Saturday, February 28, 2009

Living Saints

The now-legendary Captain Sullenberger, who famously landed a plane in the Hudson and saved everybody aboard, has one flaw.

Fortunately, it is the sort of flaw that makes saints even more endearing.

He failed to return a library book on time
. The book was on the subject of professional ethics.

But, since he had a very good excuse ('the river ate it'), the library kindly waived the fees.

I have no doubt that, were these the Middle Ages, he would have become a folk saint by now. He sort of already has.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Old Gods and New

The Prophet spoke.

He spoke of dark omens. He spoke of corrupt officials. He spoke of greed, of waste, of hard times for the people. The people who roamed without aim, who had lost their homes and livelihoods, who feared for the health of their families.

But always, the Prophet brought hope. This is why the people followed him. He reassured the people that they were strong, that they had persevered through past troubles, that they carried an inner strength that could see them through the darkness, and that they had abandoned the Old Gods for his messages, his leadership.

There would be hard times ahead, but the Prophet promised he would do everything in his power to ease their suffering, to insure the health of their children, to recover from the malaise exacerbated by the terrible reign of the Old Gods.

But that he could only do so if the people helped themselves, if they forewent lives of leisure and educated themselves in these troubled times, if they could bring themselves to endure the consequences of their wanton excesses.

Then it was the opposition’s turn to speak.

They had sent their youngest, freshest representative, Jyn-dall, to ease the terrified citizenry that they no longer had anything to fear from the Old Gods: the Hand of Marquette, the Bag of Limbs, the Life Right, Rounalragone, and the Society of the Owners, all mysterious and unknowable beings, all who guided the decisions of prophets past.

Jyn-dall had taken long, slow strides toward the speaking box. Perhaps a man of gravitas who commanded authority could have done such with respect, but one so young and ambling invited scorn and disdain with this action, before he had but opened his mouth a priest by the name of Matthew was heard to invoke the name of the almighty to ward himself.

Jynd-all spoke as the former Prophet, in a falsely affected rural manner, despite his education at Oxford. Fucking Oxford, he was a fucking Rhodes Scholar, don’t you dare tell me that’s his natural voice. Anyway, he spoke of baffling miracles: the harmless volcanoes, the floating transports, and the conflation of the Old Gods with all deities, that somehow their errors impugned the entire divine race. He contradictorily reasserted, as the worshippers of the Old Gods always did, that the citizenry should not allow any deities of any sort to interfere with their lives. This despite his personal overseeing of the worst storm and flood the citizenry had seen in generations.

This confused jumble of apologies and blame could not have been spoken at a worse time. The priests would not have it. His fellows who had worshipped the Old Gods alongside him decried his nihilism. Those who were not his comrades made mock of his speaking after the Prophet; that it was like watching an angelic choir precede a band of filthy minstrels. His lone supporter, the Bag of Limbs, was heeded by few but his most devout followers, as his reputation had suffered since the whole Oxycontin thing.

Meanwhile, the Prophet continued unabated with his plans for Iraqi troop withdrawal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Embarking on a Mission to Increase Illusion

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence [...] illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.

Ludwig Feuerbach,
Preface to The Essence of Christianity

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesdays With Memento Mori

And Ivan Albright:

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Into The World There Came A Girl Called Ida

Monday, February 23, 2009

Axis Monday: The System of the World in a Cartoon

(The above cartoon is by Alex Gregory and first appeared in the New Yorker on 18 February 2002. You can order merchandise here)

According to the explanation on the linked website, the people are Hollywood types in a hot tub.

Allow me to explain this obfuscated cartoon for you. Yup, this essay will be a rather unartistic ekphrasis on wonder. Haven't had one of those from me in a while, despite the promise in the header.

Unsurprisingly, the cartoon's obfuscation comes from its imagery, which is so terribly simple that you dismiss it outright.

All the human elements of the picture, both the people and the objects of their design, are crowded into less than a quarter of the image. The rest is dominated by three objects: the palm tree, the distant mountain, and the endless sky.

The quick and simple lines of these three carefully chosen objects reveal the meaning of the cartoon's captions. Mr. Gregory cleverly tears down the dichotomous wall between the two seemingly far-flung demes of Hollywood Glamour and those Muslims who see the world through a purely religious lens.

The religious see the world in terms of archetypes and revelations of the Sacred. They understand that man and his material world is just a tiny corner of all that Is. Hence the wise relegation of earthly things to the corner of the cartoon.

But although Hollywood does not see the world in the same way, the stories film tells accept that view of the world as though it were true. Campbell explained how the ubiquitous quest narrative is composed of equally ubiquitous archetypes. Hollywood's most traditional--and successful--tales all are versions of this one story, the same story which is shared to some extent or another by all the truly religious of the world.

Thus, the human element of the cartoon is by far the least important. Consider each of the other three images in turn.

First we have the endless sky, which takes up well over half the cartoon. It is self-evident, and corroborated in the literature of every culture which has yet come up in the course of Axis Monday, that the sky is the Sacred Realm, and it is either the emanation of all holy things or that from which they emanate. The world of the Sacred cannot in any way be understood by man; hence the seeming blankness, the pure white, of the inimitable sky in the cartoon. It is only natural that Mr. Gregory's cartoon juxtaposes the incredible force and power of the sacred with the smallness of man.

