“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Biggest Guilt Trip in History


What is the point of a crucifix? It's supposed to remind us of the good news, that Jesus saved us from sin, right? But wait, aren't we all still sinners in the eyes of God? So what does it mean that Jesus saved us? Supposedly, Jesus saved us from an eternity of hellfire by acting as an intermediary between us and God, introducing the concept of forgiveness (suggesting the omniscient one didn't already know about it).
Forgiveness for what exactly though? The answer we're given is that we require forgiveness not so much for what we've done but for what we are. This is the concept of original sin. In effect, we're all guilty at birth because Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The original pair were disobedient, so Jesus had to be tortured and crucified, and it's all our fault.
The response of many to criticism of the old testament as profoundly immoral--misogyny, infanticide, genocide, etc--is that the new testament is in fact the basis of Christian morality. But this isn't much of a defense. The new testament is the height of sadomasochistic hokeyiness. It doesn't hold up to even the flimsiest test of logic.
In practical terms, though, the message is quite effective. As little catholic boys and girls we were told again and again the good (?) news that Jesus died for our sins. So we were to believe that as six- and seven-year-olds we had behaved so abominably that someone had to undergo torture and death to make amends. Of course, Jesus is dead, sort of, and so we can't repay our life debt to him. Instead, we owe our lives, by an accounting of simple reciprocity, to the institution that represents him, the church.
My ex-girlfriend often told me that I had ruined her life; the corollary would be that I owed her my life in return. She owned me. This is how guilt trips function. People have an innate capacity to harbor feelings of guilt and unworthiness that are ready-made for this type of exploitation. This basic manipulativeness, and not any element of truth, is most likely what accounts for the staying power of Christianity relative to other religions.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Excerpt from the upcoming novel "The Impostor"

            A cluster of cars approaches and George has the impression as they pass that each is slowing in turn to get a good look at him, this strange, solitary man—dogless—walking carelessly, with a dreamy look on his face. How would I describe myself if I were to write about this walk? How would I explain myself to a group of strangers who demanded to know what my purpose was in ambling along the boundaries of their expensive toy gardens?

            George stops and draws himself up to his full height, struck by an idea that he senses from the outset will begin the flow of yet another whirlpool of ideas. I am a literary cliché. I am Gustave Flaubert. I am the flaneur. To manifest the cliché properly all I need do is return home and write about it in excruciating detail. I saw this. I thought about that. I was a little chilly at first but then I got used to the breeze and forgot about it. I’m walking around, noticing as much as I can before I space out and perception gives way to reverie and abstraction—and I’m connecting it all in complete sentences. Who does that? Really?

            He grew up not many miles down the road from where he stands. Moved around some, but never very far. I’m as much a product of the toy garden lifestyle as anyone, he thinks. And isn’t that what’s facing us all down today, this crowding, this cloning, these self-replicating ideas and mass produced lifestyles. Even in literature. Well, I used to like Flaubert and the writers, like Williams, who continue the tradition (just without the veiled disdain and commitment to externals). I always wondered, though, how many I was missing, how many are out there right now going unrecognized. How many geniuses or original thinkers or nose-to-the-grindstone types are lost in this cul-de-sac wilderness? How would you spot a visionary amid all the plastic statues designed to look just like them?

            George feels increasing discomfort with continuing to stand in one place, purposeless, conspicuous. So he continues along the patch of grass separating the road from the neighborhoods and stands of trees and fenced off power stations. It’s not that I have to be special, he thinks. No, I outgrew that a long time ago. But there’s something sick about these places. He remembers the four years beginning when he was a senior in college that he delivered pizzas. All these neighborhoods up north, engulfing two of the houses he spent significant periods of his childhood in, they’re all but indistinguishable. They’re all safe and sealed off. And isn’t that what parents want? It’s exactly what it’s billed to be. Living downtown really is more dangerous. You never know what your kids are going to get into in the city. You never know what you’re going to get into.

            But what message does that send to kids growing up separate, protected, in better schools, on the fairy tale island? George wonders, is it the distortion that bothers me? The short step from idyllic neighborhoods to clueless adults living out their days in bubbles of oblivion? The tribal mentality of the gated community? Self-satisfied, rich, oblivious white guys. SROWGs—ha! (I’ll have to see if that word gets any traction.) Or is it the complete uselessness, the utter superfluity of all these lives, so few of which support any consciousness of their own uselessness and superfluity? What can any of us be entitled to but depredation? No one deserves to be here, in such nice little homes, with such respectable neighbors who have such similar kids.

            He notices the telephone poles on the opposite side of the road. (People really do notice things when they’re walking—even mundane things.) They look so old and weathered, dull, neglected, undecorated. What the hell are things like those doing around here? Of course, he realizes, they are rapidly becoming obsolete. He reaches in his pocket to squeeze his phone, a habit, like reaching back to feel for your wallet, that offers the reassurance of connectivity. You haven’t lost or forgotten your communicator. How often, he asks himself, do you hallucinate the buzzing against your leg, remove the phone and hold it up, only to see the digits of the time and the reflection of your own eye looking back at you—through the Verizon logo? Is that some kind of trick to get me to associate my own image with the brand? Did the people who designed these things know they’d trigger tactile hallucinations? Probably not. Probably just a happy coincidence for them.

