Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Austro-Fascist Microcosm

I had no intention of commenting on the recent horror-show in Austria, because some incidents are so obscene as to instinctively seem beyond commentary. The fact that this was the second infamous incident of extended rape-imprisonment in Austria's recent history struck me as peculiar, as did the notably Austrian Hitler-Freudian perverse synthesis of it all; then I read this new revelation:

Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who held his daughter captive for 24 years and fathered her seven children through multiple rape, threatened to kill all of them by turning the sealed underground bunker in which they were held prisoner into a gas chamber, police said yesterday.

Mr Polzer said Fritzl behaved like a military overseer in the cellar and had managed to intimidate his daughter and her children so heavily that they never considered trying to escape. "The door to the cellar is made of thick steel and it has an electric combination lock," Mr Polzer said. "Fritzl told them that if they ever tried anything, he would keep the whole cellar locked up and then fill it with gas pumped in from the outside. Then there would be no escape."

I do not believe any particular nation has a monopoly on pathology. But certainly pathologies seem to manifest themselves in peculiarly consistent ways within cultures. British journalist F. A. Voigt noted that "only the countries where grand opera flourishes have produced Fascism." Certainly there is a reason some countries are more prone to acquiescing to dictators than others. Literary critic George Steiner pithily observed the unlikeliness of British fascism when he remarked, "It is my conviction that had the infinite rhetorical genius of Adolf Hitler been tested at Hyde Park Corner, people would have said, 'Ah, come off it', and walked away." Of course Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries formerly considered hopelessly authoritarian (and in the case of Italy, ungovernable without authoritarianism) have now achieved success as Western-style democracies. A cataclysmic war can do a lot to reshape a national psyche. Yet perhaps a concept developed by that second-most famous Austrian of all time bears mentioning here: sublimation. Roughly sublimation is "the refocusing of psychic energy away from negative outlets, toward positive." So the Japanese who in another lifetime would have been been a kamikaze warrior to honour his family, now commits suicide if he fails his family in business. The astounding post-war economic rebounds of Japan and Germany are perhaps not as astounding if the concept of sublimation of martial energies toward economic ends is employed. But some psychic energes are too perverse to be so easily sublimated...

The present case in Austria is undoubtedly an isolated, horrifically unusual incident. Most Austrians are perfectly pleasant people. Most Germans before 1938 were perfectly pleasant people too, as were most Yugoslavians before their most recent incident of mutual ethnic destruction. Yet within every national psyche is a latent pathology that, with the right dictator or ideology, can cause the Josef Fritzls to emerge by the thousands and sublimate their personal perversions toward national genocides. Are there these kinds of people within every nation? Certainly. Human evil is a universal. That being said, I'd rather be a swarthy foreigner in Denmark than a swarthy foreigner in Russia. There are no doubt those liberals who would argue that belief in such a thing as a "national psyche" predisposed to group hatred is crypto-Nazism in reverse. Most Jews in pre-war Germany were assimilated liberals who likely felt the same thing. They were generally excluded from the crowd, so they did not know what effect the crowd mentality has on a group of people seemingly moderate and rational when met with individually. Individuals, however, are not the main problem. Individuals will produce horrific incidents like the recent rape-incest-imprisonment case, but they cannot produce deaths in the millions. That takes a crowd, a crowd either eager to live out its secret pathologies in the name of a greater good, or willing to silently look the other way in the name of a greater good. Let us be thankful that the Josef Fritzls of Mitteleuropa no longer have a greater good to commit even greater evils for.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Send In The Khans

I read an interesting Q & A in the National Post (the nation is Canada for you foreigners) with a young, unemployed self-proclaimed Islamist Pakistani immigrant in Toronto. I remember the type (usually Pakistani for whatever reason) from high school. One bit in particular caught my eye:

Q) You reject democracy, you support the Taliban and you believe that fundamentalist Islam is the only way to live. So why do you choose to live in Canada, a democratic nation with freedom of religion that is at war with the Taliban? Isn't it hypocritical of you say you believe what you do, while you sit in Toronto enjoying all the benefits of Western society?

A) Yes, I reject democracy and all other forms of governance except Islam. Yes, I support the right of Taliban to live freely and to defend themselves from any invasion based on lies and deceit. And yes it would have had been hypocritical of me to stay in the West had there been an Islamic state and still I would have had been living in the West but since there is no state in the entire world which has complete Islamic system in it and the Islamic world is full of either dictators supported by the West or leaders who are ready to crush any uprising calling for an Islamic system. Therefore it is better to be in the West where at least one can openly preach what he believes in unlike the so called Islamic countries where you can be jailed, tortured and even killed for speaking the truth against the government. Besides I was forced into coming to the West as my parents shifted here and I was not self sufficient enough to provide for myself back home. And believe it or not, me and many Muslims like me are willing to migrate ASAP to an Islamic state as soon as it emerges.

