Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Big Enchilada

The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.  Easter. The Big Enchilada of Christian faith and observance.  Well, the big day approaches and, as usual at this time of year, I do my "Easter Duty"--though not what good UN-collapsed Catholics mean by that expression.  What I mean when I speak of Easter Duty is, well, just sitting down, perhaps with a glass of Chardonnay, and thinking about what The Resurrection of Jesus could possibly mean.

This is, of course, big time "cognitive dissonance."  I cannot make any rational sense out of a tale of miraculous rising from the dead.  The universe as I apprehend it with my reason and five senses does NOT make exceptions to its own rules.  I cannot, therefore, acknowledge miracles as real within the framework of what humans can explain.

But I also sense--who doesn't?--that the greatest portion of "reality" is probably completely inaccessible to human reason and could never be explained with human language.

I'm fascinated by the distinction made by Karen Armstrong (in The Case for God) between logos and mythos.  Armstrong asserts that these terms designate two different means of apprehending reality.  Logos refers to knowledge we acquire using our five senses and our reason.  This knowledge can be explained in human language and discussed logically.  Mythos, on the other hand, refers to "unknowing," to a kind of intuitive, ineffable, inexplicable ecstasy that somehow involves us in transcendental reality--reality that goes beyond rational understanding.  Further, Armstrong posits that logos and mythos are not incompatible but rather complementary ways of experiencing, simultaneously, both that which is and that which is not.

In other words, Armstrong would assert that the Resurrection story is both false and true.  It is false in a literal, rational sense:  people die and they do not rise from the dead.  Our senses do not provide us with ANY scientific, objective evidence that such miraculous events occur.  But the Resurrection is true  in a mythological and metaphorical sense.  Our religious experience and practice make us aware of this truth, but there is simply no way that human language can explain what we sense as a result of our participation in the liturgy and discipline of the Easter faith.  We cannot, in fact, really talk about the "mythological" truth.  The language that we use--the language used in the Gospels--is metaphorical and completely unscientific.  It "points" but what it points to is "silence."  Armstrong calls this truth "apophatic" (wordless, irrational--or, perhaps "beyond meaning").

I suppose none of this "makes sense" to those who are accustomed to relying exclusively on logos (what can be known scientifically and rationally).  But, as Armstrong points out, the "unknowing" of mythos--a transcendent state prized in all religions--is NOT the product of any INTELLECTUAL activity.  Rather, it occurs only within and as a result of ritual practice, discipline and commitment to a way of living.  One must empty oneself and indeed lose one's selfishness within this ritual structure.  Armstrong insists--and I agree strongly--that the RITUAL life is what genuine religion is about.

The sacraments for Christians; the ritual prayer and fasts for Muslims; the "Path" for Buddhists.  The "logical" explanations for all of this are, let's face it, nonsense.  When I go to church (it still happens), I never listen to the sermons.  What logical foolishness for a priest--or a religious establishment of any kind-- to attempt  to "define" (limit) God or tell me anything at all about Him.  God is not accessible to the logos.  But in the ritual and the ceremony, in the songs and the chants, in the "magic" of the Mass, the mythos can (and, I think does) speak--with no words.

Does this mean that, in order to "go beyond," we must somehow abandon our reason and our intelligence--deny the truths that we know logically?  Of course not.  That is the asinine conclusion of the fundamentalists who assert, ludicrously and dangerously, that what we know with our senses and our reason (logos) is NOT true and contrariwise, that the mythos of the Bible or the Koran IS objectively and scientifically and rationally provable using the logos faculty.  So, we wind up with the outrageous cognitive dissonance of such statements as:  humans did NOT evolve from more primitive life forms; Moses DID part the Red Sea;  Jesus WAS born from a virgin; God does NOT want women priests, etc., etc., etc.

And, of course, the biggie:  Jesus DID really and truly and objectively and demonstrably rise from the dead.

Nope.  Not scientific.  My logos says NO.  But my mythos says YES.  And, for the time being at least, I'm going to try to be faithful to both forms of knowing.  Therefore, perhaps it is best, at this juncture, to practice what most of the greatest religious leaders have urged their disciples to do when they, the disciples, reached the limits of their logical understanding:  shut up!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cat Talking

When I was a kid, our family included both cats and dogs, sometimes simultaneously.  My favorite pet was Coco, a mongrel rat terrier who slept under the covers of anyone's bed (a whore, really) and whose incorrigible gluttony led to fatal kidney disease (she was especially fond of vanilla ice cream topped with peanut butter).

Sometime prior to Coco's demise, we nearly froze/asphyxiated Pizza, a male tabby who somehow found his way into a deep freeze in our basement.  We don't know how long he spent in the cooler, but when Grandma Kirkeby opened the freezer door in search of a frozen pie shell, Pizza burst out, shaking his paws and miauling in absolute fury at our unforgivable lèse majesté.

So, I've had experience as both a dog person and a cat person.

These days, though, I'm mostly hanging out with a feline--Sasha, the catatonic cat.  I've mentioned her several times before in this blog--a sign, perhaps, of my increasing fascination with creatures who seem, at least, to be able to perceive things existing only in the fourth dimension.  

Of course, such creatures--given their special insights--have no need for our hopelessly deficient human language.  They just "know" things by virtue of "being."  And, on the rare occasion that they have any need to communicate with three-dimensional types (for instance, when they want us to move our limbs into a position they find more comfortable), they have only to bite the offending arm or leg.  This almost always works quite nicely.

