Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who are we and what are we doing here?

I wrote this back at the end of December, and I'm not sure why I never posted it. But here you are...

I'm not sure this is ready for prime time, but I feel compelled to post.

An interesting thread on Facebook earlier this week began with the posit that the writer could not see a "place in the modern Pagan movement for spiritual values that do not embrace values of feminism, environmentalism, and the deepening of genuine, engaged community."

Now, I'm all over those values, but played devil's advocate, imagining a neo-pagan with strong patriarchal values, a sense of human entitlement to lord it over the earth, and a desire to live alone in the woods away from other homo sapiens.

And it went back and forth and was interesting, but what I wanted to get to in this post I'm writing was near the end of the thread, when the original poster, who is also a Quaker, talked about her experience of discernment, as an invaluable process to not just "believe whatever you want," but to hold your understandings up against a standard, to measure them and allow them to be tested. It's something she wishes she saw more of in the Pagan world.

And here's what rose for me: the difference between coming to an understanding of what we are, as individuals or as a group, vs. coming to answer the old question Tolstoy asked of Russian poverty, echoing Luke: "What then must we do?" That terrible, burning question, which I first ran into as the crux of the movie The Year of Living Dangerously, reminds me of friend Marshall Massey's description of early Friends as expectant courtiers, waiting for instructions by their Lord. It's a yank-your-life-around kind of question for people who try to address it fully.

But I think it often then overwhelms that first question, one I've been wrestling with in various ways in this blog: what is this "we" we talk so much about? and what about this other "we" I belong to over here? How does that work? And even deeper, what is this "I" thing I'm so attached to?

Maybe the balance between the two questions is like the urgent vs important dichotomy Scott Covey talks about. Or maybe (this is my take), the question of identity is not one the universe really cares about, but that we as homo sapiens find essential, like food and water and fiction. Whereas the universe actually does care about what then we must do.

OK, so as a professed non-Christian, I'm going to take a leap here: the distinction between these two questions is like the distinction between worshiping the person of Jesus and following his teachings. On one hand, some people get so caught up in the identity of being a Christian, and of following Jesus as a person who lived and breathed and died and was resurrected and saves and sits at the right hand of God and is part of the three-is-one, no he isn't, there's only one godhead and your mother wears army boots if you believe that and his divinity is reflective of universal light and no it's not it's light itself and your mama wears army boots and you're not a real Christian and and and and.

And so the nice reasonable people come along and say, let's just drop this whole worshiping Jesus thing and just be nice and reasonable and follow his teachings... well, the ones that are reasonable anyway, not the ones where he goes all I-am-the-way-and-my-way-or-the-highway and then we'll sing a nice song and and and... why aren't you paying attention to me?

My point is this: the hard questions need to be asked by a person who embodies them (or we need to understand them as being so embodied; stories about embodiment work almost as well for human beings as physical presence to that embodiment). Otherwise, we don't pay attention, and in particular we can't be a group united in approaching that embodiment. Without the identity, without the personhood, we hominids just plain lose interest. On the other hand, with an identity in hand, we tend to start paying more attention to the person than to the questions. It's a tough balance, and lots of groups (my own included) claim to have found the mechanism that makes it work. But it is always hard work.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saving the Universe, one novel at a time

Late last year I read my son most of Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard. I was reminded again of what struck me the first time I read the book (and its sequels): for a young-adult fantasy novel, it brings into unusually clear focus how doing good means setting aside your own needs (and maybe your life) in service of something bigger. Self-sacrifice is one of the central common themes in hero-stories, which make up a lot of fantasy fiction (self-discovery being the other big theme). But there's usually a narrative-distance gap that dulls its emotional impact: either the novel is set far enough away in time and/or space that the behavior seems exceptional to our life and times, or else it's not the character that you as reader really identify with that does the self-sacrificing; your stand-in character is witness, not willing victim.

