The Witch!

(or: Footage of a Canadian Treeline in a Time of Goats and Perdition)

I watched it last night and was going to write a review entitled, “Why Snakes on a Plane is Better than The Witch” but I realized there is no comparison. Snakes on a Plane has snakes, Samuel Jackson, and a plane. The Witch has . . . the treeline and a message at the end informing the audience that it was based on actual accounts of 17th 1297806972474_originalcentury witchcraft, making us wish they’d studied plot structure a little more closely back in the 17th century.

Oh and everybody dies except Thomasin, the ingenue, who has two expressions: dumbfounded fear and hysteria. Because, you know, there’s a witch out there who lives in a hut like Baba Yaga and likes to get dolled-up as Snow White with lip implants. But that’s neither here nor there. She’s got a veiny beast-arm with which she kills children. Sometimes shit floats in the dark. This is some serious business. It’s a witch, people. Come on, now.

I’d warn about spoilers, but it’s not possible to spoil something that has been rendered un-spoilable by stripping it down so far that the possessed family goat has more gravitas than the entire cast. Katie Dickie is a brilliant ralph-kate-witch-620actress, reprising her nutcase mother role from Game of Thrones, but now in a bonnet. She gets three expressions: dumbfounded fear, hysteria, and maniacal hostility. William, the bewrayed, misunderstood husband, who knows a lot about scripture but who is somehow as effective in life as a suburban husband in a Lorrie Moore short story, gets two: grief-stricken and fearfully enraged.

The rest of the family—the spooky eyeliner-wearing siblings, the chickens, the brother whose sole purpose is to eventually meet the beast-arm—are plot furniture. They each get one expression: ye oulde dumbfounded fear. Maybe the chickens also get the poultry version of bitterness, since they happen to be better actors but, due to species-bias, they are relegated to supporting roles. Hollywood, man. The sickness is deep.

Overall, The Witch is a lot like the Big Alligator in the Sewer movie you go to see in the afternoon when your air-conditioning breaks down. Only Snow White isn’t that scary, the black-philipDevil isn’t very present as a supernatural menace, and the treeline is under-utilized as a character. I almost want to say that Deborah Harkness could have written a better screenplay—which is saying something, since A Discovery of Witches is one of the worst novels I’ve ever had the misfortune to attempt. Yet it seems better than this.

Where is the Devil? Out there, in the woods, right? Oh yeah, that’s the beast-arm’s function in the story. Wow. Or possibly the Devil is hiding in the fear-wilderness of the human unconscious? Sure, that works. That’s what Hawthorne gives us in “Young Goodman Brown,” a story that manages to make you feel a little more paranoid and insane every time you read it. And then there’s WGN America’s Salem, in which evil is a very real, very tangible, very transformative presence—which is what we need in a movie like this. And that is definitely what’s missing–aside from, you know, an interesting plot and characters. Hence, the superiority of Snakes on a Plane, which doesn’t even try.photo

You can’t rely on repeated expressions of dumbfounded fear to make the audience feel something. You can’t explain the flatness away by saying, “Well, these backward rubes were religious fanatics. So, you know, there’s your paranoia and human unconscious at work!” No. I don’t care if they were a settlement of Juggalos who fell out of a time machine. It doesn’t matter who we think they are. What matters is how rounded they are as representations of real human beings to whom we can relate.

We have to feel what the characters feel. And we can’t feel anything if all we get is constant two-dimensional dread. Put simply, in order to feel afraid we have to have the experience of not feeling afraid as well. We have to know and relate to the characters as extensions (projections) of what we feel and what we care the-witch-2-600x360-1about. But there is no balance in this film.

At the very end, when the ingenue decides to join up with the goat, who speaks like Sir Lawrence Olivier with strep throat, we think there’s going to be some big reveal, some payoff that’s going to transform all the open-and-shut dumbfounded fear into something else. Maybe Thomasin will show us something new about herself that adds depth and ultimately makes us give a damn.

Nope. She’s buck naked, floating, laughing like Janis Joplin. Roll credits. And you just wasted 93 minutes you could have spent walking through the woods of Ontario. So mote it be.

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Darkness Visible

This morning, there was an enormous bumblebee on the inside of my bedroom window. I didn’t know how it could have gotten through the slatted vent near the ceiling, but that was the only explanation. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched its shadow crawl up my arm. A bumblebee! Enormous but tiny, just like me.

