Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Oh, the Passion

So I just watched The Passion, and frankly, I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about. Apart from the violence--which, frankly, struck me as being only a wee bit over the top, historically speaking--Amnesty International didn't exist back then, folks, and the Romans remain one of the least sentimental, most ruthlessly pragmatic regimes in history, so gruesome punitive measures were most definitely the 'stick' to the 'carrot' of the benefits of being part of the Empire--there wasn't much in it you wouldn't see in the average production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies him 3x, Caiaphas and company kangaroo court him over to Pilate, who bounces this hot potato over to Herod, who bounces it back, Pilate wusses out and orders Jesus flogged then crucified in front of John and the two Marys, cue inspirational instrumentals. Really not much there that you're not gonna find in the NT, apart from the inclusion of an albino Satan and having Judas hang himself on Good Friday rather than on the Saturday following. (Oh, and Mel committed the usual error of having the nails go through the palms rather than the wrists. More visually pleasing, of course, but historically a bit of a boo-boo.) All the usual lines were there: "You betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" "I don't know that man!" "What is truth?" "We have no king but Caesar!" "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." "It is finished ('accomplished' in Mel's version--which is a much cooler translation, actually.)" No surprises. If you saw the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth or King of Kings, you pretty much got the same story told the same way--except for the violence, which was, I suppose, the point of the flick--there's a lot to be said for focusing on the pain of being human as the sacrifice made by Jesus. Dying, after all, is quick. One second you're here, the next you're not. It's the ugliness leading up to death that constitutes the real struggle. So, fair enough--and hey, I cried once or twice--not so much at what Jesus suffered, but for what his family and followers went through watching it happen.

Was It Anti-Semitic? Well, of course it was. But then, didn't it have to be? Christianity, folks, is an inherently anti-Semitic religion. Sorry to shock you with this, but it's true. Christianity renders orthodox Judaism an inferior--indeed, blasphemous religion. Because the divinity of Christ (or at least the divinity of Christ's teachings) has to take precedence over the teachings of the Talmud. The essential message of Christianity to Judaism is "Hey, love your thousands of years of tradition and racial community--love the sanctified laws you've managed to hold onto since God cut that deal with Abraham real early in Genesis--love them--you guys are great, really--we couldn't have done it without you! But, um, see, here's the thing--you need to stop doing all that. Yeah, pretty much all of it. New rules. All new. Everything Jesus said? Replaces everything else. Yes, everything. No, really, everything. All that stuff in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy? Yeah, scrap all that. The fundamental understanding of who God is and what He wants and how the Universe really works are all completely different now and, well, if you refuse this invitation--gee, how do we put this? Oh, this is delicate. Ummmm--well--OK, deal is, you're going to Hell. Forever. Sorry about this, but that's how it is. Jesus was the Real Deal and if you don't get that, well, you're kinda sorta siding with the folks who whacked him--and that's just not cool. All clear? Good, good--so if you'll all just line up for the baptism, we'll get this show underway." I know we really want to all get along--and we should, and that's why living in a country which refuses to acknowledge the validity or superiority of any one religion is, oh, such a good thing--but, um, either Jesus is the Christ, or he isn't. This isn't an issue where fence-sitting is possible, since even to refuse to decide puts you in the "he isn't" camp (read Dante's Inferno, where all those who refused to commit themselves are stuck outside the gates of Hell, chased through mud and rain by hornets that sting them horribly throughout eternity--it's traditional, by the way, to read one of these condemned as Pilate, who is otherwise curiously absent from an epic the drags in every other Biblical figure.) So of course The Passion is anti-Semetic. It tells the story of the gospels (mostly the John and Matthew versions, from what I could tell), and in the story of the gospels, the Sanhedrin are a bunch of evil pr--ks. (Joseph of A. and Nicodemus excepted, of course.) Frankly, I think the ADL might have been a little oversensitive on this one (notice the lack of Jew bashing that ensued?)--part of me wants to be cynical and say that, like the NAACP, these people are paid to overreact to such things in order not to be rendered irrelevant and politically impotent. But then, the better part of me--the part that wins out in the internal dialogue--remembers that perhaps, given the events of the late '30s-early '40s last century, it might do to be overly sensitive. Better to jump the gun than miss the boat, to mix metaphors. Though, as a sympathetic word of advice to the ADL, let me add: Don't, for the love of mercy, get a reputation for crying wolf. The stakes are just too high for that to happen. Unless something really big and bad comes along into the public consciousness, I'd go subtle for the next year or two, just so you don't lose your street cred when you really need it. Just a thought.

As for the violence, well--that's tragedy for you, folks. And that's what the story of Christ is, at its core. Tragedy is a religious experience--a heroic figure who represents the collective sin of a community is destroyed for the salvation of that community. Oedipus is great, smart, noble, heroic--and deeply, blasphemously arrogant, presuming to defy fate and the gods in steering his own course in life. And which of us doesn't feel that way sometimes? So Oedipus is destroyed before our eyes (losing his, no less!) so that we learn to reject such arrogance--to recall that fate and the gods trump our peevish wills. Go down the list of tragic heroes, and you find that they're all great--and most of them are even good--and that their flaw, which destroys them, is ours, and one that we learn, by watching, to reject. Only difference here is that Christ is without a sin of his own--he is the purest and most universal form of scapegoat, a tabula rasa upon which all the sins of the community are imposed, his destruction destroying those sins. And keep in mind that in the original form of tragedy (in which the hero was the god Dionysus), the victim was torn to pieces. Makes scourging and crucifixion look comparatively clean, doesn't it? Not to downplay the agony of the film--God knows, it'd be pretty f--king callous to do that--but I wasn't shocked by it because the horror of the sacrifice--the violence required to expunge the sins of the community--is an inescapable part of tragedy.

So, sorry, true believers. I wasn't appalled. I wasn't offended. The story had, as they say, all the defects of its qualities, but those defects are an inescapable part of a faith held by millions (billions?)--and better to remember that these elements exist than to whistle a happy tune while ignoring their potentially explosive presence.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

August 29

An important day, this.

Why, you ask?

Because today is my mother's birthday, and I'd like to take this opportunity to declare to you all just how much I love her and how grateful I am to have her in my life.

And for those of you thinking quietly that this is just a cheap ploy to get out of buying a card or a gift--go f--k yourselves, you unsentimental p---ks, you wouldn't know a tender f--king moment if it bit you on the a--.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The United States - A Failed Idea

Now, I know what you're thinking--a typical, liberal hater of America. Not so. On the contrary. I'm quite grateful to the nation of my birth--granted, we're not the most intellectual of cultures, but it's not as if our bookstores stock only porn and sports biographies. (Actually, if they did, I'd still visit from time to time--and I don't give a rip about sports.) I went to a State university for my undergraduate career, and attended a State university--almost entirely on the State's nickel--for my graduate work. And I didn't even have to serve time in the army in exchange. God forbid I should ever speak ill of what has been, so far as I'm concerned, a kind and incredibly generous and lenient parent. And, the occasional genocide of the natives aside, America was an experiment well worth making--and not wholly unsuccessful. (Heck, we're even giving the surviving natives the opportunity to become incredibly wealthy by exploiting our own laziness and greed. Good for us!) We've done some great things. We've had some good times. But I think--let's face it--it's become readily apparent that we need some time apart.

See, it's not "America" that failed. It's the "United States." Specifically, the United part. Back when it was the original 13, such a thing was manageable, though even then you had your split between the aristocratic, slavery-using South and the Puritanical, slave-importing North, with the poor folks in Maryland and Deleware stuck in-between.

But as the recent trend in political and popular culture has revealed, the old saying about there being two Americas has become less and less a truism and more and more the truth. We on the coasts do in fact view everything from Arizona to West Virginia as "fly-over country"--and who can fault its inhabitants for resenting the living s--t out of us? I know folks on the left like to blame Rupert Murdoch for the evils of this nation (Murdoch having replaced Limbaugh as the Devil-de-Jour), but come on--don't blame the band for playing requests. Fact is, Fox News doesn't 'spin'--it panders. It doesn't seek to warp politically neutral folks into mindlessly evil conservatives--it's just preaching to the choir. Likewise, angry ministers in Oklahoma City love to blame Bravo for 'normalizing' homosexuality with "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"--but, again, come on--the only people who watch that show already think homosexuality is pretty normal to begin with. Personally, I'm horrified that someone as blatantly ignorant as George W. Bush (notice I don't call him 'stupid'--that's wrong--'stupid' means 'can't get your order right at Starbucks' or 'can't remember that colors go in warm/cold, whites go in hot'--our President isn't stupid, he's quite literally an ignoramus, and there's a difference) is most likely going to win re-election--and that there are blue-collared folks throughout the nation who adore him as our leader. But then, they didn't much care for Clinton, and there's a sweetness to payback that I can't begrudge them.

What I'm saying is, we have to give up the idea that we're one nation, indivisible. We are quite divisible, and I think we're bitterly happy about it. Texas, for instance, wants nothing to do with the rest of the country--and guess what, Texas? It's mutual. (You really crossed the line with the whole "Don't Mess With Texas" bulls--t. Only a truly assholic state could take an anti-littering campaign--a slogan designed to address the fact that you people treat your own state like an open trashcan--and turn it into a mindlessly, completely unjustifiably statement of jingoism. "Don't Mess With Texas"? Why not? Am I going to get my ass kicked worse in a bar there than in, say, South Dakota? I think not. And yet the residents of Pierre would never swagger around with "Don't Mess With South Dakota" on their belt buckles. So knock it off, Texas, you look like you're overcompensating for something.) So why stay together? You go your way, we'll go ours, and we'll both be much happier. I'm tired of pretending that "we're all Americans" means something other than a fact of geographical abutment--as if we all really shared some core set of values and that our differences were just cosmetic. Bulls--t. I recently took a walk through the Castro, and if you're telling me that its people are, underneath it all, really the same as those of, say, Birmingham--well, then, you're just so f--king blind you might as well put in for the red-tipped cane and the dog. I'm not saying one group is better than another--this isn't about value or worth--it's about people who have nothing more than a language in common, and barely that. And that's not enough to hold a country together.

There's an old cliche about how, if the Earth were ever attacked by aliens, we'd all put aside our petty differences and band together against the common threat. As someone who regularly (and involuntarily) sits in on staff meetings--meetings between colleagues who generally like and agree with each other, mind you--let me say this: No. We wouldn't. We'd try to figure out how to avoid committing our own nation to danger so as to let our rivals get their asses handed to them while tiring out our common opponent. We'd bicker amongst ourselves about whose job it really was to prevent this sort of thing from happening. We'd dither in sub-committees. We'd jockey for preeminence. We'd point fingers. We'd refuse to speak about mutual efforts until major concessions on prior issues had been made. We'd be f--ked, in short.