Meanwhile, I am getting tired of the idea of actually saving the Universe, or the Earth, or Life. I am getting tired of people who overstep their truth. I just get tired of feeling like I need to clean up after radical theoreticians when I read them, like I have to measure every sentence to see if they are still speaking from experience or generalizing out into an barely-tenable conclusion. And I think it's like the idea of our "saving the Earth" or "saving life on Earth": Folks, we'd have to work pretty damned hard to actually wipe out microbial life, or even vertebrate life, or even mammalia, let alone primates, let alone Homo Sapiens. "Western civilization" I can see getting wiped out over some lengthy period of time, though it will take some doing to wipe away so much printed and absorbed knowledge. And what hubris to think we can "save the Earth." It is large, and contains unbelievable multitudes. (see this post by Keith Humphreys that pretty much sums it up for me)

I've noticed for a long time in movies and comic books and fantasy novels, that when there's a battle for the Universe, it usually takes place in the author's backyard. Wherever the author lives, that's where the Ultimate Conflict will be. So Tom Clancy has a showdown in Washington, Harry Potter and Doctor Who in England, Godzilla in Tokyo... somewhere there's a Malaysian hero-movie with the Ultimate Battle in Kuala Lumpur, and a telenovela with the world-saving hero's sword is locked in combat somewhere near Buenos Aires. Probably the dolphins have a long-running series on the Ultimate Battle With the Orcas of Puget Sound.

There is something wonderful about your own backyard becoming the center of the universe. English fantasies do this well: old battles that were, for their participants, the center of creation—the invasions of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans; the endless wars since—are placed against the determinedly bucolic and ordinary lives of our lead characters, living in undramatic late-twentieth-century England.

American fantasy writers struggle to do this as effectively. I have often wondered why this is. For a long time I wondered if it's because, with the exception of Native American religions and the Mormons, we do not have the Center of the Universe posited here by our religions. But I'm coming to wonder if it has more to do with the fact of fighting over land. The English are just as uncentered religiously: yes there's Canterbury, but the Holy Land is as religio-centric as it is here in North America.

No, I think the depth of people physically battling over land may be the key. There are few battlefields here in North America, and what there are are mostly framed as battles over principle rather than invasions. Really only Euro vs Native wars qualify in the same way as those repeated invasions of England, and those are a still a little crisply engraved in our cultural memory to work as the resonant underpinning to fiction, and the descendants of Europeans remain on the side of the Normans and the Vikings... the bad guy invader side. I wonder what it will take, in terms of action and the erosive quality of time, for us to get past the American equivalent of Ivanhoe-ish divisions.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Mystic Lamb

Stealing the Mystic Lamb, by Noah Charney

I wanted to like this book. It's about the life of the Ghent Altarpiece, and especially about two significant thefts of the piece, during the first half of the 20th century. The altarpiece was a hugely important work in my life as an art student—probably the most important single piece. My final comps project was built in triptych form, and used the idea of literal symbolism that is so central to Northern Renaissance art, and of which the Ghent Altarpiece is a prime example.

I wanted to like it, but in the end it just isn't a great book. Partly it's just clunkily written; it needed a development editor to really make it shine. But partly, also... well...

The thing I love about Northern Renaissance painting is how it is filled with specific, almost textual meaning. Every object in the painting is there not just because it looks good or happened to be in the studio when the artist was painting, but because it is an element in a specific argument:

The angel Gabriel carries lilies, a symbol of purity. He speaks so we can read his words, but Mary's words are backwards so they can be read by Gabriel. The water jug and basin refer to a common argument of the time as to how Mary could be both Virgin and a mother. And my favorite: through the window we see a Flemish town, but given where the altarpiece was placed in the church, the light falling on that city comes from the north: it is the light of the extraordinary, not of our everyday sun.

Every panel of the altarpiece, and of Northern Renaissance art in general, is filled with this heightened sense that the world itself—which the paintings mirror in finest detail—is pregnant with meaning. No object is "merely" an object. Every part of the world has this added glow of importance and meaning beyond its physical self.

What's sad about the final theft of the painting, by the Nazis, is how the painting itself was important to them not for its content as a meaning-filled mini-world, but as a totem: it was thought to hold keys to the location of relics of Christ's passion, and was important as a symbol of Belgian national pride, because it was so important in the history of painting as the first major oil painting in Europe. Also, the Treaty of Versailles had specifically called for the wing panels, stolen in 1816 and eventually housed in Berlin, to be returned to Ghent, and this rankled Hitler.

And unfortunately, the author falls into the trap of focusing on the Indiana Jones-esque adventures around the paintings, losing track of why they painting is so powerful even now, almost 600 years after it was painted. In essence, the author does the opposite of what the altarpiece does: it takes an document of extraordinary meaning-full-ness and makes us see it as an object.