I am lethally allergic to bee stings. And so I found myself imagining once again how I might die from the anaphylaxis that could be brought on by such an enormous tiny creature. It could have stung me in my sleep. Of course, the engine of a 787 could have fallen through the roof and killed me in a giant conflagration of bloody bone fragments, busted two-by-fours, and smoking metal. Or my heart could have simply exploded at the stroke of midnight, all those muffulettas catching up with me at last. You never know.

Anything can happen and sometimes it does. I sat there and imagined my death for at least 45 minutes before I realized I was doing it. Then I got mad at myself. I just wasted 45 minutes of my life imagining my death. I can never get those 45 minutes back. It’s like I’ve been dead for the last three-quarters of an hour. But I also had a back ache. After a few more minutes thinking about the pain in my back and imagining myself in a wheelchair—how hard it would be to take a shit in my tiny bathroom if I were paralyzed, how I’d never have sex again—I thought, well, at least the bumblebee got my mind off of my back pain for a while. Now my back’s going to hurt all day. What a miserable day. Fuck my back. Fuck that bee. Fuck all creation. Life was, once again, a festival of misery and hate. A friend of mine in high school once described it as “a shit show for the devil,” but we’re not friends anymore and, if that were truly the case, I tend to think god would be the one laughing the loudest.

I got back in bed and pulled the covers up over my face. On days like this, I will sometimes lie in bed thinking horrible things, crying sometimes, unable to concentrate, unable to motivate myself to even stand, but feeling certain that death owes me a favor and it’s time to pay up. Today I had all the symptoms: intense pressure in my skull like my brain was trying to push its way out, racing thoughts, overwhelming world-veiling all-consuming guilt with no rational explanation, and that persistent little voice always telling me I deserve everything I get (What makes you so special, anyway? Who says you’re more worthy of taking shits and having sex than the next guy who’s probably paralyzed, constipated, and horny and yet still a better person than you? What have you really accomplished? All you’ve ever been is a horrible humiliating failure. Let’s relive some selected memories . . . ). So it goes and it never stops. Until it does. And then, suddenly, I’ll be fine again. The sun will come up. I’ll get out of bed. No one will have noticed. And I won’t mention it.

The longest I’ve ever been down in one of my “spells” has been three consecutive days, three days of black torment that almost caused me to take my own life. But that was an extreme. I’m more often down for 24 hours or less. And since I set my own work schedule, it’s still possible for me to function as a professional. I can usually feel it coming. Almost like a drug addict who, from bitter experience, knows to lock the house down and draw the curtains before shooting up in the basement, I log out of social networks, turn off my phone, put journals, mirrors, and alcohol away.

In Darkness Visible, William Styron puts it like so: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Sadly, it is not incomprehensible to me. Of all the friends I’ve had, it’s the one I know will never abandon me.

So I lay there—thinking about all the worst possibilities in my life, all the horrible outcomes I’d probably brought on by being defective and weak and cursed, while running a search through my past to find the elusive Turning Point where I must have transitioned from an innocent kid with potential into the embarrassing failure I was now—and felt the bumblebee land on my face.

Granted, I had the bedspread completely covering me. But it landed directly over my eyes. I could see it through the fabric walking around, fluttering its wings a little, its feelers rotating.

I’m not a flower, I thought. I sent it telepathic messages. I’m not a flower. I’m a human. And if you sting me, I will fucking end you before I die. I felt extremely angry, infinitely angry, so angry that it was hard to keep still. The worst part was I didn’t know why. The bee was innocent. It was as much a victim of circumstances as I was. But all I could think of was how stupid it would be to suffocate from anaphylactic shock in bed with the covers over my face like a suburban burial shroud. The Shroud of Michael. More than I’d earned but no less than I deserved.

I had perhaps one of the oddest sensations I’ve ever had, feeling like my emotions were clawing at me, trying to pull me apart, and yet having to focus on remaining completely still—all while my mind was defocusing into the irrational haze of a depressive fugue. I thought about Styron, how I didn’t know enough about his life; about some of the people I care about, how I knew even less about theirs; about Hem and Fitzgerald and how much my high school students had hated A Movable Feast and how I’d loved it; about my early failure to become a classical pianist; about my subsequent failure to become a lawyer; about my failure to get on the tenure track; and about the failures of various students over the years which I’d carried like a sack of rocks on my back, each one somehow traceable back to me, to my fault, my mistakes, my defects. And though there may have been some faint light blinking at the end of the dock, something I could focus on, something to tell me that yes, there was an end to this just as there was to all things, I couldn’t see it.

