Sunday, February 17, 2013

Old Books 3: The Lathe of Heaven

I remembered how much I loved this book, but on re-reading I realized that I had forgotten how much the main character, George Orr, had imprinted on me as a hero. Especially towards the end, I found myself saying, “Oh, so that's where I got this idea of that kind of Virtue from.”

George Orr is simultaneously a cypher, a man whose psychology tests come back exactly average in every respect, and a man who it turns out possesses enormous strength. At the opening of the book, he appears to be compared to a jellyfish in the ocean of sleep, who upon waking is cast up on the rocks to be torn to bits. At the end, his solidity and centered strength allowed him to save the world from a nightmare created by a power-mad psychiatrist.

Actually, it was the second time that happened; the book is framed by his saving the world. Orr's particular ability—if you can call what your unconscious accomplishes while you sleep an "ability"—is that certain of his dreams retroactively change reality. At the opening, his dreams unmake the nuclear war that had "burned away his eyelids" and pinned him beneath twisted concrete and steel. He tries to get the dreams to stop, tries to stop himself from changing things out of a sense of responsibility. He desperately wants to abdicate.

This sense of abdication, of consciously pushing away from consciously given position and authority, is a running theme in the stories I hold most dear. The Tattoo-Rhumba Man does it, the son of Croesus does it in a play I wrote in high school. It's like The Lion King, except in my versions of the story, the runaway monarch does not return to reclaim the throne.

George Orr also refuses the throne, the mantle of authority that Dr Haber tries to assume in his place and proves unable to maintain. George Orr's power is not to be king, but to be a humble channeler of the power he has, someone through whom Right Order in the world will be restored. It is not submission to his gift that he performs at the end, when he saves the world again, but the simple effort to press a single off button.

At the center of the book is the Taoist idea of strength through inaction, of virtue through inaction. The image of ocean creatures—jellyfish and later sea turtles—held and moved by ocean currents, is a running theme. One of Orr's dreams' creations is Aliens, mysterious creatures who at first appear to be a threat, but then turn out to be benign and kind of Taoist in their love of paradox and seeming self-contradiction. They are a bringing into the flesh of something missing from the nightmarish North America Orr dreams his way out of: the satanic Enemy. Orr's dreams first create the monsters as a diversion from seemingly impossible political divisions on earth, then convert these monsters into friends and neighbors—at the conclusion, one of the aliens is George Orr's benevolent employer.

Here's a moment in chapter 9, where Orr truly comes into himself:

Without premeditation and without timidity Orr said, “Dr Haber, I can't let you use my effective dreams any more.”

“Eh?” Haber said, his mind still on Orr's brain, not on Orr.

“I can't let you use my dreams any more.”

”’Use’ them?”

“Use them.”

“Call it what you like,” Haber said. He had straightened up and towered over Orr, who was still sitting down. He was gray, large, broad, curly bearded, deep-chested, frowning. Your God is a jealous God. “I'm sorry, George, but you’re not in a position to say that.”

Orr's gods were nameless and unenvious, asking neither worship nor obedience.

“Yet I do say it,” he replied mildly.

Haber looked down at him, really looked at him for a moment, and saw him. He seemed to recoil, as a man might who thought to push aside a gauze curtain and found it to be a granite door.
This passage speaks a great deal to me. It oddly pars up with the heroic ideal in Pullman's His Dark Materials, as neither a total abdication, nor a taking back of a kingdom. It's a denial of power as exercised by the conscious self—of “use”—and a restatement of that power as a slower, bedrock kind of stability: a rooted stillness. A conservatism not of habit and form, but of time and presence.

As I say, this speaks a great deal to me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

False Appearances

With just one hand held up high
I can blot you out, out of sight.
Peek-a-boo, peek-a-boo, little Earth.
- Kate Bush, “Hello Earth”

In late December 1968, an astronaut on Apollo 8, Probably William Anders, became the first human to take a picture of the the earth in one frame. It wasn't the first photo to show the earth in one frame—unmanned satellites had created images at least two years earlier. Nor is this the iconic Blue Marble photo, which showed an entire illuminated face of the earth—that was taken four years later by Apollo 17. But I still like it, and tie it to the view of Earthrise from the Moon shown on the Apollo 8 commemorative stamp, which in turn ties to the reading from Genesis that was made by the crew on Christmas from the spacecraft.