We humans, alas, must generally rely on language to communicate.  It follows, therefore, that both my sister and I spend a good deal of our time cat talking --i.e., talking either TO the cat or THROUGH the cat.

Let me explain these two important types of speech.

A.  Talking TO the cat.  Since we, unlike Kitty herself, cannot convey our wishes or feelings in non-verbal ways, we are sometimes obliged to speak directly to the Cat.  Two functions, in particular, are involved:  1) commands and 2) endearments.

Examples of commands:

  • Here, Kitty.  Come and snuggle with Kenny!
  • Kitty!  Get down from the counter! Now!
  • Get back in here, Sasha!  Move it!  Bad Kitty!
Examples of endearments:

  • Such a good Kitty!  Licky, licky.  Daddy loves the kitty, too.
  • OK, you can lie on Kenny's belly, but let me move the clicker first. There.
  • You're a pretty kitty.  Oh, look; here's your mousie. Listen to the mousie squeak.
B.  Talking THROUGH the cat.  This form of language is considerably more frequent than direct  communication WITH the creature.  When we (my sister and I) talk "through" the cat, we are actually hoping that the Cat (our ostensible interlocutor) will use her fourth-dimensional powers to either 1) transfer the message to another usually unresponsive human, or 2) help the speaker clarify his/her own thoughts and arrive at a possible course of action. 

Examples of "hoped-for transfer."

  • Sasha, you lazy cat! Why don't you make yourself useful and unload the dishwasher?
  • Well, Kitty, I bet you want to watch the Gophers game, don't you?
  • Oh, Kitty.  Look at that pile of laundry that needs to be folded.  If it was all folded up, you could nap on it, couldn't you?  I bet you'd like that.
Examples of "hoped-for clarification."

  • Well, we haven't done very much today, have we, Kitty?  You sleep all the time.  I'll bet you're clinically depressed.  You are a truly useless Cat.
  • What do you think about health care, Kitty?  You don't really know, do you?  You're such a dork.  I suppose we have to start somewhere.  You'd like some health care, wouldn't you, Kitty?  I bet the Republicans would rather give health care to dorky cats than to poor people.  Well, duh.
A word should be said in conclusion about Kitty's reaction to our various linguistic acts.  She usually responds to commands, especially if they are shouted or screamed, by running under the wingback chair. She then sulks briefly and stares out the window (seeking fourth-dimensional support for her humiliating ordeal?).  She may show some slight interest in endearments, but she is easily overstimulated and, when thus agitated, she runs back under the wingback chair. "Transfer" and "Clarification" messages, on the other hand, do not seem to affect her in any significant way.  But perhaps her blank look is merely the result of intense concentration and effort to help us poor humans "get it."  

Good Kitty.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Screen doors

How does one learn to not know and shut up about not knowing?

Shouldn't I have acquired these skills much earlier in my life?  But no!  All along, I've bought into the notion that things were knowable and explainable.

At least things that we "needed" to know.

What a lot of suffering I've caused myself--by refusing to acknowledge (funny word) that almost everything of any real importance is incomprehensible and therefore inexplicable.

I'm ready to admit this now.  But the admission leaves a very big hole in my life.  What should I rely on if, as now seems incontrovertible, my rational powers are inadequate to deal with anything beyond immediate, concrete problems (e.g., how to restart the garbage disposal).

I'm acutely embarrassed that I clung so long to the delusions of academia:  the arrogant conviction that either reason or science or cognition of some sort would provide--if not ultimate answers (I've always recognized that SOME portion of reality would lie beyond the ken of a finite being)--at least all the information NECESSARY for meaningful human existence.  All we "need," as I said before.

Such a crock.  An outright lie--that I espoused and taught to my students!

Now, the emptiness and the horror.  Knowing leads only to not knowing.  And, unlike the mystics, I cannot find this kenosis either comforting or satisfying.  Yes, maybe I'm suffering less, since I'm expecting less--but I'm also feeling less "myself"--more unhinged, more ajar.  A squeaky, flailing screen door in the wind.

But still making way too much noise, huh?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

La guerre de Troie

Dans la Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu, Giraudoux imagine trois messages venant de trois dieux olympiens :  Aphrodite, Pallas (Athéna) et Zeus.  Le message d’Aphrodite :  si Pâris et Hélène sont séparés, il y aura la guerre.  Le message de Pallas :  si Pâris et Hélène ne sont pas séparés, il y aura la guerre.  Le message de Zeus : si Héctor et Ulysse ne s’arrangent pas pour satisfaire et Aphrodite et Pallas, il y aura la guerre.

Que les négociations et les pourparlers commencent, alors !  Et grand bien que cela nous fasse.

Car, quelles sont, effectivement, les possibilités d’action dans la vie humaine ?  Quels vrais choix avons-nous, si la guerre arrivera quoi que nous décidions ?  Oh, je sais—il faut résister quand même afin de trouver, dans la beauté de la résistance, un brin de bonheur, un sentiment de supériorité aux dieux impitoyables et inhumains.  Le triomphe de la tragédie, etc, etc, etc. 

Mais j’en ai marre.  C’est fatigant, cette « dignité humaine » dont Pascal voulait que nous nous vantions.  Peu importe qu'on soit "roseau pensant"--ceux qui travaillent à « bien penser » finissent exactement comme ceux qui passent leur vie dans la bêtise la plus marécageuse, par périr dans la guerre inévitable prédestinée par des forces démentes.