Then the bee flew back to the glass. Slowly, ever so slowly, I crept up, opened the window, and watched it fly away, over the rock wall, into the trees.

I sat back on the edge of the bed. The clock read 8:03 AM.


On Passing Judgment

The robot ghost of Ram Dass, one of my favorite self-help gurus, posted the following to his Facebook page this morning: “The judging mind is very divisive. It separates. Separation closes your heart. If you close your heart to someone, you are perpetuating your suffering and theirs. Shifting out of judgment means learning to appreciate your predicament with an open heart instead of judging. Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” This statement is why I love Ram Dass. His personal philosophy is so opposite to mine that I feel he is my spiritual uncle, still part of a family from which I was estranged long ago.

Since the dear old boy obviously didn’t post this himself and since the invisible automaton (whether human or a AI postbot amounts to the same thing) tasked with marketing his personality isn’t programmed for discussion—and since the commenters on the page seem more like the postbot than the guru—I will add some thoughts here with my morning coffee.

It would be easy to say, “Judge and prepare to be judged because this is human nature.” But responding that way is useless without a lot of support: what is human nature and how can we know it? What is judgment? How are passing judgment on others and the experience of judgment being passed on you similar and different? And why should this part of human nature be preferable to the idea, “judge not.” If I can’t develop some reasonable working hypotheses here, I can’t argue with the guru at all.

And yet there is something I feel when I read a statement like, “Separation closes your heart.” I think I feel angry, indignant. Same with, “Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” So I want to explore these feelings as a way to at least get to some subjective truth, some way of knowing myself. Because if I can’t come up with answers to the above questions, more objective ways of knowing are foreclosed. In the end, while thinking about this, I have only myself, my feelings, my sense that something rings true or false. Where do these negative feelings come from? Why was I experiencing them when all the guru was saying was that it’s good to come together with people and try to understand them?

Inception

I was re-watching Inception the other day, a movie I like a lot and one that manages to be extremely clever while also being high-concept and super-formula-driven. And I thought about something a screenwriting teacher from AFI once said about the social function of movies, especially high-concept ones: they provide novelty (i.e. new information); the reinforce dominant social values; they offer vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life; and they generate a sense of closure (i.e. everyone lived happily ever after until the sequel) as opposed to real life where there is never any true closure. Inception does all these things.

After watching Inception multiple times, I felt like I finally understood it enough to think about it critically. And as soon as I reached that point, I started to get depressed because here was one of my favorite movies showing me something about all movies and, by extension, about human nature. Inception provides a complex matrix of streamlined ideas about lucid dreaming and subjective filters for reality (novelty / new information); it has the usual provincial social values of most action films (hero must set things right with wife and family who don’t understand what he has to do to make a living); vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life (unlimited funds, beautiful women, travel, super powers in a “heist movie” frame, and meanwhile the corporate energy moguls are portrayed as sad clueless cretins); and it gives a sense of closure (the Total Recall ending—is this reality? Does it matter if you’re happy?). All well and good. We can pick any high budget action film and get the same layout. But what does this teach us about what we need? Because we will obviously pay good money to get it.

What I realized while watching Inception for something like the fifth time is that we are indeed separated. We are indeed suffering. And this is so horrible that we need to enter another frame of reference (the fantasy world of the movie) for relief. Inception, like so many other movies in its genre and in general, gives new information because our days are monotonous and we are bored. It reinforces social values because we feel uncertain about what we are told to believe about our lives. It offers emotional relief because the conditions of our lives regularly depress and discourage us. And it gives a sense of closure because this suffering only ends at death and since we don’t understand death, we can’t look forward to closure there, either.

In short, Hollywood understands the nature of our constant pain and offers us a very straightforward transaction: pay a little and get a little relief. We might criticize the movie industry for this, but really there is a lot of sincerity there. Hollywood wants to make great amounts of money, sure. But people also want to make Star Wars, Escape from Alcatraz, Key Largo, High Plains Drifter, and Citizen Kane because of the power in creating something like that—the vast cultural impact that comes with satisfying the above human needs so deeply that people will carry some of that satisfaction for the rest of their lives. Because life will be hard for everyone whether they open their hearts or not.

