meanwhile the streets of some our biggest cities are reclaimed by human traffic as our technologies allow many of us to see beyond our dependence on the automobile. At the same time that technology is forcing us to rethink all aspects of our relationship to work and our collective well being. The lesson perhaps is that crisis more than ideals is what drives us forward. When faced by crisis we are above all a race of both storytellers and problem solvers.

Soleri’s cities accelerate and concentrate their natural function partly by building vertically rather than horizontally, in a model inspired by the upright human form. Essential services, heat and water, waste disposal, ventilation, illumination and shopping are arranged around an open central core, increasing efficient circulation and eliminating the need for long distance vehicular travel. Most human interaction is accomplished by walking, taking steps or elevators between levels. Every necessity is close at hand. Rather than spreading over the landscape the human container becomes a node in networks of communication, transportation and commerce that connect separate nodes to one another. Embedded within the natural environment rather than overcoming it, the life in cities allows it to be restored to the purposes of recreation, sustainable resource development and the production of food. Access to the natural world is made more accessible and less invasive because it’s no longer viewed as an adversary to be conquered but as the vital container of our well being.

Cities, even sprawling ones, are inherently more efficient on an individual level, as public services become more centralized in relation to where residents live and move. 68% of humanity inhabits cities and the number continues to scale upward through the decades, driven further by the results of climate change and the collapse of rural economies. Solari contends that the continued expression of ‘megalopoly and suburbia’ runs against the natural vectors of human health and evolutionary survival. He compares present cities, with their sprawl and inefficiencies spread across the landscape to the broken branches that fall from the evolutionary tree. Although the human animal has proven to be one of the most adaptable and complex creatures on earth, the advantage of self-reflection has brought us to the next stage of evolution and our collective future in society. To achieve both equity and congruence within our changing environment we must build our cities to be complimentary to the natural world rather than the devouring it.

Central Plaza Taos Pueblo

Driving in any direction out of the city of Santa Fe takes me past the Pueblo villages of Northern New Mexico. The strict building codes of Santa Fe are in fact inspired largely by the colors and shapes of the Pueblo culture, deliberately designed to attract tourists who search for some reminder of a community long lost in many of our cities. When I first moved to New Mexico, and to some extent even today the pueblos were mired in poverty and loss and yet were magnets that drew people from around the world looking for an echo of the past or a vision of the future.

Leaving ancestral traces in the mysterious ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon, the still viable communities of Cochiti and Jemez and Santa Domingo and so many others are have adapted and endured for millennia. They threw off conquest and survived through the strength and cohesion of their traditions. With the onslaught of railroads and interstate highways and the rise of a casino driven economy some of those bonds are being challenged, but there remains an essential community structure that holds them together through all the changes over time.

Nowadays around the outer edges of the villages and near the highways there are new developments characterized by the crackerbox construction of government built housing that echoes the sterile tropes of suburban America. When one goes deeper toward the center of the circles surrounding the community’s timeworn heart it’s still possible to encounter places where the ancient soul of the people is protected and preserved. Although in many cases folks have abandoned the older dwellings that surround the central ceremonial plazas, a sense remains of interior spaces that define and preserve the collective sense of home and identity. While these structures have become templates for architecture copied by newcomers in the gentrified cities, I’m convinced that the expression of centralized self-sufficiency and environmental congruency was one major inspiration for Paolo Solari’s vision for the inevitable future of civilization.

When I began the Arclist in 2001 we were still within the early years of the Internet boom, a time before interpersonal communication had become overrun by commerce. We who dwelled in these virtual spaces were incredibly naive but infinitely hopeful. What was happening online was seen as an alternative venue for the creation of communities defined by a sense of common identity and the emergence of a dazzling array of public commons where creativity could thrive. For a time we felt ourselves moving along vectors toward possibilities of a more equitable and enlightened civilization. Unfortunately, as part of a highly educated and ‘enlightened’ elite we didn’t anticipate the horrific abuses that would inevitably emerge out of a commercialized commons.

I remain hopeful. A collective awakening to our common crisis rises as we’re faced once again in these very difficult times with the necessity to rearrange our collective priorities if our civilization is to survive. I named the Arclist in the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s vision, and that vision continues to inspire me with the possibility that the future offers radically new possibilities.

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http://arclist.org

AN INVITATION

My Publishing Career

When I was in elementary school I was given for Christmas a small printing press  that could make stuff the size of business cards or raffle tickets. I started a number of membership organizations among my classmates that could be activated simply by asking for a card: ‘The Hoppity Hooper” Fan Club,’ ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Fan Club,’ and our final, three color masterpiece, a membership in ‘Camp Palumbo’ along with a small certificate of the official currency, the ‘Pazzuza.’ 

Later on my neighborhood friends and I, all bing in the same Boy Scout Troop, would take each issue of the Official Boy Scout Magazine paste in alternative headlines and captions cut out of other publications and turn Boys Life into what we thought was a hysterically funny parody inspired by Mad Magazine, a publication we really took seriously.   