N’y a-t-il pas d’autres voies ?  d’autres « principes de la morale » ?  Comment peut-on, enfin, nous débarrasser de ces dieux—ces puissances qui sont d’autant plus tyranniques qu’elles se logent, non seulement sur le mont Olympe mais aussi, au fond de nos cœurs ?  D’où viendra le pouvoir d'expulser et de tuer ces abominables divinités maléfiques ?

Nietzsche avait sans doute raison quand il a annoncé la mort du Dieu des Chrétiens.  Mais LES dieux plus anciens—ceux qui contrôlent le destin humain, qui sont le destin humain—ne sont certainement pas morts.  Peut-être ne pourront-ils jamais l’être.

Est-il permis d’espérer ?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about conversion.  No, I'm not planning to be born again (once was enough), but I'm interested in the psychological phenomenon (or phenomena) that this word describes, especially in a religious context.

The broadest dictionary definition of conversion is "alteration in nature or state"--ie., metamorphosis.  Obviously, a lot of religious "converts" do not think of their conversion as anything nearly so fundamental:  they are merely exchanging one set of doctrines and practices for another set.  They do not see this switch in external loyalties as involving any kind of meaningful alteration in their internal make-up--they remain, in their selfhood, what they were before.  Thus, when he married a Catholic, my brother "converted" from Presbyterianism to Catholicism (not particularly demanding); thus, too, 15th Century Spanish Jews and Muslims, in order to avoid death at the hands of los reyes catolicos, "converted" to Christianity (quite demanding, but still not a genuine alteration in the converso's essential self).  In other words, most conversions are fairly superficial, involving external behavior--not profound changes in how the convert understands and experiences his own being.

Such conversions strike me as somewhat dishonest--convenient rather than sincere, superficial rather than fundamental.

But what about those emotional "born again" experiences?  Aren't they genuine "alterations" in one's fundamental psychology?  Undoubtedly some individuals do indeed experience a complete transformation in self-awareness that amounts to a sort of metamorphosis.  The conversion of St. Paul comes to mind.  And St. Augustine under the fig tree.  And Martin Luther's overwhelming reaction to "the just shall live by faith alone."  And Pascal's Memorial.  The subsequent lives of these men are proof that they were, indeed, turned around and, in some sense, "reborn."  After their conversions, they were new and free and unafraid to assume responsibility for what they now understood they were.

But I wonder if the most frequent born-again experiences aren't, in fact, rather elaborate self-deceptions--convenient, bad-faith justifications for NOT changing, for NOT altering one's "self", for NOT taking responsibility for one's freedom.  Let us say, for instance, that you are a woman trapped in a dead-end marriage with an unloving husband and an unfulfilling life as a housewife.  Your existence makes no sense and you suffer every day.  Then, how lucky!, you have an "experience" and you "accept Jesus."  Now you can tell yourself that Jesus, at least, loves you and that for Jesus, at least, the messiness of your life makes some kind of sense.

But in truth, you haven't changed a thing in your life--and your fundamental psychology remains the same:  you are still somebody's "thing."  Worse:  you now find that the only way you can feel good about yourself is to brag about your conversion and assert, dishonestly, that YOU are living rightly, whereas OTHERS are in error.

In short, your "conversion" did not change your nature.  It merely afforded you a justification for not changing-- for not casting out your own personal demons but rather, for finding demons in others in order to feel good about yourself.

Not a pretty picture.  Ted Haggard.  Jim Bakker.  John Ensign.   With apologies to Kafka, these guys are genuine dung beetles who, alas, never REALLY metamorphosed into authentic human beings.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Great Fiction Anthology

I often sit and look at my books, rather untidily displayed on the four bookcases in my study.  Sometimes I think briefly about organizing them according to some more logical system (this feeling passes quickly); sometimes I contemplate actually reading some tome or other that I know I should have read, but have never had the intellectual fortitude to tackle (Ulysses, for example).  Mostly, though, I just sit and look.  Books give me security, even those that I haven't read:  they provide me with a sense--inauthentic, I vaguely know, but still comforting--that all the things I don't understand are nevertheless understood by somebody--the people who wrote those books.  So, if I genuinely have to know something, I can always grab one of those volumes and find the answer.

I have never felt, however (at least not in my adult life) that any ONE of those books had ALL of the answers.  It takes a whole bookcase...or so...

This morning, as I was staring at the "big book" section of my library, it occurred to me that the very fattest of the big books are, in fact, anthologies--compilations of writings by various authors:  The Norton Anthology of American Literature; the Norton Anthology of British Literature; The Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry; The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Eighteenth Century French Plays--and, of course, the grandaddy of them all--The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books, New Revised Standard Version.

All of these anthologies, as I recall, contain some pretty good stories--and also a whole lot of junk (yes, c'mon, Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale!!!)--and all were put together by editors who had particular agendas.

Take the Bible, for example.  Though various biblical books (and parts of books) had been edited and re-edited over the course of almost 1,000 years, the final and definitive editors were apparently the bishops and "dignities" attending the Synod of Hippo in  393 (whose anthology was, as it were, given a second edition by the Council of Trent in 1546--at least for Catholics ). What was the agenda of these ecclesiastical worthies, I wonder?  Did they have to include "junk" just to satisfy current political or religious "correctness"?   Probably.