Separation is a Given as is Judgment

So when the guru tells me that separation breeds suffering, I have to agree. But this is why I’m estranged from that particular family: we cannot avoid suffering and it is disingenuous to claim that we can. This is how I feel when I think about my own experience as a social being. Suffering is inevitable because culture depends on being able to use stable and replicable data (old, often monotonous, information). A stable society depends on shared values that are nevertheless constantly being challenged in a divisive and uncertain world and therefore need reinforcement. We’re very upset about these things. And nothing is ever completely handled. It’s never over.

I think I get angry at such self-help advice because it presupposes things can be solved. And that, if I only change myself, suppress something in myself, root something defective out of myself, I will have life handled. This makes me angry because it seems like a lie, like marketing, beneath which is a very old, very Christian idea: you are defective the way you are. You must atone for this defectiveness by conforming to the pattern we give you. Only then will you find release from your suffering. Rubbish. I would rather watch a movie and find temporary relief, then think about and understand why.

There is a lot to be learned from gurus advocating self-help and self-change, even if those gurus are engaging in stealth Christianity. I like Ram Dass for his infectious cheerfulness, his sense of humor, and his intelligence. However, when it comes to what I must do to feel better, my emotional sense is that I would rather indulge in who I am than try to become who someone says I should be.


Freedom

There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.

No True Answers, No Answerable Truths

Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.

Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.

Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean

Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.

We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.

But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.

Freedom From the Burden of Meaning

There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.

At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told.  We will be free.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)


The Voice in the Fire

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.


Blame the Drugs

Today, there was flooding in London. I was supposed to be there. But because I have no cartilage in my knees, I often wake up in agony on barometrically improvident days. Dark days of lying on the bed, focusing on my breathing. Days in which it’s hard to think, much less write. Days of codeine and jasmine tea and misanthropy. Walking from room to room is difficult and leaving the house is out of the question when I’m feeling like this and Port Meadow is up to 22C with 95% humidity.

Strangely, this never happened when I was living in Bangkok, one of the hottest, most humid places on the planet. Only here in the UK will the muscles in my legs tighten overnight, pulling the bones of my knees into each other, slowly, like a form of medieval torture. As with most manifestations of extreme pain, the experience transcends words. Maybe if I brushed up on my German, I could describe it. German seems like a good language for articulating suffering. At my current level of fluency, I can only say things about rain: schließlich, regnet es auf der Wiese. Or something like that. Maybe that’s all I need.

This condition has been going on regularly since 2003 when an orthopedic specialist gave me the option of surgery (resulting in no more pain but having to walk with a cane for the rest of my life) or occasional pain and my normal range of functionality on all the other days. I chose the second option, of course, which I still think was right. But goddamn, son, it hurts.

It’s a shame she won’t live – but then again, who does?

So it’s late afternoon. I’ve been trying to get meaningful writing done all day and a personal blog post is as good as it’s going to get. Lots of painkillers, tea, and sheer meanness seem to have worked such that I can at least get these words down. Lord knows I can’t allow a day to pass without producing some kind of manifesto, story, novel segment, editorial, white paper, or media rant. But, sitting here in my bathrobe, feeling like I’ve been put to the question by the town fathers for leading a black mass in the woods, I’m close to just dosing up, crawling back into bed, and moaning myself to sleep.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking. I know. Bad idea in my current state of mind. Still, I keep seeing the image of Deckard and Rachael making out in Deckard’s apartment, which admits of no rational explanation other than I associate rain, flooding, and climate change with the Blade Runner aesthetic. Blame PD James and Alfonso Cuarón for linking those together in my head via Children of Men.

Anyway, Blade Runner‘s about halfway over and Rachael’s been sitting at Deckard’s piano, talking about her dreams. And we feel bad for her because even though she’s sensitive and beautiful, we suspect she’s just some high-end Real Girl noir sexbot insinuated into Deckard’s life to distract him from the real nefarious shit that is likely going down over at the Tyrell Corporation. And every time I watch the movie, I read the moment they kiss in a different way.

Sometimes, I read it as Deckard giving in to the illusion. He knows she’s a replicant and doesn’t really care at that point because they’re both lost souls in a world where the distinction between natural and artificial has ceased to have any meaning—so forget about the fact that you’re lost and come over here.

Sometimes, I read it as Rachael giving in to the illusion that what she’s feeling for him is more than just an algorithm written into her synthetic gray matter by proto-Elon Musk Eldon Tyrell. Giving in because she wants to and maybe wanting is enough or everything.

And yes, if we look at that scene after reading Through a Scanner Darkly, we will have an emotional meltdown because Philip K. Dick was no fool and he understood something when he wrote:

But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away.

