Endless Grief

Leonard Cohen - Montreal
Leonard Cohen – Montreal

Endless Grief

Grief is an ocean. It comes to us in waves, every wave possessing a different character and momentum. This is an ocean we all live in from the moment of our birth. The grief of a child is easy to see; in growing up we learn to hide our grief beneath an endless variety of disguises. We weep, we are depressed, we stare at the walls or create art. Some of us learn to project our grief on others in the form of hatred and prejudice. Some of us seek redemption through power and influence. Some become saints and some become monsters.

We’re often told that we can ‘get through it,’ and once we manage to do so the grief will no longer dominate our lives.

I can locate two points in my life where the waves peaked. I was torn between total numbing withdrawal and the painful and cathartic release of the deepest pain. My freedom from the struggle came in the act of unrestrained weeping. Both events were in response to the loss of someone very close and dear to me, one was mostly due to my own regrettable choices and one was a suicide.

This past year I spent mostly in bed or on the couch fighting the onset of cancer (if ‘fighting’ is the proper word). My main occupation, besides taking drugs for sleep and pain, finding new ways to eat, and showing up for chemo, was reading esoteric fiction and Doctor Strange comic books going back to the early sixties. I watched old Star Trek episodes on Netflix and made cannabis tea. My strategy in dealing with the loss of function was partly nostalgic and partly a form of pure escape. It stifled the sense of passing time that was leading me toward some mysterious ending.

I was given a reprieve. Time returned me from a state of suspended possibilities, bringing me new opportunities for choices and a chance to reflect upon my interrupted journey. Release from work and the need to meet schedules set by others put me on a bridge between regret and hopefulness. I’d survived for now but had lost a degree of functionality. It left me with no certainty about where I was headed or where I wanted to land.

It left me reeling between feelings of almost absolute freedom and a deep conviction of failure and incompetence. When I finally arose from my time upon the couch, I faced an altered world. The peak of the worldwide pandemic coincided with the height of my own illness. Everything was changed. The undercurrents of grief and anger had risen to the surface. Everyone appeared to be traumatized in some way. Businesses were closed; streets were full of the homeless and hospitals full of the dying. Nearly everyone now is masked in public, while hidden emotions and collective resentments force their way toward the surface. Politics have split the nation into warring factions, to a degree that the basis of trust that makes a functioning society possible is seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, frayed.

Grief appears to be everywhere.

In spite of all of this I forced myself to climb out of the hole of indecision and aimlessness that had ruled my existence through a year of trauma. I resumed the discipline of sitting every morning in meditation, observing my mind in a mirror. I witnessed the ghosts and demons of repetitive patterns that carry me through both hope and despair. Gradually my life regained a sense of direction and purpose that informed my daily routine of waking, sitting, reading, listening to podcasts while making breakfast, then making the time to write or to practice photography. A feeling of freedom began to ascend over thoughts of self-hatred and despair.

In the ocean in which we swim only change is certain.

A couple of weeks ago I opened a series of doorways into computer hell. I automatically upgraded my computer to the latest operating system software without thinking very much about it. After the upgrade the application in which I did the organizing, processing and printing of my photographs simply ceased to function. Nothing I tried solved the problem. No help was available from either the software provider or the computer maker. The advice of these massive corporations was to wait a month or two until they managed to coordinate with one another.

My forward motion was brought fully to a halt as I spent many hours desperately seeking help online. Instructions provided by people having similar problems not only didn’t work, but their results forced me to take the whole mess to a professional technician. He first encountered the same problems I did, but eventually a workaround was found that not only cost me a lot of cash, but also led to the irrecoverable loss of a good chunk of historical data.

I found myself once again floundering in the waves. I felt incompetent and helpless, angry and depressed in turn. I couldn’t find the inspiration to write while obsessing on the problem. My feelings began to bleed into my relationship with the world of other people. Friends who could see my distress offered well-meaning advice, and the advice was angrily rejected. I felt that I was on my own, that there was no help to be had, that every choice I made led to worse problems. My anger was petty and mean and an expression of accumulated grief for the loss of relationships, the community of work, my bodily functions, and as much as anything the loss of the world I’d grown accustomed to living in.

I’m now in recovery mode, sorting through this relatively minor wreckage, and yet I feel some kinship with those who experience the aftermath of flooding, fires, earthquakes and economic collapse and have to rebuild their lives from the ground up. Although small in comparison, my problems evoke reactions based on far more than the event in itself. I carry with me the sense of everything I’ve personally lost and gained, as well as the victories and losses experienced by people all around me.

In the West we worship our individuality as if it were a Holy Grail, but it’s mostly a fiction. As much as we isolate ourselves and our feelings from others, we are inescapably social beings who share together both joy and pain, immersed in the currents that surround us.