But the stupid stuff shouldn't prevent us from appreciating the good stuff--from the OT: Ruth, Job, Ecclesiastes, stories about Moses and David and Daniel.  From the NT:  the Sermon on the Mount and the parables and the crucifixion accounts and a couple of Paul's "essays."  These are good stories and they point metaphorically to important truths about the human condition.

But dang--they are not historical FACTS (though they may contain some facts) or literal truth.  Why do people keep refusing to read the Great Anthology as a collection of meaningful STORIES--stories like Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn, stories that have themes and plots and protagonists and antagonists and messages but that are, nonethelessessentially fiction--and sometimes rather flawed fiction.

Memory, too, is flawed, I know.  We don't remember things as they really were, but rather as it is currently convenient to think they were.  Hence, I can't be sure whether the following tale is what actually happened or whether it is a conflation of several related memories--(not entirely unlike most Bible stories, I suppose).  Anyway, here's the anecdote.

When I was a teenager, my family belonged to the First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston, Minnesota.  The pastor of this little congregation was a rather formidable giant (both physically and intellectually) named John Munchoff who, as I recall, preached tolerance and open-mindedness with a ferocity that was decidedly intolerant.  One day, while dutifully affording pastoral counsel to a group of pious ladies (members, I suppose, of the "Dorcas Circle" or the "Martha Circle"), he found himself listening to the awe-inspired testimony of Jessie Jackson, who was excitedly recounting a "miracle" that had happened in her very home.  Apparently Mrs. Jackson had made a large batch of dill pickles and had decided to transport them to the basement where they would be stored pending eventual consumption.  Unfortunately, at the top of the staircase, she had juggled the jars in her arms and sent one of them tumbling down the entire flight of steps.  But lo, the miracle had then occurred:  rather than shattering and rendering its contents inedible, the Mason jar had arrived at the basement landing entirely intact.  Mrs. Jackson had devoutly thanked Jesus for saving both herself and her pickles.

Reverend Munchoff, undoubtedly anxious to leave this prattling circle, said something offhand about "miracles"--opining that God probably had better things to do than suspend the laws of physics in order to save a jar of dill pickles.  This remark, however jokingly offered, deeply wounded Mrs. Jackson.  In her distress, she yanked open her Bible and, jabbing desperately at the random text, sputtered, "But the BIBLE SAYS there are miracles."  Whereupon Munchoff grabbed the Bible out of her hands and flung it across the room at the wall.  "Jessie," he thundered, "the Bible is JUST A BOOK."

In tears, Mrs. Jackson left both the room and the parish, joining--probably that very day--the Evangelical and Reformed Church, where pickle miracles were apparently acknowledged and where the Bible was not regarded as merely a book.

Too bad.

Too bad.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


We are told that "laughter is the best medicine."  But is it?  Queen Victoria was famously "not amused," and she reigned 63 years and lived to be 81.  Not bad for solemn political correctness, stiff upper lips and all that.  Moreover, Victoria was pretty much Queen of the Whole World, wasn't she? and, to top it all off, Her Dour Majesty presided over an empire in which (reputedly according to the Queen herself), lesbianism didn't even exist!

I suppose, for "certain" queens, that's about as good as it gets.

But I'm such a rebel.  I just can't imagine a world without lesbians.  I need Rachel Maddow, and on a regular basis.  I need Lily Tomlin and Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf and Ellen DeGeneres.  Why?  Well, mostly because they make me laugh, yes--even Virginia Woolf with Orlando and her one-armed billboard hanger in To the Lighthouse.


Oddly, I have a reputation for being just about as mean and sour as the Old Queen herself when protocol demanded that she speak to Gladstone.  Students used to ask me why I never smiled.  School secretaries used to ask my friends why "Ken was so mad."  Well, shoot.  I can't help it that my facial muscles have always drooped.  And the truth is, I really do love to laugh.

But my critics were right about one thing:  I'm mean.  I just can't resist laughing at other people. In fact, I have indeed laughed my ass off--I simply have no butt left, though, at one time I had a pretty good one--and most of that laughing has been at the expense of the various idiots with whom, alas, I must live out my life.

Public figures, like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann and Glenn Beck, of course--but most especially a whole host of silly ninnies who have served as co-workers, bosses, students, parents of students, clergymen, teachers, waiters in restaurants and, let us not forget, customer service representatives.

I think it was Baudelaire who remarked that laughter is "satanic."   Haha.  So, I made fun of you. Tough titty. Unlike Victoria, I AM amused.  And BTW, the devil made me do it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shamrocks, Dragons and Beets

China is big and Ireland is little.  But when I was growing up, the big country was insignificant, whereas the little one was fairly important--even in weeks and months not leading up to St. Patrick's Day.

China was somewhere on the other side of the world and it was known mostly as the homeland of the starving children who would be more than happy to eat the pickled beets that I was trying to leave on my plate.  Ireland, on the other hand, was a magic place where people did everything in excess:   laughed a lot, drank a lot, sang a lot, talked a lot (in an accent that "tickled").  Never mind what they said in school about famines and religious wars.

My maternal grandfather's name was Clinton Kelly--but his family was proudly Protestant.  So proud, in fact, that my great grandfather's first name was "Orange."  Still, there was no denying that I was 1/4 Irish.  I don't think anyone in my immediate family cared (or even knew) about all that Irish /English /Catholic /Protestant /Green /Orange stuff.