So I do this. I think of this. And I listen to “Wish You Were Here” sipping my tea and breathing through the pain while I look at the meadow. And that last stanza, “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ And how we found/ The same old fears” means a lot to me; though, I have never felt more alien in this world.

The Voight-Kampff Empathy Test

Sometime back in 1993, William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” which is a saying that seems wise, then obvious, then wise again the more you think about it. But 23 years of hindsight later, the obvious part seems far more dominant than whatever might have proven insightful. It’s 2016. Has the sheer science-fiction-horror-dread of this moment in time caught up to us from the back end of the 20th century yet? The future is not evenly distributed, at least the good parts where someone like me can get bionic knees. In 1982, Blade Runner gave the world a vision of rebirth after decay instead of the unadulterated Kali Yuga we’re entering now.

Ridley Scott wanted to show us how replicants just want to be loved and how those replicants are really us. Instead, we’re seeing how we’ve failed to evolve beyond the dystopian Reagan-era cyberpunk automatons we fantasized about in the 1980s. We never got past Terminator. Now, all we can say, with any degree of sincerity, is: blame the drugs. But not the ones people were on in the eighties when they handed us the trickle-down theory. Blame the nasty synthetic street drugs that made the best story of the last two decades have to be about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who starts cooking meth to pay his bills. Yeah. Debt. Meth. Drones. Endless war. Doesn’t it add up?  Time for your meds.

All our dreams of machine salvation, online utopia, and some vague transhumanist singularity depending on an equally flimsy brain-as-hard drive metaphor became loud, stupid, self-important Neo from the Matrix—our savior, here to make us feel better about being consumers and take away our pain. The fridge logic singularity of Matrix Revolutions was merely the last cynical whimper.

But I’m in a bad mood today. Don’t listen to me. Now we have Trump and Hilary. Now the sweaty holographic fetish reel of decadent and naïve Reagan-era consumerism obviously didn’t work, but we’ve taken too much fluoxetine hydrochloride to care. It was never going to work. It wasn’t built to work. And it was always going to be ugly beyond words.

“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” 

Count Zero, William Gibson


Though Bennu Birds Might Rise and Fall

One of the great, maybe incredible, things about having interesting friends is that you have a lot of stories to tell, if you’re the sort of person who likes telling stories, which I am. One of the sad, maybe horrible, things is that your friends are often your primary audience for these stories and people reach a point at which they stop trusting you with the events of their lives. They think you’re going to reveal everything ugly and embarrassing written on their hearts and on their faces, and their inherent defectiveness will then be shamefully exposed to the world. Who wants that?

So it’s not hard to see that misunderstandings will be inevitable and a certain degree of paranoia will definitely set in. In fact, your friends are sure to become convinced everything you write is about them personally. Oh sure, maybe you’ve used different details (like age, gender, geographical location, profession, background, ethnicity, species of house pet, and everything that happened) but really it has to be about them. They might as well have told the story themselves about themselves. And sometimes they do.

But more often they don’t. Because if they had, they’d understand that a good story is like an exotic bird. It’s nice to look at for a while, but how much more wonderful would it be to watch it fly out of your house and into someone else’s, then, squawking, fly into another house and another house until the entire block is pissed off and lights are coming on and maybe somebody throws a shoe and shatters his own windowpane and then the baby starts crying and somebody says I never loved you while standing at the sink and everyone winds up having an affair and life is changed forever. You story did that. So you don’t really have a choice. You have to tell it because what else could have such a remarkable effect? It’s magic. The Resplendent Quetzal has to fly.

Then again, if the story is completely unbelievable—even if it really happened—certain steps must be taken. Say, for example, you have a friend who wins an absurd amount of money in a poker game he should never have been playing. The amount he wins is so large that he fears for his life. But that’s not what makes the story great. The great part is that he had an immense amount of student loan debt, the sort that if he worked long hours for most of his life and never took a vacation or retired, he still wouldn’t be able to get out from under it. And a single poker game put him in a position to eventually pay the whole thing off.

Of course, what really happened is more complicated than that. And, for two years, you mull the story over, trying to come up with a way to tell it—how he paid off his debts and turned his life around and especially how he never played cards again, figuring his luck was divine and the gods don’t do favors like that more than once. For two long years, you feed the bird, imagining what would happen if you let it out on a warm spring night when the chimes are tinkling and everything seems quiet and slow.