The old spiritual goes "He's got the whole world in his hands" and when I heard Odetta sing that as a child, I thought of that new image of the world from space. It's become a cliche children learn from their youngest days: children entering the Barbara Petchenik Children's Map Competition often locate their version of the blue marble as an object of care, cared for by people... variants of the hands-around-the-world designs that in my growing up years symbolized the desire for world peace.

These derivative images, the logos and illustrations and photo-montages... they are all lies. Their intentions are good, and the message of an interconnected world, a world that can be polluted and made much less habitable by humans, has been a powerful one. But that picture of giant hands or giant people distorts the real scale of things. It makes it look like the planet could be crushed.

It's hard to visualize at the scale of a screen or a textbook page; even well-done, to-scale graphics still give the sense of a planet that can be held in hand, of a kind of fragility we could blot out with one mistake.

The planet, in fact, is staggeringly huge, especially compared to the way we commonly understand space directly, the way we make ourselves at home. There's a basic graphic in the Science Museum of Minnesota that brought this home to me last week: it shows a cross-section of a small arc of the Earth's surface, with the thin thin layer of atmosphere over the top. The distance from the top of Everest to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, a little over 12 miles difference in elevation, is about 3/1000 of the average radius of the Earth. Proportionally, it's less than the elevation distance between most people's worst pimple and the deepest scar on their skin. OK, I made that up, but it's miniscule.

 Why does this matter?

It matters because we tend to bring abstracted space into human scale, and it just isn't. We look at a map of the United States, and it's a friendly looking shape (or an unfriendly one, depending how you're thinking). We don't see "vast space it would take you more than a year to walk across." And so we make incorrect assumptions how things like nations and continents and the world as a whole are unified in ways they simply aren't, and or can simply be understood in toto in ways they can't.

This is not to say they cannot be understood, but our understanding of these big spaces is, by necessity, abstract. It is not direct and personal.

Which brings me to theology. This is actually where I've been heading all along—sorry if it feels like bait and switch. But the problem of mismatched scale is one that is frankly a big one for us as modern humans. We know there are supernovae and colliding galaxies and all kinds of stuff going on in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and yet we think the God of Everything cares about our petty pain? Or on the other hand, we experience grace and love and beauty, here on our very local and personal scale, and expect that to match up with the Crab Nebula? The scale differences in how we now understand the universe to be constructed, the impersonal hugeness and incomprehensible smallness of the subatomic world (not to mention the atomic world)—these things tend to make the universality of a single (loving) God really hard to reconcile. I think (anecdotally, talking to one of my relatives, and thinking about the "amazing universe" speech I keep hearing variants of from atheists) that looking at the stars and really thinking about them has made a lot of atheists in our world.

It's one of the things that makes me just stop cold at anything even remotely like Biblical literalism. I love the story of Adam and Eve and that tree of Knowledge. There's something really important that snakes its way up through it. And reading Lloyd Lee Wilson's
Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, I understand finally the shape of the early Friends' understanding of their place in history: restoring, through Jesus, Mankind's state before the fall, when the world was rightly ordered. Essentially, if humans could all join in that Gospel Order, the universe would all be right again.

That vision of right order is so powerful. And it's a beautiful thing to think about as we look around us, right here: our home, our friends and family, our life, all in order with what should be. I want that too. But our rightness won't make the next asteroid not hit the planet and make a giant tsunami that wipes out every coastal civilization on the planet. It won't make the eventual death of our planet as the sun expands disappear. It may not even prevent global warming from radically changing what we mean by "habitable planet."

Order is scalar. Right order among people is different from right order among planets, and right order among quarks. And this is OK. It needs to be OK. What I think our job is, living here in 2013, is to figure out how to make it OK, how to live rightly in a universe that we are not, after all, at the center of. We can be the center of something—that's important—but we cannot hold the world in our hands, and there are no hands that can. We're not actually blotting out the moon, or the earth, with one hand. We're covering our eyes.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography: call for nominations

May as well spread the word one more way:

I'm part of the committee for a new award by NACIS (the North American Cartographic Information Society):  

The Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography.