It is my opinion that the West should support the creation of an Islamic state so riffraff (and I do not use the term lightly) like Naeem Muhammad Khan will have somewhere to go where they won't bother the rest of us. The perfect place would be Somalia. Somalia almost had an Islamist government not long ago before the West backed an Ethiopian invasion to topple the short-lived regime. This was a mistake. Somalia is already, excuse the colloqualism, a literally pirate-infested shithole: what do they really have to lose by having an Islamic government? It would in fact serve several valuable functions for the world. One, it would give the people currently hijacking random boats off the coast of East Africa something to do; two, as previously stated, it would give fundamentalist parasites somewhere other than Canada to live; three, the example of a real Islamic state in all its kite-banning glory would actually serve to the world a living advertisement of how pathetic bin Laden's ideal world really is. Of course if the Somali Islamic "Republic" started harbouring terrorists we'd have to send in proxy crusader state Ethiopia again, but what are regional allies for? I support the battle against aggressive political Islam; but I hate the generally crass and stupid way the United States has gone about fighting it. It is impossible to fully rid the world of kite-hating pricks like Naeem Muhammad Khan, but it is possible to contain them. Giving them free plane tickets to Somalia would be a good start.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Clever Ain't Wise

In a rare moment of sober coherence, troubled songsmith Peter Doherty wrote something profound: "You're so clever, but clever ain't wise." This distinction is hard to assimilate for the young. Having a pithy turn of phrase for the conversation is clever; knowing when to keep your mouth shut is wise. Unfortunately, like most lessons, this one is mainly learned through bitter experience: a well-deserved punch to the stomach in my case. When we're young we want to fill every ephemeral moment of silence with an ironic pop culture reference; every space on the wall with posters; every meaningless social encounter with the need to impress. Through the mutual reinforcement of peers the cocoon of extended schooling allows this behaviour to go on far longer than it would in any previous era or society. For this among many other reasons, our less-schooled but more lived ancestors were wiser than us. Less clever, which is why we tend to scoff at or ignore them, but wiser.

I value being clever of course. The best works of art, the best people, the best comedy (A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, for instance) is both clever and wise. There is a time for each, as that canonically wise text Ecclesiastes makes clear. I won't argue that the Tanakh, the Vedas, the Pali canon, the Canticle for Lebowitz or any other book is sacred: that sort of argument cannot be made or won. I will say that for a book to endure and define a people for thousands of years it likely contains wisdom. Atheists will disagree, and they are entirely right when they say that they are more clever than our superstitious ancestors. Our ancestors, in their superstitious wisdom, would likely have acknowledged this. I do not however, think our benighted forefathers would posthumously regret being born in a time when wisdom ruled over cleverness. They may not have written as many books as us, but something tells me theirs will last a lot longer.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Song Of The Thursday

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines a rake as, "A dissolute or profligate person, esp. a man who is licentious; roué." It defines a roué as, "A dissolute and licentious man; rake." If I were to be a rake or a roué - and I'd much rather be a rake or a roué than a pimp or a player - this song would be my soundtrack. It reminds me of my life in everything but the details.

Morphine - Thursday

We used to meet every
Thursday Thursday Thursday in the afternoon
For a couple of beers and a game of pool
We used to go to a motel a motel
A motel across the street
And the name of the motel was the Wagon Wheel
One day she said come on come on she said
Why don't you come back to my house?
She said my husband's out of town
You know he's gone till the end of the month
Well I was just so nervous so nervous
You know I couldn't really quite relax
Cause I was never really quite sure when her
Husband was coming back
Sure one of the neighbors yeah one of the neighbors
One of the neighbors that saw my car
And they told her yea they told her
I think they know who you are
Well her husband he's a violent man a very violent and jealous man
Now I have to leave this town I got to leave while I still can
We should have kept it every
Thursday Thursday Thursday in the afternoon
For a couple of beers and a game of pool
We should have kept it every
Thursday Thursday Thursday in the afternoon
For a couple of beers and a game of pool
She was pretty good too

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Email From A Hater

To: Assholes everywhere
Re: Don't hate the player, hate the game

Can't I hate both!?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rhyming Couplet Of The Day

’Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,
And coming events cast their shadows before.