If 9/11 proved anything, it proved that our differences were not cosmetic--our similarities were. When folks across the country were giving blood and sending money and praying en masse, when congressmen of both parties were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and singing patriotic songs, when irony was declared dead and late-night talkshow hosts wept openly and unashamedly, one man stood forth and proclaimed it was all a lie. Rush Limbaugh, God bless him, was smart enough to see the truth. Oh, sure, he saw only his perversely one-sided version of it. But when he went on the air, mere days afterward, and warned his listeners not to trust the Democrats, that they were going to find some way to turn this around and attack the President and the Republicans and twist the country back into their clutches--dammit, he was right--fat, mean-spirited, drug-addled, and possessed of an ugly soul, but right. Of course, the Republicans did the same thing--9/11 became the justification for every legislative horror John Ashcroft and Karl Rove could think to inflict on us--but almost literally as soon as the dust had settled, we went back to what we'd been before: two nations who hate each other's f--king guts.

Liberals like Franken and Moore like to claim that 9/11 was a great opportunity squandered--a moment when we could have become more unified as a nation, and which Bush & Co. used to make us more divided. Sorry, guys, but the post-9/11 handholding was an illusion. We really didn't want to come together. It's like in those bad horror-comedies, where the two people who really hate each other are suddenly scared, and grab onto each other, not noticing whom they're grabbing--then they look, react, and let go. That was 9/11. Liberals still think this should be an exclusively liberal country. Conservatives think the obverse. So where was this magical unity supposed to lead us? To a world where both sides could get exactly what they want? Sorry--two objects can't occupy the same space--two nations can't really occupy the same geography--ultimately, one's going to lord it over the other.

So let's stop pretending. The problem isn't Democrats or Republicans. The problem is that we've reached a point in our culture where we can confidently point to a map of our nation and say, "That's a red state." Or "That's a blue state." Well, if a red state is always going to be a red state (and, let's face it, Texas is always going to be a red state. And Oklahoma. And Mississippi. And Alabama. And Alaska. And Wyoming. And Utah.)--if a state is so culturally and politically pre-determined that presidential candidates don't waste their time campaigning there anymore--well, doesn't that state clearly not belong in an enforced union with a neighboring blue state? Should a state that votes overwhelming to pass an amendment to its constitution to ban gay marriage be forced to unite with a state that votes just as universally to endorse it? Folks, we're kidding ourselves. This is not going to get better. We are not going to come closer to each other's position. Because we're a nation divided by issues on which there is no compromise. Either being gay is fine, or it is going to send you to hell. If you believe one, you cannot 'come around' to the other way of thinking--you have to reject it completely. Either abortion is the moral equivalent of murder, or it isn't--again, where's the room for compromise? Like slavery, these are 'all or nothing' issues--you can't have a kinda-sorta view on them. You either have a complete division of Church and State--which means you have to take 'under God' out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and you can't have the 10 Commandments on the court lawn--or you have a state-sanctioned religion. That's it--and there are a lot of people who live in geographically specific areas who fall consistently on the 'liberal' and 'conservative' sides of this issue.

So what are we doing, forcing them to live under the same government? This is not a democracy--this is a totalitarian subjugation of one half of the citizenry, and just because I happen to believe in one side of all these issues doesn't mean I'm comfortable forcing entire states to agree with me. Enough is enough. Let's just do what all couples do when faced with irreconcilable differences: Let's break up.

Like Texas, California really doesn't care about the rest of the country--and man oh man, do they hate us. (I still think it's envy of the weather, but I could be wrong--it might have to with our collective view of smoking as the 8th deadly sin. Light up in L.A., and you'll get looks like you just swung a baby by its heels and dashed its head against a wall.) So let's leave. Nevada--you're with us (you need us for most of your tourism, anyway.) Oregon, Washington? You're free to come along--I know you hate us for stealing your water, but we've got the military bases you're going to need to stave off a Canadian invasion. Come on, better with us than on your own--we promise to take conservation seriously once we boot Ah-nold out of office in a real election. Tell you what. Join us, and you can pick the new country's name and design the flag. Hawaii? You can go back to being a sovereign nation, but again, I think you might want to sign up with us--we're muy simpatico anyway on the whole gay issue, so why not? Everyone else? Go f--k yourselves. We're done. We're out. San Francisco is the new federal capital, and all y'all can go chase yourselves up a tree. And doesn't that sound like a nice country? California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Everybody getting along in a land of La-la liberalism and a robust economy on the Pacific Rim. And nobody in Nebraska would ever be forced to submit to our do-gooder agnostic bulls--t ever again--you're welcome, Nebraska.

Think of it! The South can get together and no longer be the national punch-line! (I would advise all minorities to leave the vicinity or to be very well-armed.) The flannel-shirted red-neck states (Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana) can all unite and kick out the skiers and the movie-star ranch-owners once and for all! Texas--well, Texas can finally be what it's always regarded itself as--a nation unto itself. Minnesota? Um, join Canada--you guys'll get along great--they're nice and stoic and deeply taciturn, just like you! New England can stop pretending there's a difference between Vermont and New Hampshire! And best of all--none of us have to give good godd--n about Washington D.C. ever again!

I'm moderately serious about this. I think it's what's best. Fact is, Americans are getting really comfortable with hating each other. And I think that what's behind it isn't a genuine, organic hatred, but a hatred born of the idea that half of us have to live by the rules--the rule--of the other half. If we're all really free to be free--if we can all live our lives according the beliefs of our own communities--I think we'll get along much better. At the very least, we can stop speaking to each other--and isn't that preferable to screams of hatred?

I'm Really, Really Sorry About This

Oh, all right, f--k it: I swore when I started this open diary that I wouldn't do this, but maybe, just maybe, if I get the godd--n thing out of my system, it will cease to rattle around my already overwrought mind like a hamster in a paint-mixer. (A cruel image, perhaps, but one of those little f--kers once bit me on the finger, drawing blood and scaring the hell out of me, so I am no friend of theirs.)

The thing is, see, I'm very very lucky in my marriage. Not only is my wife extremely beautiful (I once had one of my many flamboyantly gay friends tell me that he--he--was jealous of me, so beautiful was she), but she is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete and utter geek. Seriously. More so, I'd say, than I, and that's saying something. Bad science-fiction movies--she loves 'em--can't get enough of 'em--will watch them repeatedly: "Ooo! Screamers is on! Again!" Dumb fantasy novels--she reads 'em--and rereads them. Over and over--especially ones that include the words "dragon" or "crystal" in their titles. She can recite South Park and does a fairly good impersonation of Butters. She brought a framed vintage Star Wars poster into the marriage--and vociferously encouraged me in my subsequent purchase of a limited-edition Boba Fett poster. A recent statement of hers, regarding Alien Versus Predator: "If you see that movie without me, I will kick you in the ---s." (I didn't, needless to say, see it without her. And need I add that we spent several hours afterwards dissecting its flaws? Of course I needn't.) In short, I won the f---ing marriage lottery: a hot chick who likes the same awful s--t that I do. (Inversely, I'd say she didn't do so well in the husband allotment, but, well, them's the breaks. In order for someone to win, someone's gotta lose. Or so I remind her fairly often.)


But the problem is that in her geekdom she fails miserably to curb my own worst habits. By sharing my interest in, say, the burdgeoning romance between Batman and Wonder Woman in Comedy Central's Justice League series, she undermines my ability to come to my senses and not give a rat's ass about such things. By agreeing with me that James Marsden is so utterly, wretchedly vanilla as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, she encourages me to speculate--for way, way too long--who would be better in the part. (Answer: Just about anybody with a pulse whose name is not "Ethan Hawke.")

In short, she validates my geekdom. And like a heroin habit, it's enormously enjoyable most of the time, but it leads inexorably to moments of clarity where one looks in the mirror and says: "I just spent a 45-minute phone conversation arguing whether or not Ralph Fiennes is good casting for Voldemort." And the face that stares back at you looks like that of Robert Downey Jr. when he comes out of that hotel room in Less Than Zero.

All of which means what, exactly?

It means--

Oh God, this is really, really bad.

It means--

Perhaps I shouldn't do this. The truth may set us free, but freedom is overrated, right? Zoo animals live longer, happier lives, right? Right?

Oh, well, I did say "F--k it." OK:

It means I'm still pissed off about Return of the Jedi.

Really, really pissed off about it.

I'm not alone in this dyspeptic condition. Indeed, I can safely pinpoint the exact moment in time that the cynicism of Generation X was born (the most cynical generation since World War I, no less): June of 1983. Because in June of 1983 an entire generation of 11-17 year olds came out of movie theaters all across America, all staring at the cruel gaze of the noon-day sun (because we all saw the first showing of the day), all saying the exact same thing: "...F--king EWOKS?!?!?!?" Yes, at the moment that George Lucas f--ked over our childhoods so that he could sell teddy bears, we all realized, as one, that our dreams did not matter, that what was right was not what always came to pass, that we'd been suckered, sold out, had. And that, I think, is why you can, to this day, put a few beers into any roomfull of 32-36 year olds, mention the fact that Luke and Leia are siblings, and stand back to watch the fun. (Incidentally, here's the acid test to see if you're a member of the much-hyped Gen. X: Try to recite the Preamble to the Constitution. If you can do it, but find yourself involuntarily singing it the Schoolhouse Rock tune, congratulations and welcome. "One-of-us, one-of-us...")


So I've got to do this. I've got to lay out, methodically and carefully, what went wrong in that movie. And how to fix it. Not now. Now, I'm too ashamed about the confession to go on. But soon--very soon--I'm going to do this, just get it out of my system and maybe, maybe then, the healing can begin.

For all of us.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Another Random Thought

I've already spent a post on addressing the inadequacy of the word "Depression"--and since it's still a subject that's, ahem, preying on my mind these days--I thought I might offer another thought on the subject. Again, the problem with "Depression" is that it suggests a minor condition. And people tend to misuse the term: "I feel a little depressed today." No, you don't. "Blue," "down," "unhappy," fine. Not "depressed." You wouldn't say, "I feel a little schizophrenic today." When you say "I'm a little depressed," what you're saying is "I'm having a bad day." That is not depression.

Depression is not having a bad day.