I don't really blame the author, Mr Cherney. His heart is in the right place, and you can see just how obsessed with the whole sweeping adventure the painting has been involved in: a theft followed by mysterious messages one year, sinister Nazi agents who take it to a remote cave in the Alps the next... it really is the stuff of movie plotting.


When does a fascination with a document become a fetish? What happens to a powerful argument when the references it draws on become obscure? When does the fact of richly layered meaning become a web that draws us towards the madness of Dan Brown-style conspiracy theory? How can we best look at a document so rich in meanings and symbols, which in their specifics carry little weight with us?

And for those of us who deal in meaning-filled arts, what does looking at such a piece tell us today about how to make our objects meaningful, instead of the other way around?

The poison of "The People"

It's a well-known fact that the name of many "tribes" and "nations" is simply the word "people" in that group's language. The implication being that we are people, and then there are those other not-quite-people who we can't even understand.

Populist and socialist politics did much the same in the era of popular revolution: "We the people" overthrew the British royal government in what became the United States. Communist revolution established "People's Republics" all over the globe. "People power" toppled Ferdinand Marcos and has been a byword for popular revolt ever since, including the ongoing changes in the Arab world.

I was struck again this morning by how that language permeates Bob Herbert's warning opinion piece this morning in the New York Times.
I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”
The problem is, of course, that what "the people" rise up against is, well, other people. And there's a thread in liberal thought that emphasizes the unity of homo sapiens (and more recently, the whole earth as one ecosystem). But we still have this idea that "the people" will empower themselves... and as we've seen in the last few weeks in Egypt, when the bulk of the population finds itself utterly at odds with a ruling elite, they will in fact do just that: take back the country.

So what's next? That's the theme of commentary over the last couple days, as Mubarak's exit seemed clear to everyone but himself. And I think part of the answer lies in how "the people" comes to be formulated in Egypt's new formal political and social structures. Nasser founded the modern Egyptian state on rhetoric of popular nationalism, borrowing heavily from his Soviet sponsors. Like those sponsors, it was in large part a smokescreen for oligarchy, and as the socialist pretense wore thin and was eventually dropped, the "people" that the Egyptian state was supposed to be founded on found themselves adrift.


"The People" is a powerful concept. It makes every human an equal component of the group in question, whether it is a nation, clan, religion, association, or rock band. But it also implies a false dichotomy whenever it is invoked: we are more human, they are less human. And whether you are dealing with class struggle or inter-national conflict, it dehumanizes.

As a concept, the equality-making "People" is offset by how we humans generally self-organize: with leaders and followers. The feudal model, of a king and his lieges, is the other extreme of a pure democracy, but both need the core element of the other: without leadership, a nation is like a ship without a helmsperson, drifting aimlessly. It can get along fine in calm waters, but watch out when a reef arises—and a reef will inevitably, eventually, appear. Likewise, when a purely power-based king forgets that he depends on his lieges' loyalty, and that that depends in turn on a feeling of commonality, he'll be chucked overboard at the first opportunity, like Captain Bligh...

European nations, and their political heirs, have been struggling with this balance for centuries. Do we endow a king with god-like power? Consensus seems to be that a constitutional balance is better in the long run. Do we let anyone run for president? Hitler was popularly elected, and most democracies have exceptions for parties or leaders who explicitly want to undo democratic institutions (remember the presidential oath to "uphold the Constitution" etc.?). And on and on...

What I find intriguing and kind of exciting is the potential of the current revolution in Egypt especially to change the nature of global political thinking. Islam, unlike Christianity, has an inherent, core philosophy of radical equality: we are all equal before Allah. There is no Islamic Pope, no priestly intermediaries. There are wise scholars, and there is the Prophet, but the structural basis for a "God-given mandate" is really a lot thinner than in the West, reserved for fanatics like bin-Laden. So we will see.

In the meantime, could we in the West please watch out for invocations of "the People"? Please? Remember Louis Armstrong's comment:

"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."
Despite what you may have read, we've never had a horse as President or CEO either. Let's find some other way of saying "the people who are not in a leadership position, who are oppressed by those above them in power."

We are all the People. No exceptions.