- Thomas Campbell, "Lochiel’s Warning"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Virus Becomes Us

Having been besotted by viruses, I look to the words of Jeff Lebowski paraphrasing Lenin: "It's all a goddamn fake. Like Lenin said, look for the person who will benefit. And you will, uh, you know, you'll, uh, you know what I'm trying to say--" Since the only people who benefit from computer viruses are anti-virus companies, I want to conclude that they are the ones behind their proliferation. The alternative is that the world is full of nihilistic, mindlessly destructive peons with a means but no end; little boys in mother's basements jerking off to the sight of their perfectly, purposelessly constructed dunce-codes. Sadly though that is exactly the case, which is why Lenin, for all the seeming beauty of his argument, was wrong. People are just not reasonable or competent enough. Maybe certain aspects of the American government benefited from 9/11, but that doesn't mean they did it: nihilistic, mindlessly destructive peons with a means but no end did it, and that many people believe otherwise contrary to all facts is a sign of man's denial of the chaos of his nature and nature in general. So although I want to blame anti-virus companies for the proliferation of computer viruses, and refuse to buy an anti-virus program to spite their machinations, I know in my heart that there is no conspiracy. There are only dunces.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Story Of Passover

Moses and His People by Marc Chagall

"Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the gods. So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress. They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water. This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple . . . By frequent fasts even now they bear witness to the long hunger with which they were once distressed, and the unleavened Jewish bread is still employed in memory of the haste with which they seized the grain."
- Tacitus, Histories, Book V

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Refacing The Defacement

Trying to remove a sticker from a book, I began taking off part of the book's cover with it. This destructive act, though minor, activated a neurotic impulse of futile discontentment. I flattened the sticker to resume the appearance of aesthetic integrity, but I knew that my destructive act had left a festering sore underneath. There was no objective reason for this to bother me but subjectively it did. I had defaced to achieve some imaginary purity and retreated to another illusion of purity upon failure. I felt like the man who had removed the collar from his wife's neck only for her head to fall off. He could put the head back in its place, but beneath the collar the torso was permanently severed. Even if the rest of the world never found out, he would know.

I tell this story for several reasons. Mostly because it is true: such minor displays of personal incompetence really do disturb my mental equilibrium. Eventually it will be restored but to hasten the process I've decided to write about it. Writing about it helps because it makes the act seem retroactively justified. I can bring meaning to a meaningless act by supplying my own meaning through words. This will stand as a lesson to the future in case something like the defacing incident should happen again - and it will. The damage cannot be undone but it can be redeemed if it inspires a creative act more positive than the damage was negative. Writing this is my way of making the regret obsolete. A minor piece of writing for a minor action to be sure, but representative of a principle I must believe in.

By writing such a facile anecdote down I immortalize it as a warning. This warning is entirely self-directed but if anyone else finds any worth in it that is a bonus. Weakness can be redeemed through the very act of seeking redemption. Festering sores that only fester in your mind can only be solved through your mind. By writing I gather my thoughts, and these thoughts are a product of the creative, outward-directed side of my mind. The destructive, inward-directed side of my mind would rather keep the sore festering by poking at it with subtle reminders. In order for the objective to defeat the subjective, I must make the subjective objective by writing it down. If this redeems what I have done it is redemption. If not, I'd rather go down verbally flailing than shut my mouth by swallowing my own tail.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Peace Kills Again

From BBC News:

'World peace' hitcher is murdered

An Italian woman artist who was hitch-hiking to the Middle East dressed as a bride to promote world peace has been found murdered in Turkey.

The naked body of Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo, 33, known as Pippa Bacca, was found in bushes near the northern city of Gebze on Friday.

She had said she wanted to show that she could put her trust in the kindness of local people.

Turkish police say they have detained a man in connection with the killing.

I will not belabour the irony here. Needless to say Lennon-McCartneyism, the ideology of peace through good intention alone, has claimed another victim. The belief in the inherent goodness of man isn't only naive; it's dangerous. I'm sure the Italian woman had pure and beautiful intentions. Most Italian women do. That's why everyone loves them. But maybe the Casa Nostra knows something about human nature that peace brides don't. Peace is not the absence of force but the balance of force. The absence of force creates a vacuum and nature, as well as depraved Turkish peasants, quickly fill a vacuum. The greatest lesson of the twentieth century is the fatal distance between ideals - a classless society, peace in our time, "all you need is love" - and reality. Unfortunately no amount of naked corpses seems capable of quelling the suicide-utopian need to believe in the good in everyone. The kindness of strangers barely extends as far as one's own community, let alone the world. Good borders make good neighbours, and no better paean to failed idealism can match Vladimir Mayakovsky's final words: "The love boat has crashed against the shore of reality." Yet in each generation it is seemingly dredged up and set floating anew, while the savages on the shore lick their lips in anticipation of booty.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Song Titles That Perfectly Reflect My Own Sentiments

Bauhaus - All We Ever Wanted Was Everything
But "All we ever got was cold." I dare anyone to sum up the human condition better in as few words.