Depression is knowing--knowing--that there's no such thing as a good day.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

A Random Thought

Still writing on the fly as technology and geography conspire to keep me from putting together a series of coherent thoughts. Also, Depression Is Recurring--which I mention not out of some nauseous (which actually means "nausea-inducing," not--as I myself thought until a few years ago--"suffering from nausea"--that's "nauseated"--has anyone spent so much time on the subject of nausea since Nietzsche?--for those of you who, for whatever odd reason, haven't spent a lot of time reading German philosophy, that was screamingly funny, by the way) plea for sympathy, but just as an explanation for my random--and probably wrong--thought: It strikes me that the only two helpful responses to one's own despair are anger and laughter. Both seem to lift one out of the depths in a way that no other response--especially not reason--can. (And don't hand me that nonsense about exercise--from where I sit, exercise is fueled by anger, usually in the form of self-loathing and/or masochism.) Just, as I say, a random thought.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Having An Opinion - Pro or Con?

Should one use a blog to fulminate on matters political?


My problem with such fulmination is the degree to which good fulmination (which I mean in the virtuous sense, not the effective sense--though they really ought to go together) demands--sigh--such a thorough degree of research. I mean, to really argue a point, one should be able to defend it with fact--maybe even facts! That's a lot to ask. I mean, it's all too easy to point out the lies of O'Reilly and Limbaugh--if Rush claims that Kerry didn't mention the war on terror once in his acceptance speech, one can just Google the transcript of the speech, and conclude that Rush is, in fact, lying. Not that it matters--consider the number of 'lies' that Al Gore was accused of making: inventing the Internet, being the basis for Love Story, etc.--which the media--not the pundits, who are supposed to spin and distort and favor volume over truth, but the actual reporters, and not just the ones on Fox--cheerfully repeated. A quick check reveals that Gore never took credit for the 'Net--he simply pointed out (with justifiable pride) that he'd been part of the Congressional forces that took the 'Net from its limited use in the private sector and used government funds to expand its availability, etc. Likewise, it was author of Love Story--Erich Segal, if memory serves--who claimed that Gore had been a partial inspiration for the tale. But the press core didn't care, because it was easier to repeat the punch-line-like lie than to present the nuanced (but surely more relevant) truth. Again, sigh. (For those of you who want me to be unbiased--ain't gonna happen, but what the hell--there's the recent decision to claim that Bush 'banned' stem-cell research, when in fact he simply banned federal stem-cell research. But still--oh, hell, time for an In The Interests Of Full Disclosure moment.)

I'm a cynic. But I'm a liberal cynic. That is to say, I believe that people (for the most part) suck, myself included. That a person of ordinary intelligence is still pretty dumb. (I mean, a dog of ordinary intelligence is still an animal that will eat cat s--t at any given opportunity--why should it be any different for humans? A person of ordinary intelligence will do the equivalent, yes? How else do we explain the success of reality television?) That people are, for the most part, barely able to handle their own lives, and should in no way be placed in a position to control the lives of others. "The people are a great beast," said Hamilton (well, kind of--I'm paraphrasing for my own convenience--hey, if it's good enough for Sean Hannity...) And that the world as a result tends to spin towards decay, ignorance, and helpless catstrophe. But at the same time, we're all in the same boat--we've got to rely on each other, since the indifference of our fellow man is nothing compared to the indifference of Nature to our existence--read Heart of Darkness(http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0192801724/qid=1093371355/sr=ka-3/ref=pd_ka_3/103-6396857-7172620) . But to whom can we turn for our protection and salvation? The smart. The good. And this is what government needs to be about. Of course. A truly "duh" conclusion, I concede.

But, to continue, the "duh" analysis, there're one or two problems with this model. First, it goes against our supposedly democratic ideals, which apparently apply to our inherent intelligence and competence at all times in our lives--"Who are you to tell me what to do? You'n'me's just as smart as one 'nother!" Which is a crock. "All men are created equal / But vary greatly in the sequel," as Fisher Ames once said to a Jeffersonian. Some of us are just gonna be smarter, more capable than others. Surely, then, as Plato pointed out, it behooves the smart--and the dumb--to let the smart people run the lives of the dumb. In the same way that a parent has a responsibility to lock up the cleaning fluids and cover the outlets in a home with a toddler, a government has to take care of its witless masses--and those who, through no fault of their own, are in need of a little special attention. So never mind that objection.

But there's a more serious problem with this model--and here's why I'm a cynic--if the dumb far outnumber the smart, the smart far, far outnumber the good. It's quite easy to be smart--you're either born with brains, or you're not. It's very hard to be good--however you choose to define it, virtue only comes through enormous effort. That means that the smart people in charge are much more likely to be pr--ks than saints. Which means--sigh, yet again--that we can't just let the smart people run the show.

But here's the crux--a government devoted to helping the unfortunate has plenty of opportunities to do harm--true, yes, no question. But such a government, in a democracy, must at least make a perceptible showing with perceptible results, or face ousting. A government devoting to letting people go f--k themselves is just going to run rampant with villainy because people left alone tend not to notice things like Halliburton contracts in Iraq--far away, nothing to do with them, and who cares about Iraqis anyway? So, with grudging irritation, I'm a Democrat. Not because I think that Democrats are more virtuous than Republicans, but because Democrats are pledged to use the government to help the people--Republicans just want to turn the government into a barricade against the people so they can do what they want out of sight. I'm not a complete Democrat--I think that making people wear seatbelts and motorcylce helmets is just foolish interference with Saint Darwin's blessed culling of the herd. I think we should allow smoking in bars and in designated areas of restaurants. I think that the private sector can solve some problems better than the public--speaking of restaurants, I'd hate to eat in one where the wait-staff were on a government, 'can't-fire-me' level of employment and not dependent on my tip. I also (this may piss people off!) think that public funding of the arts is a wretched idea, since A. art is a voluntary pursuit by individuals, who ought to be prepared to pony up for their participation in said pursuit, and B. whoever signs the check, calls the dance--and that means that art that offends the constituency that politicians represent can and should lose its funding, since by accepting money from someone mean accepting the fact that that someone can take that money away if he wants to. So public funding of the arts leads inevitably to morons like Jesse Helms fulminating about Mapplethorpe and Guiliani shutting down that Virgin-Mary-With-Elephant-Dung exhibit in New York, an act that, as an official elected to hold the purse-strings, he had every right to do. Alas. So Democracts are not my part of choice, but of default. (What I really am is a Rockefeller Republican, but f--king Reagan turned that into a slur, so what's a fiscally responsible liberal to do?)

So I may, from time to time, engage in a liberal comment or two--but in an Edmund Burkean, "reform, not revolution" kind of way. And I'll try to have facts to back up my argument. I'll try. But it does kind of take the fun out of just spouting off uninformed bigotry...

N.B.: As an academic, I feel compelled to credit external sources--please see www.dailyhowler.com and www.spinsanity.com for info about the media's fables about Gore and Bush, and the Fisher Ames quote comes to me through Florence King's With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy. ( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0312094140/qid=1093379197/sr=1-5/ref=sr_1_5/103-6396857-7172620?v=glance&s=books )

Friday, August 20, 2004


I'm not ignoring you--my parents are moving from their residence of 25+ years and I've been drafted into assisting them in this bleak task. (Kiss those childhood memories goodbye! Choose which treasured mementos to keep and which to toss, unceremoniously, into the dumpster! I actually found myself using one of the house's, um, porcelain facilities and thinking to myself, "Well, that may be the last time that I ever do that here." Which suddenly brought home to me the fact that too much wistfulness is a very very silly thing indeed. Regardless--) Said house is without internet access, so only at infrequent intervals can I steal away. Updates should be sketchy for about a week. Go read "The Onion" and "The Borowitz Report" instead until then...

Monday, August 16, 2004

Response to "Quentin..." Post

Dryden here--Apologies for absence, my dear dear wife managed somehow to foul up the internet access at the house where we're staying, so I've been incommunicado. In her defense, though I'm never the one to break anything, I'm also never the one to fix anything, connect anything, put anything together, or phone to have something set right. She does all this--and is therefore most probably a better person than I.

Now, as to the poster and his--I'm deducing the gender through a feat of Holmesian brilliance--comments:

First, Kubrick. Oy, this is a tough one. There's Dr. Strangelove, which may be the most important serious comedy ever made. (See "Riddikulus Redux" for how significant that is.) So that's definitely one for him in the "Genius" column. But in the "Not a Genius" column is, say, Lolita, of which he made a thorough hash--try watching the scene where Mason's Humbert Humbert and the porter try to fold out the bed in his hotel room and wonder idly what this has to do with Nabokov, or the plot, or anything. It's painful and wrong, and just because Kubrick found Sellars hilarious doesn't give him the right to highjack the film. Not to mention that it's a deeply, unfairly misogynist film. (Though what's a "fairly" misogynist film, you ask? Don't bait me into revealing my own bigotry, wise-ass.) So, that's a check minus, I'd say. On the other hand, we have 2001, and if anyone tells you it's dull, you can safely dismiss that person from your company and your life without a second thought--he/she was doing you no good, sucking all the intelligence out of the room like that. Brilliant, brilliant. But then there's Barry Lyndon. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful film. Pity Kubrick couldn't be bothered to, you know, direct any of his actors--Ryan O'Neal, in the part of a dashing, picaresque rogue, is robotic to the point of catatonia--the only reason he's not the worst thing in the film is that Kubrick apparently decided to cast a slightly posable wax effigy as Lady Lyndon. No--beautiful photography doesn't make a good film--if it did, everything Ridley Scott ever did would be good, and Hannibal wasn't. We could go on. Clockwork Orange--good. Full Metal Jacket--brilliant first half, feeble, sub-Oliver Stone second half. Plus a staggeringly vanilla Matthew Modine in the lead. Overall verdict? Not good. Eyes Wide Shut? I liked it--but man, was I alone at that meeting. The Shining? Well, Stephen King hates it, and hates it for a reason I have to agree with--the horror of the story is the degeneration of Jack Torrance. When he's already flashing that Nicholsonian edge-of-insanity grin from the get-go, what' s the point? Plus which, the portrait of Wendy--poor, poor Shelley Duvall--is, again, deeply misogynist. We should not be rooting for Jack to put an ax in her head just to shut up her whining and hyperventilating, m'kay? 'Kay. Kubrick, in short, is a deeply mixed bag. Too mixed, I think, to be listed among the greatest-of-greats. (I have the same problem with Robert Altman, by the way.) On the other hand, if someone twisted my arm and said "Do it! Put him in there!", I wouldn't struggle too long. However--

I'm baffled as to the anonymous poster's inclusion of Lucas on the list of great directors. Lucas has never produced a work of, shall we say, high artistry. Now, nobody can tell me that Star Wars isn't a great flick--derivative as hell, but aren't they all?--but could it have been cast better, shot better, edited better? Well, yes, yes, and yes. The only thing that could not have been done better is (are?) the special effects--Lucas's greatest strength and his Achilles heel. Impressive for its time and it holds up well, but apart from that, what else has Lucas done? Well, American Grafitti was pretty swell, and people keep telling me that THX-1138 was brilliant, though I can't sit through it myself--but then? We're not talking about what happened to Welles, who was denied the ability (read money) to shoot the films he could have--Welles didn't burn out, he was SHUT out, and proved with Touch of Evil that he could take awful source material and produce great work. The pictures since STAR WARS have been agony--Lucas has completely lost the ability to hold an audience. Influential? Sure, yes, absolutely--but more for what he did to the studios (sent them chasing after low-brow blockbusters) than for anything he did to directors.