From the page describing the award:

This award recognizes imaginative cartography. Cartography is often seen by the public as work opposed to imagination, grounded entirely in established fact. While this devotion to reflecting what is forms the heart of cartographic thinking, cartographers and artists who use maps as a basis for their work can (and do) take that grounding in fact and use it to venture into the world of the possible. Some explore real places from perspectives that allow us to see it fresh and full of possibility, and some take our established traditions of mapmaking, and indeed take fully-constructed maps themselves, and turn them on their heads to make us see ourselves anew. This award is to recognize this work and the perspective it brings to the field of cartography, and the contributions it makes to the world as a whole.

Sound daunting? I hope not. I hope it sounds exciting. There's details on nominating here, and nominations are due March 15. I hope you'll consider submitting a nomination!

Also, please share and encourage your friends to submit a nomination.

Oh, and who is Corlis Benefideo? Click here if you don't recognize the name... and thank you Barry Lopez.

Storm Still: Comings and Goings in Ancient Britain

King Lear's Palace.
Enter Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund. Kent and Gloucester converse. Edmund stands back.
Edmund comes forward.
Sound a sennet.
Enter one bearing a coronet; then Lear; then the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall; next, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, with Followers.
Exeunt Gloucester and Edmund.
Lear lays his hand on his sword.
Exit Kent.
Flourish. Enter Gloucester, with France and Burgundy; Attendants.
Flourish. Exeunt Lear, Burgundy, Cornwall, Albany, Gloucester, and Attendants.
Exeunt France and Cordelia.

The Earl of Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Edmund the Bastard solus, with a letter.
Enter Gloucester.
Edmund puts up the letter.
Exit Gloucester.
Enter Edgar.
Exit Edgar.
Exit Edmund.

The Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Goneril and her Steward Oswald.
Horns within.

The Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Kent, disguised.
Horns within. Enter Lear, Knights, and Attendants.
Exit an Attendant.
Exit an attendant.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Exit Oswald.
Exit a Knight.
Enter Knight.
Exit Knight.
Exit an Attendant.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Lear strikes him.
Kent trips up his heels.
Kent pushes him out.
Lear gives Kent money.
Enter Fool.
Fool offers Kent his cap.
Enter Goneril.
Enter Albany.
Lear strikes his head.
Exit Lear.
Enter Lear.
Exeunt Lear, Kent, and Attendants.
Enter Oswald the Steward.

Court before the Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Lear, Kent, and Fool.
Enter a Gentleman.

A court within the Castle of the Earl of Gloucester.
Enter Edmund the Bastard and Curan, meeting.
Exit Curan.
Enter Edgar.
Exit Edgar.
Enter Gloucester, and Servants with torches.
Exeunt some Servants.
Tucket within.
Enter Cornwall, Regan, and Attendants.
Exeunt. Flourish.

Before Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Kent and Oswald the Steward, severally.
Kent beats him.
Enter Edmund, with his rapier drawn, Gloucester, Cornwall, Regan, Servants.
Edmund parts them.
Stocks brought out.
Kent is put in the stocks.
Exeunt all but Gloucester and Kent.
Exit Gloucester.
Kent Sleeps.

The open country.
Enter Edgar.
Exit Edgar.

Before Gloucester's Castle
Kent in the stocks.
Enter Lear, Fool, and Gentleman.
Exit Lear.
Enter Lear and Gloucester.
Exit Gloucester.
Enter Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester, Servants.
Kent here set at liberty.
Lear lays his hand on his heart.
Lear kneels.
Tucket within
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Enter Goneril.
Lear Points at Oswald.
Exeunt Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Fool.
Storm and tempest.
Enter Gloucester.

A heath.
Storm still.
Enter Kent and a Gentleman at several doors.
Exeunt severally.

Another part of the heath.
Storm still.
Enter Lear and Fool.
Enter Kent.
Exeunt Lear and Kent.
Exit Fool.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Gloucester and Edmund.
Exit Gloucester.
Exit Edmund.

The heath. Before a hovel.
Storm still.
Enter Lear, Kent, and Fool.
Exit Fool.
Enter Fool from the hovel.
Enter Edgar disguised as a madman.
Storm still.
Storm still.
Lear tears at his clothes.
Enter Gloucester with a torch.
Storm still.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Cornwall and Edmund.