Beach Boys - I Just Wasn't Made For These Times
God told me that I'd be a stranger in a strange land. Brian Wilson didn't tell me anything so prophetic. He simply stated what was true to himself and I could only nod. This can be taken as a forlorn statement of self-defeat, but also has a positive connotation, that of defiance; for if the present is a wasteland, then the future is the opportunity given to make it how it was or could be.

Califone - Don't Let Me Die Nervous
Sublime last words best left unrecorded, as the plea against nervousness gives away the incipient nervous state.

Elvis Costello - I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself
Not just as far as the future goes, but physically as well. Sometimes I'm a jumble of nerves and don't even know which direction my eyes should sink to. It's like God's granted command of a nuclear submarine to a rookie cadet soul, and he's sinking it into the ocean one moment of indecision at a time.

Dirty Three - I Really Should've Gone Out Last Night
It's not that I always prefer going out to staying home; it's that home feels so much better when you've done something to earn its comforts.

Echobelly - I Can't Imagine The World Without Me
I can't. Without me the world as far as I know it and care to know it has no anchor, no protagonist, no narrator, no lone voice of reason. It turns from a readable if dreary diary into an incomprehensible manuscript typed out by monkeys or angels using trans-celestial typewriters.

Gang Of Four - I Found That Essence Rare
The essence of anything is hard to find, lost as it is in a jungle of surface meaning. All we can do is probe through the darkness in search of a glimpse. The message reminds me of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which Gang of Four quote in another fantastic song title of theirs: "We Live as We Dream, Alone."

Godflesh - Anything Is Mine
Everything isn't mine. But anything, anything. . . oh "the dizziness of freedom." Like the platitude "You can do anything if you put your mind to it," put it in a far more direct, possessive, brutal and therefore truthful way.

Joy Division - I Remember Nothing
This is a statement of temporary nirvana. We haven't all felt it, but surely we've all longed to at some point. To me it brings to mind the defiance of a court witness, asked to describe an unspeakable tragedy. It's a cold response with the heat of emotion implicit. Even if he could remember, perhaps some things are best left forgotten.

KMFDM - Help Us Save Us Take Us Away
I've always had a certain grudging admiration for the way Hare Krishnas reduce the intricacies of prayer to the simple recitation of two words. These seven words do them one better though, by encompassing the cry implicit in every mantra, religious or secular.

Ned's Atomic Dustbin - All I Ask Of Myself Is That I Hold Together
A demand, a mantra, a last-ditch prayer. Behind the thin fabric of reason lurks the threat of spontaneous combustion, self-induced cancer or a head-long, head-first retreat to the floor. "Come Together" was a noble sentiment on the part of John Lennon (and Timothy Leary), but holding together is the greater and infinitely more pressing concern.

Pixies - I've Been Tired
So often, too often. Right now in fact. 50 Cent can say "I've been shot" and my eyes will glaze over, but Frank Black speaks the words that my weary, heavy mind can collapse in agreement to.

Radiohead - I Might Be Wrong
"I might be wrong": surely that thought is always present in any all-too self-conscious mind. It's a statement of doubt, but also a mission statement of resolve in spite of itself.

The Smiths - Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
If it was simply "Please let me get what I want," it would seem petulant. If it was "Please, please let me get what I want," it would seem whiney. But the third "Please" adds a note of resigned desperation that transforms the cry of a child into the final gasp of an adult mind at the end of its tether.

Smog - I Could Drive Forever
I could, oh how I could. The destination is always a disappointment compared to the journey. We'd all be better off if someone built a highway around the world and tampered with our brakes.

The Sound - I Can't Escape Myself
This is perhaps the most universal of statements. Drugs, transcendental meditation, a life on the run. . . all must reach the unmovable ceiling that is this fact. That the singer would later kill himself is a sad affirmation of its truth.

The Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored
We all want it, but few are willing to state it so directly. As far as Maslow's pyramid of human needs goes, adoration should really be just above food and shelter. The message reminds me of that other admirably infantile-but-honest admission by the Red Hot Chili Peppers: "My mom, love her 'cause she love me."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The International Of Internationals

Leszek Kolakowski describes the syncretic supra-politics of the non-existent future:

Motto: "Please step forward to the rear!" This is an approximate translation of a request I once heard on a tram-car in Warsaw. I propose it as a slogan for the mighty International that will never exist.