            George continues tracking the poles as he walks along, finding in them a small comfort, made of wood and copper, electrical signals. He imagines tiny lights running along the wires. At least all that, amazing as it once was to humanity, is comprehensible to the mind of the nonspecialist. If he were the lone survivor of some catastrophe that wiped out the rest of the civilized world, there’s simply no way in hell he’d be able to pass on the minutiae of cell phone technology. Satellites? Microchips? Verizon doesn’t need marketing tricks like reflective logos; we’re as ignorant and dependent as the suckers at the corporate teats television has raised us all to be. God bless America and the free market. Still, who would give it up, besides some backwoods crazies?

            Ahead now is the entrance to yet another exurban housing development, the last one, George knows, along this route before he reaches Union Chapel, the road on which his dad’s old house sits. Maybe I really am being elitist somehow, he considers as he takes in this particular neighborhood, narcissistically offended at how special I’m not. Going on seven billion people on this earth and they try to tell you all human life is precious. No, no, no. It’s not that. It’s the lack of consciousness, the fact that so many of the people who live in these mass produced additions aren’t aware that they’re mass produced—and on such a large scale. At the same time, though, they think life in the toy gardens is the norm, that anyone who really wants to can live in one. In their own minds, they’re both special and completely typical at the same time. And nowhere is the least trouble with the paradox apparent.

            George turns into the neighborhood, certain despite never having been in it that it will open onto Union Chapel. That’s just how they work. Passing the houses, he thinks of all the kids inside, the Mikes and Madeleines and Shawns and Susies. Mike’s a high school basketball star. Susie’s so charming, the apple of Daddy’s eye. All of whose boundless potential and infinite promise is spoken of by the preceding generations with such reverence, such awe. On and on the houses go. Tommy plays guitar. Ann writes beautiful poetry. How many variations are possible? How many people, nice, middle class, full of faith and promise, how many do you need? George looks up to the empty sky overhead, half expecting to see the silhouette of Santa’s sleigh dropping consumer goods like bombs down the chimneys of the legions of grateful junkies. A cargo cult of designer-decked primitives. Shake up this Christmas globe and it’s not flakes of snow that rush up and whirl about, but receipts—Sam’s Club, Starbucks, Subway.

            And that’s the problem: they still believe, the adults, the parents, they still believe in Santa Claus. They’re like the bankers and traders on Wall Street who actually believe their gargantuan wealth is in keeping with some cosmic order—they’re the virtuous, the brilliant, the good little boys. It’s the same thing on a lesser scale in these neighborhoods. This isn’t the world. The price for all this safety and niceness is the pervading and corrosive lie hovering over it. Santa Market, dropping toys down the chimneys of all the good little boys and girls. Free Market Claus, how is he different from the deity the grownups worship, according to whose will all this sprawl is orchestrated as a reward for so much virtuousness, perseverance, such rigorous work ethics? Haven’t we learned anything from the bankers? Haven’t we learned that free markets aren’t as much like Santa Claus and the primitives’ god as it is like Las Vegas? We’re all winners in a game of pure chance, but no one can deal with the fact that the game really is one of pure chance—instead we insist we came out like we did because of who we are and how well we go about playing. Accordingly, we love nothing so much as to hear how inhuman, how venal and wicked the losers are, so we can rest assured, not that they’re getting what they deserve, but that we are. Never mind that how well you behave is a function of how much you have. The naughty boys and girls get coal—or are born the color of it.

            And me, George poses. Where do I fit in here? I’ve lived long enough like this and remain in walking distance. If I have claim to an outside, broader (cynical?) perspective, where did it come from? Certainly not from my mom. What about Dad? Dad was a blue collar striver, obsessed (according to Mom) with starting projects, like the renovation of the house on Union Chapel, he lacked the wherewithal—time, money, obedient lackeys—ever to finish. From his dad, at a young age, George learned the term blue blood. “That place” (Sycamore Hills, a more affluent toy garden in southwest Fort Wayne) “is for blue bloods.”

            “What’s a blue blood?”

            George, at times, came across as simple to his dad and brothers. Partly, it was deliberate; it got him out of serving his time as lackey. (His mom, to her credit, sniffed him out on this from the beginning.) He also tended to let his curiosity outweigh his apprehension at being thought dumb. He liked to ask questions—or rather, he hated being made to wonder when an answer was readily available at the small price of asking. From his dad, George also learned what a yuppie was. Looking back, he suspects his dad, whose blueness was in his collar, had ambitions bigger earners aggravated with all their subtle ways to lord it over him. And his blue collar intense practicality struggled to account for a youngest son’s dreamier form of intelligence. Book smart, for its simplicity and popular currency, was the running verdict.

            George’s dad seemed to have ideas about a lot of the neighborhoods in town (which young George naturally attributed to a unique perspective of his). LaCabreah, the neighborhood only a couple miles southwest of here: there’s a statue of a horse prancing proudly in a green pasture beside the entrance, too proudly for George’s dad’s tastes. “That is the snootiest fucking horse,” he said on numerous occasions as they passed along Dupont Road. As a teenager, George always wondered what was so snooty about the horse. It just looked happy, energetic, feminine. One day, nearly eighteen, George finally found the courage to ask him, “What do you mean? What’s wrong with it?” He’d never asked before because of the reproach in his dad’s tone.

            “It’s just like all the yuppies who live in there—that attitude.” George is proud of his dad for never seeming to want to live in the toy gardens. (It was his mom’s idea to bring him and his brothers up in one. Even now it seems she just moves from one to another.) Not that there is anything original or especially admirable about wanting to live farther away from the city, on the outskirts, the cusp between civilization and, if not wilderness, then at least forests. There’s an underlying feeling associated with these places—not exactly disgust—in the depths of George’s makeup which his dad must feel too. Though, it seems, there’s little else they share.