Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dissatisfaction, and, "The Man Who Collected Machen"

Today is New Year's Eve. NYE tends to be either very wintery, or reminiscent of Spring. It's more like the latter today, just like the first day of Winter was this year. After being in Spring-like Los Angeles for a few days, I have come home to a cat who is clearly dying, so that mixture of ending/beginning is still the theme. (The cat, by the way, is not Shiva--it is Whiskers, who seems to have some kind of eye tumor).

Regardless of this year's circumstances, I always find myself in an evaluative mode on New Year's Eve, even though the point in time is arbitrary in the larger scheme of things. This year, I find myself lamenting how much wasn't done and is unfinished, or done incorrectly, rather than looking at what I did complete this year. Part of the problem is that so much that I worked on mid-year is still pending, and there are no apparent solutions to some looming problems after many months. But I have also come to realize that I am not a patient person, and do not like it when I cannot control outcomes. Which, rationally speaking, is silly--no one really can control outcomes, not in a big way. But unconsciously, I get angry at myself for not being able to do so. I think they call that being a "perfectionist". I'm sure it's why I devote so much blog space to talking about letting go; I need to take my own advice.

I visited my sister in California, and at one point we had a conversation about dissatisfaction. There is a Tarot card, the 4 of Cups, that illustrates the issue. On the well-known Rider-Waite deck, the card features a young man sitting under a tree with his arms crossed, looking at 3 goblets out of his reach, and not seeing the invisible hand offering him his own full goblet right next to him. The card deals with boredom and dissatisfaction, and the message is that we often focus on what we don't have rather than what we have. Boredom is another variation of that; we cannot stand to be alone with ourselves, so we want distractions. Writing is my usual distraction, but lately I've either not had time or not been very inspired. So, I am besieged by the demons of What If, and the unknowns surrounding What Is. I forget that it's all a giant board game, and to be taken just as seriously.

My nephew gave me a wonderful book for Christmas--"The Man Who Collected Machen, which is a collection of short stories by Mark Samuels. I finished it this morning.


You can see the influences of writers like Poe and Lovecraft (and Machen) in Samuels's writing, but it's not about comparing him to those writers. He is very good at writing about the monsters of unconsciousness, horrors of knowledge and language, and a very Lovecraftian sense of the "horror of God". "A Contaminated Text" is one of my favorite stories, and reminds me of one of the last chapters of Carlos Castaneda's book "The Art of Dreaming", where he talks about insect-like beings that feed on us and drain us of our capacity for independent thought. This is metaphorical, of course, and Samuels is well aware of the reality of the metaphor, and identifies it. "The Age of Decayed Futurity" is so disturbingly like our modern society, you get a sense that there is a grain of truth to the conspiracy theory. He also describes that state he calls "that unique mental fever from which only writers suffer", which is well-known to those of us who write fiction. "Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand" does a great job of smashing metaphorical concepts of God. God is, in this analysis, that wretched face of Death that we fear, and that we spend our whole lives trying to avoid.

The book is a timely acquisition, as it allows me to think more freely about my own work, and things I want to revise, but have gotten stuck. I highly recommend this book if you are a fan of horror or speculative fiction. It is not really horror of the more gruesome variety--it has more of a feel of the classic writers mentioned above, without being a caricature of those writers. I am always on the lookout for writers inspired by the classics, as a lot of contemporary horror leaves me cold.

So, with that, I will wish everyone a happy new year, and hope that 2012 does actually turn out to be a better year than expected. I am hoping that as a nation, we've reached our nadir, and that there's nowhere to go but up. Things go in cycles, so what is empty will fill up, and what has been full will empty. And so on.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Solstice

I leave for work in the dark, but at this time of year, this is not unusual. The stars are still out as I get into my car on Solstice morning, and notice a single leaf on my windshield that is green. The Solstice officially "occurred" just after midnight; I heard thunder, as though Lugh was attacking the Cailleach with his thunderbolts instead of Balor. Indeed, the morning is so warm and wet, one would not think it was the first day of winter. However, all is fair in seasonal war--sometimes it snows on the Spring Equinox. Birth and death seem all mixed up.