Do you have a responsibility here? How much would everyone (especially your friend) hate you for writing the story? The cost-benefit is agony—especially since you know deep down that you’re doing to write it, that your friend is a great person but that you have this compulsion and eventually you will be powerless against it.

So one warm night with the chimes tapping the window and too much caffeine in your veins, you tell yourself you’ll just write it. You won’t send it to a magazine or post it on your blog. You’ll write it like an exorcism and be done with it once and for all. Your friend will never know. And the story will fly out of town, down to some rainforest canopy in the feral part of your hard drive to live with the Splendid Fairywren and the Lilac-Breasted Tern in the cold confetti of paradise.

At least until you drop your laptop in a motel pool on some drunken Sunday far in the future. The point is that you write the story. And, in the course of constructing a realistic narrative about an unreal thing that really happened, you realize that your friend is a fundamentally decent human being. The discontinuities and convolutions of doing creative nonfiction to a bit of his life reveal his essential goodness not unlike a magic mirror. The glass clouds over and it’s not your face looking back. ‘Tis true. He’s a thousand times better than you, oh hypercaffeinated story-writing fool with disheveled hair and guilty conscience.

All you can do is try to render what you consider to be his essential goodness and the wonder of his story—one which has been told many times by many writers better than you but which rarely comes about in real life. The poor, hardworking underdog wins for once and actually does the right thing with the money. Somehow, it’s even better because you can admit that if you had that much, you’d be sunning yourself ricky tick on a super-yacht off the coast of Zadar with Anastazija and Ljubica. He is basically, without a doubt, a better person. And this is why the gods do you no favors. So maybe you do understand a little bit about the world.

In any case, the bird, like the bennu-phoenix of antiquity, rises off your laptop like a flame from its own ashes. Where before it was merely a delicately feathered idea of itself, your writerly fever gives it shape and magical fire. It explodes into words. Then it demands a cookie. Because it is your bennu-phoenix, it prefers Mcvities Milk Chocolate Caramel Biscuits with a cup of strong Assam tea and a little coconut milk. But this is only natural. The real question is: how long do you expect such a marvelous bird to stay put?

Your friend comes to visit and you say nothing. You’re probably so busy shrugging and blaming the houseboats down on the river for the burning smell, that you don’t notice how he’s changed. It smells like an upholstry fire? Well, you know those boat people are always sailing their barges on the other side of the meadow. They’ll strip an empty house clean for fuel. They do it all the time. And you surreptitiously drop a cookie between the seat cushions, hoping the bennu-phoenix will quit trying to nip you in the ass while you’re sitting across from the reason for its existence. The bird wants out.

But your friend has changed, hasn’t he. He’s still got a considerable amount left over after paying his debts and even contributing significantly to his niece’s college fund. A certain air of respectability rides on his shoulders, as if it were now his duty, his burden, to have opinions about things. He’s been reading art history, you see. Politics. He uses the word consequence enough to make you think the word must have tiny lead counterweights roped to it like a piece of flying scenery.

And so you work very hard at having a conversation with this person while trying to square your perception of who he is becoming versus who you have imagined him to be. You feel like your house might burn down from shame at any moment and, though bennu birds might rise and fall, a house only goes one way if it isn’t standing straight. Such shame: that you could have been so wrong, that no matter how many caramel biscuits you feed your creation and no matter how its feathers seem to rake the air with brilliant fire, it is fundamentally false when you thought it was true. Your friend has become a pretentious asshole.

“And so I explained,” he waves his hand and the little counterweighted words bob and weave in the air between you, “that I’m taking this extremely seriously. I said, I’m a shareholder in this company. I’ve got two advanced degrees. And if you’re questioning my judgment on something someone in my position deals with every day, we’re going to have words.”

“So what did he do?”

“He backed down. He had to. I mean, seriously.”

Seriously? He goes. That night, you can’t sleep. You’re covered in a kind of mourning. You thought he had the greatest, most classically great story you’d ever heard—conceived in essential human goodness and dedicated to the proposition that not everyone will be transformed by money into a self-obsessed unaware narcissist.

So you let the bird out, feeling sad and betrayed and blaming yourself, too, for being just as unaware. And it flies onto your blog and burns there for a while. And you hope it has as good a life as any bennu-phoenix could have, it’s origins shrouded in myth, its destiny a riddle.

 

Written for a friend who sleeps the sleep of the just while the cold stars wheel above our heads.

26 May 2016


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