Coppola? Well, after The Godfather I & II (both justly revered) and Apocalypse Now (the original, not the 'let's-tack-on-another-hour-because-you-can't-have-too-much-of-a-good-thing' version), what else is there? I think the last thing he directed was Jack with Robin Williams. And frankly, for those who want to call Lucas the greatest traitor to his audience in film history, I say this: Godfather III. No. Call it personal. Call it petty. But, in the words of talk-backers across the Internet: F--k Coppola. F--k him right in the ear.

Scorsese disappointed the living s--t out me with that Godawful Gangs of New York sack of month-old puke. But Mean Streets, Raging Bull, After Hours, Goodfellas? Yeah, OK, he's in--except that he's not dead, and there's still time for him to f--k up his legacy. (And if--retch, heave--Gangs is any indication, he just might. Marty, please just make the Dean Martin biopic we're all dying for--please, Marty, I'm begging you.)

Spielberg? BOY, what a mixed bag. All hyperbole aside, Schindler's List is a GOOD movie. Great script, GREAT cast (Liam Neeson got screwed out of an Oscar because Tom Hanks decided to die of AIDS that year--way to go, Tom, it's not like anyone else could have played that part!), and it's brilliantly shot because Spielberg stole from all the right people: Welles, Truffaut--and yes, Ford. (Ford, by the way, was the first director after Griffith to understand how really to use EXTERIORS to tell a story. When everyone else was still on back-lots, Ford recognized that the OUTDOORS was the only way to open up the possibilities of the screen. There would be no Lean, say, without Ford. Granted, he worked with the Duke quite a bit, but that doesn't render his films automatically dismissable. On the contrary, he's a large part of the reason Wayne is an icon--by using him better than anyone else, he raised the man to the level of a Cinematic Emblem. Plus which, there's always Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. No, no, Ford stays in. I am right. The End. Back to Spielberg.) But while recalling Schindler's List, let us not forget, however, Always. The Color Purple (better known as "Give me an Oscar! Give me an Oscar!"). A.I. (wonderful until the end, which completely cut the balls off of the entire story--Stephen, if you want to be like Stanley, learn to eschew sentiment.) Hook. Saving Private Ryan (read William Goldman's deconstruction of that overrated piece of dreck in The Big Picture). The thoroughly pedestrian Minority Report and Amistad. The Spielberg of Jaws and Close Encounters and Raiders--three films directed with nothing less than masterful wit and the infectious enjoyment of story-telling--might have made the cut. The man who shows no signs of going back to the strengths of his youth--and who has acquired no compensatory maturity--does not. I've enjoyed his more recent, smaller films, but it doesn't feel like he's going back to his roots, it feels like he's playing it safe. Like Lucas--possibly more than Lucas--Spileberg has been deeply influential in the Biz, and much more creatively imitated than George, but as an artist, I think Spielberg is going to stay on the B-list.

Other random thoughts: I confess to having no idea about Miyazaki--I defer to a superior knowledge, there. Gibson is not on a par with with Eastwood (loved Braveheart! loved it! but I don't think he's done quite enough to be considered anything other than lucky--let's remember that, shudder, Kevin Costner was mistaken for someone with talent once upon a time, thank God we all woke up out of that national nightmare)--Robert Redford is actually much better--much more an actor's director, The Horse Whisperer aside--the only film in which he acted while directing, and unsuprisingly the only really bad film he's made. (One might also blame the Oprah's Book Club script. Sweet mercy, when will that woman stop her evil influence over the reading habits of stupid housewives?) Robert Zemeckis--well, take what I said about what should happen to Coppola, and double it. He stopped being a crazy genius soon after Roger Rabbit, and sold his soul to the Devil of Academy-Pleasing Bathetic Tripe the second he started filming Forrest Gump. Now he's just a wretch who forces things like Contact and What Lies Beneath on us, when not trying to win Hanks his 3rd Best Actor trophy for losing a whole lot of weight for a part. Eastwood--sigh--Eastwood voluntarily directed The Bridges of Madison County. There's just no excuse for that. Mystic River makes up for a lot, though, and Unforgiven, of course. Michael Mann may--may--be the best compositional director ever. His films are just so visually perfect that it's scary. His serious rival (wouldn't fight too much with someone who called him 'his equal') is Ridley Scott. Again, all these guys are alive, and thus able still to improve or decay. Their danger zones: I think Ridley is a bit too much of a talent-for-hire--I think genius requires a bit of an 'auteur' sense of completeness in terms of script, cast, etc. On the other hand, Mann's Ali was pretty weak--an instance of letting the visuals overwhelm the story--from starting the movie after his conversion to Islam to ending it long before the man had to quit because of Parkinson's, one never really got a sense of what made this man tick, and talk about a wasted opportunity! But, that said, go see Collateral. Don't ask, don't argue. Go. Now. Stop reading this. I'm serious.

OK, if you're still here, you obviously have no respect for me. It's reciprocal, MF--I'm out.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Quentin, Quentin, Quentin... (Updated!)

On the occasion of the release of the second part of Kill Bill on DVD--which I've not seen, so much of this goes out with a grain of salt--

A rather annoyingly shrewd friend of mine recently expressed unmitigated disapproval of Quentin Tarantino. Let me make sure I get the quotation right: Mr. Tarantino is, apparently, "an infantile wanker who disguises his utter lack of taste, vision, or creativity by coating the screen in blood." I was then confronted with the choice: Agree or Disagree?

Well, disagree. With a caveat or two. This is not to be construed as the polar opposite view--namely, that Tarantino is a misunderstood genius victimized by a society too blind to appreciate him. (I just described Christ, for Heaven's sake. Or Socrates, if you're an atheist--don't tell me I'm not ecumenical!)

OK, re: Tarantino, I come down on the "pro"side, not because I think he's misunderstood--I don't think he is, since, well, how anyone be 'misunderstood' when audiences and critics love his work--and, more importantly, I don't think he's a 'genius'--whatever that means. Damn few directors get that title: Chaplin, Bergman, Kurosawa, Welles (although he's more of anunrealized genius since Hollywood screwed him out of the career he should have had--insert generic diatribe against the soulless bean-counters in The Industry), Hitchcock, Griffith (apologies to those who remain incensed by The Birth of a Nation--look on the bright side: you far, far outnumber the people who think that it's historically accurate, a ratio that must hearten you when you consider its initial reception), Ford. Not many others. It helps a lot to be dead, since one can then stand back and really take in the whole opus, evaluating the entire output. I think the Coens will be called geniuses, but if their last two films are anything to go by, maybe not. At any rate,Tarantino's only made four movies--that's too few to be called a genius, unless one of them (a la Welles) is "Citizen Kane"--and none of them are.

But I'm still in favor of Tarantino. Why? Because he can (in my view) write good dialogue. Others (their identities escape me, but since I read their work and remembered it, they must be smart and good, right?) have pointed out that Tarantino's characters love to talk, and that's true. But that's a symptom of, I think, the fact that Tarantino loves to have his characters talk--that he loves to make words come out of other people's mouths with the child-like enthusiasm of a kid performing a puppet-show for his parents. (Yes, that was an autobiographical reference. So what? Shut up. Leave me alone.) And as a result of this energetic enjoyment of language and dialogue, the characters in his movies have conversations that don't makeme want to slap my ears and cry "YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA!!!" to drown out the noise--and that's rare. Not sure what to make of "Kill Bill" just yet--as I say, I haven't seen the second part, and I'm still a little leery of the decision to split it at the last minute--it's definitely one movie, not two, and I think it should be seen whole before any conclusions are reached. As for the gore, well, that's not for taste or lack of taste, that's referencing Hong Kong cinema, which makes the worst splatter-fest ever made in Hollywood looks like "Howard's End." (Those of you who doubt me, go find and rent "The Untold Story": http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00000IC9C/ref=ase_imdb-adbox/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=dvd --My advice: Do Not Eat Beforehand. You will not want to eat afterwards. Liquor, however, should be present to dull the memory and calm the nerves.) The question is whether such cinematic referencing--like the anime sequence giving Lucy Liu's backstory--is simply enthusiasm for these modes, or whether it's an argument about them.

And here my annoyingly shrewd friend may be right, in that I think that Tarantino is a man of enthusiasms rather than--whatever the hell this means--'vision.' Again, damn few directors have one. Again, Bergman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Chaplin--I'd add Fellini, too, but drop Welles--Welles, like Tarantino, was a man of enthusiasm--of an emotional, visceral engagement with the act, rather than the art of storytelling. That's no bad thing, but it means one isn't as artistically self-scrutinizing as, say, Bergman--one doesn't step back from the process in order to get everything in line with one's philosophy. But then, 'vision' is why so many of Bergman's films are spiritual agony to watch (and occasionally, let's be honest, a wee bit dull--they ain't all The Seventh Seal), and why Fellini so often degenerates into staggering self-indulgence. Vision often overwhelms story--witness, say, WoodyAllen's Manhattan, which is really about a bunch of horribly petty, unlikable people, but which sets them in a vision of Manhattan that glorifies the town and reflects their adulation of it--there's no irony there--Allen just let his love of New York get in the way of the fact that these horrible people live there, and we should see the fact that wherethey are helps to make them horrible. Back to Tarantino.He can write dialogue--and his cultural references are always spot on. But does it all add up to more than a sum of its parts? Probably not--but I think that might be the point.