The skyline over the valley looks like an impressionistic painting, with mottled clouds, charcoal, peach, and a watered-down blue. The silhouettes of the fields remind me of Lovecraft's "blasted heath" though perhaps not as sinister. As I make my way towards the town of Chester, I notice that police cars sit with their lights off, waiting for speeding motorists, which makes my own slow drive feel vindicated. For no good reason, I begin to associate the police with social religion, those who uphold the laws that keep people inside the fence and away from the Collective.

The clouds look stormy all day--rich sunlight and blue sky with large chunks of area covered by angry-looking blobs of gray and black. I took a walk at lunchtime on the solstice, and noticed some kind of waxy green vine growing all along the outer wall of Florham. I don't recall seeing this vine before, and it's puzzling. There's lots and lots of it, and it almost looks ominous against the barren trees.

Arthur Machen once wrote about evil, suggesting that it was a defiance of natural law. If a rose bush started to sing of its own accord, that would smack of evil. I don't know that some of these intrusions of Spring are so "evil", but for me at least they reflect an underlying disturbance. As though things are not quite what you think or what you expect. Perhaps they are more of the "trickster" than something evil. Interestingly--the image of Satan, which we associate with evil, was actually thought to be more of a trickster figure, before theology made him a symbol of everything anti-Christian. Tricksters are very necessary, because they remind us that our stories are just that--stories. They can be changed, and sometimes should be changed.

I am not sure how I feel about 2012. I do not believe in this idea of Mayan apocalypse--I don't even think the Mayans believe(d) in that. However, it is not looking good economically or politically. On the surface there appears to be little hope--in fact, it seems things will get monumentally worse. My only hope that this is a Trickster at work, that this is part of a natural upheaval, and we will settle down to something better that is not currently apparent. Sometimes the Unknown gives us good surprises.

I am reluctant to make any predictions for 2012. The last time I made predictions, it was for a good year, settling down and being more harmonious, and in fact everything fell apart and went to sh*t. I'm not anticipating a good year, and I'm hoping I'll be equally wrong about that, and that it turns out to be the best year ever.

Usually winter break is a time to pause, for me to sit back, watch the sunrises on my week off, do some writing, catch up on pleasure reading. Not so this time--it is Christmas Eve, I need to put in student grades, and preparing for a trip to visit my sister as of Monday morning. Naturally I have another sick cat, Whiskers, with a bloodied eye and an ear infection, so both my parents and my basement cats can be traumatized when I relocate them temporarily to my parents' basement. (Shiva cat gets to stay at home, as my neighbor can care for him). I am looking forward to the trip, but we will be busy, so it will not be a time for sitting around. And I will have much work to do when I get back...and for the entire year. No rest for the weary.

I don't know if it's because I've been crankier than usual this holiday season, but I dreamt last night that John Foxx adopted a ginger cat and named it Editorial. I posted this dream to Twitter and Facebook, and received some helpful analyses from many friends--the idea of Fox (masculine/Animus) adopting the Cat (feminine/Anima), both "red images" (foxes are red, ginger cats are red), and editorial, which my friend Rob pointed out would deal with opinions. Never mind that cats have a tendency to be independent anyway. Another friend mentioned Foxx as Animus figure, which makes sense in its own way--I see a lot of my own ideals about the best in men (wisdom of being older, respect, politeness, snarky sense of humor, creatively interesting, still being sexy though older) in Mr. Foxx. I mention "crankiness" because the symbolism is very fiery and "opinionated". Which, of course, I'm not, in the same way Pope Benedict is not a Catholic.

I hope to blog at least once more before the year is out. Happy holidays, and pleasant dreams.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kala

As much as I complain about my cat waking me up at ungodly hours, I have to give him credit, because I would not have memorable (or lucid) dreams if he didn't do that. In those moments when I put him off the bed and roll over, many dreams occur. I woke up this morning with the phrase in my head, "Kala means time, and Kali devours it."

I did not invent this phrase. I recall that it was on the back of a card I once kept hanging from the rearview mirror of my car. The non-text side contained a photo of a Kali statue that I had never seen before--it was not a Dakineshwar or Kaligat Kali, nor was it the one in Amritapuri. Kali was a light blue color, not the usual black. The text on the reverse explained who Kali was, and that was the opening sentence.

The word "kala" has been kicking around my consciousness for several days. The other day, for no good reason, I was thinking about the name given to me by Mata Amritanandamayi, "Nischala", and how people always confuse it with "Niskala". "Nis" is the Sanskrit root for "Not". "Chala" means "motion"; "Kala" means "time". "Nischala" means "without motion", or more to the point, "stillness", and is one of Kali's one-thousand names. "Niskala" means "without time". Not merely "timeless" but "beyond time". This is a name of Lalita Devi as well as Kali, and Lalita Devi is the creator of the universe--the universe that Kali devours. (And of course, they are actually the same deity in some regard, as all Hindu deities are one). "Lalita", incidentally, is a version of the Sanskrit word for "play". So, Lalita Devi is the "Goddess who Plays". The creator of the universe is playing a game, and you're in it. If you give that some serious thought, it's quite profound.

I recently subscribed to Umberto Eco's Twitter feed. I don't know if Eco writes it, or if someone posts for him, as the posts are in English. Eco can speak English, but only writes in Italian, so I tend to think it's the latter. Eco of course specializes in semiotics, which is the study of signs and sign processes. Semantics is a branch of semiotics that deals with the meaning of signs, and deals mostly with language. One of his recent tweets said, "Semiotics has become a sort of moral critical duty when it was clear that mass media were the new sacred texts." Deconstructing language and its meanings is important. There is a tendency in our culture to accept what we hear at face value, and not to think about what it really means. A great example of this was brought up in another Twitter feed I follow, @Numinousviews. Yesterday, he posted "The question shouldn't simply be does one believe in God or not. One should first ask what does one understand the word God to mean?" I've been reading a lot of 100 level papers about the debate between religion and science. Many students are using the available material well, but they continue to debate about the same old tired, "Can science prove there is a God or not? Can science prove the Bible stories are true or not?" and using that as a benchmark of "truth". I'm not blaming them for that, as this is the first time they've been asked to look at the question, and for many, this is not a major subject of interest. But the real question is "What do you mean by the word God?" All language is symbolic; it stands for our interpretation of the world. "God" is a metaphor for what we don't understand. Religion is a tool for negotiating what we don't understand. Science is also such a tool, but it deals with the observed outer world. Religion deals with the "numinous", as does psychology, at least in the Jungian sense. It deals with the "psyche", or world of the mind.

Returning to the original "Kala", when I think of both Kali and Lalita, I think of the Srichakra (or Sriyantra), which is a symbol of Sri Lalita. It contains 9 interlocking triangles, 4 pointing up (representing Shiva--the god, not my cat), and 5 pointing down (representing Shakti--Kali is the most "extreme" form of Shakti, which is a metaphor for the energy of consciousness). So, it is the Union of everything in the Universe. There is a prayer that is used by adherents of Sri Vidya called the "Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotra". It looks at the 9 triangles of the Srichakra as 9 "circles" or "chakra swamini", and represent deeper and deeper levels of awareness in the universe. Each level contains the names of deities, with the outer circles referring to desires (karshini) and worldly powers (siddhe), and the inner circles representing the dissolution of any kind of form. The innermost triangle, associated with Mahatripurasundari,(i.e., Lalita, great goddess of the 3 worlds--ours, the heavens, and the hells) is in a circle characterized as "para para rahasya yogini", which in a clumsy literal sense means "prior, prior to form (or that capable of being affected by disease)". Because, when one gets to the core of consciousness, there is no form, no motion, and no time. No-thing.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Fear of the Poor

I am currently working on a paper for a conference I’m attending next March. It’s based on an idea I had reading Jake Stratton-Kent’s “Geosophia”, and looks at the afterlife and the role of the goete in society. Kent mentions that at some point in ancient Greek religion, there was a rearrangement of the underworld, with some of its denizens suddenly rising to Olympus (like Dionysus), and others that were venerated became demonized. In general, the underworld became demonized, when initially it was a somewhat neutral place. Scholars have argued that the idea of reward/punishment in the afterlife comes from the need to manage death anxiety. After all, if death just means being a ghost in a dreary underworld, regardless of what you did in life, that would tend to make you fear it all the more.

Of more specific interest is the goete, that outsider class of “clergy” that served a ritual function at funerals. The howls and laments of the goete (the word means “lamenting”) were the sounds that guided the dead to the underworld. They were often feared in Greek society, as they were associated with the thing most feared, death. Anyone having any kind of power over the dead was kept at a distance, just a shamans (which have many similarities to goetes) were on the outside of society, because they had “a foot in both worlds”. To touch that other world made you taboo.

The goete was often wild, unkempt, and on the outskirts of society. They were also poor. As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that there are many unconscious associations with poverty. To be poor—without a home, without basic needs, without comfort—makes us terribly afraid. It is being swallowed up by chaos, not knowing how one will live from day to day, not knowing where the next meal will come from, or how they will stay warm. Scriptures teach adherents to care for the poor, and provide for their needs. Curiously, in more modern eras, this is an injunction largely ignored by the loudest of the “faithful”, in favor of those scriptural passages that condemn those who are different from themselves.

Modern American mythology suggests that poor people are “lazy”, or that they are really comfortably well-off people in disguise trying to swindle you. It is the justification for taking away things like welfare benefits and public health care, because these people are “useless parasites on the system”. This is not a new mythology; certainly Queen Elizabeth I attempted to deal with poverty during her reign by outlawing it. Recently, the country of Hungary did the same thing. It is “criminal” to be poor, a sign that there is something wrong with you, that you are defective. Given that religion teaches compassion towards the poor, it is clear that this attitude comes out of fear. We do not like to see our worst insecurities manifest in a human being; that human being may as well be the “Devil” himself.

It is another fascinating example of the illogical ways of humans. Logically, if everyone shared even some of what they had, no one would have to go without. Certainly there are those who would try to take advantage, but the most successful social programs have ways of keeping that tendency in check. In a recent conversation on a similar topic with a friend, he noted that from a macroeconomic standpoint, things like welfare and unemployment benefits are subsidies to small business. Even if someone is taking advantage of the system, it doesn’t matter from the macroeconomic point of view. What matters is that the economy is moving and healthy, and that money is circulating, goods are being bought and sold. The morality of that system is irrelevant. In short, economic trouble is not a reason to not help the poor.

It is interesting how fear brings restriction. The government compromises civil liberties in the name of “national security”. We are always armed and loaded (psychologically, not literally) against our fears. And we’re ready to demonize and blame those who challenge us.

You might think that I’m beating this subject to death lately, but I think it’s important that we think about our assumptions about life, especially in light of recent national crises. This is not about “other people”, it’s about me as well, and questioning my own assumptions about the world and my reaction to it. We don’t question our assumptions often enough. And if we aren’t aware of them, we can never hope to change them, only to be ruled by them.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Strong?

This past week, Republican presidential “hopeful” Rick Perry put out an ad that managed to be hugely offensive to a large majority of Americans, and even elicited negative comments from many Europeans. If you have not seen the ad, here it is:



Perry ran this ad against the judgment of people on his own campaign. I also find the ad to be offensive, but I’m also delighted that Perry has provided me an opportunity to compare and contrast a widespread “mythical” conception of America and its history with the actual facts. I talk about this ad nauseam in this blog and in conversation, and I find that people still are puzzled when I talk about humans as “irrational” beings informed by their own narratives rather than facts. This tidbit provides me with a concrete example.

First, Perry brings up the idea of gays in the military as somehow being offensive. I’m not going to go off on that tangent, as I’m not interested in discussing the theological issues surrounding homosexuality. To me, it’s another reason you don’t take the Bible as your literal rule book. But the Bible aside, this is a secular country, and what the Bible says is irrelevant—there is no rational reason to disenfranchise gays from any segment of society at all.

Ah, but the rest of the ad talks about “Obama’s war on religion”. Perry states that America was “intended” to be a Christian nation. I am not sure what “Obama’s war on religion” is; perhaps it’s the fact that he didn’t mention God in his Thanksgiving address. As to calling this the “holiday” season rather than the “Christmas” season—well, you can call it whatever you want, but officially you ought to include everyone, especially if you’re a government figure addressing a diverse population. I think that is sensible.

What is offensive in Perry’s ad besides the obvious homophobia is the complete and total ignorance he displays about the reality of life in this country, and American history. But you have to consider that Perry wouldn’t be where he is now if many other people didn’t also have the same level of ignorance. It is not news that people passionately believe in an America that never existed.

While some of the Founding Fathers might have been Christians, many were Deists. You can read a good summary of Deism and its influence on the American founders here. Deism does talk about belief in God, but outside the context of Christianity and Christian churches. It extolled nature and natural law over Christian belief, and was a byproduct of the Rationalist era. We don’t hear about Deism today, but a lot of its ideas have been subsumed by the Unitarian Universalists. While they don’t reject Christianity or the Bible (or any religion), they don’t give it any exceptional status, either. Hence the “universalist” part—it includes everyone, regardless of belief.

As to the rest of the “war on Christmas”, gleefully picked up by Fox News, Jon Stewart has done his usual admirable job of demythologizing that claim:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Tree Fighting Ceremony
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

There is an obvious disconnect between facts and the story being told by Perry and by Fox News, which should surprise no one. But it is clear that in spite of facts, those who believe in Perry’s version of America are not interested in facts—they are interested in their version of the American story, which is a reflection of their own upbringing and their own personal issues. Ideas that tend to exclude or demonize others can be classified as “xenophobic”—they represent a fear of difference, and hence a fear of change (and ultimately of death and the unknown). The attitude towards difference is negative, and Fox has been so successful as a “news” channel because it taps directly into that negative current and validates it. Hand-in-hand with the xenophobia is a sense of victimhood--that the "real" America is "under attack", and that specifically real "Christians" are under attack.
And so it goes, back to Rick Perry.

With the economy near collapse, attempts to cut needed services so that the wealthy are not inconvenienced, recent crackdowns on free speech, and attempts to pass new laws to detain “suspicious” Americans “indefinitely” without trial, it’s not surprising that even those who are more rationally minded would be fearful of what’s next. But America is not collapsing because it's not "Christian" enough, it's collapsing because of bad economic practice. But--understanding the human tendency towards narrative--is it possible to get away from a culture of fear, and take a courageous step towards a new national mythology? Can we look at the New Colossus with new eyes?

Probably not in my lifetime; the collective psyche is a challenging monster.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Concerts

Maxwell’s is a music venue and restaurant in Hoboken that has the distinction of being one of the few non-yuppified places in that community. It’s become one of the only places in New Jersey to see classic punk or post-punk bands, and a lot of random weirdness. My friend Liz told me about a concert she attended there, where the opening act was a Japanese band. The singer spoke no English, screamed a lot into the microphone, and proceeded to strip down to butt-nakedness throughout the set.

I went to Maxwell’s on Sunday with Liz and her brother Joe. We were spared any naked Japanese singers, as we were going to see Chameleons Vox, which consists of Mark Burgess and John Lever from the original Chameleons, and three other non-original members (Ray Bowles, Neil Dwerryhouse, and Chris Oliver). I’d heard music by the Chameleons in the past, and I’d always liked them, though I probably wouldn’t have known about this show if it wasn’t for Chris Oliver. If you may recall from my England trip postings, Chris Oliver is on John Foxx’s tech crew. He gave me the tour dates while he was setting up for Foxx’s gig in York. So, I wanted to hear them live, and I wanted to say hello to Chris again. Black Swan Lane opened for them, and we agreed that we liked their sound—clearly very Chameleons-influenced, which is not surprising, as Mark Burgess was involved in at least some of the songwriting.

I’ll just cut right to it—the gig was spectacular. I’m used to British performers who are much like John Foxx—they get onstage, they say hello, they do their set, maybe introduce the band, then say good night. There’s not much, if any, banter with the audience—it’s all “business”. Mark Burgess is the exact opposite. He seemed to be acting out every song, was very chatty with the audience, and during “Second Skin”, he made his way around the audience before returning to stage. While the band had a setlist, they made at least one on-the-fly change by special request, and made some on the spot decisions when they came back for an encore, as they didn’t have any encore numbers prepared.

You can see the first few numbers of the gig in this video, taken by an audience member:




I was just stunned by the end of the gig. They were just really, really mindblowing-ly good. My friend Anna said that Mark Burgess always seems so happy when he’s onstage, and that may be a part of it—his demeanor and energy was infectious. Anyone who could have walked away from that gig and not liked it would have to be the sort of person who kicks puppies and pushes old people down the stairs.

Two days later, on a rainy and windy Tuesday night, I found myself in Brooklyn. It’s probably been ten years since I’ve been there. There was a certain incongruity between the warmth of the evening and the fact that someone bought a live Christmas tree and brought it onto the L train. On the plus side, it made the subway car smell nice, not something you often hear anyone say about subway cars.

I searched for a place to have dinner, and found a restaurant that met all of my criteria (dark and atmospheric, preferably lots of wood d├ęcor, must not be fussy or vegetarian, and must have beer). I was serenaded through dinner with Rush’s greatest hits. (No, not Rush Limbaugh. The Canadian metal band Rush). I found this to be a huge improvement over the usual garbage I have to listen to while I’m digesting my food. I particularly hate listening to “soft rock” while I’m eating. I don’t know why people find it “soothing” to listen to some melodramatic male singer who sounds like someone’s taken a cheese grater to his member. Or a female singer who sounds like she’s trying to hit every possible note in the human vocal range. Or the Eagles. Tara Busch posted a tweet last week about a trip to Whole Foods, where she was subjected to the sound of Rod Stewart covering an Eagles song. (And they had no coffee). There should be federal punishment for that.

After dinner I went to the Trash Bar, where my friend Mark’s band, Some Awful Bridge, was playing. They were playing 1980s era Iron Maiden at the bar outside the venue room, a la “Number of the Beast”. I read a critique of the Trash Bar where people complained that the music they played was “too old” and they didn’t know the songs. I knew every song. Which probably means I’m old. The Iron Maiden songs formed another strange contrast with the first artist who played that night, Myles Manley, whose music is more on the folk side.

I knew Mark had a band, but I’d never heard them before last night. Their Facebook page describes their music as a “Pretentious new wave-y, gothy, shoegaze-y atrocity”. That’s probably the best description (not really pretentious, though), as you couldn’t pin their music to a specific genre. You can get a sense of what they sound like here (though be warned that the MySpace player is not the greatest when it comes to streaming audio).These guys are very good, and do a good live show. (I’m not sure I get the pig and accordion bit, but hey, I don’t have to understand everything). It would have been nice if they had a bigger crowd, though Tuesday night in Brooklyn is a rough time slot. So, if they’re playing near you, be sure to go see them and buy their stuff.

This week has been fun, but of course that never lasts. My cat developed a "problem" last night that made him climb the walls, try to pee on my bed, and caused him to frantically dig at the front door. Since this is decidedly odd cat behavior, I took him to the emergency vet at midnight, and it turns out he had a blockage (if you don't know about cats, that's potentially fatal if not treated). So, Shiva is in the hospital as I write this, looking a bit like the stereotypical spinster:



This has left me in a decidedly distracted state of mind, and has disrupted my week at a time when I could least stand to be disrupted. Life is like that, I suppose...