In high school, myself and my high-minded friends published and repeatedly got in trouble for a series of independent journals printed via mimeograph machine and silk screen press at our local Peace Movement Offices. I continued this though college and after, until moving to Santa Fe, when I got a bit more seriously embedded in the writer’s world. 

In 1984, after attempting to convert reams of handwritten notes, poetry, short stories and essays into a publishable form into typewritten documents (a frustrating process) I took a class in the new Word Processing technology at the local community college. About midway through the course the teach came into class entranced by the release of the first Apple Macintosh computer. I don’t remember what he said but his trance was somehow infectious, and before the end of the year I’d acquired my own machine and the accompanying laser printer.

For a number of years I published articles and reviews in ‘The Journal for Humanistic Psychology,’ ‘Annals of The Earth’ and ‘Shaman’s Drum’ magazine. 911 happened. I was not particularly surprised that it happened but that didn’t make me less angry. So, I started a blog, called ‘The Arclist,’ which continued view email and website for the next 20 years. After the 2016 election the list pretty much was reduced with short headline introductions to various news and resistance links and very little else. Meanwhile the host site and software became contaminated and obsolete and harder to manage, until a couple of weeks ago I decided to abandon the list in email form and rethink the whole thing. 

I was diagnosed with cancer. This marked an opportunity to rethink everything. I went though my existing contact list and entered them into another email client service that I’d learned to navigate through as a business application. More up to date and flexible and easier to manage in creative ways, I’d like to take advantage of this by setting up a new version of the Arclist, more in the tradition of a Journal that accommodates creative ideas, creative projects and creative discussions between interested folks. I think we are all somewhat anxious to move beyond obsessive focus on the disasters of this past year and turn our attention to future possibilities. Perhaps this could provide an opportunity.

I have a list of names that I’ve gleaned from my contact list. Many of you were part of the previous mailing list or were listed as a ‘friend’ on my Facebook page. Some of you might have gone away for any number of reasons. Some of you may not wish to hear from me ever again. Before engaging the new list I want to send a formal invitation for you to respond, either positively of negatively, and I will then formally activate or delete your membership. If your answer is ‘YES,’ and I hope it is, I will begin sending out my creations, or forwarding others, on some semi-regular basis.

Meanwhile, I’ve attached to this invitation a sampling of the sort of stuff you might expect to receive on the New ARCLIST. Should you wish to subscribe and get the material on this site in our email just send a reply to remelcher@arclist.com, or leave a Reply at the bottom of this page.    


My Favorite Podcasts (Current) 12/13/20

Not included are podcasts I’ve favored In the past but I’m no longer following regularly (this American Life, Masters of Scale) or podcasts that were short form or serialized or no longer being produced (‘Studio 360,’ ‘The Ballad of Billy Balls’). By ‘current’ I only mean current, and this list will continue to shift from day to day as I get turned on to new podcasts.

History

Throughline

One of NPR’s Most Popular Daytime Shows, this hour long documentary style delves into all of the corners of history we are never/rarely taught in school. To fully understand the present events in the context of historical realities the show is unmatched. The two hosts are from first and second generation Iranian and Palestinian families, which may give a clue  to the unique depth of their approach to telling stories.

The United States of Anxiety

A little scary but enlightening as it focuses on the areas in American history that indicate the conflicts that have split the body politic from the beginnings of the USA.

This Day in Esoteric Political History

Somewhat oddly named, focusing each day on a single event (many of which I’d never heard of) at a particular moment in American History, a lively and educated discussion of the event’s historical environment and its influence and indications in the present.

Politics

Hacks On Tap

Political strategists from both sides of the ‘aisle’ toss around their critiques and projections about both parties. Anchored by David Axelrod (Democrat) and Mike Murphy (very ‘anti-Trump’ Republican), with a variety of chummy guests, the analysis is delivered with a good deal of humor and real ‘insider’ knowledge of how political campaigns actually work.

FiveThirtyEight

I’ve been listening to these guys since 2015. A relief from the general alarmist nature of political news and analysis. Sometimes a bit over-the-top ‘wonky,’ I favor 538 for a strictly data-based view of political realities balanced by a crew of mostly contrarians in one form or another. I simply like these guys. As I was about to write this review, unfortunately the departure of Clare Malone is a great loss. Relative newcomer Harry Bacon Junior has brought a similar contrarian sensibility and a much needed black perspective to the panel, Malone brought an equally important feminist and Midwestern (Ohio) perspective. 

The Ticket

One of the better interview shows from The Atlantic. Host Isaac Dovere chooses subjects that are generally slightly out of the mainstream news but closer to actual events. Always new information and insights.

The Axe Files

Long form, one hour interviews of a range of public figures, illuminating their biographies and focusing on their positions in regards to contemporary politics. David Axelrod, currently head of The U. Of Chicago School of Politics and once Obama’s chief campaign adviser, is relentless in his ability to get beyond easy rhetoric to the true nature and personality of his guests.

