Literally Smitten

FfordeWomanDiedJasper Fforde is one of those writers who blends nonsense, deep thought, constant plot twists, and polished writing into compelling novels. His labors are always fun to read and often leave me with something profound to ponder. I haven’t followed his Thursday Next stories in any kind of strict sequence, but I figure that I can sacrifice a few of his abundant references to previous events to read through the latest installment I can get my hands on. The Woman Who Died a Lot was the most recent of these books for me. Thursday Next is a literary detective and her exploits often lead, certainly intentionally, to a feeling that in Fforde’s world libraries and reading are even more than fundamental. Everyone wants to be prided on literary achievement. His universe wouldn’t exist without books and those who love them.

In The Woman Who Died a Lot (and since I haven’t read all the books in the series I have to confess that this theme might’ve been developed earlier) in Fforde’s Swindon, religions have been united into the Church of the Global Standard Deity (GSD) and this GSD drives much of the plot. As Thursday races to solve the latest literary crime, the GSD has decided to smite Swindon. A number of global smitings have already taken place and everyone knows what to expect. A plasma-like discharge, of precise dimensions, wiping out a specified sinful part of the city. The sin here is greed and such smitings have lead to new kind of tourism where the morbidly curious gather outside the boundaries to watch the show, much like Jonah outside Nineveh. As in most Fforde novels there is both a touch of ridiculousness and social critique combined here. I can’t tell you how the smiting ends or you might not read the novel yourself.

The story is populated with peculiar religious orders that always evoke a laugh, and even a Ministry of Theistic Defense charged with finding a way around the smiting of a God willed into existence by the very people the GSD will destroy. I sometimes wonder if Fforde was ever a seminarian. We fabricate our own doom in this literary universe. It’s all in good fun and is reverently irreverent. Virtue is rewarded and in many respects the religion is conventional. The deity can be bargained with, but the law, once laid down, is inviolable. Casuistry is, of course, always an option. It’s a story told with tongue solidly in cheek, but also with brain fully engaged. Fforde is an author not afraid of religion. Indeed, he knows it can lead to a remarkable plot with consequences that will leave a reader scratching one’s saintly head.

Leaving Town

After grousing about having too little time, today begins a trip out of town. Changing time zones, forsaking civilization, resting at a mountain lake. And I’m thinking of all that I’ll accomplish without having to go into the office for an entire week. I made similar plans last year. I’d lined up all the projects that had been piling up and figured that being away for a while would be perfect for getting them done. On the flight across the country, however, my laptop died. Gave up the electronic ghost and died. I grieved, and I was in shock. Thoughts of buying a replacement came to mind, but then, I told myself, I justified buying all my past laptops because of teaching. I carried my PowerPoints with me to class. We’d become a two, then three, computer family. I remembered the sign-up sheets they used to use when you needed an hour on the computer in the library. I’ve practically become a single entity with my hardware, how would I survive without?

Last year, survive I did. Concerned family members kindly offered to let me borrow their laptops so that I could post my daily ravings here. I was surrounded by nature’s majesty—mountains, a pristine (or nearly so) lake, huckleberries, fresh air—and my thoughts turned to the Borg. I’d read about transhumans, and now, I could see, I was becoming one. I don’t want the internet plugged into my brain. In fact, sometimes I don’t even want it sitting on my lap.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying to the ether that my usual posting pattern may be disrupted. It was at the lake, however, that this blog was born. I’m sure that those who first suggested it are a touch disappointed at the way it has grown up. Initially it was supposed to be mostly podcasts. My servers for those casts, however, charged for the service of holding my voice bytes. I used to get paid for sending that same voice out over a classroom full of students only to fall on the wrong side of politics and economy. So it is that I await my flight to remote reaches—remote reaches with Wifi, if the elements allow. If you don’t see my usual musings at my usual time, this will likely be the reason. Although, this time around, with a new top for my lap, I hope I’ll remember to get outdoors every now and again.

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The Canine Mystique

BlackDogAnyone who spends long enough in the United Kingdom will hear about them. Not everyone believes in them, but reports of their presence are pervasive. Some call them ghosts while others call them protective spirits. They are the black dogs. As Mark Norman points out in his new book Black Dog Folklore, the tales of these spectral canines go back centuries and they also appear in other parts of the world. The majority of the lore comes from the British Isles and even there they are concentrated into certain parts of the country. Norman isn’t setting out to prove that they exist, though. This book is an exploration of folklore and the question of the reality of the phenomenon isn’t the point. The fact is people have reported encountering similar kinds of black dogs that vanish in similar ways frequently enough that secondary characteristics can be described and the accounts can be treated as lore.

Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals. Long before cattle and sheep could be tamed, humans and dogs had learned the mutual benefits of each other’s company. This very long association between species has, however, not always been smooth. Dogs retain something of the ancestral wolf in their nature, even as we harbor our inner ape. Some people fear dogs, and indeed, dogs are still used for security and can be trained to attack, or even kill, people. Their millennia-long association with humans, however, has assured them a place in our mythologies. Ancient cultures frequently mythologize dogs, making them prime candidates for an afterlife in folklore.

Traditionally, dogs are chthonian creatures. That word tripped me up the first time I encountered it. “Chthonian” is literally something like “of the earth,” but in mythology it is used to designate that they are associated with the underworld. As in life, dogs may act as guides in mythology, and one of their regular associations is with the realm of the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs came to be associated with ghosts. As Norman demonstrates, the lore was pervasive enough to engage Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps even Bram Stoker used the image in Dracula. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog. Norman’s book won’t convince the reader that such things actually exist, but what it does do is draw the tales together to determine what there is to analyze. Since dogs have been our companions for so long, they have become part of our narrative tradition, participating in what it means to be human. As with all good folklore, there are those today who still swear these spectral dogs still haunt those who are willing to believe.

Eve’s Apple

Rituals rely on unchanging circumstances. When we attended a grocery store that was not our usual one my ritual was challenged. First I have to confess (as is appropriate for a ritual): I am no foodie. Having grown up in humble circumstances where eating out was an unknown, eating in meant the basic food of the unsophisticated. Although college and subsequent years opened my appreciation for new, and sometimes exotic foods (before my vegetarian days I ate ostrich when taken for dinner on a job interview. I didn’t get the job and shortly became a vegetarian—some things just aren’t worth it) I’m still a pretty boring grazer. I take the same thing for lunch each day at work. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day—inspired by the Seventh Day Adventist predilection for cereal—and I imagine my wife finds grocery planning with a guy like me to be its own trial. I see the grocery bill and scream. I eat to live, and not vice-versa.

Eve

So we were in a different grocery store. I take the same fruit for lunch every day, but here my apple of choice was more expensive. I looked for something in the price-range that I feel is affordable for fruit. My eye fell on a variety of apple I’d never seen. It was called Eve. Apples are one of those staples that I’ve always appreciated. We still sometimes go apple picking in the autumn, but it’s difficult to eat them all up before they go bad. In the orchards they list the different apple varieties available for picking on any given weekend, and I had never seen an Eve apple. For my boring lunch (since I eat breakfast about 3:30 most days, by noon anything tastes good for breaking the second fast) I wondered if Eve would do. Would this be too exciting for work? I pondered the dilemma.

Although our culture is increasingly biblically illiterate, here was a breed of apple based on Genesis 3. The Bible, of course, does not name the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the apple was likely chosen much later because of the similarity of its name in Latin to the word for evil. The image has, however, become iconic. Eve reaching for the apple is so well known that advertisers use it with abandon and nobody fails to get the reference. This story is deeply embedded within our culture. The Bible on the grocery store shelf. Still, I’m wondering—should I try something new? Thinking of the work week ahead, I’m tempted.

Nightmares

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters. Could there be any more statement of the obvious? The deeper issue, however, is why. Why am I, among countless others, drawn to the monster? This may not be politically correct—I apologize in advance—but that which is unusual naturally draws our gaze. Humans, along with other conscious creatures, are curious. (There’s another trait that reductionism hasn’t adequately explained; we’d be far more secure sticking with what we already know works.) The out-of-the-ordinary will keep our attention although we’re told not to stare. The monster is defined as something that isn’t “normal.” We’re captivated. We stare. Indeed, we can’t look away.

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The media play into this with their coverage of Trump. I realize I risk participating in that rude behavior by even addressing the topic, but as I hear intelligent people everywhere asking why Trump has captured the imagination I have to ask, have you seen the headlines? Newspapers that don’t endorse him run huge headlines when his name is in the news. It’s horrible, but I can’t look away. Historians scratch hoary heads and wonder how Hitler came to power. Populism combined with an undereducated population in a democracy may be an equation that political analysts should try to solve before it’s too late. Meanwhile, my thoughts turn to monsters. Ugly, large, and threatening, they rampage through my dreams and now my waking reality. I watched in horror as the electorate lined up behind Reagan. Bush, I told myself, was an aberration. Until the second time. Then I realized it was the summer of Frankenstein indeed.