But Mr. Gregory spoons out the irony in droves, because despite the words of these moguls, only one of them truly understands all the implications of what they say. Only the third figure (of course it is the third. There are three sacred objects, three profane humans, and one prophet, who is third in the line of humans) looks skyward, and because this character faces away from us, we know nothing of her. All we can presume is that she does not speak. She alone stares upwards at the endless sky and understands that she is miniscule in comparison. The others are absorbed in their material objects and their banter. The others look at each other. She looks at Heaven.

The second symbol, of course, is the Holy Mountain. The Mountain is that natural point, the horizon, where the sacred meets the profane. It is vastly distant and vastly high, as evident in the picture. Humans can perceive it but, by and large, they cannot reach it. It is that liminal threshold between the worlds. Once in an aeon a man may stand upon the Mountain (few mortals indeed summited Olympus, by far the most obvious example; even today few humans have seen the heights of Ararat, next week's signature topic). Moses spoke to God upon Sinai's height but he ventured there alone. Innumerable other examples available on request. All great religious acts occur on or in the shadow of the Mountain. Thus it is ineffably remote from the conspicuous consumers, who tell stories in accord with the Mountain even as they themselves deny its veracity and efficacy.

But it is, of course, the palm tree which brings the entire piece together.
So many small elements here:

The palm is the symbol of many of the countries of the Middle East, notably Arabia and its city Mecca where Islam was born.

None of the four people in the picture look at the palm. Not even the fourth woman: her level gaze makes clear that she has eyes only for her compatriots. None of them have room for it in their lives.

Most important of all, note that the palm reaches from level ground, past the line of the Holy Mountain into the Endless Sky. It alone, of all the objects in the picture, reaches both the Sacred and the Profane.

The Palm Tree is the

The Sky is purely sacred. The Holy Mountain is the unapproachable barrier between the worlds. But the AXIS MUNDI, here represented aptly by the palm tree, which through its connotations with Araby evokes the MASJID AL-HARAM, is the only force capable of connecting the worlds. It is the hierophany, the divine revelation of the sacred to the human world, the vibrant and living proof that something exists that is greater than humanity. The Axis Mundi is the very center of the System of the World.

Every religion person knows this, in not so many words. At some point in the history of every religion, a great event has happened which revealed the sacred to man. This hierophany unveils the Axis Mundi, eternal, unchanging, hitherto invisible. And two worlds, at that one holiest place, become one.

Here it is the palm. The "Islamic fundamentalists" of the caption understand implicitly that the world of the Sacred is vast compared to the Earth. The Hollywood folks think they understand this, and thus think the fundamentalists should like them. They think they must be kin.

But all of the figures in the cartoon, save the one who is clearly silent, turn their backs on all three indicators of the sacred: the Mountain. The Sky. The Axis.

It's a great punchline. These earthly moguls truly do not understand why the most extreme among the Islamic faithful do not like them. They think they know the sacred, but all they see are dancing shadows on a cave wall, even though Truth surrounds them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesdays With Memento Mori

Shakespeare’s lesser-known Memento Mori Speech, the funny one

Shakespeare’s famous mortality speech, about being and not, is perhaps the most well-known line in the entirety of English drama. This is not his only memento mori speech, however; he has another in Measure for Measure. It’s quite funny.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling!--'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

HAHHAHAHAHAAAHAHAAHHAAHA-wait, what? That’s not funny! Out of context, it isn’t. Here’s the context: Claudio has been condemned to die by the cruel and lustful Angelo. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, has just met with Angelo to beg for her brother’s forgiveness. Angelo has told Isabella that, sure I’ll let Claudio go free, if you’ll have sex with me, that is.

Isabella, in a huff, marches to the prison to inform her brother that he’s going to die.

As all comforts are; most good, most good, in deed:
Lord Angelo, having affairs to heaven,
Intends you for his swift ambassador,
Where you shall be an everlasting leiger:
Therefore, your best appointment make with speed;
To-morrow you set on.

Is there no remedy?

None, but such remedy as, to save a head,
To cleave a heart in twain.

But is there any?

Yes, brother, you may live:
There is a devilish mercy in the judge,
If you'll implore it, that will free your life,
But fetter you till death.

Perpetual durance?

They have this continuing exchange where Isabella dances around the terms of Angelo’s proposal, only saying that it will bring unyielding, unrelenting shame to their family. Finally, she spills it. This is the ensuing exchange, uncut:

Thou shalt not do't.

O, were it but my life,
I'd throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.

Thanks, dear Isabel.

Be ready, Claudio, for your death to-morrow.

Yes.--Has he affections in him
That thus can make him bite the law by the nose
When he would force it? Sure it is no sin;
Or of the deadly seven it is the least.

Hm, yeah, well, maybe having sex with a greasy old man isn’t so bad. . .This is where we have the mortality speech. This guy is with increasing desperation begging his sister to fuck some scuzzball so that he can go on living. This is his line right after the mortality speech:

Sweet sister, let me live!
What sin you do to save a brother's life
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.