Amicus

A bit alarmist in the ‘Slate’ style this is the best way to keep up with the arguments, decisions and implications for the future of the Judicial branch of government.

Intelligence Squared

Both sides of every question, thoroughly and respectfully debated. Particularly helpful to those in the habit of considering the ‘other side’ to be totally without brains or merit. (Note: This applies only to arguments that actually apply when a et of common facts are agreed upon.) 

Reporting

The Daily

The New York Times, in its breadth and depth of coverage is still at the top of the media heap. This podcast offers a sampling every morning, with a single news story or interview and a short headline summary. On Sunday an archived ‘feature story’ is read in entirety. I highly recommend checking out the Dec. 6th edition: “The Social Life of Trees.” 

Global News Podcast – BBC

I start the day with this one, as the focus isn’t obsessively on America and it’s ridiculous politics, it’s coverage is delivered with an almost universally cheerful, or at least less apocalyptic stance. Given all of the ‘Brexit’ angst in Briton these days, I suppose several hundred years more of living history kind of levels out ones perspective on the present.

The New Yorker Radio Hour

I wasn’t sure just where to place this since the coverage is as much news as it is cultural commentary. I decided that since the coverage is essentially ‘journalistic’ in approach, this fits.

Business/Journalism

Pivot

Two of the most knowledgeable people on the fringes of Big Tech, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway make a ‘perfect couple’ with their insights into current and future trends in business, investing and the politics around technical innovation and culture. Punctuated by personal banter and good natured kidding these two have been going at it for a couple of years of successful and popular podcasting. Swisher, the journalist, keeps things on track while almost cagily draws out brilliant insights from Scott, the NYU business professor and investor. Guests are featured with back and forth interviews by both Kara and Scott.

The Professor G Show

Scott Galloway’s own podcast (see above), where he calms down while proving himself a capable interviewer, while giving himself some time to deliver, John Oliver style, some incredibly insightful, critical, and sometimes inspiring ranting about ethics in politics and business.

Sway

Kara Swisher’s new interview show from The New York Times where she is featured as a regular Opinion columnist. The NYT is managing a very successful and profitable switch into the digital medium. Swisher is a digital candidate for the Maureen Dowd chair of journalism. Her interviews so far have included a diversity of subjects (from Dowd herself to Hillary Clinton to Jane Goodall).

Science

New Scientist Weekly

Friendly, British, delivered with a touch of humor, the most up-to-date international coverage of the scientific progress on Covid-19, and the latest questions and discoveries in scientific research.

Philosophy

Hi-Phi Nation

Philosophy revealed through contemporary storytelling and interviews that reveal in our present dilemmas their deep roots in philosophical discourse. A uniquely illuminating approach and my ‘great discovery’ of the month.

Into the Zone

An original approach to ideas and storytelling from novelist Haru Kunzru, who focuses on how ‘opposites’ shape our world. While founded in stories from the ‘real’ world Kunzru’s approach is delightfully filled with literary twists and turns and metaphor. I was turned on to him in an interview with ‘The Book Review’ podcast (see below).

Storytelling/Literature

The New Yorker Fiction

I’ve been listening to this podcast for more than 10 years. It’s one of my main links to the world of short fiction. A writer each month gets to choose one of their favorite stories from another writer in the archive and to read it out loud. Afterwards the author/reader discusses the story with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, focusing on how the story inspired and influenced them.

Imaginary Worlds

Being a heavily invested fantasy, sci-fi and comic book geek, how could I miss this one. ‘How we create Imaginary World and why we suspend our disbelief.  ‘Nuff said!

The Book Review

From the New York Times Book Review, but less intimidating. It features author interviews plus short discussions and reviews of some of the latest books out on the shelf.

Poetry Off The Shelf

A refreshing break into the dimensions of pure sound and word. Poems are read, interviews and analysis are delivered. A little Poetry Magazine online.

Humor

Beef and Dairy Podcast Network

I cannot really desgribe this to you. It’s British and hllarious. Every episode begins nearthe absurd nand then carries one beyond…

Mission To Zyxx

By now an old stand-by for fans of imprvisational humor, sci-fi and those with a need to fill the void between space-based intergalactic blockbusters.

To the Super Bowl

So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.

For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.

Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.

I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.

We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.

When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.

Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.

As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.

Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.

Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.

Let’s try something different for a change.

In Defense Of The OSCARS

One of the most prominent features of OSCAR season is the sheer volume of snarky commentaries by everyone from the film snobs of academia and the New York media to the ideological ranting of political junkies on Crooked Media podcasts. Now, I admit I’m a film junky if there ever was one. I fell in love with film in High School and watching Jean Luc Godard movies in college. I’ve been to film festivals. I even helped to get a couple off the ground. I subscribe to MUBI. I live in one of the best little towns in the USA for viewing the full range of diversity in the world of film. I’ve rubbed shoulders with filmmakers and with the snarky elite and have myself been among the snarkiest.