So despite my Orangeman roots, I enthusiastically pinched any classmate not wearing green on St. Patrick's Day.  (Actually, as I remember it, almost all the German and Norwegian kids loudly claimed some marginal Irish heritage on March 17, thereby escaping serious bruising.  The most obstreperous holdout was my third-grade teacher, Laura Brundgardt, who wore black-- perhaps because of some unfortunate prior pinching from "excessive" Irishmen.  No attempts were made to punish her for her staunch Germanic stance.)

We all loved the sappy Irish-American movies starring Bing Crosby--"Going My Way," "Bells of St. Mary's"--and we cheerfully sang silly or maudlin Irish songs:  stories about Mrs. O'Leary's cow and Mrs. Murphy's chowder.

So, even as I began my love affair with France, I continued to be fascinated with Ireland--which always remained a dreamy, far-off--and yet, strangely familiar--place.  It's funny.  I never actually visited Ireland until about five years ago.  By that time, I was already a veteran teacher of Irish literature and Irish history.  What I discovered, when I finally laid eyes on the "Auld Sod"--was that the Irish were, indeed, excessive in their love of life.  I was sometimes even a little embarrassed by their enthusiasm and their unreserved friendliness:  how could such happy folks have emerged from such a relatively unhappy history?

By the way, St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, is a Protestant cathedral, associated with the Anglican Church of Ireland, and the former "hangout" of  one of my favorite writers--Jonathan Swift, who was its Dean.

I remain, thus, a Greenman with an Orange grandfather--and I'm still in awe of Ireland.

As for China, well, my attitude has changed quite a bit.  In grade school, I knew only that China had lots of people (most of whom were, according to popular accounts, starving).  Many good white people, especially Americans like Pearl Buck, tried to help the poor Chinese, of course.  My classmate, Joan Vandereau, had spent time in China where her parents had done their very best to bring Jesus and pickled beets to the miserable heathen on the banks of the Yangtze. Joan taught the whole class how to say "have you eaten yet" in some Chinese dialect or other.  We felt very civilized and very superior to be Christian children in prosperous, well-fed America.

Well!  Where has that comfortably pathetic and unthreatening China gone?  Nowadays, the airwaves are buzzing with fearful tales of the Chinese menace--of a great dragon that is plotting to take over the world and, quite possibly, force us to eat our own pickled beets.  I wear clothes made in China, I sit on furniture made in China, and I even cook my St. Patrick's Day corned beef in a pot made in China.

Now I ask you:  why have the mercenary Chinese forced us to buy all this stuff?

Then there's that other thing:  I wound up teaching in a school where at least half of my students were of Chinese descent.  At DBHS, if I had tried to pinch anyone on St. Patrick's Day, I would have been beaten up and then fired.  So, in a slightly bad-faith epiphany, I rediscovered my Orangeman heritage and wore orange on March 17. Self-protection.

I have said all the above tongue-in-cheek.  Thanks to my students and their families, I came to respect and appreciate China and Chinese culture (what little I know of it).  I love the United States, but it is indeed humbling to reflect upon the contributions made to humanity by the Middle Kingdom.  If the Irish are "excessive," then the Chinese are "oversized"--not physically, perhaps, but in ambition, in diligence, in determination, in accomplishments--and in sheer numbers.

One example of Chinese size does worry me, though.  The most recent issue of  "The Economist" reports that, in about 10 years, there will be 40 million Chinese men of marriageable age who have almost no prospect of finding a wife (this because of the "one-child" policy whereby many couples aborted female fetuses).  What will the Chinese government DO with those 40 million extra guys with raging hormones and no outlet for their energy?  Send them to conquer India or Russia?  Round them up and set them to work paving over the Himalayas?

Jonathan Swift, in his "Modest Proposal," suggested that the Irish--who, at the time, had a lot of extra children, but not much food (pickled beets or otherwise)--might eat their surplus babies, thereby solving two problems at once.  Perhaps the Chinese government should consider such a Swiftian solution:  and if the Chinese don't want to eat their 40 million young men themselves, they could always export them to other countries--as a good source of protein for starving foreigners, and of still more yuans for now-prosperous China.

Personally, I think I'll try to develop a better attitude toward pickled beets.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Now tell me:  doesn't Charlize Theron at the 2010 Oscars look a little like Miss Mazeppa, the brassy stripper in Gypsy? She's got the breastplate and the don't-mess-with-me moue.  All she needs is a helmet and a trumpet.  I guess Miss Mazeppa's song still applies:  "Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick."

President Obama could probably take a cue from Mazeppa and Charlize.  Americans don't seem to want their leaders to be too ordinary--think about "Honest Abe" with his stovepipe hat and beard--or TR with all those kids and all those dead animals on his wall--or, the absolute champion of gimmickry, FDR, with his pince nez glasses, jaunty cigarette holder and Yalta cape.  These guys knew how to "get a hand" and "get ahead" with some pretty good gimmicks that shielded them from what Miss Mazeppa calls "disisparaging remarks."  

C'mon Mr. President.  We paid you to give us a good show, to take us somewhere out of the ordinary.  So far, all you've managed to do is talk nice and remove your tie.  That's much too tame.  

So here's a little advice.  First of all, shave your head completely--bald heads on black guys make us think of real heroes, i.e., basketball players.  Second, go ahead and acquire a little discrete bling--maybe a nice "O"-shaped earring to remind us that you are still that rock star that we thought we elected.  Third, just to tone things down a bit, start reading your Tele-Prompter using professorial half-moon glasses (not dark, drug dealer things, though); this will reinforce the notion that you actually know more than the rest of us and, consequently, can be trusted to lead us somewhere we might like to go.