A Conservative Believes:

1. That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. A society in which there is no equality and no liberty of any kind is perfectly possible, yet a social order combining total equality and freedom is not. The same applies to the compatibility of planning and the principle of autonomy, to security and technical progress. Put yet another way, there is no happy ending in human history.

2. That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life--families, rituals, nations, religious communities--are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom. We have no certain knowledge of what might occur if, for example, the monogamous family was abrogated, or if the time-honored custom of burying the dead were to give way to the rational recycling of corpses for industrial purposes. But we would do well to expect the worst.

3. That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment--that envy, vanity, greed, and aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed-- is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous. How on earth did all these institutions arise if they were so contrary to the true nature of man? To hope that we can institutionalize brotherhood, love, and altruism is already to have a reliable blueprint for despotism.

A Liberal Believes:

1. That the ancient idea that the purpose of the State is security still remains valid. It remains valid even if the notion of "security" is expanded to include not only the protection of persons and property by means of the law, but also various provisions of insurance: that people should not starve if they are jobless; that the poor should not be condemned to die through lack of medical help; that children should have free access to education--all these are also part of security. Yet security should never be confused with liberty. The State does not guarantee freedom by action and by regulating various areas of life, but by doing nothing. In fact security can be expanded only at the expense of liberty. In any event, to make people happy is not the function of the State.

2. That human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer room for individual initiative and inventiveness. The collective suicide of mankind is conceivable, but a permanent human ant-heap is not, for the simple reason that we are not ants.

3. That it is highly improbable that a society in which all forms of competitiveness have been done away with would continue to have the necessary stimuli for creativity and progress. More equaliity is not an end in itself, but only a means. In other words, there is no point to the struggle for more equality if it results only in the leveling down off those who are better off, and not in the raising up of the underprivileged. Perfect equality is a self-defeating ideal.

A Socialist Believes:

1. That societies in which the pursuit of profit is the sole regulator of the productive system are threatened with as grievous--perhaps more grievous--catastrophes as are societies in which the profit motive has been entirely eliminated from the production-regulating forces. There are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited for the sake of security, and why money should not automatically produce more money. But the limitation of freedom should be called precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.

2. That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. The kind of conservative anthropological pessimism which led to the astonishing belief that a progressive income tax was an inhuman abomination is just as suspect as the kind of historical optimism on which the Gulag Archipelago was based.

3. That the tendency to subject the economy to important social controls should be encouraged, even though the price to be paid is an increase in bureaucracy. Such controls, however, must be exercised within representative democracy. Thus it is essential to plan institutions that counteract the menace to freedom which is produced by the growth of these very controls.

So far as I can see, this set of regulative ideas is not self-contradictory. And therefore it is possible to be a conservative-liberal-socialist. This is equivalent to saying that those three particular designations are no longer mutually exclusive options.

As for the great and powerful International which I mentioned at the outset--it will never exist, because it cannot promise people that they will be happy.

From now on if anyone asks me what my politics are, I direct them to this excerpt.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ten Most Sublime Movie Titles

10. Fires on the Plain

9. The Man Who Fell to Earth

8. Children of a Lesser God

7. Blast of Silence

6. The City of Lost Children

5. Ashes and Diamonds

4. The Day the Sun Turned Cold

3. The Murderers Are Among Us

3. The Spirit of the Beehive

2. Elevator to the Gallows

1. Hangmen Also Die

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Getting Down With The Dalai Clique

Straight off the presses of Xinhua government-approved news, China publishes evidences of Dalai clique's masterminding of riots!

China's Ministry of Public Security said on Tuesday that it had gathered sufficient evidence showing that March 14 riots in Lhasa was not isolated or accidental but was part of the "Tibetan People's Uprising Movement" plotted by the Dalai clique.

Solid facts showed that the unrest in Lhasa, the capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, was organized, premeditated, masterminded and instigated by the Dalai clique and its "Tibet independence" forces, the ministry said.

The Dalai clique believed that this would be "the last chance" for them and decided to launch the "Tibetan People's Uprising Movement" within and outside China, attempting to "create a crisis in China through awakening and coordinating the maneuver in Tibet," the ministry said.

I'm struck by the recurrent Chinese usage of the term "Dalai clique" as the designated appellation for the Tibetan government-in-exile. I'm not sure what connotations they think the word clique has, but to me "Dalai clique" sounds like just the sort of hip and exclusive organization I'd like to get involved with: something like an Oriental Scooby and the gang but with spiritual gravitas and rebel sex appeal. It certainly sounds more alluring than the retro-vanguard revolutionary yawn of "Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China." If the Chinese government really wants to win the PR battle over human rights, it needs to realize that stuffy paleo-Leninist language no longer cuts it in the post-ideological digital age. Even tired university Marxists have updated their jargon to suit the new globalized cultural imperialist narrative of neo-liberal hegemony.