Every year we read and listen to dozens of movie critics complaining about the terrible choices the Academy makes in terms of the ‘art’ of film. Traditionally, reviewers focus on how the nominees are chosen more on the basis of popular taste and promotional hype rather than on true and timeless artistic value. They point out that the awards are more a self-congratulatory celebration of the mainstream industry than a tribute to true quality. More glamour than grit.

Fair enough. The awards are after all a mainstream Hollywood event, and the voting is been done by predominantly male and mostly white industry insiders. The spectacle of wealthy Hollywood royalty in gowns and tuxedos frolicking on the carpet brings up for some a bit of class resentment. Yet, for anyone who enjoys the movies on almost any level the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. (It’s a long ceremony and I confess that I just watch the highlights on YouTube the next day.)

Notably in the past couple of years, and this year in particular the selections have been deliberately widened to include a bit more diversity. In the top categories are films directed by women and minorities, films including both spectacular Hollywood extravaganzas and more modest independent productions, films by old Hollywood hands and first timers, films about both gays and straights, and even that touch the edges of politically sensitive subjects.

But in the year of Trump, to venture into politically relevant waters is to open the doors for even greater explosions of criticism and pent up resentment directed against an industry that has done much to support and maintain a status quo that we’ve all grown uncomfortable with. The movies and television after all are the mirror and lens through which a culture sees itself these days and most of us are addicted to the screen in one form or another.

This is one of the years when I actually managed to see most of the films nominated for major Academy Awards (7 out of 9) and enjoyed all of them to various degrees. Of those nominated for Best Picture my personal favorites were ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘The Shape of Water.’ My favorite performance was Sally Hawkins in ‘The Shape of Water.’ This isn’t what I want to write about.

When I opened my ‘New Yorker’ app the day after the ceremony I came across what struck me as a bitter diatribe against the Oscars by their film critic, Richard Brody. I confess that I found it mostly appalling, and now It’s my turn to snark back. Brody’s essay to my mind appears to abandon an appreciation of the art and spectacle of film to replace art criticism with ideological rant. It struck me as little more than an ideological tantrum filled with invective and spite, perhaps triggered because the author’s choice of best film didn’t get the prize, or maybe it was just part of the collective hangover we all have after a year of Trump, looking for a convenient outlet for letting off steam.

To begin Brody goes after the winners for being ‘flashy’ and ‘showy’ and “flaunting design…and drama.” This represents to him “…the Academy’s brazen self-celebration of the old-school pomp of classic moviemaking, as well as the Academy’s general obliviousness to the moment.” I wonder exactly to what ‘moment’ he is referring, and what, beside ‘design and drama’ is the missing element by which we should judge these films. Movies, after all, are artifacts of design and drama that attempt to evoke feelings of empathy and emotion and maybe a little intellectual awakening. These are the elements of a visual medium that differentiates itself from unpolished ideological bluster. As a popular art form, like opera or theater, it avails itself of whatever formal means is at it’s disposal. Even a director like Godard, who attempted more than anyone to blend film and political discourse, understood that his audience comes to be entertained as well as enlightened. No matter how modest the production value or unpolished the performance, film is an inherently spectacular medium when seen in a theater where the lights are low and the figures on the screen are 15 feet tall.

In his next paragraph Brody credits the Academy for honoring those in the industry that have been subjected to sexual harassment and violence, and then criticizes the presentation for “…keeping the tone of the proceedings cheerful, optimistic, and, above all, commercial.” Then he dumps on Kumail Nanjiani’s “…exhortation of Hollywood professionals to pursue diversity not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s profitable to do so.” The real crime of Hollywood is “…the intersection of doing good while getting rich.” When reading this I thought of one of Sam Rockwell’s comments about being in a lot of ‘indie’ films and being happy to have been in one that people actually come to see.

So now we get to the nitty-gritty of Brody’s objections: Hollywood is corrupt because while it may tell some valuable stories, it makes money while doing so.

After praising Francis McDormand for her acceptance speech and tribute to women in the industry, he goes on to dump invective on the film she starred in, Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, which he characterizes as “…cavalierly, brazenly racist, not because it depicts racists but because it treats the very subject of race and the political effect of race on black individuals as a mere backdrop for the personal growth of white characters.” Yes, the film was a drama about angry white people in Missouri, and black characters, although treated sympathetically, were marginal to the plot revolving around three white central characters. Is this now the criteria for ‘blatant’ racism in film? Have you ever been to a small town in the Ozarks?

Then he goes on to stomp on The Shape of Water, which won the Best Film Oscar.

“It’s a movie that struggles, by means of ludicrously and garishly overwrought decorative and narrative complications, to endorse an absolutely minimal baseline of recognition of the “other.” It’s exactly the sort of wan and impotent message of bland tolerance that gets Hollywood to join hands in a chorus of self-congratulation.”

