Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blood Atonement, Made Simple

To explain the Christian concept of blood atonement adequately would require more time than I'm willing to free up to get into, not today anyway, but this morning the thought of it came up as I was thinking about, of all things, V8, the 100% juice drink.  Actually, I was probably on an unconscious level thinking about the HBO series True Blood, whose third season just came out on Blu Ray, which I have been chomping at the bit to have as part of my extensive collection of films featuring shirtless guys.  And I do not doubt that vampire lore has a not too subtle connection to Christian theology, a link which may be freely investigated post-1975, back when Anne Rice finally put to rest the notion of vampires' not liking crosses--more specifically, crucifixes, with their shirtless and very buff Jesuses.

Anyway, here goes.  First, the basics.  Blood atonement is Christians' attempt to explain why their god not just chose but also needed to sacrifice his only begotten son to wash away the sins of the world.  Blood is necessary because their god's sense of justice is so high.  Only most Christians are quick to add that, unlike Genesis 1:1 and so on, we must not take the word "world" (John 1:29) too literally because apparently the atonement works only for those who believe what various parcels of Christians insist that we all believe, exactly as they do.  And, of course, we have to forget the painful logic that an all-sovereign, all-sufficient, and all-powerful god would probably not "need" to do anything he didn't already intend to do from the beginning--well, from before the beginning, to torture logic and language further.

The atonement is evident even in the Old Testament, say the Christians.  It involves the sacrifice of something that bleeds--so, even in Moses' first book, God favors Abel's sacrifice of a lamb over Cain's vegan offering.  More importantly, the thing that bleeds must be innocent and without blemish.  To sacrifice something that by all ethical standards should not be put to death--the innocent--is precisely what the Judeo-Christian god demands as fulfillment of his sense of justice--a sense of justice well beyond our small human minds' ability to understand.  Clueless mortals that we are, we tend to think of an innocent as precisely the one we would not want to kill--or have killed for our satisfaction.

At one point, evidently, children were a satisfactory option because, I assume, they had not yet lived long enough to be corrupted.  (Christians vary on the point--often within themselves--of children's innocence:  they are born into sin, which is why it's okay to scare the hell out of one's children to turn them towards the paths of righteousness, and they are born into sinless innocence, which is why it's not okay to let them watch R-rated movies.  Nobody's very good at explaining the contradiction.)  Of course we all know (or should know) that it's the pagan god Moloch who demanded the sacrifice of children--not the god of the Hebrews and later of the Christians.  Moloch got a lot of bad press in the books of Leviticus, Second Kings, and Jeremiah, long before Allen Ginsberg singled him out as the god of the military-industrial complex.  

However, if Moloch is the bad guy, explain this.  It is Abraham's god who suggests to the "father of faith" that he should deliver up his son Isaac on an altar.  See Genesis 22.  As we're all told in Sunday school, this is just a "test" of Abraham's faith--but it's worth paying attention to the fact that Abraham neither balks nor regards the command as unusual--and this is only four chapters after Abraham begs till the cows come home to save the citizens of Sodom for the sake of ten or so righteous men.  But about his own son, he doesn't say a peep.  Had Abraham lacked faith when he pleaded for the lives in Sodom?  Or was a son--specifically his favorite son, born of his and Sarah's old age--somehow less worth pleading for?

Ultimately, even the sacrifice of harmless innocents is not enough to satisfy this god's idea of perfect justice.  The sacrifice must be human and entirely without sin--i.e. morally perfect--and as much god as man.  This ideal and completely good man must die.  Christ!  He must not die like Socrates, drinking poison from a cup, and he cannot simply die of old age.  He must die a brutal and bloody death--of the sort only the cinema of Mel Gibson can do justice to.  If he dies--in just such a vicious and comfortless way--with his god and father's back turned on him the whole time--then the rest of us can have everlasting life and go to heaven after we shed this mortal body (still dying, as it turns out, no getting around that).  

Well, some of us can have everlasting life--about 3% of the whole human population, according to some estimates, perhaps as few as 144,000, indeed a small "world."  Very small.  Hardly enough, it would seem to me, to warrant the death--and such a grisly death!--of a perfectly innocent god-slash-man.  But, then, the Christian god is a good god, not one of the cheap phonies the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Indians cobbled together out of their studies of nature.  The Christian god won't hesitate to sacrifice his only begotten son--born miraculously without regard to rules of nature and norms of sexual partnership (keep in mind that Mary was purportedly about 15 years old in 0 B.C., which would constitute an age difference in Jesus's supposed parents of upwards of 13.75 billion years--Mary Kay Letourneau, eat your heart out!)--and for all the god's trouble, and it was reportedly the best he could do, we have fewer people going to heaven than presently living in poverty (~80%), the famously "blessed" poor (no numbers yet on the "meek").

So whether there's a god or no god, I cannot pretend to be an authority.  But if the Christian god is the one and only--and if he is exactly as described by professed Christians (about 33% of the world population--perhaps 11 times the number actually "atoned")--and if this god is loving, holy, good, all-powerful, all-knowing, never-changing, though not exactly punctual (ouch, Harold Camping!)--I strongly suspect the atonement would not meet even FDA standards of efficacy--much less be all that impressive to me.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

End Times

It must be a sad, gray Sunday morning at Harold Camping's house.  Camping, of course, is the 89-year-old California false prophet and cofounder of Family Radio who predicted that Jesus was coming again yesterday--and that those who had been faithful to God would be scooped up into the clouds to meet the lord halfway.  I take hardly any pleasure in the wrongness of his calculations, more than anything because I was hoping the seven years of tribulation predicted in the Books of Daniel and Tim LaHaye would be slow to kick in and we'd enjoy one or two weekends free of Christians, real ones anyway--and, I'm sorry to have to say it, folks, I sincerely do love some of you guys, but you do tend to be wet blankets (and that's when you're not being utter assholes).  And except for the terror that must have filled the hearts of trusting children for the last few months and the credit-card-bingeing of some of the shopaholic faithful, it was a harmless enough prank--old fart gets his last hurrah in before he dies, an HBO movie gets made starring Ed Asner or Don Murray, watching it we all get a few more laughs out of our system, and the delusional fool is duly forgotten before another dozen years pass (as new spokesmen for Jesus draw new crowds, who think this sort of thing has never been said before).  Supposedly, according to Reuters, nobody was answering the door at the Camping home yesterday.  No wonder.

Sure I made one or two snide comments, but, on the whole, I avoided jumping on the bandwagon of those who reviled Camping and his followers.  Not because I was holding out "just in case" their prophecies were correct.  Rather, because it's too easy to laugh at the gullibility of others.  Who are we to point fingers?  We live in an age of harebrained beliefs--bomb shelters and "duck and cover," trickle-down economics, Y2K, President Bush's sixteen words--or that Brokeback Mountain would sweep the Oscars.  And the sky has been set to fall so many times already that our Chicken Littles now find gainful employment as talk show hosts and political commentators.  In an era of mass communications, mass hysteria has become pretty ho-hum.  Even when there are some shreds of evidence for some cataclysm--climate change or "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--we prefer to fully experience our emotions over these revelations than to actually try to find out the facts and do something about them.

Back in my churchgoing days, my bible-believing and soul-winning days, the church I attended would not have necessarily believed his prophecies, but Camping would have been welcome as a special speaker--or someone else attempting to explain Camping's "theories" to us.  We did, for example, get to hear Tim LaHaye speak, back in the days before he realized his stories would be even more salable as unconcealed fictions.  We had a lot of special speakers who'd drop by, like Chautaqua educators explaining the latest archeological dig or scientific finding--only ours never spoke of science, except disparagingly, as an ungodly false faith.  The word "knowledge" was highly regarded in our circles, not so much its essence.  Feelings were our preferred currency.  We did get to see and hear the guy who drove the getaway car for Bonnie and Clyde (who'd found Jesus, only to face a diminishment of his life's interestingness, as a result) and the guy who played Eb on TV's Green Acres (whose interest factor was, for most of us, the allure of his being both redeemed and hobnobbing with the worldly likes of Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor).  

When we had speakers who predicted end-times events with more particularity--we had learned, for instance, that Henry Kissinger is the Antichrist (more farfetched back then than it is now, in retrospect)--our pastor would politicly say, when questioned, that he both agreed and disagreed.  That is, the prediction seemed "likely"; however, he himself did not think the details were important.  It was more important that we all live in anticipation (fear and dreamy hopefulness combined) that Jesus would return at any minute--in the twinkling of an eye, less than a scientifically probable pinpoint.  Like Jesus and the apostle Paul, our preacher believed that the end times would be in our lifetime--but he was never so foolish (like Camping) to actually put a number on it--or money.

Frankly, I prefer Camping's approach.  Foolhardy--but better foolhardy, than merely fool.  There's some backbone to being hardy that I have to respect.  Still the man was a fool, no doubt about that.  As were those who believed him.  As were those who thought they were better than those who not just believed but (the truly hinky part) did so robustly.  I'm of the camp that thinks it's better to believe nothing than to believe bullshit.  However, there's a great danger in putting all knowledge, all beliefs, all opinions, all statements of fact in the same basket--like those who say, "Let's just agree to disagree," or "You've got your facts and I've got mine," or "Nothing is worth arguing over"--fools like that, the biggest fools of all.

Sunday Beefcake

Friday, May 20, 2011

God Gave Me This Message for You

Though he may be saving the gift of heaven for special people like you, he gave rights to every human being.  His perfect will for you, for all of us, is, at the very least, to keep hands off the souls of others--which partly consist of their autonomy as people possessing free will and the capacity for reason and love.  It also includes their physical lives and well-being--and their right to pursue happiness so long as doing so does no real harm to others.

Zeal is understandable, times being what they are--especially so, the more furious your concept of God happens to be.  But think hard--where might Jesus hanging on the cross for the sins of the world stand on the issue of church leaders and religious groups opposing legal protection for children and young people whom others perceive as gay, lesbian, or whatever, regardless of whether they are or not?  How might he, who took the sins of the world on himself so as not to put the blame on anyone else, look at his would-be followers blaming every earthquake, hurricane, and economic downturn on a group of people his followers happen to revile (or rather, as you might say, whose sins you revile, not the sinners)?

He knows you hate it when other people think that perhaps you act and look the way you do because you are a self-loathing homosexual.  So imagine how you would feel if people bullied you or your children because of this idea that somehow got put in their heads--and how would you feel, inside, if you heard others who claim to love God objecting--with some vehemence--to the idea that anyone might want to do anything to stop that bullying.  What if the time came when simply badmouthing gays and lesbians all the time no longer convinced others that you yourself are not a child of Sodom?

He also wanted me to tell you that while you're doing a pretty good job at resisting the temptation to engage in homosexual practices--though you might do a better job of it when you think nobody is looking too--he wants you to obey the WHOLE revealed truth--which means you probably ought to stop eating pork and shrimp, gossiping, and working and shopping on Saturdays--and, if you're really serious about this (it's your choice so I won't push it), you need to give away all your possessions, leave your families, and follow him only.

That's quite a lot to ask, I know.  I couldn't do it, but then I don't claim to be one of God's people.  Possessions and families are nice and hard to resist (but then so are the other pleasures of the flesh).  I suppose it's a lot easier to oppose the gay agenda (which is, basically, to protect everyone's God-given rights, including yours) than to actually follow all the commands God mentions in the scriptures.  Whew, there are a lot of them, aren't there?  By the way, not one of them is to boycott gay-friendly businesses or petition for legal injunctions against homosexuality or the miserable sinners (and here we're all in the same boat, aren't we?) who practice it.  (Some, I hear, not only practice it, but have gotten pretty good at it too.)

God doesn't talk to me a lot, but he did press upon me the importance of urging you to clean up your own life, seek goodness and holiness in private (and stop praying in public--he hates it--Matt. 6.5), and leave other people in peace.  Much better that the godless look upon God's followers as people who make the world a better place for everyone--or at least no worse--than as a bunch of meddlers whose own gnawing sense of guilt triggers the persecution of those who have never met you, much less done anything to hurt you.  

If Jesus wants you to turn the cheek when others hit you, imagine how he wants you to behave towards those who have done nothing whatsoever against you, who would be just happy enough if you were to mind your own business and leave them in peace--perhaps to find God and God's will for themselves in their (and God's) own sweet time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Beefcake

Richard Lima via Hunk du Jour.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last 200 Years

If you have seen Robert Altman's film Nashville (1975) and did not like it, do not (do not) tell me about it.  I have ended more friendships with people over this movie than I have over politics, religion, or pets.  Some friendships survive as mere shells of what they might have been had I never known the person's cinematic tastes.  I can think of only one strong friendship that outlasted a difference of opinion over this movie--and, as much as I would like to say I mostly respect this friend for her honesty with me over what she knew was a sensitive subject (I do, I do in a way), I have to admit that, deep down, something was lost that night long ago.  If you do not think Nashville is a good movie--let's not even mention its greatness--and you tell me so, then at the very least, the most minimal repercussion will be that I will never give a rat's ass what you do consider a good movie.

I do not relish being a petty man.  I feel reduced by my extreme allegiance to what's just, let's face it, a movie.  I am even surprised at myself--even now, 36 years into my fandom--when I feel a person's rejection of this movie as if it were a knife wound.  I'm not saying I am right to feel this way.  I'm not saying it makes sense by any standards of decency or good taste.  I'm just saying what happens--and let me say that no reason or excuse ("I respect country music," "The ending's too pat," "The humor seems stale and the timing is off") mitigates the sickening coldness I feel (personally!) at such a rejection.

I must have seen this movie fifty times or more in my life.  The first time I saw it was a matinee in Miami with my old friend Luis, who had the good sense to love it nearly as much as I.  It was a sweltering day, so we went inside even before the previous showing was over--thus we saw the "surprise ending," seconds after the screen-filling image of the American flag, as seen above, before sitting through the showing we'd paid for, as rapt as if we didn't know what was about to happen.  The truth is we didn't.  Plot and story arcs are not what the movie is about--and this many years later I still can't tell you what it's about--not with authority.  Mind you, I can say a lot about this movie, but nothing--no one thing and no combination of things--entirely explains for me what the movie does for me.  After the initial viewing, I came back the same evening and bought another ticket and watched it again.  I must have have seen Nashville ten times in theaters in 1975.

I bought the two-tape VHS version when it came out, and the only reason I ever bought a DVD player was that I'd read that a digital Nashville was soon to be released.  Over the past ten years, I have thought perhaps my ardor for the film has waned.  I have let as much as two years lapse between viewings, thinking, based on memory, that the cinematography is not good, the acting styles clash, there are continuity errors (I have seen the movie enough times to notice them all), so maybe I've been overreacting to what is, let's say, just a very "interesting" movie in a certain style that had its moment back in the 1970s.  Admittedly, a good part of it is I'm spooked by my fervor for this movie.  I no longer recommend it to anybody.  One of my worst moments in teaching was when, in a History of Film class at Savannah College of Art and Design, I tried to show and analyze the film, and some kid in the back row--whom I never liked anyway--said, "So this is supposed to be a great movie?"

Ouch.  It still smarts to remember that.

This weekend I found the way to manually control brightness and contrast on my widescreen TV and Blu Ray player to optimize the comparably slipshod (dark and murky in spots) disk Paramount released in 2000, and I watched Nashville again after the longest hiatus yet.  I was awestruck all over.  Tears come to my eyes--not because it's sentimental (it's not) or sad (it has its sad parts)--but because I am struck (still!) by the sublimity of this movie.  I think it was Pauline Kael (who loved the movie and spurred its good reputation among critics and cineastes--a reputation I knew nothing about until well after my first experience of it) who said that once you've seen a movie three or more times, it's not the movie doing the trick for you--it's something inside you that's rising up independent of the movie.  Be that as it may, the movie does something to me I cannot sum up in words.

Sure, it elicits memories of Luis and of my being twenty-two.  That's part of its appeal for me, certainly.  Its portrayal of a reality I knew--particularly the "Amazing Grace" number in a Southern mega-church, just like the one I belonged to--impressed me deeply--and triggered a long process in me that eventually led to liberating advancements in my life philosophy.  Its symphonic drawing together of disparate motifs--women, guns, politics, celebrity, automobiles, religion, the seldom-mentioned American class system, music, regional stereotypes, grace, sex, racism, the mass media, money--still amazes me.  The many acting styles on exhibit--Henry Gibson, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, Keenan Wynn, Julie Christie, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely, Timothy Brown, Allen Garfield, Robert DoQui, Geraldine Chaplin, Barbara Harris, Shelley Duvall, Scott Glenn, Barbara Baxley, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Murphy, Dave Peel, Bert Remsen, Gwen Welles, Cristina Raines, David Arkin--from the comic to the tragic, from the hammy to the deadpan--all blended as a kind of Boschian preamble to America's overhyped bicentennial (right after Watergate, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the first clear signs since the 1930s that the American economy was near collapse).

I have read the books about this movie and enjoyed them, but none of them explained how this movie has come to fascinate me every time I see it.  I saw Star Wars twice.  I saw E.T. just once.  I didn't get Titanic.  I couldn't sit through the first Lord of the Rings movie in its entirety even once.  I'm not prone to enthusiasm, but Nashville gets under my skin--and though it's snarky, misanthropic, and anything but "feel-good," it elates me every time I see it.  It changed my life--and it seems to change it all over again every single time I watch it.

Friday, May 13, 2011


For some people Jacques Tati's PlayTime (1967) is a huge disappointment.  (A famous commercial failure, it bankrupted Tati, costing him his house and even the rights to his own films.)  For other people it's their favorite film.  The confusion is (and always been) how are we supposed to watch it?  As Roger Ebert points out, in many shots you don't know what you're supposed to be seeing.  And the movie--almost free of dialogue, and what little there is muffled in favor of naturalistic sound effects--is designed to dumbfound its audience--and perhaps awaken it to deeper perceptions of the modern world?  Who knows.  Perhaps it's only a throwback to the elaborate sight gags of the silent era--back when, before sound, it didn't matter to audiences whether a movie was French or English.

You have to expect the unexpected--and accept that the film is going to catch you with your guard down.  What appears for quite a long time to be a hospital turns out to be an airport terminal.  Characters--ostensibly principal characters--are introduced in the background of crowd scenes--and ultimately disappear back into the masses--without a trace--or, to be accurate, with a faint trace if, in previous scenes, their actions (and humanity) warrant it.  A movie that is at least partly about the city of Paris, PlayTime (the most expensive movie made in France at the time of its release) was shot on a gigantic set outside Paris--all the more remarkable because the "set" includes an airport, several city streets, a huge exposition of some sort, and a climactic, carousel-like traffic circle.  The only glimpses of Paris landmarks--the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe--are reflections in large plate glass store windows and glass doors.  Watching the film for the first time is all the more difficult on TV, instead of a giant wide screen, for which it was designed. 

At the time of its release, Tati helpfully explained that the movie is meant to be a movie from another planet, where movies are made differently.  In the intro to the Criterion Collection DVD of the film, Terry Jones points out that the film is constantly teasing its audience with "false Hulots" (M. Hulot being Tati's trademark character in his more commercially successful films, Mr. Hulot's Holiday and My Uncle)--lookalikes dressed in trenchcoats and hats and carrying pipes and umbrellas--of different nationalities and races--so our eye is tricked into looking places that other movies try to draw our attention away from--for instance, backgrounds and the left side of the frame.  It's also worth noting that buildings, no less than people, are the "characters" in this film--but you'd have to see the film to fully understand how that might work.

Jones also notes that, if My Uncle depicts the destruction of the old France (world) and its replacement by a modern one, in PlayTime the old world has already been demolished.  The question the movie puts forth, though, is what kind of humanity (in all the word's shades of meaning) inhabits the new world?  Interestingly, unlike Kubrick's 2001, where human characters are less "human" than the machines, PlayTime shows the human spirit very much alive--in its curiosity about the world, its ability to make the best of hard and confusing times, and, mostly, its ability to draw people together--to connect--despite a sterile, colorless, and alienating environment created by no doubt well-meaning architects.

To enjoy PlayTime, which runs just over two hours (a bit long for comedy), you have to appreciate its ambitious comic choreography.  You have to let go of characterization and plot, as inappropriate to the film's spirit, at least--perhaps tellingly as inappropriate to modernity, as well.  Ebert notes--and I think he is right--that the only way to prepare yourself for watching PlayTime is to already have watched it at least once before--not too many movies you can say that of.  Several bloggers and commenters I've read, who discuss the movie, say pretty much the same thing--that they were unimpressed and frustrated by the movie on first viewing, but enchanted by it when, for whatever reasons, they saw it again (and again).

Watching the movie on DVD this afternoon, I felt the movie's depiction of huge glass-encased offices, where everything can be seen but little can be understood, and tiny cubicles that splice and dice living space was not just reflective of Tati's dismay at the boxy architecture of the late twentieth century but predictive too of the twenty-first century's virtual environments.  Moving from the movie to Facebook and then to my Blogger home page, with their clean lines and Apple-inspired sense of style, was, for me, a jarring and illuminating experience.

Dog (A Review)

My dog seems to know I like to be gazed at, as I know he likes to be touched.  His intense attentiveness gets rewarded with a touch, and every time I reach over to touch (especially) the top of his head, he gazes into my eyes with the ardor of a moony lover.

I do not think the dog is surprisingly smart or well behaved (though, I think, he is a little ahead of the curve in intelligence and sociability).  He has been around me for fourteen and a half years, so perhaps he knows me better than anybody else ever has.  That's not to say he understands me (or I understand him).

I feel guilty about not spending more time with him when I am working--or traveling.  Like all dogs, he is a pack animal, and our relationship, whatever to call it, is just a substitute for having a pack to belong to.  And whatever fondness he feels for me, the truth is that he never chose me.  He may love me, if that's the appropriate word, but he did not decide at age eight weeks to spend the rest of his life with me.  And he stays with me because I am what he knows--not that he has options.  (On the other hand, in the wild, he would have no choice of packs either.  He would take and accept what is available to him.)

I credit him with a lot of moral goodness, even wisdom.  Right now I admire his contentedness with things as they are.  Maybe he lacks the mental resources to imagine things being different--but, then, he does dream, and his dreams do appear to concern things that are not actually happening, so I can't say.  His ability to live in the moment seems untainted by a desire to understand--mere knowledge and familiarity seem to be enough for him.

The past, for instance.  Do dogs have anything resembling nostalgia?  They seem to grieve when something or someone is taken away from them, but couldn't that be more a knowledge of what is NOT, as opposed to a fond consideration of what used to be?  They remember things, but do they have regrets?  I am almost certain that they do not--even though they whimper and cower sometimes when they sense their human companions' displeasure--or when they know, without our knowing anything, that things are not as they usually are.  They seem to know (as well as any of us know) things that have happened in the past, but perhaps they do not pine for or repent of them.  Their histories, to the extent that they have any narrative capacity, seem to merely contain all that has put them where they are today.  They are apparently as unconscious of free will as they are of fate.

But if he is anything, my dog is a realist.  He knows and accepts things as they are.  If he has ideals, I cannot comprehend them.  What he values is what he is used to--but he is easily adaptable to changes (within boundaries--he seems to accept change only insomuch as it involves a carry-over of a good many things he's familiar with: me, a toy, his bed--and I or somebody like me--a human provider--seems to be the irreducible good for his sense of well-being).

But what I love about my dog most is how mysterious his mind seems to me.  Knowable, to a certain extent, but incomprehensible.  What does he think of music?  Not much, apparently.  And he seems neither amused nor alarmed when I get up on my feet and dance to something I like.  (Is it just that he has better tastes than I do?)  And this morning, after looking lethargic all morning--and having earlier agreed to an only perfunctory walk to relieve himself--though the morning was shining and beautiful--after defining the words "hang dog" all morning, he came running to me with his toy in his mouth.  He wanted to play--out of nowhere this urge to amuse himself and me--and so, careful not to let him hurt himself, I tussled with him for a bit with his toy.  It took only a minute or so to reach the game's end, but I was so touched by the spurt of life energy in him that tears came to my eyes.  It was the happiest I have been all week.  That minute was better than all of Thor in 3-D.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Impure Thoughts

My current reading in Montaigne has pegged me as a Pyrrhonian skeptic with leanings, like Montaigne, toward Epicureanism, with a woodsy aroma of Stoicism.  A Pyrrhonian skeptic is one who doubts everything--even doubting whether he truly doubts.  The Epicurean and Stoic biases keep me rooted in reality--both Greco-Roman philosophies are rooted in atomism and philosophical materialism.  In particular, the teachings of Epicurus (which, yes, I have read--but it has been a while) account for my tendency to savor things--sensations stirred by texture, weight, density, vast spaces, and vibrant color especially--as part of my mindfulness of the surrounding world.  But, typically of skeptics, I live in my head a lot.

I forget what I read.  I forget what I know.  I forget the bases of my own opinions.  I am inconsistent--and relish contradictions (like Whitman, "I am large.  I contain multitudes").  The advantage of such a mindset is that I am open to change, that I am constantly examining my reality and updating my judgments on it.  I am not nostalgic, and I am not hidebound.  I have been teaching college English for thirty years or so, and I have revamped my syllabus every semester.  I don't teach off twenty-year-old notes.  I don't even teach off one-year-old notes.  My opinions and impressions change even as I am in the process of teaching--especially then.  My mindset also makes me appear to be forgiving--I'm not--because I often forget (and often fail to deeply feel) others' wrongdoings.  

The obvious disadvantage of such a mindset is that you can't take anything I say to the bank.  I certainly don't.  As I am with money, I am with impressions and affections and moods--easy come, easy go.  I am not so much the proverbial commitment-phobe, as one whose commitments are scant and somewhat volatile.  That is, I'm not so much afraid of commitments as immune to their (no doubt many) charms.  They are intense ... while they last.  I have loved a good many people in my life--many of them for long periods of time (in fact, I can think of no one I have ever loved that I can't easily imagine loving again, under the right circumstances)--yet even one-night stands have received the full fervor of my love and devotion ... for one night.  Like the nineteenth-century Russian mystic Madame Swetchine, I say, "In this world of change, nothing which comes stays, and nothing which goes is lost."  I do not love unconditionally, but my conditions are fairly simple:  mainly, you can't let me forget you.

Permanence is not one of my values.  Neither is purity.  After decades of struggling for everlasting life, through faith, through the good graces of a holy god, I finally realized I didn't want it.  I probably never did want to live forever but had not realized there was an option for not wanting it.  I like my love--I love it--and, like Montaigne, I can say that, given an opportunity to live my life again, I would choose to live it exactly as I have.  Most importantly, that means once.  Unlike Montaigne, I might wish for better circumstances, but being a skeptic and an introvert, I have only rarely been deeply affected by my circumstances.

People who are pure, unchanging, certain, and consistent amaze me.  I admire them, sort of, but I would never want to be them.  I find it hard to believe that they are real.  But they have somehow made their values the values of the whole world, so that someone like me, I know, comes off as narcissistic, flighty, wishy-washy, slightly unhinged.  But I am fully hinged, perhaps too equipped with hinges to suit the world.  I've got trapdoors all over the place.  The two values I share with almost everyone else in the world are life and love.  It's just that, for me, I can't imagine either as unchanging, pure, or eternal.  An unchanging, pure, eternal "life" is just another way of saying "death," right?  If I'm wrong, please help me understand the difference.  And a love that is unconditional, indiscriminate enough to embrace everyone and everything, everlasting, and unvarying strikes me as the very definition of "indifference."

So here's where the Stoic part of me comes into play.  I do believe in duty.  There is a place in the world for indifference.  But it is a last resort--as is, by the way, justice--the insistence that everyone get what (and only what) he deserves.  Duty and justice step in where love fails.  Love steeps us in ourselves and in blissful mindfulness of our individual existence, but duty and justice make it possible for us to live in peace with others, letting them live and love as we wish to be let to live and love, freely and uniquely.  But duty and justice stand at the endpoint of love, so as important as they are to human society, to our ability to live with each other, one should carefully select the number and kinds of duties one undertakes and temper one's desire for pure and perfect justice with mercy, which is to say "laxness"--because there are glittering ideals (purity, perfection, consistency, permanence--ideals that look good enough "on paper") that may and often do kill life and love.

This is what I believe--for now--perhaps.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Against Effort

I like blogging because it requires little effort.  There are no deadlines to meet.  There is no sense that what I write is for posterity, so its flaws are forgivable.  The good and the bad alike are written in binary codes transmitted by electric currents, less substantive than writing on the sand.  Blogging is like keeping a diary or a journal, only public, with opportunities for readers to comment, object, or praise--and the freedom for me as a thinker and writer to change my mind.  I value the freedom to change my mind.  I dislike the idea of publishing a book that I would then have to beat a drum for at bookstores and on talk shows.  I dislike the idea of being haunted by something I wrote ten or twenty years earlier which I no longer believe or believe now in a different way.

I like immediacy and spontaneity.  I don't like to cram--to rush to make a great effort.  As an undergraduate I even reached the opinion that to study for exams was a form of cheating.  My reasoning was that exams exist in order to find out how much and how well a student understands the material.  To cram the night before the exam would then falsify the findings, making it appear that I understood more and better than I actually did, since almost everything I ever "learned" through cramming I forgot within days of the examination--and what would be the point of that?  I preferred (and still do prefer) to learn slowly--gathering knowledge and understanding in small increments, which I then mull over, over time.

It is perhaps for similar reasons that now as an instructor I loathe PowerPoint presentations, since slide presentations suggest that all the speaker's knowledge of and thinking on the material have been completed hours, days, weeks, months, before the speech--that perhaps the speaker really doesn't know the material at all but simply found some shit online he or she would now like to receive credit for, in show-and-tell fashion.  I realize that, for others, a sharp, snappy PowerPoint presentation suggests that the speaker is well prepared, that he or she has taken the speech seriously enough to make a "real effort."  I prefer to walk into the classroom knowing what I'm talking about, as much as possible, and continue the thinking process even as I speak before the class.  My approach may come off as more a shambles, with too many digressions, too many unanswered questions, but it strikes me as more intellectually honest--and such intellectual honesty is something I try to impart to my students--students already too prone to cheat, to plagiarize, and to cram--to aim for grades instead of understanding and skill.

I am not, of course, against every kind of effort.  But the word "effort" now suggests a kind of force--and, really, a kind of pretense.  The phrase "making an effort" has come to mean putting on a good show.  It has very little to do with substance anymore.  It has to do with dotting one's i's and crossing one's t's.  It has to do with putting on a jacket and a tie and forcing a smile to create the appearance of enthusiasm.  It has to do with filling out paperwork to prove that you are doing or have done what you might be doing for real if only it weren't for all the paperwork that needs completing.

The great ideas come when you are prepared--but usually not when you are preparing.  If you know your stuff, if you have done your research, if you have made it your life practice to think critically and creatively, the great ideas will come when you least expect them, perhaps in the middle of the night, waking you from your sleep, perhaps while you are in the middle of doing something else or, even more likely, doing nothing at all.  That last point is important.  Without leisure, there are no new ideas, no true (i.e. deep) thinking.  The deep waters must be still.  Busy-ness, a life of mindless routine and habits, procrastination and panic, time sheets to fill out, obsessiveness about keeping up appearances--all these are part of the so-called Protestant work ethic, the backbone of what passes as integrity and conscientiousness in business.  It's all "effort"--with nothing underneath to prop it up or at the end to show real accomplishment.  (Some teachers grade effort.  I don't.  I grade outcomes.  I expect students to do their best.  They often don't, usually because they have been too busy "making an effort.")

Effort may be a large part of what is supposed to work in business.  I suspect it doesn't even work there especially well.  But supposing that effort does work in business, what evidence do we have that it works in other disciplines--academics, science, politics, religion, art?

And what of "genius"?  Nobody seriously speaks of genius anymore--not in the ordinary sense it used to be spoken of, back when it was not the exclusive domain of artists and inventors with high IQs, back when it was of fundamental importance in education.  The discipline of learning, not the making of efforts.  What ever happened to the shaping of a human life, the making of genius--as opposed to the mere ornamentation of life with a long series of gold stars, trophies, resumes, promotions, and a gold watch and a tombstone?  Well, let's say the reason is perhaps that genius, in its original sense, has never been an especially "measurable" outcome.  When it comes to evaluating human beings in ledgers and accounts sheets--two columns for debits and credits--efforts are indeed much more quantifiable--you can check them off and tally them up.

But what, I ask, is the point?

Back to blogging, though.  I blog for the same reason I used to take snapshots of myself--to chronicle a life in progress and hopefully to leave something for friends and family who might genuinely want to know me better.  It's personal but also very public, community-minded.  Sure, it requires an exertion of sorts, but the blog accumulates organically, at its own pace (slowly, very slowly), with no particular claim of certainty or completion or regularity or consistency.  Perhaps in the future, in an academic setting without grades, without hoops to leap through, I will ask my students to blog--and my instruction, leisurely as always, will consist simply of prodding here and there, commenting, raising questions, and stirring the waters in such a way, I hope, as to leave the task of "settling" them in the students' hands.  

Sunday Beefcake

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Big Time Sensuality

I'm reading Montaigne now.  Today I was delighted by what he has to say--mostly by his comment, at age 53:  "I now defend myself against temperance, as I once did against sensuality."

My greatest worry about the younger generation--and it's my obligation as a 50-something to find young people worrisome in some way--is that they have very little sensuality and almost no curiosity.  They are freakishly chaste in body and mind, it would seem, just to hear them talk.  Descartes would be appalled at how blank their slates still are even at age eighteen.  They have narrowed their self-indulgence down to food--junk food mostly--and greed--I'm pretty sure they'd do just about anything (except have sex--or give up Cheez Whiz) for money.

I was a late bloomer, so I can sympathize, having been raised fairly strictly to be a good Christian and little else.  But at least I was curious--fascinated by divorcees, Catholics, Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke, and other wrong types.  I suspect a good quarter of my 17 to 25 year old freshmen would have a difficult time sitting through an episode of Glee without its causing a mild (of course "mild") panic attack, whereas at age 14, I, between devotional readings in my bible, read James Bond novels and even did an oral book report on the dirty parts of The Painted Bird (I was scolded by my teacher afterwards, but gently and humanely).  I had sex for the first time at age 14, too, with a girl my age, nobody I was interested in or would ever be interested in, it turns out, but at least I had a healthy curiosity about how things were done.

Who else today still uses the word "racy"?  Or "keen"?  Or "far-out," "snappy," "tangy," and "mind-blowing"?  Where do you find purple prose anymore?  WTF is the emoticon for "zest"?

Everything is virtual now--and digital.  I suspect smell, touch, and taste will disappear off the human nervous system entirely.  Holograms are what we'll be.

The boys drenched in British Sterling, Old Spice, and Aramis (sometimes all at once) are a distant memory (not a particularly pleasant memory, but nice in that, back then, people still luxuriated in strong and zingy smells).  

The giddy pleasure of brushing up against somebody or holding hands may have to wait till a Wall-E rediscovers it.  God help the first-grade teacher who fondles a child in her lap these days.  God help the first-grader who wants to climb a tree.

Can any of us say we actually like the taste of McDonald's burgers?--or are we just used to it, the way we grow used to pop songs we are told we will like, which are  then played everywhere so that, in time, we come to believe we do actually like them?  

The average twenty-first American has a color palette that runs the gamut from beige to bone white.  No wonder some of us are starved for color.  Perhaps the recent (and now perhaps spent) popularity of Bollywood spectacle is based on India's lavish respect for gaudy color and noise.  

Rasa (relish, passion, sensual exuberance) is both an aesthetic and a spiritual concept in Hinduism, but then look at Bosch, Rabelais, and Chaucer and see there that "carnivalesque" was once no less a part of European Christendom!  

In time we may not remember what the aura of a live human being feels like.  Emaciated, cool, perpetually safe, abstinent, bored, we will all be lightly lemon-lime scented, dry as Facebook pages, placid as cows, tasteful and blandly groomed as cemeteries and politicians--"with a hint of" real life left in us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden Dead Americans Rejoice

News of Bin Laden's death leaves me empty of feeling.  I do not rejoice.  I have no urge to chant "U-S-A."  Neither do I feel any compassion for the man.  He was a terrorist.  He was a theocrat.  He belonged to a class of wealth and privilege that I can neither understand nor admire.  I was not personally acquainted with him or any of his victims, so I have no reason to feel anything but a callous disregard for him and his family.

The media want me to feel something about this, I know.  On one hand, I am asked to feel relief, some sense of vindication, and, on the other, I am warned that Bin Laden's death is not the end of terrorism (as if anybody could know that--ever) and that it may even spark a new wave of terrorist activity.  If the crackpots are ready for a new wrong tree to bark up, the body's sea burial seems tailormade to invite speculation about a hoax and a coverup.  Already, one young woman on Facebook, a "friend" of a "friend," suggested that the corpse should have been put on public view so that Americans might have "closure"--as if the probable desecration of the body would likely help open communication and heal old wounds, as if such a display would not encourage support for terrorism or provide a focal point for anti-American rage, as if we still live in a nineteenth-century America where we could prop the corpse up in a barbershop window with a sign on its chest:  "Shot fer terrerizing."

It turns out that the terrorist was living in a million-dollar "mansion" (do mansions go for as cheap as a million in the Middle East?), not in a mountain cave.  That fact should give pause to anyone tempted to revere Bin Laden as an ascetic saint or as a common man of the people.  He belonged to a class of oil-rich snobs--the Bin Laden family were business partners with the Bush family.  I doubt he was a man I might like to have had a beer with.  That he was either a religious fanatic or one willing to use religious fanaticism to consolidate power is neither something I can respect nor something, as an American, I can pretend to be unfamiliar with--it's the world I live in every day--what else can I say?

Along with Bin Laden, three other people were reportedly shot and killed, supposedly trying to defend him.  About their deaths I have the same icy indifference and absence of rejoicing I have about their leader's.

Do I feel justice has been served?  Yes, I do.  Bin Laden deserved to die.  His sudden violent death saves the world years of intrigue in international courts and months of handwringing and whatever passes for debate in the American mass media.  That he now has an official termination date diminishes his mystery somewhat, and that's a good thing too, though Marilyn, JFK, Elvis, and Kurt Cobain offer precedents for the kinds of speculation I can expect to hear over the matter for the rest of my life.  (Do I deserve to be exposed to a lifetime of inane and invalid conjectures?  No, I do not.)

Do I rejoice that justice has been served?  Not really.  My feelings, negative or positive, do not usually extend so far as to cover instances in which people simply get what they deserve.  Is it a happy day when people get what they deserve?  Sometimes.  It is an uncommon day--that much I will say.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday Beefcake


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