A farmhouse near Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Gloucester, Lear, Kent, Fool, and Edgar.
Exit Gloucester.
Enter Gloucester.
Exeunt all but Edgar.
Exit Edgar.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Cornwall, Regan, Goneril, Edmund the Bastard, and Servants.
Exeunt some of the Servants.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Exeunt Goneril, Edmund, and Oswald.
Exeunt other Servants.
Enter Gloucester, brought in by two or three.
Servants bind Gloucester.
Regan plucks his beard.
Cornwall and servant draw and fight.
Regan takes a sword and runs at servant behind.
Servant dies.
Exit one with Gloucester.
Exit Cornwall, led by Regan.

The heath.
Enter Edgar.
Enter Gloucester, led by an Old Man.
Exit Old Man.

Before the Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Goneril and Edmund the Bastard.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Goneril gives a favour.
Exit Edmund.
Exit Oswald.
Enter Albany.
Enter a Gentleman.
Exit Goneril.

The French camp near Dover.
Enter Kent and a Gentleman.

The French camp.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, Cordelia, Doctor, and Soldiers.
Exit an Officer.
Enter Messenger.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Regan and Oswald the Steward.

The country near Dover.
Enter Gloucester, and Edgar like a Peasant.
Gloucester kneels. He falls forward and swoons.
Enter Lear, mad, fantastically dressed with weeds.
Enter a Gentleman with Attendants.
Lear exits running. Attendants follow.
Exit Gentleman.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Edgar interposes.
They fight.
Oswald falls.
He dies.
Edgar reads the letter.
A drum afar off.

A tent in the French camp.
Enter Cordelia, Kent, Doctor, and Gentleman.
Enter Lear in a chair carried by Servants.
Exeunt Lear, Cordelia and Doctor. Manent Kent and Gentleman.
Exit Gentleman.
Exit Kent.

The British camp near Dover.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, Edmund, Regan, Gentleman, and Soldiers.
Exit an Officer.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, Albany, Goneril, Soldiers.
As Goneril and Regan are going out, enter Edgar, disguised.
Exeunt all but Albany and Edgar.
Exit Edgar.
Enter Edmund.
Exit Albany.
Exit Edmund.

A field between the two camps.
Alarum within.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, the Powers of France over the stage, Cordelia with her Father in her hand, and exeunt.
Enter Edgar and Gloucester.
Exit Edgar.
Alarum and retreat within.
Enter Edgar.

The British camp, near Dover.
Enter, in conquest, with Drum and Colours, Edmund; Lear and Cordelia as prisoners; Soldiers, Captain.
Exeunt Lear and Cordelia, guarded.
Edmund gives a paper.
Captain Exits.
Enter Albany, Goneril, Regan, Soldiers.
Albany points to Goneril.
Albany throws down a glove.
Edmund throws down a glove.
Exit Regan, led.
Enter a Herald.
A trumpet sounds.
First trumpet.
Second trumpet. 
Third trumpet.
Trumpet answers within.
Enter Edgar, armed, at the third sound, a Trumpet before him.
Edmund falls.
Albany shows Goneril her letter to Edmund.
Exit Goneril.
Exit an Officer.
Enter a Gentleman with a bloody knife.
Enter Kent.
Exit Gentleman.
Exit Edgar.
Edmund is borne off.
Enter Lear, with Cordelia [dead] in his arms, Edgar, Captain, and others following.
Enter a Captain.
Lear dies.
Exeunt with a dead march.

Friday, February 1, 2013

One Warm Line (Aeon Magazine)

A new essay for Aeon Magazine follows some of the threads begun on this blog.

I don’t think very far into the future. As far as I can tell, no destiny is calling my name from a distant mountain top. But it’s easy to see how the notion of a purpose lets people see their life as a single decisive line, like a thread in the capricious hands of the three Fates. Or, as Robert Frost has it in ‘The Road Not Taken’ (1920), a poem that countless American high school graduates have heard from valedictorians:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…
The Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers sang of ‘One warm line, through a land so wild and savage’, and if you’re pondering your life as a single story, winding through the landscape, that image does make a lot of sense...