Here I stew alone in my ‘laboratory’, surrounded by computers, camera, iPhone and streaming television, struggling to find my own voice through all of this. The place is small, two rooms with a kitchen alcove and a tiny bathroom. Every move in the past decade has seen me downsizing, sorting through every object that has a story, deciding which to let go. There’s little room in here to live in the past, so I’m forced to live somewhat ruthlessly in the present. Although I stay up on the affairs of my country and of the world, I’m growing more of a protective shell to separate my feelings from the emotional maelstroms provoked by our collective struggles. I often fail. The struggles continue and will never end, but their weight is never mine to carry alone.

Loss is a given, grief is forever, and I swim in the same ocean as all of you. We can’t stop the storms that are coming, but maybe we can learn to swim with the tides.

Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

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.

At Work

At Work

Put yourself in a box,
a tin can,
an official one.

Make lists.
Count inventory.
Walk the aisles,
dreaming art and poetry
only at night
and on weekends.

Watch the light
going out.

Take notes
with a short pencil
on a yellow pad:
“This is where I left my mind,
in this particular section
of this particular warehouse
before it was sold
and eaten.”

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

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

“…my only regret is that I stomped too softly on the bastards.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

So, what did I do on Inauguration Day? Well, I  spent the day at work. My only link to what was going on was an occasional scan of Twitter on my iPhone during breaks and the sounds coming off a YouTube feed on the receiving guy’s computer.

The best moment was just as I was getting out of my car in the morning and the NPR reporter started talking about an “escalation” in the protests involving hordes of black clad demonstrators running down the street breaking windows with hammers and overwhelming the cops who they outnumbered at the time. It brought me back to my own younger days when we trashed the streets of Washington and outran the tear gas from the National Guard as they gathered to take back the city one traffic circle at a time. That was during the bombing of Cambodia. This one is about the inauguration of a human being to be president whom I find so repulsive that I can’t even bear to watch him on tv.

I understand that this sense of angst is more personal than political, harking back to the days of my youth when I had to deal with bullies in my neighborhood and at school. Still, the prospect that I’ll have to reckon with the fact that this abominable fool is pretending to be my ‘leader’ for the next four years is enough to allow me plenty of space to indulge.

Near the end of the day as I searched for more news of the demonstrators and their fates I got caught up instead in a long series of letters from Hunter S. Thompson printed in the Paris Review. This was exactly the therapy I needed in this bizarre space where more than half of America stumbles along in a mind numbing trance struggling to make sense of the insane turn the nation has taken and wondering, “What to do next?”

Ah Hunter, we could certainly use your unvarnished take on our failing dream these days. The closest we can get is Keith Olbermann, another former sports reporter like yourself, who comes from that parallel universe of hyperbole that only sports fans can comprehend, but that so keenly lends itself to political commentary. But Keith lacks your style of genius that rides the fine edge between the serious and the surreal.

But just to read your voice once again in these times we are in somehow reassures me that resistance is possible even in the worst of times. So, I think I’ll pass this on.

“Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie and whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get – and they will. Bet on it.” 

Paris Review – Fear and Loathing in America from The Paris Review’s Tweet

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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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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

To receive Arclist mailings reply to melcher@nets.com with the word SUBSCRIBE in the Subject.

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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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You can’t stop the signal.
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The Lost Art of Ecstasy

I was recently sent a link to an article in the New Yorker reporting on the most recent results of research into the use of psychedelics for treating the anxiety of cancer patients. This led me to a longer and much more in depth article written last year by one of my favorite writers on food, in this case food for spiritual nourishment. As in all of Pollan’s work, his investigation goes to great depths and approaches the subject from many angles, alternating history with personal anecdotes to deliver an encompassing view of the possibilities.
For those of us who grew up in the sixties, and embarked on many of these same explorations on our own, without supervision or scientific rigor, these efforts to understand may appear absurdly restrictive. At the same time, they are very familiar. Although the Michael Pollan article is pretty long it’s worth a read, particularly for those facing problems of addiction or depression, the loss of loved ones or the prospect of impending sickness or death, or anyone interested in possibilities at the frontiers of therapy and science.
Finally I include a link to a video that offers a look into the face of a person encountering the ecstasy of release and freedom. There was a time when this look was not so uncommon in the people we found around us.
May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all find freedom.
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
The Ecstatic Version:

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

To receive Arclist mailings reply to melcher@nets.com with the word SUBSCRIBE in the Subject.

Feel free to pass this on or post on Facebook (or wherever) by copying the following link.

http://arclist.org/

Other sites of interest:

www.photoarc.us

www.gabrielmelcher.com