I never understood why people thought Pulp Fiction was in any way profound. It wasn't. It was just an incredibly enjoyable, rewatchable picture about bad-ass people doing and saying bad-ass things. Nothing wrong with that--there really isn't a thing wrong with the film. But it's not "genius"--but maybe, just maybe, it is "brilliant." And what's brilliant about it--and Kill Bill--is how uncreative these films are--how they give us what we've mostly seen before--tried-and-true visions from films we already know and love. The question regarding Tarantino's lack of creativity is this: Isn't that his argument--not that he lacks creativity, but that we as a society have forsaken creativity for the ability to be 'clever'--the problem with creativity is that it necessitates confusion--people don't know what to make of what they've never seen before. Which is why Hollywood discourages creativity. So Tarantino makes movies that are pastiches of "Hollywood" films--action films, mysteries, gangster films, romantic comedies, caper films, buddy pictures, etc.--to show that the best we can do, in a world that largely forbids artistic creativity, is just mix up familiar elements in a semi-creative way.

And no, I don't think I'm giving him too much credit--I think his time working in that video store and watching every movie ever made had a profound effect on his thinking--that it showed him the decay of film from the greats (remember, except for Bergman, all those geniuses are dead--and even Bergman's retired) to the hackery of today. I think Tarantino's one of the few working satirists in film--and I like that about him.

Plus which, he seems to have stopped acting. I like that even better.

Post-Script: I found the source of my (as it turns out, mistaken) citation of Tarantino and his character's love of speech. Not quite what was actually said, but still worth citing. The author is none other than Mil Millington, the genius of www.thingsmygirlfriendandihavearguedabout.com and herein is the inaccurately remembered reference to Tarantino:

Tarantino is great because his films are so wordy. People talk unremittingly. More bodies pile up in any Steven Seigal film, but no one says anything of any interest. Slasher movies splatter more blood about and often try to inject a little 'humour' too, but the result is nothing more than a catch-phrase and some weak puns. Think of the scene in 'Pulp Fiction' where they're trying to re-start Uma Thurman's heart, what makes it so funny is Rosanna Arquette whining about people coming round the house all the while throughout. Tarantino deserves credit for, subtly, bringing dialogue back to movies.

Well said, Mr. Millington. I bow to you as Dryden did to Milton.

Zeus Help Us - Warning: Adult Content!

The Olympics are back. Seems like the frigging things happen every couple of years or so--like the cicadas, they burrow back into their earthy pit of dormancy just long enough for us to get comfortable, then rise again, like the Living Dead, to plague all of humanity.

Why, you ask, do I hate the Olympics? Apart from the fact that they gave John Tesh yet another venue to inflict his coiffed, reptilian presence on the TV screens of the nation the last couple of times?

Well, the short answer is this--and I'm going to get vulgar, so send the kids out of the room, this post is rated 'M' for 'Mature':

Bullshit Events.

Bullshit Events, and their encroaching tyranny over the games as a whole. Now I know what you're thinking--we all hate that ribbon-dancing filth, and synchronized swimming is the work of the Devil. True. But. I'm not just talking about ridiculous nonsense like that. And I'm not just pissing on all the sports included in the games.

For there are legitimate athletic events at the Olympics--I'm not saying I could stand to watch a marathon. "Hey, there's a Kenyan running at a moderately swift pace! And there's another! And there's a South African! Boy, I could sit here looking at this for, like, a couple hours. What? I can? Oh boy!" But a marathon is not a Bullshit Event.

Nor is the decathalon. Nor any of the various dashes. Nor even, God help us, fencing.

Why, you ask, are these not Bullshit Events--especially the fencing?

Because they are atheletic events.

By which I mean--they are events where the winner is determined by an objective standard of measurement. And now we're getting to the Sheep-From-The-Goats division. For what is a Bullshit Event?

Anything in which the judges are there to do anything other than make sure nobody cheats. Anything in which some bitter has-been holds up a score-card. Any event where the winner is not determined by a stopwatch, a yardstick, or some other objective means of measurement. Once it's about another person's reaction to the event--once it's about what another person thinks or, sweet Jesus, feels--that, my friends, is a Bullshit Event. Diving? Bullshit Event. Gymnastics? Bullshit Event. Anything that happens on ice that isn't Speed Skating or Hockey? Bullshit Event--unless Curling is an Olympic sport, in which case, OK--though that's a weird fucking game, so I'm only barely giving it a pass. Even Boxing, in the absence of a TKO or Knockout, is--I'm sorry to say--a Bullshit Event. (Easy fix--just let the bastards go at it until one of 'em drops. Problem solved--no more Bullshit.)

Consider. The Colts play the Ravens. It's a slugfest--both sides giving it their all. TDs are made, conversions succeed, and fail. Turnovers, interceptions, clipping, face-guard pulling, calls of off-sides. It's a hell of a game. And at the end, the referees all get together and decide which team played with the most skill. The most elan. Which team really got out there and tried the hard plays, the challenging passes, the artistic runs. Never mind who scored the most points, the game's not about that--it's quite literally not whether you win or lose, it's how some random asshole decides you played the game. There'd be a fucking riot, and rightly so.

So why should it be any different at the Olympics? Why should a group of people--all of whom, as I say, are past their prime and no doubt bitterly watching these promising young folks do what they no longer can--why should we let them decide? Who gives a good goddamn what these people think? It's all Bullshit, in short. Oksana Baiul (is that how it's spelled?--I don't care enough to check) or Nancy Kerrigan? Who was a better skater? Who the fuck knows? How the fuck can you tell? When you're great, it's all good, so how the fuck do you split hairs--and which hairs do you split--and why? Why? Look, what's the difference between, say, figure skating and ballet, other than the ice? What's the difference between acrobatics and gymnastics except one's done 50 feet off the ground? The point is--most of this shit isn't sports. It's art. And how do you say, objectively, who's a better artist? And if you get to do that, what the fuck--let's send out competing actors--Can Meryl Streep take the Gold, or will it go to Susan Sarandon? Will Denzel get the award for Most Strenuous Monologue, or can Russell Crowe win it for his native Australia? Hell, let's make it retroactive! Mozart or Beethoven--who will the judges pick? Titian or Van Gogh--ooo, tough call!

Look, I'm not saying these people aren't athletes. As I said back in 2000, Kerri Strugg, all 85 pounds of her, could kick my ass. But what she doesn't isn't a sport. It isn't even a game. It's an art--an interesting one, to some people, I suppose, but let's not turn art into a competitive event. Because art is inevitably, ultimately subjective. In a world in which an otherwise quite intelligent friend of mine admitted that he rather liked Battlefield Earth--a movie that makes Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space look like the work of an auteur on the level of Bergman--what kind of faith can we have in the judgment of a panel of assholes? None, that's what. And yet, thanks to their whims, somebody gets to stand and cry while the band plays his/her national anthem. It's Bullshit, folks. Pure, farm-fresh Bullshit.

So watch the games, if you want. But when the Bullshit starts, just ignore who wins and who loses, and enjoy the art. 'Cause that's what it is.

Except for Synchronized Swimming. That's just Bullshit.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Give Us This Day

..our Daily Show.

Only the briefest of entries today--and only to say that the existence of The Daily Show proves that, if there is a God, or an absolute Truth, the only way to get close to either is with a sense of humor. What's increasingly, frustratingly unfunny about the show is that it is becoming the only source of anti-propoganda on the air. We can all carp about Fox News (and we should--the claim that the multi-national media conglomerates that own most of the newspapers and TV stations have somehow collectively decided to produce a collectively 'liberal bias' is just...oh, sometimes you just can't sigh heavily enough, really. Put another way--if the executive producers of MSNBC, CNN, et al. thought that by disemboweling ACLU members live, every hour on the hour, they could pick up a half-a-share point, they'd do it. Without taking so much as a second to think it over), but the fact is ALL TV news--all print news, too--follows the lock-step of conventional wisdom (i.e. 'middle-brow group-think') because actually doing a little fact-checking here or there to test the veracity of public statements would be--well, hard. Really, really HARD. So it's up to the folks at Comedy Central--the jesters of the media court, the only ones allowed to tell the truth about the King--to find the clips that show the bald-faced mendacity of the folks we put into office. And they do it for a laugh. Good for them. Shame on us, for having to fall back on a joke to remember that they're actually not supposed to lie to us...

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Slough of Despond - and the Hell Beyond

According to his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chiefest of Sinners (Oh, what the hell: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0140432809/qid=1092263728/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=books), the Puritan author John Bunyan describes a period of extended spiritual crisis in his life, in which he was consumed by the notion that, due to a moment of frustration and anger at/with God, he was most certainly going to Hell. Quaint though this belief may sound to us, Bunyan's despair rings true to this reader--his descriptions of his psychological torment--a torment that lasted several years--are harrowing. He analogized this period of his life in his more famous book, The Pilgrim's Progress (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0140430040/qid=1092264085/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=books --you get the feeling I'm trying to encourage you to read?), as the Slough of Despond--the marshy swamp in which Christian, the Pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City, becomes trapped. As I say: Quaint. Sunday School Christianity. And also an unnervingly accurate self-portrait of clinical depression.

That's my conviction about Bunyan--that what he describes--what he experienced as a spiritual crisis was, in fact, a lengthy bout of that ugly disease. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive, I suppose.)

OK, so, here we go again: In The Interests of Full Disclosure. I suffer from clinical depression. It's cyclical, both psychological and biochemical in nature/origin, controllable but not curable, and a serious, serious drag. Drugs (including Paxil, to which I am now, for all intents and purposes, addicted--don't start on the stuff if you can help it) are able to minimize its effects. Psychotherapy has helped contain severe outbreaks, given me coping habits. But, off and on, I've had it for roughly the past four years, after serious episodes in my late teens (suicidal, that first outbreak) and mid-twenties, and I get the sense that this time it's here to stay. But then, bleak hopelessness--the pessimism that says that this suffering will never end, that all life is, is suffering--that's the nature of depression--so who knows?

In his agonizingly perceptive book of his own struggle with depression, Darkness Visible (last time, I swear, but this one really is worth owning/reading: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0679736395/qid=1092264917/sr=8-1/ref=pd_ka_1/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 ), William Styron argues that the disease and its victims are plagued by its completely inadequate name. "Depression" sounds mild--compare "depression" to "hole" to "ditch" to "trench" to "chasm"--of all the terms denoting the sensation of plunging that this disease unleashes on you, "depression" seems cruelly calculated to make non-sufferers think of those with the disease as, quite literally, "just a little down." Nothing serious--just an "off" spell--something that'll pass. We all have those days. And so sufferers become victimized by leaving vocabulary decisions to scientists. (Hey, we don't tell you what to do with numbers--don't tell the rest of us what to do with letters, m'kay?)