Pacifist monks pitted against riot police orchestrated by aging technocrats in suits is not an image war the communists can win. Just compare the colourful and magisterial Tibetan flag with the drab Chinese red star emblem. George Lucas couldn't have made the good-guy bad-guy dichotomy more obvious. The communist leadership should be calling themselves the "Confucius clique" to battle the Eastern mystic appeal of Tibetans head-on, declaring that the Tibetan uprising is in violation of Tao. Or if they feel they must continue touting obsolete Western ideological rhetoric, they could at least dress the dead socialist corpse in new clothes like Chavez is doing in Venezuela. Terms like "People's Republic" may have fooled people once, but not even tenured Berkeley professors are willing to parrot such baldly out-of-date party lines in the 21st century.

It's not your methods that are unjustifiable, China -- Stalin was an intellectual folk hero in his heyday -- it's your outmoded style. Change the name of the Communist party to the Communalist party, start calling your ideology Managed Harmonious Development, build a faux-traditional eco-garden for every hundred factories - be creative! Otherwise even the most crypto-authoritarian collectivists will continue flocking to the side of the Dalai clique. The Olympic games were a propaganda coup for Nazi Germany because Nazi ideology still seemed genuinely new and exciting in many quarters. If the Chinese government can't get a single Western apologist to play along to its scratched Soviet-built phonograph -- and I have yet to hear of any (though I'm sure Noam Chomsky is pinning it all on the American government as we speak) -- it has no one to blame for the ensuing public relations disaster but itself.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Once And Future Hero

The twentieth century was not a great age for heroes. Totalitarianism and mechanized warfare plagued the first half, while free-market triumphalism and petty ethnic squabbling gained ascendancy in the latter. The romanticism of the nineteenth century encouraged a blooming of heroes who merged political, artistic and cultural ideals: among them Italian unification leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, South American liberator Simon Bolívar, man-who-would-be-king Josiah Harlan, Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture and adventurer and renaissance man Sir Richard Francis Burton. Yet the advent of the mass age near the turn of the century - signified by the growth of populism (an appeal to mass approval and popular values for legitimation), communications technology (the radio, telegraph and accompanying collapse of time and distance) and national homogenization (the erosion of regional cultures and dialects through bureaucracy and centralization) - allowed for the emergence of dictators who perverted the romantic ideal by utilizing the above trends for venal self-aggrandizement.

Seeking to be both egalitarian "men of the people" and Nietzschean radical aristocrats (openly among fascists, surreptitiously among communists), the dictators indulged in the worst excesses of both populism and elitism: promoting rabble-rousing mass illusions like class warfare and anti-Semitism while slaughtering and enslaving their subjects in manners that would make the most brutal but at least brutally honest (no need for egalitarianism as an excuse) feudal despot blush. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin cast a permanent shadow over the notion of the transcendent individual, turning in the creative canvas of individual idealism for the supposed tabula rasa of the mass mind; the community-building ideal of national renewal for the community-fragmenting ideal of national purification. The heroic ideal of the romantic age has never fully recovered, being calculated out of existence both by what Thomas Carlyle called the "dismal science" of economics and its postmodern mimetic rival, the dismal theory of academia.

Of course people still looked to heroes after the age of the dictators, but nowadays only populist martyrs in the conscious or unconscious tradition of Christ gain mass approval: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy. Although the great dictators were just as much populists as they were elitists, it is elitism that has been poisoned by dictatorial associations: being a populist is still the paradoxical mark of democratic nobility, while to profess a separation and striving beyond common norms and goals is to raise suspicion. The sentiment expressed by Henri-Frédéric Amiel, "Great men are true men, the men in whom nature has succeeded. They are not extraordinary— they are in the true order. It is the other species of men who are not what they ought to be," would now be considered secular blasphemy. Standing out is only appropriate if it is to help others fit in. Modern heroes must be servants of the masses, paragons of humility, their grandeur emerging through their lack of grandeur.

While I believe this too can be a legitimate form of heroism, our culture is suffering by restricting the canon of approved heroes to ecumenical peace marytrs. That the youth who once supported the great dictators still desire heroes of individualist grandeur is exemplified by the rise of rock n' roll and later hip-hop stardom. Legends of popular music are characterized by the mythical character, individual ideals, elite talents (some of the time) and inevitable excesses of romantic heroes, but restricted to the aesthetic domain. Literary rock stars like Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac apply to this category as well, and comic books represent another aesthetic grasp at lost grand heroism. Beyond the Dionysian youth culture, political figures who display the sort of norm-defying individuality characteristic of romantic heroes are generally bombarded by the media until they conform to the accepted archetypes, while leaders in business are about as inspirational as the billboards they prop up. At least dictators polluted the landscape with monuments to people and ideals rather than high-grade cheese and lingerie.