This is to me exhibits a degree of obliviousness to the actual nature of the film medium that I find astonishing. Brody attacks the director, Guillermo del Toro, essentially for his style of addressing current social issues through allegory and fairytale, claiming that this adds a level of sentimentality that avoids the seriousness of real issues. The writer is so wrapped up in his ideological cocoon that he apparently isn’t able to actually see the film he’s watching. The ‘fairytale’ elements of this movie, instead of obscuring the issues, make them more universal and timeless. The ‘sixties’ in this film are a stylized version of the film images of that time, not of the ‘real’ sixties, and by juxtaposing romantic images of our film memories with characters and situations that would not then have been portrayed so plainly del Toro subtly ‘tricks’ us into a fresh way to view the present. And aren’t all movies in some sense ‘fairytale’ reconstructions of real life?

Of course to Mr. Brody this summons a vision of that ‘classic’ Hollywood filmmaking that he apparently abhors. This is a style that approaches its themes much like Opera, incorporating elements of fantasy, stylization and pure emotion in order to construct something that conveys universal feelings and values and stands up to time. He criticizes del Toro’s film for being a ‘surrogate’ version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is somewhat ironic given that the movie on the top of his own ‘year’s best film’ list, Gordon Peele’s Get Out pays deliberate homage to that very film, portraying the situation of an interracial relationship, albeit with radically different consequences.

I saw Get Out and liked it. It was an outstanding film, particularly as a first film written and directed by director Gordon Peele. I didn’t think it was one of the best movies I’d seen all year, though I particularly liked the performance by actor Daniel Kaluuya. (I first saw him in the Fifteen Million Merits episode of the series, ‘Black Mirror,” one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the small screen.) “The predatory destructiveness of white people’s self-love for their good feelings…” may indeed be the subject of the film, as Brody claims, challenging white folks inherent sense of privilege and an inability to see the humanity in the “other,” but at the same time it avoids taking itself too seriously. I would also add that by the writer/directors own admission it’s an homage to the Hollywood tradition of Grade B horror films that he grew up with.

We come back to the problem of the movies themselves. “The history of Hollywood is, in part, a history of depredation, of abuse, yet the celebration of Hollywood’s traditions and the assertion of continuity between the classic era and today’s movies was on view in the ceremony from the outset…” Well, yeah. The history of Hollywood is also the history of the evolution of an art form and a mode of storytelling that involves whole communities of artists, technicians, promoters and business people. As with every business in America, there has been and continues to be abuse and injustice, the disenfranchised having to struggle for rights and representation, and its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. There has also been progress, not only in the world of film but in the world that it attempts to mirror.

Finally, Brody refers to the real root of all this resentment, which arises out of “the…shock of life under a depraved new Administration…” and what he perceives as Hollywood’s weak and misdirected response to the depredations that we all now face. Instead of making films that are a direct assault on all of America’s failings and injustices it continues to make movies with the intention of making money. “Ultimately, the self-deception that Hollywood fears most involves the box office, which dropped six per cent in 2017.” The “most frightening foe” for Hollywood, he claims, is Netflix.

True, the structure of the industry is being radically challenged. Streaming services are threatening the Multiplex and the mainstream theaters are seeing a decline in attendance for everything but the cgi blockbusters. At the same time more movies are being made than ever before on every scale and are being seen by many more people in many formats, both inside and outside of Hollywood. The long form of extended television series has given actors and directors a whole new narrative structure to explore. The transport and projection of movies is evolving exponentially. Some aspects of the business will fail and some will thrive, but the people who love and make movies are creative and resilient and what inspires them is a uniquely human endeavor, the telling of stories, and this will always endure.

So if the people who make the movies indulge in a little ‘brazen self-celebration’ in between telling our stories, and they try and entertain us in the process, I don’t begrudge them. Tomorrow a lot of them will get up early and start setting up the lights, the cameras and the magic.