The title of Styron's book, by the way, comes from Paradise Lost, Book I, 59-69, and it comes a heck of a lot closer to describing the experience of the disease than the term "Depression"--Satan arises from his prostration in Hell:

At once as far as Angel's ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

Not too shabby, Milton. And however much Satan may have suffered, he at least had one small bit of consolation--he knew why he suffered--he knew that he'd earned this suffering. Mess with the bull, you get the horns--mess with the omnipotent, you get the worst thing God can mete out: Despair. Witness Dante, too--the nature of Hell is defined by Despair--what's the sign over the Fiery Gates read?

Per me, si va nella citta dolente
Per me, si va nel eterno dolore
Per me, si va tra la perduto gente


And, for those of who didn't take Italian in college because all the sections you wanted to take of Spanish were already full and you had to fulfill your language requirement that year:

Through me, the way to the City of Sorrow
Through me, the way to a Grief Eternal
Through me, the way of those forever lost.


Hell is despair. And so is "depression."

Just seems to me we need to find a new word for it, is all.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Riddikulus Redux

Let us consider two great American film comedies--I admit, by the way, that my first impulse was to compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but, well, that'd be too late-teens, never-been-laid, acne-pocked D&D fanatic, don't you think?--Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Both funny. Really funny. Really, truly, funny. But they are not--I'm choosing my words carefully here--both seriously funny.

No, only Blazing Saddles is seriously funny. "Seriously" because, unlike Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles is about something. Something serious. And it doesn't take Pauline Kael to recognize what that serious something is: Racism. Blazing Saddles is about racism. About the stupidity and ignorance and self-abusive nature of racism. Consider the most shocking moment in the film--Sherriff Bart (played by the late, great Cleavon Little, who simply didn't have the career he should have) steps out into the sunshine of his first day on the job. He approaches a tiny, sweet-looking old lady, and says, as cheerfully polite as can be: "Mornin', ma'am--and ain't it a lovely mornin'?" And without missing a beat, the old lady looks up at him and, with off-handed loathing says, "Up yours, nigger." It's hilarious--and it's also deeply disturbing--and it's hilarious in part because it's deeply disturbing--because sweet-looking old ladies aren't supposed to say something so vile. (And, as a side note, it's a scene that film-makers today would never have the balls to include.) If he'd walked up to a Klansman (which he later does, playing into their bigotry by asking "Where all the white women at?") and been met with such hatred, it wouldn't be funny, or even disturbing. But because it comes from someone whom, at first glance, we'd expect better from, there's a discomfort along with the surprise of humor. Because the scene--indeed, the film as a whole--makes a discomforting point: racism ain't just for guys in bed-sheets--it's in the hearts and minds of the apparently 'normal' members of white society, too. It's in us. It's a moment, and an argument, that nothing in Young Frankenstein (that's "Frahnk-en-steen") comes close to.

Why? Because Y.F. isn't a serious comedy. It's a silly comedy. Its humor comes from spoofing a well-known but harmless movie genre and from the general wackiness of the goings-on: "Frau Blucher! (Horses neigh off-camera.)" We aren't confronted with anything disturbing in the film--except for the fact, now, that Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn are both dead, which just sucks to no end. And yet, the film is, in its own way, every bit as funny as Blazing Saddles--I mean, there is nothing funnier than Gene Hackman as the Blind Hermit lighting poor Peter Boyle's thumb ablaze, or Gene Wilder quickly changing his mind about being locked in with the Monster: "Lemme out. Lemme out or I'll kick your goddamn heads in. MOMMY!!!" Young Frankenstein is simply a comedy that tries--and brilliantly succeeds--to be funny; Blazing Saddles (thanks, one suspects, to the influence of co-screenwriter Richard Pryor) wants to be funny AND to make a point--and makes it by showing first the racism of the town of Red Rock, and then their shamefaced gratitude for this heroic black man--smarter than all of them put together--who saves their collective bacon (aided by the only other non-racist in the film, Gene Wilder's Waco Kid.)

Two kinds of comedy. And (OK, here's where it gets dry and tedious--feel free to skip the following)--that we have to go back to the beginning of comedy for the answer as to this split. In The Beginning, there was Athens and Athenian Drama--and along with Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripedes (after them, actually), there was Aristophanes. Now, Aristophanes was the master of the Serious Comedy. His works had a Point--Lysistrata--probably his most reproduced work--has the women of Athens staging a sex-strike until their idiotic husbands give up the idiotic war they've been engaged in forever. War is Bad--Men are Not Necessarily Driven by Their Brains in International Affairs--Women have Brains--these were not obvious, given points back then, and you came away from the play thinking. And laughing--it's also funny--when the title character proposes her plan to the women of Athens they react with such horror that you'd think she was asking them to hack off a limb. Comedy in Athens was mostly about Satirical Commentary on Current Events. (Which can make reading Aristophanes a chore to read--who/what the hell is he making fun of?!) But the key here is that Comedy was Serious--even the Satyr Plays (incredibly bawdy plays they'd perform after Tragedies)--were counter-arguments to the point of Tragedy (see "Riddikulus!" for details on this counter-arg.)

It wasn't really until the Romans came along (Plautus and Terence) that Comedies became Just Funny. Oh, there was still the underlying--and always important argument--that some experiences in life aren't always totally devastating--that the possibility of reconciliation with the world and forgiveness of our fellow man exists--but mostly there was a lot of door-slamming, bed-hopping, identity-mistaking funnery. Not a bad thing--in many ways, more enjoyable than the (at times) genuinely mean-spirited nature of Aristophanes--but not a lot of Point. Nothing Serious. And so, the split was made.

The question is, which one is "real" Comedy? Is Serious Comedy better because it makes a point, or is Fun/Silly Comedy purer to the emotional function of Comedy: laughter? Which half of Don Quixote is better--the first, silly half where Cervantes is mocking the chivalric adventures of Cretien De Troyes and his Spanish counterparts, or the second half, where Don Quixote's foolish but noble idealism is gradually revealed to be something finer than the sardonic pragmatism of those who laugh at him? Tough call, yes--is Adam's Rib better than A Night at the Opera? Is Animal House better than Tootsie?

Ultimately, I think I have to come down on the side of Serious Comedy--so long as it's funny. Shaw's early plays, where he was still mixing message with laughs successfully, are just infinitely better than his later, bleaker, most un-funny stretches of theatrical didacticism. (On the other hand, Woody Allen's early stuff is just way more re-watchable than his later--I mean, which would you rather sit through, Bananas or Crimes and Misdemeanors--a great film, but there's nothing in it as brilliant as Allen ordering thousands of sandwiches from the local deli to feed the rebel army.) Or perhaps--to massage my view a bit--they may be of equal value, but we're missing that Serious Element these days. There's a potency to Serious Comedy that's simply not a factor in today's comedy. I laughed at Anchorman the way I laugh at The Three Stooges--disposably. Think about it--what was the last great comedy with a point--the last great Serious comedy? I'm hard put to think of one. It seems that in a Hollywood driven by "high concept"--"What if we gave Jim Carrey multiple personalities? the inability to lie? the powers of God?"--that Serious Comedy can't survive the gimmick. (And don't tell me that "Liar Liar" and "Bruce Almighty" had points--"Not lying is good" and "Being God is hard" are not arguments--they're trite, mindless truisms that cost no one a single brain cell to spout.) Thanks to Adam Sandler and (God help us) Rob Schneider and Martin Lawrence and--oh Jesus, do I have to continue? Smart comedy seems to be dead--or in hiding. And we need it. The closest we're coming these days is Michael Moore's satirical documentaries (well, film-length commentaries backed up by facts--which I don't mean as a slur at all)--but that's not good enough--we need the creative genius of the young Mel Brooks (the one behind The Producers, NOT the one responsible for the atrocities of Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.) We need Aristophanes back. We need the young Shaw. We need Serious Comedy.

P.S. Anyone who can think of a recent, decent Serious Comedy that I've forgotten--Swiss Cheese, my brain--please post your nomination to this page.

Sunday, August 08, 2004


Those of you who read Eco's The Name of the Rose (or managed to stay awake through the movie version) will recall that the plot hinged around the general belief--still current in the lettered community of academic snobs--that Aristotle wrote a second half to the Poetics in which--having anatomized Tragedy in the first--he did the same for Comedy. But said second half was lost--thank you so much, Julius Caesar, for burning the Library at Alexandria--you deserved the knifing just for that, quite frankly. And so for centuries--millennia--audiences and literary critics have let Comedy become the bastard sibling of Tragedy--without the Official Stamp of Aristotelian Approval, Comedy just never got the same respect as a genre. Ask people which is a better play: "Hamlet" or "The Importance of Being Earnest"? "Oedipus Tyrannus" or "The Man Who Came To Dinner"? "King Lear" or "The Odd Couple"--Well, OK, "King Lear" IS better than "The Odd Couple," but you get my point. Never mind that you're comparing Apples and--hell, not Oranges, but Anti-Apples--but could anything improve "The Importance of Being Earnest" (other than not casting Reese Witherspoon in the movie)? Could anyone argue that Moliere was anything other than the greatest author of 17th century France? (One could, of course, but would that person be taken seriously by me? That's the real question, and the answer is "No.") And yet Comedy remains an afterthought--we squeeze "Huckleberry Finn" in between Hawthorne and Crane in our survey courses, and even then, we read it for its "serious social commentary," not for the fact that Huck is one of the funniest narrative voices in literary history, rivalled only by Fielding's Narrator in "Tom Jones" and Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho." (Spot the irony for bonus points.)

And of course this bias continues to function in the production and reception of today's creative works--Comedies don't win Best Picture (well, "Shakespeare In Love" did, but that was due, I'm convinced, to the fact that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax kidnapped the children of the whole Academy, locking them in cockroach-infested basements all over Malibu until the decrepit members voted for his--let's be honest--"B" to "B+" film.) Sitcoms are dying, both in number and in quality--hell, Emmy voters were recently forced to choose "Will and Grace," as maggot-gagging a conglomeration of "gay people are funny because they're gay!" jokes as ever slithered across a screen, as Best Comedy. When TV Dramas want to boost their ratings, what do they do? Kill someone. When TV Comedies want to boost their ratings, what do they do? Have "a very special episode"--a nauseating half-hour where laughs are forgone for the drooling sentiment of candy-coated versions of serious illness or the aftermath of date rape. In short, pain gets more respect than laughter--stories that end in death are somehow more important than those that end in something a wee bit more cheerful.