From my youngest days I recall the antipathy that my classmates showed toward school. I didn’t mind school that much, or at least the learning part. Gym I could’ve done without. I never did get the socializing thing down. Feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster myself, I realized I was a pariah (that was a vocabulary word). When did monsters shift to being worthy of emulation? The monsters of my childhood were to be feared, and curious creatures will always keep an eye on that which causes fear and trembling. The media say we don’t want Trump but they give him all the air time he could wish and more. In headlines in massive, almost misshapen letters. They’ve expended their superlatives on what they tell us we shouldn’t see. They have, perhaps unwittingly, played into the very hand bitten by that which it feeds. I can’t help it. I’m staring.

Monkey Puzzle

One of the unexpected consequences of Christian theology is the ongoing insistence in science that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. Actually, it goes back to the Hebrew Bible and the concept of “the image of God.” As the absolute line between human and beast continues to blur (intelligence, tool use, language use—you name it) mainstream teaching has trouble admitting that our special differences aren’t that different. A Washington Post story by Darryl Fears describes how capuchin monkeys have been using tools to extract cashews from their toxic husks for at least 700 years. These monkeys use a two-rock system to get at cashews, which, in their natural state, are inedible. The surprise here is that this makes these monkeys denizens of the Stone Age and capable of teaching complex behavior to their offspring.

Animals watch parents to learn to eat—it might seem to be a simple idea. In reality it’s more complicated than that. As I watched a doe and fawn foraging the other day, it occurred to me that what we call “instinct” is a way of getting around admitting animal intelligence. Why would a newborn (“unconscious”) animal seek to feed, or flee from predators? We call it instinct, but what we really mean is a form of will, a desire to survive. This “will” pervades nature well below the human-animal divide. Plants strive to thrive, and exhibit a “will” to live. By just taking all this for granted and calling it “instinct” we’ve further cut ourselves off from the organic world of which we’re all a part.

Christian culture gave rise to scientific method. No doubt this is an embarrassing scenario for those who believe science should reduce all the wonder of being alive to mathematical equations. Can’t we just pretend that rationality was creeping in from the beginning? Aristotle was going that way wasn’t he? But his work was “lost,” only to be recovered by Muslims who saw the value of such logical thinking and Christians—in an over-simplified history—wanted to catch up. Meanwhile, in the Dark Ages monkeys were using an intricate system to extract tasty nuts from toxic casings without the benefit of any religion at all. The Stone Age, we easily forget, was the first recognizable step on the road to the technological world we inhabit today. And we continue to use an outmoded paradigm to understand our place in that world.

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Equal Frights

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Working in Midtown Manhattan, it’s rare for a week to go by without passing through a street that’s set up for a film or television shoot. New York isn’t the largest city in the world, nor does it have the tallest buildings, but it is a city instantly recognizable at a glance. It is also a haunted city. The original Ghostbusters was a New York movie, but the reboot may be even more so (although largely shot in Boston). I’m having difficulty remembering the last time I enjoyed a movie so much. I laughed until the tears came, and the theme of spirits loose in the city appealed to that part of me that loves the strange and unusual. With several nods to the original, and cameos from the surviving cast, this is a child of love that outshines its parent. It’s almost as if it makes the original even better than it was to begin with. This is a movie with a mission.

Clearly one of the factors in making the film so good was the fact that women were the leads. They show at once the empathetic, and funny, intelligent, and challenging—roles that women routinely both possess and face. The characters have trouble being taken seriously by the males around them, yet they are fully as qualified as and indeed, know more than the establishment. Discouraged and downtrodden, they press on, saving New York City. This may be the first time women have been envisioned is such a salvific role. They are scientists, scorned for their brains and for their gender, and yet they overcome.

Sure, there’s fantasy involved here, but fantasy with a message. I applaud this movie that not only entertains, but also makes profound statements at the same time. It gives a rare glimpse of what the world would be like if men were treated with the demeaning outlooks that they already frequently give to women. It is a feminist movie, but not an angry one. I left the theater genuinely elated. Of course, I loved the first Ghostbusters, despite all the cigarettes and sausages. Still, those who made the movie had the grace to bless this new venture that takes viewers into a world where we rely on women to solve the problem. Once it’s solved, however, they are shoved into the background so that the powers that be can take the credit. It is a movie for our times. I would’ve gone to see it for the ghosts alone. I came out, however, knowing that I had seen something not only enjoyable, but which might, if taken seriously, begin to change attitudes and prejudices which haunt us to this day.