Hollywood’s Brazen Self-Celebration at the 2018 Oscars

Batman v Superman

I don’t usually give much credence to film reviews, particularly bad ones, and so far reviews of the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie have been atrocious. The movie might be awesome and I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, as I’m totally addicted to the genre. The reviews I’ve read indicate that in its attitude of ponderous self absorption and gloom it’s the diametric opposite of a movie like Deadpool. That film continually cracks jokes at itself, reminding us that it’s just a movie and we are an audience entertained by a story about a regular guy who has some real problems along with his unasked for super powers. The most successful superhero movies thus far have rarely dispensed with a liberal dose of humor amid the action and the power punches and all the nefarious scheming. In fact, a key to the enormous success of Marvel Studios (and the long running success of the comic book brand) is that it’s never abandoned a sense of fun, even in its darkest moments. No matter their extraordinary powers, Marvel characters tend to act like actual, regular people, just as screwed up and petty as the rest of us. Their ‘gifts’ always have the double edge of being both an isolating burden as much as a potential benefit to humanity. They are never an embodiment of perfect virtue or perfect evil. Even a character like Thor (who is actually a God) is subject to the foibles and misperceptions of humanity. Iron Man protects himself with a solid armor of egotism. Daredevil and the Hulk struggle with deep wells of  repressed anger. Jennifer Jones is full of self-recrimination and doubt.
There are many who simply don’t get the point of these characters or this genre. For me they express one of the best uses of the spectacular nature of the screen. Like the oldest narratives that we know of, they offer us exaggerated embodiments of the qualities that make us human. By use of the mask and the costume they create enough distance so that we are able to contemplate our own natures objectively, evaluating the core values at the center of our moral and ethical universe. To a large extent this is what all movies and plays and operas and fictions do, by the very act of creating a simulated universe existing outside of our own. In the case of the superhero genre character hugs the edges of caricature thus bringing sharp emphasis to particular qualities and tendencies. In the growing pantheon of a comic book universe we begin to see realms that have more than a little relationship to the archetypal edifices of Olympus or a Valhalla, and are at least as rich and nuanced as anything that the Greeks or Norsemen came up with. By bringing the archetypes down to the level of our familiar world and merging them with familiar characters and situations we’ve expanded the potential of drama to reach into the collective psyches of whole cultures where we can expose the inner fears and hopes that unite and divide us.
These are moral dramas and passion plays. They harken back to the medieval pageants and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries that are at the origins of our modern secular dramas. In an age in which so much of what has held our civilizations together is being challenged we’ve contrived to discover new ways to ask the important questions about what binds us to one another. The trick to doing this without crossing a line into the ridiculous, is a proper mix of passion and humor, reflection and action that both draws us into the drama and allows us to experience it’s separate elements as distinct embodiments that we can feel. When we watch a superhero on the screen we actually, in effect, put on that costume and carry it away with us.
Personally I’ve preferred the Marvel approach to this archetypal realm. The DC universe has always appeared a little too sharply divided between good and evil, it’s characters taking themselves a little too seriously for my taste. As for Batman and Superman, I enjoyed the somewhat parodic nature of the early Batman revivals on screen, and considered the sheer dramatic energy of the Christopher Nolan/Frank Miller Batman movies to be exceptional. The key to the Batman character’s appeal is that he exists half in shadow. Superman I find a bit problematic. The original mold created in the late 30s and 40’s during an enormous worldwide struggle between totalitarianism and democracy presented him appropriately as the perfect embodiment of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The character emerged out of the heroic fantasies of a couple of young jewish guys who longed to identify and assimilate into the dream of the red, white and blue. In my own perceptions as a young man feeling like an outsider in a post war world of unquestioned conformity Superman came off to me a little too saintly, a little too ’straight.’ As for Batman, Green Arrow and Green Hornet they were all rich guys who helped humanity out of some sense of charity or guilt. They had big cars and influence and certainly never had to worry about holding a job.
The genius of Stan Lee and his legacy lies in his assistance that his heroes never get too big for their own britches. The ones that do pretty much are guaranteed to end up as villains. Thor doesn’t help us because he’s a god, but just because he likes us. Spiderman is an awkward teenager growing into an awkward adult. Doctor Strange is an arrogant greed head who is led by difficult circumstances into a spiritual conversion. Black Widow is haunted by crimes she was compelled to commit in a former life. Most importantly, the effect of their actions as heroes is rarely without unforeseen consequences, making their lives and the lives of those around them even more complicated. I could relate to all of these guys.
Of course, in the years since my childhood, the approach of both the Marvel and the DC universe has become more and more similar. But, as a person who is used to Apple computers, using Windows always feels somewhat constricting, even though it looks and acts more and more like what we’re used to. Another analogy perhaps is the difference between the Democratic and Republican mindsets, where one sees the world through progressive glasses and the other through conservative ones. With “Dawn of Justice” DC and Warner Brothers hopes to achieve the kind of success that Marvel and Disney have attained in the past decade. Perhaps these gigantic struggles between corporate entities, political philosophies, and comic book universes is like an endless set of mirrors for the struggles taking place within each of us. Perhaps ‘Batman and Superman,’ both who are after all supposed to be the ‘good guys,’ is an apt echo of the battle we are now waging within cultures, political parties, religions and within ourselves.

Desolation Row

“The legionnaires’ interests, and those of the increasingly important women’s auxiliary, lie in the bands and the parades and the junior baseball teams and in the comfortable feeling of belonging so necessary to people now that small-town life is broken up and the family is crumbling and people live so much by themselves in agglomerated industrial masses, where they are left after working hours with no human contact between the radio and the car and the impersonal round of chain stores and picture palaces.” – John Dos Passos – “Big Parade – 1936” published in The Nation

“The system is an implacable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over there they call Americanism – a huge complex of myths, values, recipes, slogans, figures, and rites. It is something outside of the people, something presented to them; the most adroit propaganda does nothing else but present it to them continuously. It is not in them, they are in it; they struggle against it or they accept it, they submit to it or reinvent it, they give themselves up to it or make furious attempts to escape from it; in any case it remains outside them, transcendent, because they are men and it is a thing…Perhaps nowhere else will you find such a discrepancy between people and myth, between life and the representation of life.” – Jean Paul Sartre – “Americans and Their Myths” The Nation 1947

“When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas “marketplaced,” our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.” – Toni Morrison, “Racism and Fascism” The Nation 1995

* * * *

And here we are.