O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
etc. etc.

Nay, hear me, Isabel!

O fie, fie, fie!
Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade:
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:
'Tis best that thou diest quickly.


O, hear me, Isabella!

And she walks out on him. The scene is one of the finer pieces of black comedy I’ve read in a play. “You’re doomed.” “Really?” “Yes.” “Really Really?” “Yes, but-” “But? But?!” “Well, if I bang some old guy you can go-” “Do it!” “What?” “Bang the old guy! Please! I don’t wanna die! WAAAH” “Piss off.” “No, don’t leave me, PLEASE!”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The sacred and the everyday

Note: Brevity was never David Foster Wallace's strong point, this is heavily edited. Full speech here.

Kenyon commencement speech, 2005

"The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. This is just a banal platitude -- but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in, day out" really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.

The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do -- except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am -- it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line -- maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out."

-David Foster Wallace, suicide victim

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tuesdays with Memento Mori

In 1969 the Woodstock Festival became the liminal moment for an entire generation of youth.

Here is that farmer's field today, which in 1969 for a few days held over 500,000 people:

Memento Mori.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Axis Mundis

My posts have digressed more and more away from the idea of the blog, so I'm returning to square one: the Axis Mundi. More specifically, the physical one.

Joseph Campbell once said that an effective rule of thumb for determining who controls a region is to ascertain what the the tallest building is. In the middle ages, the tallest structure was always the church, from the Hagia Sophia to the village parish. In the industrial revolution, the tallest structures became the buildings of the state. Now, the tallest buildings are the skyscrapers, the centers of finance.

Campbell had an unfortunate tendency to overgeneralize, but in the case of the Axis Mundi of the of the French, he is 100% correct. As for the Axis Mundi of the Irish, he's utterly, dead wrong.

The Axis Mundi of the French world is the easiest.

What were you expecting, a giant metal frog?

The Eiffel Tower from its construction to this day has been the tallest structure in Paris. Aside from a few transmitting towers and a bridge, it is the tallest structure in France. It is interesting to note how vigorously the French have defended their Axis Mundi from any possible contenders. The Tour Montparnasse, the lone skyscraper in the city limits of Paris (and still shorter than the Eiffel), was so hated that laws were passed forbidding any future skyscraper construction within the city limits.

The Axis Mundi of Irish Catholicism, and by extension most of Irish history, has been St. Patrick's Cathedral. Though not the tallest, the largest church in Ireland has been deaned by Jonathan Swift. Handel's Messiah saw its premiere in this building. The city with arguably the 2nd largest population of Irish in the world, New York, has its own.

St. Patrick's, lookin' feckin' majestic an' all that bollocks

A comically oversaturated image of St. Patrick's in New York.

It's interesting to compare the two by height. Dublin's dominates its landscape (the picture's a bit misleading, it's in a city), as Irish Catholicism dominated the country up until only the last generation or two. New York's is a midget, lost in the ocean of buildings and people that comprise Manhattan.

Still, the height issue does have some significance. An observational tower is the tallest building one has access to in Dublin today. The second-tallest? The pub atop the Guinness Storehouse. And many hackles are being raised by Bono of U2's plan to make his new recording studio the tallest building in the entire country.

Pax Romana Redux

In March 2007, Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein.

In the middle of the night, 171 Swiss soldiers crossed into Liechtenstein. They penetrated over two kilometers into the country and met no resistance. They entered through a dark and unprotected forest.

After getting 2km into Liechtenstein, the commander of the Swiss guard realized what was happening.

Why did Switzerland invade its tiny and helpless neighbor? To seize its resources? Destroy the liberties of a helpless and tiny principality?

No. The Swiss company had gotten lost in the dense Swiss forest and taken a wrong turn. They had crossed the border by mistake.

They had accidentally launched an invasion.

The Swiss company, heavily armed with rifles but no ammunition, promptly turned around and hastily beat feet back to Swiss soil.

One of the soldiers explained their mistake: "It was all so dark."

How did Liechtenstein react?

They did not even notice until Swiss leadership called them up in the morning and told them, at which point they laughed it off.

One Liechtenstein authority said that "it's not like they invaded with attack helicopters."


Also in March 2007, two British vessels--inflatable boats--accidentally crossed into disputed waters in the Strait of Hormuz. It still remains unclear whether they truly entered Iranian waters.

The Navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized them and held them in Tehran for two weeks, and relations between the U.K. and Iran became tense.

But, on Easter Sunday, Iran released all the sailors unharmed. According to President Ahmadinejad:

"For the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15. This pardon is a gift to the British people."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cows with Names Produce More Milk

A new study by the Newcastle University School of Agriculture shows that cows whose farmers name them and call them by their names regularly produce 500 more pints of milk a year than cows without names.

Farmers in the study found the results unsurprising; one said that treating cows as individuals was "vitally important."

Farmers emphasized that the cows are part of their families and each one has her own personality.

It now appears that, like us, cows want to be recognized not as cogs in a machine, but as individual beings. It makes them happy and more productive.

Somehow, this story awakens my sense of wonder at the world more than almost any other I have posted.