And in a way, it's easy to see why. P.J. O'Rourke has explained--and I'd love to be able to cite the article and book, but I'm in a house in the process of moving, and all the books are boxed or in storage, but trust me, it's out there somewhere, in-print, worth buying, and much better written than anything I could hope to produce--that being serious is an easy way to make oneself seem more important--to sneer at those who are cheerful by mentioning the existence of horror and suffering is a perfectly undemanding way of making oneself seem deep and substantial. But it's also a crock. Tragedy is an argument--the argument that, faced with the unknowable forces of the cosmos, humanity must inevitably err against those forces, and pay a devastating--and always excessive--price. (Usually death, though you can sometimes get away with just jabbing your mom's brooches repeatedly into your eyes--phew!) And while Tragedy's argument may be true--let's face it, you piss off the gods, they are going to take umbrage--it's not the only valid reaction to human existence. And that's where Comedy comes in. Comedy argues that some mistakes can be forgiven--some errors can be corrected--indeed, that some screw-ups actually yield better results than what we intended in the first place. And isn't this equally true? Isn't the case for Optimism just as important--just as indispensible--as the case for Pessimism? And often much, much harder to make?

The aphorism--always uttered on the deathbed of the speaker, in response to the question of how he is doing--"Dying is easy--Comedy is hard," has been various attributed to actors Donald Wolfit, Edmund Kean, and to Oscar Wilde--but then, as Dorothy Parker pointed out, Oscar gets the credit for every aphorism of vague origin. Cliche--but true. Comedy is hard. Being funny is really, really hard. Think of stand-up comics--why, back in the '80s, you couldn't throw a Cabbage Patch Kid without hitting one, and probably a second on the rebound. How many of them were actually funny? How many of them approached any level of perception beyond the tiny size of airline packets of peanuts and the different temperments of cats and dogs, L.A. and New York, and--oh, God, the flashblacks, I think of that brick wall at the Improv and I start to twitch--Men and Women? Sigh. I reiterate: Being funny is hard. Consider the number of film comedies released each year and the low, low number that don't inspire horror--Will any of us really recover from "White Chicks"? From "50 First Dates"? From--and it pains me to say this because I worship the Coens--"The Ladykillers"? (No, I didn't see them--with the exception of "The Ladykillers," though Oh How I Wish I could get back that bleak, bleak span of time--but you know, I feel pretty secure in not having done so; sometimes trailers for films are like warning signs at the zoo--"Danger. Enter At Your Own Risk.") But tearjerkers? Easy as pie. Pick Flavor of the Month. Give Flavor of the Month terminal disease--or give said Flavor a saintly child/crotchety parent/quirky free-spirited love interest with terminal disease. Drag out for three acts. Give tearful speech over grave. Wait for the Academy to call announcing Nomination. Folks, we've already had one "Brian's Song"--we don't need 83 more. The perverse assumption of the public and critics is that "Comedy is Easy, Dying is Hard." Which is just...eye-crossingly wrong, factually, artistically--morally, dammit.

So given how hard it is to be funny--given the fact that Comedy is the Answer to Tragedy--that Comedy argues that Life is ultimately worth living--that we can improve ourselves and our lot and that the universe doesn't smack us down at every given opportunity--given the importance, in short, of comedy, isn't it about time we gave it some respect?

Next: An examination of Comedy--of its Two Types, their relative merits, and illustrative examples of each. Please take notes--there will be an exam at the end of the class.

Ad Nauseum

As I struggled recently with what seemed like an unending series of pop-up ads--I started to hear the The Sorceror's Apprentice in my head--for every one I kill, three rise to take its place!--I naturally took the time out to rotate loudly through my (impressive, if I do say so myself) repertoire of profanity and blasphemy, directing much of my vitriol towards those responsible for these digital gadflies. (At some point I wished bone cancer on their children, a wee bit of an overreaction, I admit.) This moment continued a long-standing tradition of mine of cursing advertising in all its many forms, but I realized something in the midst of my self-induced, cathartic rant--my blame was misdirected.

Indeed, for all the bitching and moaning that I and weak stand-up comics do about advertising and marketing and its pervasive, patronizing presence in our lives (even the late, great Bill Hicks spent his energy in lengthy tirades encouraging those in the industry to suicide), we bitchers and moaners need to pause collectively and recognize that advertising is an inevitability. It just is. In any kind of competetive market--from 3rd world bazaars where hawkers loudly proclaim the superiority of their wares, to 1st world late-nite infomercials where overenthusiastic Australians speak in ear-splitting volumes about their latest white-plastic miracle product, to the commercials that people tune in to the Superbowl to see--nevermind about the game--with budgets equal to the GNP of a South American nation--in any world in which folks have to choose between as few as two options in their purchases, both sides have gotta plead their case or lose a customer. And, bizarrely, cruelly, this is a sign of a good life. If you like being able to choose what to have for breakfast, what toothpaste to use, what car to drive, where to live, where to go on vacation and what to do when you're there, what to read, what to watch, what to wear, what candidate to vote for--if you like to choose, in short, then the self-interested rhetoric of a provider of services is part of what goes with that freedom. Advertising is vulgar and crude and panders to the lowest common denominator (i.e. to the stupidest, most impressionable consumer), and so it's guaranteed to be offensive to just about everyone with a firing synapse or two, but believe me, the alternative is much, much worse. We live in a society with too many choices, of course--take a trip down the Shampoo aisle if you doubt this--and this leads us to spend too much time making choices about trivial things--"Should I go with the apple/pear- or the apricot/mango-scented conditioner?"--but having too many choices is better than too few.

Plus which, I happen to be close to one or two people in the industry, so I happen to know for a fact that they're neither satanic nor stupid. According to them, it's the clients who are loathsome--but then, I know people in marketing and they're not evil. So whom do we blame for the grotesqueries of advertising?

Ourselves, of course. (It always comes back to self-blame, doesn't it?) Depite all the whining we do about the presence of advertising in Every Single Aspect of our lives--if I'd had some, I would have thrown my popcorn at the screen the first time I saw an ad for Coke in a movie-theater--thank God I couldn't buy anything at the concession stand without two forms of ID and a credit check to enroll in the installment plan--the ugly, ugly fact is that It Works.

And that's what we're really mad at.

Think about the implications for the true state of humanity when considering these facts: Spam works. Junk mail works. Pop-up ads work. The dumbest commercial you've ever seen--I'm not sure which one I'd vote for, but I'm fairly certain it would involve feminine hygiene and the words "the latest breakthrough"--worked. Stands to reason--ads cost money, time, and/or effort to produce and distribute--nobody would engage in such activities if there wasn't a payoff. So that pop-up ad for the diet aid you just deleted--somebody saw it and said "Heyyyy!" That e-mail about penile enlargement? Oh yeah, a LOT of men went to that website. (And, on a tangent, folks must still be falling for that scam about the attache in Nigeria who has access to secret millions and just needs your bank account to get it to Switzerland--if it wasn't working, they'd have moved on to a new scam.) People are persuaded to spend money as a result of reading and seeing these things. People who work and drive and have kids and are visually indistinguishable from everyone else you see on the street--and don't comfort yourself that these are Pod People or escapees from institutions that take field trips on short buses. We know these people. We work with them. We're related to them. Their blood runs through our veins. Advertising--terrible, terrible advertising works. On them. On us.

And what are we going to do? Stop buying stuff? Kind of hard to--I know I'm not buying a butter churn or learning how to mix tallow and lye to make soap. Home brewing takes time I could be spending doing more enjoyable things--like giving free pedicures to the neighborhood homeless. Bottom line, while I may not buy all the s--t that's being advertised, I'm gonna buy some of it. Which means, whether I'm moved to do so by an ad or not--usually not, but sometimes--then, to the producers of these products, I'm indistinguishable from those who are so moved. Which means, I'm making it look to them like their awful ad bought or kept them a customer. Which mean I'm inadvertantly supporting the continued production of those awful ads. And I'm going to keep doing it. While I curse the makers of pop-ups, I need to look to the mote in my own eye as I travel to my Netflix account--Netflix, one of the most prolific purpetrators of pop-ups, and about which I've said "I couldn't do without it." Ads. If they're intrusive to the point of abusive cruelty, then we must all be masochists.

And besides, some of those porn sites are pretty sweet.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Childish Things

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." St. Paul, 1 Corinthians: 11. (Part of the one of the loveliest passages in the New Testament, sandwiched in between some of the most contemptuous, misogynistic, cold-blooded fanaticism ever put on paper. Apparently God created this world and all its joys just so we could reject it all--oh, and we should all be celibate. Every last one of us. Not really into long-range planning, was Paul. But then, the End of Times was coming, so I guess creating the next generation wasn't a big priority. I did warn you I was a bigot.)

But I didn't quote the Good Book just to initiate a spittle-flecked explosion of outrage from fundamentalists. I did it to point out that Paul might have been the last man to follow this path of "putting away childish things." (Assuming he wasn't lying, for which I'll give him credit.) Do any of us really do that? I know I didn't--haven't. I mean, I'm in my mid-30s, I have a Ph.D., I have a wife (or she has me, depending), I have massive credit-card debt--I'm a "man" as opposed to a "child," right? Right?

Wrong. Utterly, tragically wrong.

Comic books. I still think comic books are wicked awesome. I still care about movies that are based on them. A lot. Too much. I'm an adult, and I spend hours--hours--each day wondering if they'll ever make a decent Batman movie. If I'm flipping channels past Cartoon Network, and I spot that Justice League is on, my bone-deep reaction is "Cool!--I'm there!" This could occur if the show appeared on the digital schedule between Seven Samurai and a newly unearthed edition of the uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons. Nope, I care more about watching Batman flirt with Wonder Woman than I do about, say, the future of mankind or whether or not the house I'm in is currently on fire. I reiterate--I'm 34. THIRTY. FOUR. Why haven't I grown beyond this nonsense? It's not as if my tastes haven't matured in other ways. I read Dickens and Milton and Faulkner voluntarily and with pleasure. I've tackled Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, often less than grudgingly. (Proust still eludes me, but I'm working on it.) I recognize that my former foe, asparagus, is actually quite pleasant (especially with Hollandaise.) I can listen to the whole of Das Rheingold and Beethoven's 6th and not check my watch once. I actually like wearing ties--and I can choose ones that go with the suit and shirt I'm wearing. I haven't bought or consumed a candy bar or a Hostess product in years. I am, in short, Not Without A Certain Maturity Of Taste.