Is romantic heroism still possible in this age of leveling down? I believe it is, if exceedingly difficult. I have my own personal, highly subjective pantheon of rogue heroes of the modern age. They are often flawed and even ideologically opposed to each other, but they share a unifying concern with merging intellect and action, living life as an art, transcending the tenor of their times to seek a trans-historic vitality. They include: André Malraux, French adventurer, diplomat and writer (called by Raymond Aron, "One third genius, one third false, one third incomprehensible"); Gabriele d'Annunzio, Italian poet and liberator of Fiume (of whom Michael Ledeen wrote, "His search for glory is difficult to understand for those who no longer believe in its existence"); Zog, self-made monarch of Albania (variously called "the last ruler of romance," "an appalling gangster," "the modern Napoleon" and "frankly a cad"); Vladimir Mayakovsky, Russian futurist and aesthetic revolutionary (V. Khlebnikov: "He strikes the blazing match of his wit on the sole of stupidity's shoe"); and Albert Camus, French-Algerian philosopher and resistance fighter. All of these great and in some cases unjustly obscure figures emerged in the period of modernity, perhaps during more creative times than our own but still in the same broader historical era. That is why I refuse to believe modernity has irrevocably killed the romantic hero.

Totalitarian stooges and ressentiment-spewing hypocrites like Che Guevara may appear on t-shirts, but the true warrior-poet-gentleman-bon vivant-scholars do not need the cheap adulation of the masses. Nor do they need the more upscale but still fickle and trend-ridden adulation of academics. Current academia is rather part of the problem, ivory tower isolation being a sign of the intellectual fragmentation so detrimental to the common culture. Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset called the specialist contemptuous of all areas outside his specialty the señorito satisfecho (satisfied little prince). In contrast, the romantic heroes are the ones who bridge the gaps between disciplines and arts, acts and intentions: they think to live, not to achieve tenure. Matthew Arnold wrote that, "Greatness is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest, and admiration; and the outward proof of possessing greatness is that we excite love, interest, and admiration." That this is a spiritual condition is why romantic heroism seems so out of place in today's materialist culture; and why today's culture is so lacking in inspiration. If we are to regain an appreciation for the ineffable, a re-enchantment of everyday living, we must have examples to follow. Miguel de Unamuno knew this when he wrote, "A new man, a genuinely new man, is the renewal of all men, because everyone gains his spirit." That is the role of the once and future hero.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Animal Gaze Of Morning

"When the morning sun then rises, burning like a god of wrath, and the gate of the city opens to him, perhaps he will behold in the faces of those who dwell there even more desert, dirt, deception, insecurity than lie outside the gate - and the day will be almost worse than the night."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Subversion's Dead End Poetics

A published experimental poet came in to speak for a Comparative Literature class I was taking. She bemoaned the fact that poets were no longer at the forefront of culture, no longer the "antenna of the race" as Ezra Pound put it. (The Pound reference is mine, not hers, race of course being a social construct.) She was obviously an intelligent woman, but intelligence tends to inexorably drift from honesty of intentions. If she had bluntly stated that her experimentalist poetry was designed to earn her a living, indulge her artistic aspirations and gain dates in the lesbian community, in whatever order of truth, I would have applauded. Instead she had to use the deconstructing language as political statement trope - which, as a firm proponent of reconstructing language from the ruins of both consumerist and supposedly anti-consumerist postmodern newspeak, I took issue with.

One of this woman's poems consisted entirely of a string of numbers, yet she detected no correlation between the willful obscurantism her art represented and the decline of poetry's status in the broader culture. I don't deny poets the right to be as willfully obscurantist as they want, but they cannot in good faith remain so while bemoaning the fact of their own obscurity. This woman came from the school of transgressive poetry, and the fact that it is a "school" - and we were being taught it in a school, that most bourgeois of institutions - speaks to its tragicomic confusion of purpose. If she really wanted to be transgressive, she should have taken her aspiring vanguard of the masses poetry to an institution actually representative of the masses - perhaps the military. I'm sure her strings of numbers would have gone over smashingly there.