I’ve been reading through the 150th Anniversary edition of The Nation, America’s oldest continuously published journal of progressive thought, and picked these quotes, separated by decades, to represent my perception of the landscape in which I currently wander. Between 1936 and 1995 and today nothing about America has much changed other than perhaps the fluctuating mood of a populace that varies between extremes of idealism and anger, sympathy and prejudice.

After 250 years we haven’t learned the lessons of intolerance and bigotry. Our politics are driven by fear and anger. The young mostly pass out of their brief fantasy of living in a land of possibilities into one or another state of confinement. Most of the faces I see on the street are haunted by scarcely hidden shadows of desperation when they aren’t caught up in some form of distraction.

When I look at our current political crisis and our inability to deal with the looming problems immediately before us I see their reflection in the words of I.F. Stone, written in 1944, pleading for some action to save the victims of the European Holocaust: “Official Washington’s capacity for finding excuses for inaction is endless, and many people in the State and War departments who play a part in this matter can spend months sucking their legalistic thumbs over any problem. So many things that might have been done were attempted too late.”

Climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, war; wherever one looks the collective imperatives are overridden by self-interested sloganeering waged on behalf of an illusion of ‘individual freedom’ thinly disguising a superstructure of greed and paranoia.

A friend of mine scolded me recently, telling me to stop ‘whining’ and take advantage of the fact that I live in a state where marijuana is legal. I should relax, enjoy myself, watch a Broncos game and stop focusing on all of this darkness and cynicism.

What a fascinating term is ‘cynicism.’ I’ve been accused of it often enough that I’ve had to measure myself frequently against it, to gauge the degree to which I find it applicable. At its basis I suppose is a feeling of discontent, of being always outside of that which is commonly considered expected or predictable. It’s a feeling that has been with me always, as if I made a choice at some point, perhaps before I was ever conscious, to ask the world for something that is never directly forthcoming. The feeling manifests primarily as questions, questions, questions, and rarely an ability to accept fully the answers that are given. But where the attitude of cynicism to me appears stuck within the limitations of the present, an attitude of eternal questioning suggests some sort of faith in alternative possibilities.

I must admit that during the political season my inherent skepticism propels me more deeply toward a somewhat cynical response to the hyper-inflated rhetoric that drives the population into frenzies of unrealistic expectation that rebound against an irrational collective angst. The truth of the matter is that although I’m both a firm believer in a state of continual revolution I’ve grown extremely skeptical that any form of authentic revolution can be gained through politics. The political process may reflect broadly certain trends of popular enlightenment or stupidity, but authentic revolution is a process of cultural change toward which politics at best offers a tardy endorsement.

I am, in fact, a firm believer that human civilization has advanced and will continue to advance in the long run. I suppose that makes me an overall optimist. Particular civilizations come and go, they thrive and then grow decadent and sometimes they entirely collapse, or else they recede like glaciers to be reborn in a later season. Is it unreasonable to think that ours is no exception? Yet, in the grand scheme of things ours is a relatively young society. Although it has spread its influence all across the globe it has yet to fully and conclusively consolidate its power over every human life. It is quite an impressive machine and like every civilization that has gone before it has radically altered the relationship of humans with each other and with the natural world. Perhaps in this regard it has gone much further than those that have gone before, and in a shorter amount of time.

As the Phoenicians brought us the language of trade and the Sumerians the alphabet, Asians brought us paper and the first cities, Africa brought mathematics, the Greeks and Romans brought us roads and the law and the colonial pirates united the hemispheres and gave us a global language of commerce. The current phase of civilization has eliminated the factor of time and space in global human communication.

Humanity has always paid a steep price for every step forward. It may be that due to the breathtaking speed of its advance, the present global society will pay the biggest price of all. Besides the inevitable social disruption that every innovation brings about we are witnessing mass extinctions, vast environmental degradation, countless global wars and the resulting migration of millions of people, and we are only at the beginning stages of what could be a very steep curve of accelerated change. Many will be displaced and many will perish. No nation or state or city or village will be exempt. Our consciousness and our sense of collective ethics will be profoundly challenged, It’s going to be one hell of a ride, no matter who appears to be in charge.

Therefore, in light of all this, to expect that any single politician or leader can turn the thing around is folly. This isn’t cynicism, it’s merely realistic. I’ve lived over half a century to see every political victory shadowed by retreat and reaction, every enlightened advance accompanied by fear and loathing. I find it difficult to put my faith in ‘the people’ for the people inevitably follow the pathways of the expedient, for better or for worse.