And yet I can--and will, at the slightest provocation--explain at great length and exhaustive detail just where Lucas went wrong in Return of the Jedi. (Ewoks and the death of Boba Fett, of course, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.) Why??? What causes me to cling to such infantile effluvia? Am I simply trying to hang onto youth? I doubt it--though I did recently dream about trying to catch a bus that, as it pulled away, was being driven by none other than the Trix Rabbit. Clearly that bus, like all things associated with said lepidora, was "for kids," and my inability to catch it as it sped away could mean only that I'd lost that part of my life for good. Needless to say, I woke up profoundly disturbed, not only by what the dream revealed but by the fact that the best my unconscious could come up with to articulate this realization was a frigging cartoon spokesman for a sugary breakfast cereal. What's next, a nocturnal visit from the Hamburglar? I suck.

The only thing that comforts me is the fact that such infantile retentions are not exclusive to my own psyche. I have a friend--we'll call him S. to preserve his dignity. S. is a graduate of Stanford Law School. S. is an attorney with a major firm in the L.A. area. S. owns a house in Los Angeles--not near, but in (the amount of money involved in such an achievement is staggering.) S. drives a late-model Mercedes. S. is, in short, a man of substance, achievement, importance. He also visits Disneyworld--not Disneyland, Disneyworld, with the flight cross-country and the hotel and the rental car and all that--every single chance he gets. Are such childish fixations to last with us forever? Will I find myself irresistably drawn to the Graphic Novels section of Barnes & Noble when I'm in my 50s--where I'm sure to be mistaken for a pedophile scoping out the local action? Will I, on my death-bed, be found muttering, "Burton completely missed the core of the Penguin's character..."? Do we ever really put away childish things completely?

I need not add that I own both a Nintendo Cube and an Xbox, and if I'm not playing on them, I'm working through another first-person RPG on my computer.

P.S. In my defense, I no longer quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail at any given opportunity.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Full Disclosure re: God

From time to time I may have need of the phrase: In the Interest of Full Disclosure. Personal data is, I know, the raw meat of blogs--so, too, is the self-referencing of writing a blog, of which I'm currently guilty--but I'm wary of it since, frankly, one can too easily confuse the personal with the interesting. (See "Childish Things" above as Exhibit One.) But who we are affects what we do (are the two really separable?) and so, on occasion, what I say might, in some slight way, be affected by who I am. So, just to make things clear, if I let slip the occasional personal detail, it's not simply a pathetic attempt to make myself appear substantial--you know, as in the way certain people dine out on the same childhood trauma for years: "Yeah, I'm sorry your goldfish died--it reminds me of that time my mother died of cancer when I was three." As if every conversation is a contest and the one with the most misery wins. I mention such details only in furtherance of an argument or in explanation of an attitude.

Anyway--example of trivial personal detail that affects what I may say or do: I am utterly befuddled as to the nature of God. I intuitively believe in Him Her Them It, but as to His Her Their Its nature, I just don't know whether to take a walk or wind my watch. I will say that I think that the only belief system I find dumber than fundamentalism is atheism. The idea that God exists and makes Him- Her- Them- It- self/selves manifest in one and only one way and that there is a corresponding one and only one way to relate to said Supreme Being is just...I mean...are you kidding me? "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the Father, but by me." John 14:6. Well, yeah, sure, but doesn't that mean that we can only come to God through what Christ represents--Love, Mercy, Forgiveness, Gratitude to each other and to God--rather than having to have our head dunked in a metal bowl of water and profess an absolute faith in the divinity of an Irsraeli carpenter? Isn't that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan--that doing the right thing out of geniune concern for one's fellow man is a hell of a lot more important than praying to God the 'right' way? Note that the Lord's Prayer is pretty darned ecumenical--works if you're Jewish, Christian, Islamic--heck, you could pretty easily graft it on to Buddhism and Hinduism if you wanted. I'm nominally Christian myself. I was raised Episcopalian, which is to say I was brought up in an essentially Godless household--"desultory" would be the word for my religious indoctrination--Christmas was the holiday of Santa Claus and Reindeer and Frosty and--oh yeah, that Baby Jesus guy--with the Wise Men--they were cool! Easter was about coloring eggs and eating enough chocolate to ruin the ham dinner we always at about 3:30 in the afternoon--and what was that about "the harrowing of Hell" and "the Resurrection"? Huh? Don't waste my time, I got Marshmallow Peeps to gobble. But what's bred in the bone, etc., and so I'm instinctively Christian in my spiritual orientation, and since the Episcopal church is the cool one that tolerates gays and lets women be priests and so forth, I'm thinking I'll stick with it, thanks. But this orientation doesn't translate into the conviction that Jewish and Muslim and Taoist people don't get into Heaven, too. I'm pretty sure that good, kind people of every stripe get the big thumbs-up from the Almighty, and the idea that something as vast and beyond the scope of our understanding as God is uni-faceted is just...well, that's just silly. And often scary.

But atheism? Puh-leeze. "There is no God."

"Why not?"

"Because there's no real proof--clearly, the Bible's not real, and the Koran, and the Book of Mormon--it's all just lies. Faith without any proof is just stupidity and fear, and organized religion is just a big money-making scam for power-brokers like the Pope and Oral Roberts. People only believe in God because they're taught to, and I'm not falling for it."

"Fair enough--though lay off the Pope, the poor guy's dying and still he shows up to work every day. That alone merits some slack. But just because all the religions you've examined are inadequate, and many of them are corrupt, how does that prove there's no God?"

"I don't have to prove there's no God--you have to prove there is one."

"Well, existence is a pretty good start. Human consciousness--what are the odds that the universe--that existence itself--would randomly create a part of itself that could look back upon itself, reflect, comprehend, interpret, wonder? Wow, I should really be high to have this conversation."

"But it is all random--Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan said so, and they're smarter than you!"

"Not anymore--they're dead. But I take your point. And in their critiques of blind faith and the dangerous mindsets it creates in dumb or desperate folks, I think they've done a great service to humanity. But Einstein believed in God. So did Newton. Both of them were smarter than Gould and Sagan put together."

"That's just because they were culturally programmed to believe!"

"But weren't Gould and Sagan? It's not as if Christianity or Judaism aren't still part of mainstream culture--or did you miss last year's Christmas parade?"

"Knock off the sarcasm, I'm serious."

"I know--and the way your face turns red is just hilarious."

"Bite me. The point is, look at the state of the world--at the cruelty and inhumanity--at the Holocaust and Cambodia and Bosnia and the Sudan. At AIDS and Ebola and cancer and Parkinson's and ALS. At rape and murder and 9/11. How can you possibly believe in a just and loving God?"

"I didn't say I did. But let's take 9/11--that's sure to ruffle a few feathers. What if, say, you knew--for certain--that every single person who died that day (except for the highjackers, the evil f--kers)--every single one--was now in Paradise, existing in a state of total bliss, and that they would be reunited with their friends and family in that afterlife, and that they would all spend eternity transmutated into perfect love? Wouldn't that, I don't know, take the sting off of things?"

"But what about the pain and suffering here and now?"

"How does 60+ years of misery stack up against uncountable millenia of absolute joy?"

"But there's no proof of this afterlife!!!"

"You're doing that red face again--God, you're cute. But you're right. It's entirely possible that those people died--that all people die--for nothing. In fact, it's quite likely that you're right. Freud makes a good case for humanity's infantile need to create religious faith out of whole cloth in Civilization and its Discontents. (Buy it--read it: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0393301583/qid=1091903768/sr=8-2/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i2_xgl14/102-5349585-5250505?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 ) But I'm just saying there may be a reason for this suffering we can't fathom. Remember that what looks like suffering to us doesn't equal suffering to God--read Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy (Another cheap plug for the good folks at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0140447806/qid=1091904035/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-5349585-5250505?v=glance&s=books ) ."

"But still--there's no proof, dammit! And why should any suffering be necessary? Why were we created to suffer at all--and don't hand me that noise about the snake and the apple!"

"Can't answer that--and again, it's a strong point. But tell me this--can you account for everything?"

"What do you mean?"

"Everything. Every aspect of existence. Physical, metaphysical, emotional, intellectual--everything that exists on any level of existence, including everything from atomic sub-particles to the universe as a whole. Can you do that?"

"Of course not."

"Then how can you claim with complete and total certainty that there can't be some kind of controlling intelligence behind it all? Maybe not the God of the Bible--maybe not the God of any human's faith or imagination--but some kind of God--some kind of creative force that, as part of that creation, shaped a consciousness in humanity to seek that force out and make contact with it. I reiterate--I really should be stoned for this discussion."

"Why would God do this?"

"I dunno--maybe He's lonely and wants someone to talk to."

"No, uh-uh. No God. Period. I just don't believe it."


"I just don't."


"I. Just. Don't."


"Because when I was seven years old I prayed to God for a Stretch Armstrong and I never got one, OK?!?!?!?!?"

"Well, then, you're stupid, aren't you?"

And, with a slamming of the door, the atheist leaves the room.

I don't pretend to have answered all of the straw-man atheist's objections to the existence of God. (Sagan actually does a really good job on arguing his side of it in The Demon Haunted World : http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345409469/qid=1091904893/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/102-5349585-5250505 ) I'd even be willing to concede--and I do--that evidence does tend to be on the side of No God. But to claim with certainty that something doesn't exist in any form anywhere on any level of existence--um, that's giving humanity's ability to perceive and verify all aspects of that existence a disturbingly awful lot of credit, isn't it? And all we've got is the five senses and a brain that apparently really likes professional sports and movies with explosions in them. Atheists thinks that we're the top rung of existence. Call me a misanthrope, but I just can't go along with that. I'm not talking about Religion--I'm not talking about the efficacy of prayer or life after death or whether the dead will rise from their graves on an unspecified date in the future (you might want to make your plans for that day flexible, if it happens--you know, maybe you don't go to the salon to get your roots tinted just then, is all I'm saying.) I'm not talking, in short, about Religion. I'm just talking about the existence of God. And it seems to me that existence itself is the believer's trump card. For existence to be 'random,' randomness must exist. Randomness can't exist without order, since every condition necessarily includes its opposite. Order cannot be random--since order exists only in its recognition or creation. Since order pre-dated humanity, some form of intelligence existed to create or recognize it--probably both. Given the scale of that order (the universe), we might as well call that intelligence 'God.' Or so it seems to me. Man, I really really REALLY should be stoned to have this discussion.