If a poet transgresses in the woods and nobody hears it, who the fuck cares? This woman spoke of her poetry as a political act, but in typical postmodern style, the summation of this grand political statement was roughly: capitalism sucks, racism sucks, sexism sucks, the fact that the masses don't appreciate how hard I work to transgress their norms sucks. The masses don't care and why should they? Poetry has always been a bourgeois art, and the attempts of nearly every modern poet to deny this fact has done nothing to change it. Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky became the poet of the Russian revolution specifically to employ his poetic skills for the masses, and ended up writing state-sponsored advertising messages telling the proles to brush their teeth. He later committed suicide, perhaps the only transgressive statement he had left.

This contradiction extends to modern art as well. Every modern artist who attempts to transgress bourgeois norms by shitting on a bed and inserting an American flag into it (has that been done yet?) is only appealing to a substratum of that very same bourgeois elite they supposedly seek to bring down. The fact that the tax dollars of the much-ballyhooed masses often goes to support this form of modern art is a glimmer of its totalitarian heritage, exemplified by the sad career of poor idealistic Mayakovsky. Irrelevancy can be a noble position to be in, but not if the only value the irrelevant subject aspires to is relevancy. By trying to be "relevant" to the chaos of the postmodern age by adapting their form to it, poets and modern artists are not transgressing the status quo - they are reinforcing it. It is my position that clear language is the most subversive poetics of them all.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Rhyming Couplet Of The Day

I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

- William Butler Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion"

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Escaping The Human Pyramid

There is a pyramid of bodies, each one clawing, climbing and grasping through the others to get to the top. Having reached the top, the reigning body stretches out for a minute before being knocked to the side and displaced by the next up-and-comer. Then the process begins again. This has always been the nature of social structures, which I define as groups of more than two. Two people can live together as a mutually reinforcing couple, symbiotically in tune with the platonic and/or erotic fluctuations of the other. Once a third party is introduced a small-scale pyramid begins, and the clawing-climbing-grasping process is almost inevitably set in motion. The degree to which this occurs certainly depends on the quality of the people involved, but the chances are increased by quantity. The bigger the group the higher the potential reward at the top of the pyramid, and thus the nastier the process is likely to get. This even though the potential reward is ephemeral, and most time at the top is spent warding off overly zealous aspiring successors.

This is why I don't particularly desire leadership roles or like large groups of people. On an individual level most people are fine or even pleasurable, but when that third number is introduced so is the struggle not to be the odd man out and hit the dreaded bottom. I realize the practical necessity of some social pyramids, but I like these voluntary associations to be loose and transient, forming and reforming before leadership tensions begin to simmer. Drink can be a good lubricant to loosen these inherent tensions, but it can also lead to the spill that causes the pyramid to topple. That edge of uncertainty is part of drinking's appeal and why it is the prefered activity of large groups. One needs an element of danger even when it is domesticated (or domestic beer) and relegated to weekends. I perceive the game when I drink and enjoy it on the ludic level, but otherwise a one-on-one relationship is necessary for my sanity's sake. I don't like social games when I'm sober (which is most of the time), I don't like the artifice and oneupsmanship and territorial pissings involved.

Like a lot of people, high school proved for me to be a wonderfully horrible learning process in this regard. I'm always suspicious of anyone who enjoyed their high school experience. High school is when social pyramids are first built in earnest, without the layers of etiquette and ritual to soften the blows of being knocked around. To be outside of the pyramid is, to extend the metaphor, to be lost in the desert. The concept of a spiritually peaceful monastic life in this desert usually has yet to enter the mind. Instead it is a mad scramble for the top of the pyramid, or at least not to be on the bottom. I haven't really had a "group of friends" since high school and I'm rather content with that. I have individual friends in varied locations and know enough people to enjoy the ludic dimensions of the pyramid on alcohol holidays. There's a reason monogamy is the standard social practice in most societies. Polyamory is a pyramid of bodies with the combustible addition of sex and its associated lubricants. This greater erotic edge of uncertainty certainly has its visceral appeal, but makes total collapse almost certain. Monogamy is more reliable, for worse and better. That solitude plus one is all I desire right now.

Ouroborous In Eden

"And know that from the beginning of his creation, the serpent served an important and necessary purpose for the harmony of Creation, so long as he remained in his place. He was a great servant, created to bear the yoke of mastery and service, and his head reached to the heights of the earth, and his tail reached into the depths of Hell. For he had a suitable place in all the worlds, and constituted something extremely important for the harmony of all levels, each in its place. And that is the secret of the heavenly serpent, known from Sefer Yetsirah, who sets all the spheres of Heaven into motion and makes them orbit from east to west and from north to south. And without him, no creature in the entire sub-lunar world would have life, and there would be no sowing and no growth, and no inducement for the procreation of all creatures."
- Joseph Gikatilla, Sod ha-Nahash u-Mishpato (The Mystery of the Serpent and its Sentence)