And remember Oscar Wilde:  "In matters of grave importance, style not sincerity is the vital thing."  The Republicans already know this (just watch Glenn Beck).  It's time you learned the lesson, too.  Start tooting your horn.  I bet you'll get a hand.  (As I did, for playing FDR at a party once, long ago.)


The "New and Revised" Absolute Truth

I guess we all adhere to a number of "orthodox" notions--ideas that just seem so self-evident that we never think to think about them.  And naturally, we view such received ideas as definitive--the end of the evolutionary train--the ultimate stage in whatever gamut has been run.

(We have no doubt that homo sapiens, for instance, is the end of the line, the "best.")

But as I think back on all the pedagogical orthodoxies that I've been expected to espouse, each successive one-true-way diametrically opposed to the previous one-true-way, I have become increasingly wary of  the authority of any particular Zeitgeist.

Right now, for example, I'm in a bit of a snit about "democracy."  Goodness knows, this is a political buzzword that almost everyone (except, perhaps, the Saudi king) bandies about with abandon, confident that he/she is on the side of absolute, definitive, end-of-the-line truth.  (Never mind that all those joyous voices raised in praise of the indisputable superiority of democracy are, in actuality, referring to wildly divergent notions of the abstraction they're lauding.)

Still, democracy uber alles. Like, WHATEVER...

Well, the audio-lingual method was once the only effective way to teach foreign languages.  It worked for a while. Then, somehow, it became totally ineffective and, in fact, a waste of time.  Later, the direct method was proved, beyond a doubt, to  be the only true faith--and it worked for a while--only to be condemned a bit later as heretical.  Then the natural approach was canonized, itself to be dumped in favor of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling).  Having thus espoused four consecutive true faiths (and made each of them work for a while before being condemned to ed. psych. hell for doing so), I simply abandoned foreign language teaching altogether.

Isn't it possible that democracy--the current political orthodoxy (regardless of what the word really means)--will go the way of the late and unlamented audio-lingual method?  Because, though it may have worked for a while, it clearly isn't working anymore. Not, at least, in Obama's America.  So, après Obama, le déluge?

I wonder if the NEXT one true political system is already out there, somewhere--in incipient form--just waiting for the chance to prove that it alone is THE "definitive" system--the ultimate, the end of the line.

Maybe something inscrutably Chinese:  a peculiar mixture of Communism, Confucianism and committee rule? Well, whatever it is, once democracy is dethroned and the new system espoused, it will probably work for a while...

That's the good news...  The thing is, now that I've written all of this cynical stuff, I realize that I'll probably miss democracy once it's gone.  (And I never missed the audio-lingual method.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Old Age Gas

Blah, blah.  I just reread, for about the hundredth time, yesterday's blog "Same or Opposite."  I apologize for being such an insufferable gasbag.  My intention in writing that wordy discourse was to clarify my own thinking about the issue of same-sex marriage.  I realize, now, that I obfuscated more than clarified.  And I rambled on pontifically about things that I don't really understand and/or can't be sure about.  I really don't know, for example, whether there is a God who might grant or withhold "inalienable" rights to some or all human beings.  I don't know for sure that karma isn't built into the structure of the universe.  And I'm actually embarrassed by my confident application of Darwinian principles to societies as a whole (rather than to species).  I have always been terribly uneasy with social Darwinism, so what was I thinking?  In fact, I have no idea exactly HOW certain practices, once considered unacceptable, gradually acquire respectability and currency.  Maybe social norms CAN be established by executive or judicial decree (did Brown v. Board of Education change society, or did it merely legitimize a change that had already taken place in our collective consciousness--if not in our actual behavior?)

I hate not knowing.  For me, anyway, uncertainty is paralyzing.  I just dither, unsure of what direction to take, what plan to support, sur quel pied danser.  Help!  I'm becoming a fossile.

Anyway, I was tempted to remove "Same or Opposite," since it's so clearly (!) unclear.  But I finally decided to leave it hanging there--as a testimony to my struggle and as evidence that, in the end, a great deal of political commentary is just hot air.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Same or Opposite?

Carrie Prejean famously declared that "opposite" marriage was best--and she has a lot of tradition supporting her stance (if not her English usage).  But recently I've been reading and listening to lots of heated debate about the "right" of same-sex couples to marry.

Trust me, everyone:  if I had a vote in this matter, it would definitely be in favor of legalizing gay marriage.  But I am genuinely puzzled by the kind of reasoning that is being used in order to support such laws.

Because, you see, I simply don't believe that anyone has any inherent, natural "right" to anything at all.  When Thomas Jefferson wrote those eloquent words about "inalienable rights," many learned people actually thought that certain natural laws were written (by a  "Creator" of some sort) into the very structure of the universe.  But Darwin demonstrated, pretty convincingly, that nothing is divinely granted to any creature--all apparent "order" has evolved from something else and is moving inexorably toward still another state.  Thus, to claim, as do many of the gay marriage advocates, that "every adult has a natural right to marry whomever he/she chooses, regardless of sex," is just utter nonsense. In fact, this argument from "natural law" is every bit as loony as the arguments of the other side which are usually based on "biblical law."

Neither nature nor God grant marriage privileges:  only societies do that.  Indeed, marriage is the quintessential social institution--created by societies in order to guarantee that a particular "way of life" will renew and perpetuate itself.  Not surprisingly, then, traditional marriage was primarily an "opposite sex" legal contract whereby one male and one (or more) female(s) committed themselves and their property to the propagation and proper rearing of children.  "Proper rearing," of course, meant inculcating the children in the "way of life" approved and required by the society that sanctioned the marriage.  Traditional marriage thus served to pass on both genes and memes.   