My move from a small tourist town to a major megalopolis has made the vast and interwoven complexity of American society starkly clear. We are all caught up in the machineries of commerce whether we like it or not, and those machineries show little signs of slowing down. As crazy as this makes our day-to-day lives we have little choice but to support the collective movement to which we’ve tied our very survival. The source of both my cynicism and my hope is that on the one hand we’ve come to be a civilization that has long since fulfilled the prophecy attributed to Chief Seattle: “The end of living and the beginning of survival,” and on the other hand we continually surprise ourselves by our capacity for changing the way the game is played.

I believe in revolution by design. Just as every civilization has arisen out of an advance in technological innovation linked with spiritual revelation, so has this one and will the next one. We are steadily and collectively gaining a sense of our interrelationship with everything around us. When humans are faced with a problem or a limitation they are compelled to innovate a novel solution. That solution spawns more problems and complexities of unintended consequence and we innovate some more. Our world thus becomes more complex, more populated and our situations more interwoven with the total web of life. We are now the source of the biggest environmental feedback loop, and are now faced with the total responsibility for our own salvation or destruction. Will we be ready in time?

The signs are encouraging to me. When one looks beyond the world of politics and war the rate of change in both cultural advance and design innovation is breathtaking. In virtually every advanced society there are experiments in new ways to build cities and sustainable networks of transportation and communication. In societies where the means and options for communication have increased, despite the inevitable reaction of those who feel culturally threatened by change, the overall tolerance of people for difference and nonconformity appears to grow despite the reactionary efforts of those who see political gain.

The next stage of our social evolution will be shaped in relation to vast environmental disruptions. There is no longer the possibility of turning this around, and our political and social realities will bring us face to face with it sooner than later. The climate will continue to grow warmer. the oceans will rise. The weather will become more extreme. The planet’s ability to sustain the human population will be severely strained. Our cities will have to contract. We will no longer be able to claim the right of unlimited expansion and sprawl. We will have to surrender some of our rights to ‘private’ transportation. More of our lives will be lived underground and we will have to find ways to take collective shelter in an environment that grows increasingly harsh. The containers of our lives will be subject to greater regulation that serves the collective good over individual freedom. At the same time we will be forced to forego activities devoted to mindless tasks performed more efficiently by machines. Above all we will be faced with the necessity of leaving behind the relentless and wasteful demands of a society based purely on unbridled consumption of the resources upon which we all depend.

I don’t suggest that any of this will not be a struggle. The so-called American Dream will have to be sorted between the aspects that support individual initiative and a personal quest for fulfillment and those that emerge from the sloganeering bullshit supporting endless greed and acquisition. Sounds impossible, but many have already made moves in this direction. More and more the resistance to change will be from an aging and dying generation represented by demagogues and fear merchants while the future is constructed by the young people who will have to live in it.

As I see it, the present political struggle in America is between idealists and pragmatists. The idealists are angry at the speed and slowness of what they see as absolutely necessary and long delayed change. Pragmatists are frustrated at the unrealistic expectations of idealists which lead to political marginalization and defeat. All parties are faced with similar struggles. I respect both positions, but lean more toward the latter (a function of age). I tend to evaluate the message of each position by both the message and the tone in which it is delivered. If you are rude and angry on the Left you are as little likely to get my support as your ‘evil’ twin on the Right.

My advice to all is to step back on occasion from the struggles of the moment and to take a longer view. The longer and broader the view the more grounded one is in the ‘real.’ The political present is a result of endless chains of complex cause and effect. To understand the present one must have a sense of the past. Never panic, because the pendulum swings both right and left, and the main danger is loss of patience.

As I look over the skyline of Denver I see the implacable wall of the Rockies rising up at its outskirts. I see the ridiculous congestion and atmospheric haze that’s a result of uncontrolled sprawl as more and more people rush back and forth to shop, to work, to survive. A city of warehouses, suburban shopping centers and housing developments that cover the countryside, this is a city grown beyond it’s own consciousness, like almost every American city. Like a person suffering from a bad diet and overconsumption the clock is ticking while the mountains look on. Sooner or later I believe that, in the words of science fiction writer John Brunner, “the sheep will look up” and begin to get a real handle on their future. In the meantime I’ll proceed along my own path and voice my discontent, and every once and a while my hopes, along with a little bit of humor. When I pass the hopeless and homeless and desperately confused on the streets of America I will never be able to turn my head away and refuse to see.

Finally, Bob Dylan in 1965 described a city that resembles the one I perceive and that hasn’t changed that much since then:

By Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row” – 1965

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance,
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants.
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles,
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style.
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you better leave.”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide,
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside.
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love or else expecting rain.

And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show.
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row.

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid.
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid.
To her, death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest.
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row.

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk,
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk.
He looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
As he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.

Now you would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup,
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up.
Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole,
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”
They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast,
The Phantom of the Opera a perfect image of a priest.
They’re spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words.
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know,
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row.”

Now at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation row.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday (About the time the doorknob broke).
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame.
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more
letters no,
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row

Songwriters: BOB DYLAN
Desolation Row lyrics © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO