A Hard Rain Falling

I’ve finished Slavoj Zizek’s book Living in the End Times” and have gone back to reading William Irwin Thompson. I find both of them valuable in aiding the acquisition of a longer view of history that puts the almost universal hysteria and despair of the present in clearer perspective. Even though their respective points of view might appear to be in opposition, Zizek being a materialist and Thompson being more of a mystic, for me the two of them round out the circle of my own understanding about where we are and what may be an appropriate response.

Zizek is a rationalist and a materialist. His understanding of the trends and movements going on in society are strictly derived from a process of carefully weighing alternative ideologies and critiquing them from the platforms of philosophy and psychology. Although his revelations can be both down-to-earth and fairly esoteric, drawing as he does from the traditions of Hegelian Dialectics and the European penchant for seeing signs and symbols, they are unmatched in pointing out the repetitive habits of mind and social behavior that keep us locked under key and most often asleep at the wheel. I find his critique of the Left particularly valuable, as he asks the most important question, “What do we do the day after the revolution.”

Thompson, although partaking of an equally rational tradition steeped in the scholarship, philosophies and science of the West, brings in another level of understanding, one that takes in the background to all of this noise and calls it Myth. His analysis owes much to the radical dissection of media by Marshall McLuhan, the understanding of archetypes and their influence by Carl Jung and leading edge explorations in the studies of biology, brain science and cognition. More importantly Thompson acknowledges the ongoing interplay of myth with history in the spiritual and mystical traditions of both East and West. Zizek would undoubtedly dismiss him as a ‘mystic’ who dabbles in the muddy realms of the unconscious trying to draw meaning from chaos. For me Thompson offers a method for penetrating the fog of time that more fully acknowledges and embraces the irrational and creative forces upon which we all float.

Several recent exposures and references to China brought me back to Pacific Shift,” a book by Thompson published in 1985, in the years just after his The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light” was nominated for a National Book Award. It’s based on a series of lectures given in Europe and is the most concise summary of his major ideas that I’ve read. These lectures were given during the Reagan years and it’s remarkable how well his analysis is both fitting and prophetic.

Here he compares the rise of the Rock concert, with its almost unendurable level of noise and its celebration of the collective, with the similar rise (at that time) of televangelists like Jimmie Swaggart. So, here’s the quote:

“The rise of paranoia, from right-wing fulminations against the Trilateral Commission to Lyndon LaRouche’s hatred of the British Secret Service, is an important signal that the literate, rational citizen of the post-Enlightenment era is being replaced by the subject in a shift from identity through logical definition to identity  through participation and performance. In one form of consciousness identity is seen through similar logical predicates; but in paranoia, identity is seen metaphorically as the participation mystique of common subjects. Looking at the erosion of good pietist values fro electronic evangelical broadcasting, and looking at rock festivals, we can see that democracy is in for some hard times.”

And what have been these past three elections, since the rise of the personal computer, other than a battle between competing rock festivals in a reversion from the rational liberal democracy envisioned by the Greeks to outright civil war between tribes. As with every stage of our technological dream the ‘liberation’ of media from the control of an extremely limited number of channels with similar ideologies has released the dark tides of the mob. Nowadays, every person with a computer or smart phone can tailor the reporting and interpretation of ‘facts’ in any way that appeals to their sense of paranoia or hope.

Among other casualties in this evolution, one that became obvious with the unanticipated (by most in the media) victory of Donald Trump was journalism as it has been practiced for more than a century. The assumption that one can report the news dispassionately, from an objective perch (as much influenced by ideology as any other) has ended the pretense that we are all ‘on the same side’ and that only the ‘truth’ will set us free. For most of us the truth is something that lies behind the facts, something which echoes in a very particular way our own experience and something that offers some hint as to our next step toward the future.

Until we have a firm vision of the society we want to live in we can be bombarded with endless quantities of fact and figures and yet these will never penetrate beneath the surface. Conservatives, in calling up the past as an ideology have made channels like Fox and Conspiracy Theorist websites an extremely compelling destination for those who want to know what’s going on. Liberals and the Left appear to be stuck in cataloging the crimes and misdemeanors of the present and calling for resistance to the ongoing march of ideology, while offering nothing much in the way of an alternative vision for the future. This is simply not enough to carry out a revolution. This is why many more people pay attention to Fox News than to Democracy Now.

I’ve no idea how we will get to where we need to be as a surviving and possibly thriving species although I’ve witnessed some bold and convincing experiments in my day. Slavoj Zizek points to the scientific community at CERN in Switzerland as a remarkable model of the possibility of a civil society that transcends ideology and national boundaries (I recommend the film “Particle Fever” as a truly inspiring journey.) Thompson points to new studies at the edges of biology that show us more and more how each of us is a permeable membrane where the individual and the environment are never really separate. Personally I’ve long admired the artistic and architectural visions of Paolo Soleri.

Perhaps the most we can do in these next four years, when ignorance and demagoguery rule, is to offer continual resistance to the forces that place the survival of capitalism over the survival of the planet. Perhaps this election was needed to more sharply define the stakes we are facing. Perhaps it will force us to get beyond our petty ideological disagreements and recriminations to find  common focus and intent and to imagine a new world beyond capitalism. Whatever we do, the unraveling of a system that cannot possibly last will certainly accelerate, as our elected leader and mascot has little apparent respect for the fragile network of agreements that hold it together.

We should resist and prepare.

A hard rain is falling.

R.E.M.

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Winter Is Coming – Part One

More than a decade ago I published the following article on the Arclist and in the magazine “Annals of the Earth” that compared the fantasy narratives of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and George Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” which had just published it’s fourth volume and which I was advocating to my friends and associates at the time. This was long before anything was said about the series being made into a film. Martin’s imaginary world is dark and complex, without the clear definitions of good and evil presented in the worlds of Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. It was in fact a pioneering work in the emerging genre of what was being called “adult fantasy” which meant that it has an uncomfortable resemblance to the actual world we inhabit.

Before television’s recent so-called ‘golden age’ and the rise of the cable series franchise a work that did justice to Martin’s expansive vision would have indeed been impossible. The success and emerging dominance of the extended narrative form has bridged the gap between the literary form of the novel and the realm of visual storytelling.

As much as I regarded George R. R. Martin’s work as the best in it’s genre I could not have anticipated the phenomenal success of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” based on, and now actually extending the cycle of narratives taking place in the Imaginary world of Westeros and lands to East. Not only has the series succeeded as the most ambitious cinematic production ever attempted for television, it has become a cultural meme that dominates whole sections of bookstores, is referred to in political and cultural commentaries and taken over vast sectors of Internet culture.

In the piece I wrote in 2005 my argument was that, as “Lord of the Rings” represented the ‘climactic’ work of an age dominated by literature and the rise of industrial technology. As a cinematic production it made more extensive use of digital technology than anything that came before and thus it marks the transition from a primarily mechanical/chemical/industrial process of filmmaking into an almost entirely electronic medium. “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a ‘formative’ work that announces the birth of a new ecology of consciousness and communication. It is produced entirely within the digital medium of television and not for theaters, so it represents a further step into a more intimate form of storytelling. I believe that my argument is supported by the immense popularity of this cultural artifact that crosses the generations from those of us raised by television onto the new denizens of a ‘digital’ age.

It will be enlightening to further explore the particular qualities that have elevated George R. R. Martin’s tale far beyond the boundaries of fantastic literature. To start with I’ll republish here, slightly edited for clarity, the original article entitled “Winter Is Coming.”

Meanwhile, there are weekly “Game of Thrones” parties everywhere.

_________________________________________________________________________
Begin forwarded message:

From: Ralph Melcher <melcher@nets.com>
Subject: [Arclist] Winter Is Coming
Date: November 1, 2005 at 8:35:09 PM MST
To: Arclist <Arclist@cybermesa.com>

I look forward this fall to the release of “A Feast For Crows,” the fourth book by George R. R. Martin in his cycle of medieval modern fantasy epics collectively titled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Martin, perhaps immodestly, displays the same middle initials as J.R.R.Tolkien, while departing radically from Tolkien in his construction of a world based as much on history as on myth. (England’s “War of the Roses” provided inspiration for a tale of two battling royal families) Where Tolkien weaves an apocalyptic tale of a Manichaean clash between ultimate good and evil in which most of his characters appear more as classical archetypes than familiar people, Martin’s narrative proceeds through revelation of the evolving perceptions of a cast of very recognizable human characters. In Tolkien’s world every character’s move is the culmination of larger forces with origins deep in the mythical history to which he dedicated his creative life. As massive and ambitious as his popular masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings,” it was a small piece in a much larger and more ambitious tapestry that traced the mythical prehistory of humanity all the way back to the time of creation. George Martin’s intentions are modest in comparison, that is to tell a good yarn with engaging characters recognizable by modern readers. As different as these works appear, they each represent significant milestones in the evolution of a literary genre, as well as exposing the underlying foundations of the cultures out of which they emerge.

The cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, in his many explorations into cultural ecology, presents a critique of literature as cultural artifacts, in which there are three stages of that correspond to the unfolding of consciousness. The kinds of text that define particular stages in this model are the formative, dominant and climactic. “The formative work enters into a new ecological niche of consciousness through the work of solitary and shamanistic pioneers; the dominant work stabilizes the mentality through the work of an institutional elite; and the climactic work consummates and finishes the mentality for all time through the work of an individualistic genius.” (2)

Although Thompson cites James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” as most clearly epitomizing the climactic work of the (last) age, I would argue that Tolkien’s epic more clearly and definitively fills that niche for a number of reasons, not least of which is it’s spectacular success as a genuine artifact of mass culture. Tolkien lived and wrote his myth while witnessing the titanic struggles of a century defined by the rising power of technology and industrialization. In opposition to the dominance of machine culture he identified with attempts to maintain some vestige of traditional memory and culture. The author was clearly conscious of the scope of the intent to summarize an age. He states in a quote, cited by David Day, “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country (England): it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff…I had in mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I would dedicate simply to England; to my country.”(3)

David Day goes on to compare Tolkien’s undertaking as the equivalent of Homer first inventing Greek mythology single handedly before embarking on the “Illiad” and “Odyssey”. His argument is founded in a rather culture centric idea that England was the fount and seed carrier for much that reflected the transition from the medieval European world of moral absolutism to a transatlantic culture that worshiped progress and modernity. Tolkien’s work is reflected in it’s ambition by that of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” which was a similar attempt to both crown and transcend the operative form. “The Lord of the Rings” is a text that depicts in markedly Christian terms the final battle between good and evil, in which an agrarian civilization faces down the rising power of the machine. After many heroic struggles humanity emerges forever transformed, while the ancient powers and principalities of an older time are either defeated or simply fade away. Tolkien both sums up the moral landscape of a pre-modern civilization while proclaiming its ultimate replacement by a new world order in which the heroic tribal quest ultimately leads to a new bourgeois world of trade and acquisition governed by new rules and individual initiative. At the end of the tale, the heroes disappear in the west while Merry and Sam and Pippin take up the settled life of the Shire.

What better characterization of the historical nature of the twentieth century, where ancient tribal mythologies mingled with the ascending powers of technocracy and fueled the rise of new orders and empires that clashed in climactic conflagrations that involved the entire civilized world? Ultimately, at the end of two massive wars the nation state was subdued by a new order embodied in globalized commerce and transnational communication, where the centers of power were continually challenged and then overtaken by explosive evolutionary forces generated near the boundaries of the known. At the the century’s transition a reaction has set in as people seek retreat in familiar rules and in texts of a world that is rapidly passing away. Tolkien’s fantasy wistfully recounts the passing of a time when the simple desire for comfort, family and the hearth, represented by the hobbits of the shire, was sufficient. The ‘War of the Ring’ represents nothing less than our collective passage into a new age and a new order where values must be forged anew with little assistance from the guardians of the past.

Tolkien’s work portrays in many ways the rise and final conflagration put forth in the Judeo-Christian paradigm of creation and apocalypse. His work that invents cultures, races and language echoes the birth and rise of nation states. As in the Christian mythos, all things proceed toward a final apocalypse that results in the ascension of the savior-king as ruler of a new order and at least a temporary peace governed by principals of honor, charity and love.

If, as Thompson proposes, the solitary and shamanistic explorations of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” and Descartes’s “Discourse on Method,”(4) created the formative texts of the new mentality that replaced the medieval Mediterranean with the modern Atlantic cultural ecologies, then Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” surely fills the bill for “the work of an individualistic genius” which characterizes a climactic work that “consummates and finishes the mentality for all time.”  Interesting as well is the fact that Tolkien’s tale truly came into its’ own as a work that achieved mass popularity when it was turned into a movie; and not just any movie, but one that marked the transition from film as primarily an optical/mechanical artifact at the pinnacle of the industrial process, to the fully realized digital creation of total worlds out of the imagination.

George Martin’s novels can be seen in this light as a preliminary shamanic exploration into a new level of culture. Its’ structure owes more to television than to the classic film or novel. Martin began his career writing television scripts for popular shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.” The importance of his background in television perhaps can be found in the quality of the epic feature film, where background is as much a character as the actors within the frame. Television, due to its intimacy as a virtual presence in the modern household as well as the size and shape of the screen (a limitation growing obsolete), has evolved around the close-up, or talking head. Television narratives are generally driven by a succession of character portraits which emphasize individual points-of-view, and which change rapidly from one to another in a sequence of abrupt cuts.

Martin similarly unfolds his epic tale in a sequence of intimate character sketches functioning like a sequence of various camera positions. Every chapter is named for a single character, and as the narrative proceeds our feeling for each character deepens with each mention of their name. The books could actually be read as a score of separate tales, each about separate characters, all woven together through a tapestry in time. In a sense, Martin’s story begins where Tolkien’s leaves off, in an age dominated by men, where evil and virtue are no longer the province of externalized forces embodied by magical beings, but carried in the heart and mind of every individual. One could say that “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a postmodern fantasy, where the battle between good and evil is played out in the choices each person makes in a moment of crisis based on their own unique perception of right and wrong. Yet, underlying the human drama and giving it ultimate shape is a much larger unfolding, determined not by good and evil, darkness and light, but by the immense and irrevocable powers of the natural world. The destinies of men are less a factor of their own moral virtue than the result of the ultimate relationship between society and the complex and inevitable cycles of summer and winter.

In the world of Westeros the timing of the seasons is unpredictable, every summer lasting more than a decade followed by an equally long cold winter. In a sense the summer fosters the powers of the day while winter brings forth the demons of the night. These cycles are long enough that generations forget the fact that all that is will inevitably change. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that the castles and kingdoms built by men are only as strong as their memories for, although the precise timing is unpredictable there are plenty of signs and warnings for those who can remember. It’s on this stage of the inevitable cycles of the natural world that the dramas and struggles of human society are waged, and we are made conscious that the quest for temporal power meets final judgment in the face of what is to come. If there is ultimate virtue it’s in the value people place on wisdom and long term vision over short term ambition and greed.

Two families epitomize the poles of this very human struggle. In the north are the Starks of Winterfell, whose family motto is “Winter is Coming.” Their demeanor is conservative, their colors white and grey, their values shaped by necessity and tradition. In the south, near the colorful fountains of trade and culture and civilization is the ‘Iron Throne.’ There dwells the Lannisters, hungry for wealth and power and jealous of all those who would challenge their rule over the lands of men. Within this tale the common order of classical heroic fantasy is followed more or less faithfully, as the outsiders in both families emerge as heroic figures in the story which unfolds. When the seasons begin to change, awakening long forgotten dangers out of the northern wastes, and as another force driven by fire and signaled by the rebirth of dragons rises in the south, one gets a sense that the synthesis of human aspirations with the seemingly implacable forces of transition can only be found by those less invested in things as they are.

As I look on at the absurd struggles raging across our lands in a time when a future filled with the present and looming crisis of war, pandemics, climate change, water shortage, overpopulation and the rest, I find the Stark motto, “Winter Is Coming,” to be a succinct characterization of the realities we collectively face in our world, as a species and a civilization. Many of us are outsiders with little at stake in the petty power struggles of politicians and our so-called leadership. We find ourselves in a shamanic role, as observers on the periphery of social events, living in a reality that challenges the assumptions of powers-that-be, transcending the narrow limits of an obsolete world-view. Tolkien’s magnificent epic leaves us with a challenge, to face the future as moral and responsible human beings, without the crutch of certainty provided by ancient texts and ancient prophecy. We are in a new world after all. George R. R. Martin offers a rather dire tale of the consequences of short sightedness while giving us hope that we may find a way, as we always have, through new leadership and pragmatic vision. Our constant temptation is to dwell on what we lack, and to be trapped in a struggle that keeps us bound to a world that is passing away. Our salvation lies not in belief but in clarity, and our faith must be found not in the past but in the future.

___________

1. Martin, George R. R. Martin’s cycle: A Song of Ice and Fire, includes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000) and A Feast for Crows (2005).

2. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 233).

3. Day, David, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

4. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being. St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 143).

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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.

Here I Am

Here. Here I am. My first weekend here in this beast of the city. The snow has fallen and encased the new apartment. The maze of the city closes in around me. I’ve left Elysium for an engagement with the edges. To the West the wave of mountains rises against the plain, houses are sprawled across in patchy subdivisions from here all the way to the northern farmlands. The city is always growing, already too big for itself.

Elysium the Beautiful breeds insanity. One loses touch, drifting into the mind of strange paranoias and bizarre scenarios of good and evil. I’m happy to be away from all that nonsense. The secret life of farmers and suburbanites. Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Everywhere the Word goes out, “I own this, as far as I can imagine. This is mine. No government or people will take it away.” Yet, wildfires rage, with no satisfactory explanation, for we know no history and only want life to be simple.

I have been assured, by those who claim to know, that I am the victim of a strange conspiracy and here I sit in quiet winter solitude, contemplating that possibility. It occurs to me that I’ve been around for too may lifetimes not to be able to smell evil when I encounter it. After all, evil’s really just a mirror of myself, or a part of me anyway. I know it too intimately not to recognize it in others.

There’s plenty of evil in this world, mostly pushed by ambitious hucksters with boring agendas, something about telling us who to fear and who to hate. Then they sell us books and dvd’s and lure us to their online sites where the major promotion is themselves. They are mostly paid very well by the very people they claim are the ‘adversaries,’ those whose interests are served by turning people against one another. They point at the Jews or the Blacks or the Chinese or the ‘Socialists,’ or whoever is leaving those ‘mysterious’ con trails in the heavens, seeding our precious air with their filthy mind control.

Oh shit, I’m just tired of all this. I’ll just walk away from it now, away from these helpless fears, away from useless arguments that ignore history and are only angry frightened screaming into darkness. The people downstairs are my companions, shouting mindlessly at the t.v. while their Broncos win. There is no place to hide from the world here and it’s somehow soothing to be alone, away from anyone that can be trusted.

You once complained about a teabag that was folded beautifully in a paper pyramid – a waste of paper, time and energy! – you said. You only felt compelled to complain. “Where is the ocean,” you said, “Where are the trees?” “Where is the desert?” What is the real question?

When I came to the city I thought that I was leaving a refuge and returning to the edges of the world. I was wrong to think so, to find out that the vast maze of city provides the only real refuge of anonymity. I am totally submerged in the great darkness that’s civilization with all of its pain and glory. Every face that I see is a lie and there is little possibility for truth, only acceptance, abandonment and perhaps some ultimate contentment while surrendering to the oceanic flow.

I don’t know where this life has taken me. I am both pirate and defender of this realm and I bellow from within a font of night jewels. I no longer need your company or your approval and I will do what I must to see us to the end. Your spies and secret sailors, those who reveal all of the hidden plans are useless now. The plan is older than the wind that blows above the deserts and will continue at all costs and we will either serve or fail given our own particular gifts.

Welcome to the new world order.

American Icons

Whenever I’m feeling down on America, particularly in the midst of what sometimes appears to be an absurd or even pointless political season, rather then allowing myself to be overcome by cynicism and bitterness I’ve found a very effective antidote.

Here is a link to one of the finest audio productions available on the internet. The ongoing series is part of writer Kurt Anderson’s Studio 360 broadcast from PRI and WNYC.

If you need reminders of what in our history has made America great, let me introduce you to Studio 360’s, American Icons. Stories on everything familiar, from “I Love Lucy” to “Mad Magazine” to the “Lincoln Memorial” to “Wizard of Oz” and “Buffalo Bill.” How did we become who we are? And who are we?

Studio 360’s American Icons

It’s a Good Time for Doctor Strange

(upon leaving Santa Fe)

The darkness intensifies
The mountain no longer calls me up
Fall has arrived
The world descends into chaos
Syrian women screaming at the gates
Children drowning

When we invented the internet
(The children of psychedelia)
We rejoiced to think the world was saved
Through communication
And good will
Peace. Love. Music

Instead we unleashed
All the demons of our forgotten histories
They swarm around us
And above our heads
Threatening our souls
Stealing our eyes

War creeps toward us
Like a fungus
It despoils the land
And crushes hopes
Except for those insane dreamers
Of the Apocalypse

There is no Rapture
No conspiracy
No escaping into worlds of mind
No avoiding our mirrors
There are only the revelations
And awakening

I came to this place for refuge
And respite from the World City
Where mostly we live
I came to recover the questions
And for 28 years I’ve been a fox
An outlaw cast into cause and effect

Now I’m riding the ox
Feet first
Head first
Back to the war and peace zone
Excuse me I mean
The zone where deals are made

America loves the deal maker
Is entertained by the drama
House of Cards
Madmen
Breaking Bad
The guy with the Big Hair

“I can sell you this handy device
With accompanying extras
If you take advantage right now…!”
That familiar hum of gangsta
The power broker
The guy wearing the suit
The thing about demons
They are nourished by our weakness
Our worst qualities
Our fears and angers
Our arrogance our guilt
They steal it from our veins

I believe in heroes
And stories of heroes
When we are lost
Uncertain and facing death
Honestly
They teach me not to panic

The stories help us to navigate
Unless they swallow us
They grow ever larger
The library of earth is always expanding
The record of our existence and imagination
Stored in narratives

We are always on the brink
Of life and death
Of miracles
When we can step back
We see the patterns
And the path

The city is a refuge
Galleries museums bazaars
For trading myths and memories
Separate from the real art of the world
Those inarticulate hearts
Of everyday pursuit

Who is this
What is my purpose
Am I just a ghost
Passing by in site seeing buses
Wandering the narrow streets
Filing through the Plaza

I pass you everyday
I don’t even see you
Whispering all around me
Like whiffs of shadow
Your reality
Only parallel to mine

To you I’m like the ghosts of soldiers
Looking down over the divine city
From the old hill fort
On the bluffs
Constructed out of mud
Now dissolved into mounds of sand

We wonder about Chaco
The ancient villages
The multistoried structures
The trails from everywhere
The total abandonment
What if it were a retirement community

The Spanish overwhelmed the pueblos
Until the villages rose up
A compromise was reached
Leaving saints to be martyrs
Until the soldiers of a white army
Postponed all agreements

While friends are anchors
That hold us to the earth
They are shadows growing more real
Even as they drift
Into the past
Becoming memory

Real cities breed desperation
There is real madness on the streets
Eyes that beg for mercy
In the midst of plenty
Not every part can fit
But every part has purpose

Passages

From the novel, “Beloved”, by Toni Morrison:

“…Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken. He smelled skin, skin and hot blood. The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank. Stank up off the pages of the North Star, out of the mouths of witnesses, etched in crooked handwriting in letters delivered by hand. Detailed in documents and petitions full of whereas and presented to any legal body who’d read it, it stank. But none of that had worn out his marrow. None of that. It was the ribbon. Tying his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it the best he could, he caught sight of something red on the bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp. He untied the ribbon and put it in his pocket, dropped the curl in the weeds. On the way home, he stopped, short of breath and dizzy. He waited until the spell passed before continuing on his way. A moment later, his breath left him again. This time he sat down by a fence. Rested, he got to his feet, but before he took a step he turned to look back down the road he was traveling and said, to its frozen mud and the river beyond, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?”

“…he believed the undecipherable language clamoring around the house was the mumbling of the black and angry dead. Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You need two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through, and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.”

Reading these lines from the remarkable novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, brought me in touch with the underlying emotions that arise from America’s shadow and have dominated our political debates for as long as I’ve been alive. I wonder sometimes whether we as a nation will ever gain the courage to deal with the echoes resounding from centuries of suffering inflicted on our fellow human beings in the name of wealth and capital. Instead of recompense and reparations we continue to pursue the panaceas of punishment, repression, racism and blaming others for the crimes we’ve committed in the quest for an American dream. Slavery is the crime that largely built our economy during a time when cotton was the most valuable trade currency in the world. It’s the crime for which we refuse to face atonement because it threatens an economy built on the backs of the poor and the disadvantaged. Our feelings of guilt get us nowhere, because we end up projecting our guilt on those whom we’ve victimized, leading to even more injustice and more cruelty. We tell ourselves that those on the bottom of the social and economic ladder somehow deserve to be there. When they protest their position we find someone even more marginalized to point the finger at. Unfortunately, self-rightousness and bigotry continues to be one of the most familiar political tools in our national discourse. Yet, everything is tied together in the body politic, and it’s the original sin of bigotry and violence that obstructs our view of a future shaped from well-being and harmony. It may be that only the passing of generations will lead to healing the wounds that sow the spectacle of distrust and chaos that we witness on our streets, in our prisons and in the halls of “justice”. The only way out of our mess is the path of self-knowledge and compassion. We must ultimately own our mistakes and only then can we forgive ourselves and others before moving on to deal with their consequences.

Lastly, also from “Beloved”, a passage about love.

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”