I guess the point that I'm trying to make here is this:  societies structure their marriage laws according to the benefits that they (the societies) expect marriage to provide to the common weal.  And so, in ancient Egypt and in more recent Polynesia, sibling marriages were permitted--even encouraged--at least among the aristocracy, since a benefit accrued from guaranteeing the purity of rulers' bloodlines.  Similarly, many societies have authorized marriages that 21st Century Americans might label "pedophilic"--mature men taking child brides and thereby neutralizing potentially dangerous rivalries between powerful families.   

But everywhere, as far as I can determine, marriage laws were intended to legitimize and regulate child-bearing, child-rearing and wealth distribution.  Nowhere were were they primarily a kind of social consecration of an emotional commitment between two individuals. 

Oh, I'm sure that feelings and inclinations sometimes played a role in drawing up marriage contracts.  And it's pretty clear that many (perhaps most) marriage partners in traditional societies ultimately came to love or at least cherish their partners.  Indeed, the traditional words of the religious ceremony (as opposed to the legal contract) ask the contractors to pledge both love and fidelity to each other.  In actual practice, though, traditional societies seemed to be largely indifferent to spousal love.  As long as couples had children and cared for them properly, society generally allowed individuals (well, males at least) to find love and companionship wherever they wished.  

Indeed, the medieval tradition of "courtly love" was actually posited on the quest for affection and companionship outside of marriage.  And ancient Greece had clearly established conventions whereby mature males (married and fathers of children) entered into emotional and physical relationships with adolescent boys.  But again, I return to a central idea:  these customs were not, strictly speaking, "legal"--probably because they were largely personal and emotional matters, involving individuals and their feelings, but having little to do with the orderly functioning and preservation of the state.

Society just didn't care about according any special legal status to commitments between two people to love, support and have sex with each other. 

Only when love and, especially, sex could be seen as having some impact on the social order did authority (God, government, etc.) intervene.  A marginal desert tribe like Israel could scarcely perpetuate itself if males "wasted" their sperm on other males or on the ground.  So taboos banning such practices were established and canonized in that particular society.  Ancient Athens was apparently more confident that there was plenty of sperm to go around. 

In any event, we can pretty much summarize by stating once again:  traditional marriage legitimized the rearing of children and the distribution of property, not commitments of love and companionship.  

But somewhere, in the course of the last 300 years, societies began to believe that the marriage contract was more a commitment to love a partner than it was to have children with that partner. In fact, it just occurs to me that--in 21st Century America--people are increasingly having children without even thinking about marriage.  Whereas, on the other hand, these same breeders often don't want to commit themselves to marriage until they are quite certain that the partner they have chosen will continue to provide love for the remainder of life.

Why is this?  Perhaps because, as society has evolved and become more sophisticated, many of the child-rearing and meme-perpetuating functions traditionally accomplished by marriage have been assumed by other institutions--most especially by schools (alma maters).  We still need opposite-sex relations in order to produce children--but we really don't need marriages to rear them.  (Oh, I will be vilified for this statement--but as a former teacher, I know that it is true.)

And so, what does society TODAY require in order to survive?  It still requires opposite sex intercourse in order to conceive children, since we haven't yet figured out how to "decant" kids a la Brave New World.  That's probably all Carrie Prejean was thinking about (if, indeed, she was thinking about anything at all). But child-rearing has become a secondary function of marriage:  if parents don't take care of their kids, society itself will.  And even child-bearing is no longer viewed as essential:  most societies can perpetuate themselves quite nicely even if a large amount of sperm is simply "wasted" on love-making that has no reproductive goal.  Childless marriages are just fine.

In other words, marriage simply isn't as important to society as it once was.  But as it has lost its importance for society in general, it has acquired additional significance for individuals, since it is now seen as a kind of social acceptance of an emotional contract :  society's "seal of approval" for the decision of two people to unite their lives and fortunes for their mutual well-being (whether or not children are involved).

Obviously, if this is our definition of marriage, it is no longer particularly significant whether the contractors are opposite-sex or same-sex.  Indeed, if marriage is society's seal of approval for a commitment to love and share life and property, then it seems positively unfair to deny same-sex couples this social sanction.

Unfair, yes.  But NOT against some kind of "natural" law.  Merely against currently perceived norms, norms that have evolved over many centuries and that will continue to evolve.  The primary criterion has always been, and will remain:  what does society expect marriage to contribute to society?

This is why I am wary of efforts to base marriage law on any authority other than social norms as determined by legislatures, not courts.  Just as "natural law" is silent about marriage, so, too, I think, is "constitutional law".  The 14th Amendment ensures equality based on race and gender, but it's a stretch to see how gays can claim that "sexual orientation" is a "gender."  In fact, the social conservatives are probably right when they say that a gay male has the same marriage rights as a straight male:  he can marry any woman he pleases (except his sister, etc.).  And society is simply not ready for a truly broad definition of marriage:  i.e., "any consenting adult can marry any other consenting adult."  We might indeed be prepared to extend this privilege to a gay couple.  But we are certainly not ready to legitimize unions between siblings or between parents and their children.  This disinclination has NOTHING to do with the Constitution.  Rather, our society almost universally views such incestuous unions as detrimental to the common weal.  

So we're back to that essential formula, then.  The definition of marriage must be established by a kind of general consensus about what is good for society in general.  Many societies have already legislated in favor of same sex marriage (Canada, Sweden, Holland) because, clearly, the citizenry in general views such unions as fundamentally beneficial.  But America is always slower and more conservative than Europe and Canada. Hence, many Americans seem unwilling to wait for ordinary laws to be passed in the ordinary fashion.  Rather, they want to discover some kind of "natural," "divine" or "constitutional" right--existing out there in the ether somewhere--to justify their personal viewpoints and impose these notions on a public which is not yet entirely free of Carrie Prejeans. 

I think this is a very dangerous strategy which could lead to some decidedly unpleasant reactions and setbacks.  Evolution cannot be imposed from on high.  Just as there are no inalienable and self-evident rights, neither is there any outside authority that can change society by decree or judicial fiat.  The Supreme Court simply legitimizes as "constitutional" what five-out-of-nine people figure the society in general wants or needs.

Let's wait for the legislatures.  It's so frustrating--and so unfair--but genuine laws are the closest we'll ever get to "inalienability".

To my gay brothers and sisters in committed relationships (of the kind that I always yearned for but never achieved):  I hope you'll soon be able to get married.  Some additional patience--and less self-pity--may be required of you, but don't despair.  I am confident that the Carrie Prejean view will eventually fade--not because anyone is inherently entitled to anything--but because Prejean's view is no longer particularly useful or relevant in 21st Century society. 

Sorry it took me so long to express myself on this issue which, obviously, matters deeply to me.  Please keep me on your list for a wedding invitation.  I'll come if I'm still alive.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Quand j’étais blonde

Ce matin, en me réveillant, j’étais hanté par une vieille chanson de Jacqueline Danno qui se chantait impitoyablement dans ma tête—pas toutes les paroles, bien sûr, car j’avais oublié le milieu—mais le commencement et la fin restaient, très forts, très pénibles.  C’était la plainte d’une prostituée vieillissante qui avait perdu beaucoup plus que sa blondeur. L’ouverture en est gaie: « Quand j’étais blonde /  Je régnais sur tous les quais des ports du monde/ A Rotterdam, à Liverpool ou bien à Londres. »  Mais en voici la conclusion désabusée  : « Je vends l’amour mais je ne crois plus/ Les capitaines, ni les marins. »

Cette pauvre fille, c’est moi--et son histoire est la mienne.  Oh, je n’ai pas exactement « régné »--mais, comme tout le monde, je me suis prostitué, me suis vendu, dans l’espoir (qui paraissait alors bien fondé) d’y gagner.  Car les compromis que nous faisons, jeunes, ne nous tracassent pas—ce ne sont que des paris, des « investissements » qui rapporteront sans doute joie, bonheur, succès.

La blondeur, c’est l’époque où l’on croit—en l’amour, en la vie éternelle, en Dieu.  On se vend, alors, à un métier, à un amour, à une amitié, à un parti politique, à un messie quelconque.  Du coup, la vie s’enrobe de soleil, de signification, de dignité.  Toute prostituée qu’on est, on marche quand même sur le bras d’un beau marin, on est fille de joie, on règne.

Mais viennent alors, et trop vite, les ruptures, les déceptions, les trahisons, les licenciements, les faillites, les maladies.  Le marin s’en va ; les cheveux tombent.

Et ce qui reste, c’est la facture.  Car la blondeur se paie--et la maison, implacable, n’accepte ni chèques ni crédit.

Il arrive, donc, que nous payons—telle cette ancienne blonde—avec tout l’argent que nous avions si soigneusement ramassé (comme étant notre dû) lors de notre règne :  la foi, l’espoir, l’amour…

Non, je ne suis plus blond—mes quelques cheveux sont maintenant blancs—et moi non plus, « je ne crois plus les capitaines, ni les marins… »

Je ne crois plus du tout.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wisdom Teeth

I never got any wisdom teeth.  The dentist said that I was lucky, that I was more "evolved" than most people and (he implied) because I had never been afflicted with wisdom, I would suffer less than most of my fellows.  He was probably right.  Even the smallest dose of wisdom--like those "extra" teeth--almost always causes pain and anguish.  Wisdom teeth simply have to be extracted from the body--else "normal" functioning is impossible.   Similarly, wisdom of any sort must be eliminated--perhaps by high colonics?--lest the entire organism suffer mercilessly from knowing too much.

It's the same with wise people, isn't it?  As wisdom teeth inflame the gums, so also do wise people torment the body politic.  Indeed, wisdom teeth and wisdom are both "too much"--there is no room for them, they cannot be tolerated, they must be removed. Hence, throughout the centuries of--dare I call it civilization?--society has repeatedly found it necessary to extract wise people from the social dentition they are poisoning.  Derisively,  we denounce the insufferable "wise guys" whose truth-telling causes us such pain:  Socrates and Jesus, of course--but also Lincoln, Gandhi, King.

French parents tell their children to "be wise."  But I think they're joking.  What they really mean is:  "Be stupid so as not to make yourself or anyone else aware of the mess that we're all in."  In short, lack of wisdom, as my childhood dentist knew, is indeed the most evolved state.  After all, wisdom is, well, original sin, isn't it?--remember that "tree of knowledge"? And so, in some sense, aren't those of us who never acquired any wisdom (or wisdom teeth) as sin-free as Mary's Immaculate Conception?

I'd like a chapel, please.