Monthly Archives: June 2017

Editing Sheep

Many academics I know dismiss editors as just another species of laity put on earth to serve the guild. There’s perhaps some truth to that. Without people to write books—and few beyond the professorate are granted the time and leisure to do so—we’d be without a job. One of the more hidden aspects of being an editor is, however, its prophylactic role. One thing that those of us who’ve written books know is that we get pretty close to our subject. We have to. Writing a book while viewing your topic from a distance is possible, but not desirable. Being too close to your subject, however, often leads to extreme myopia. Many are those who are quick to dismiss editorial suggestions wonder later why their books didn’t do better. Think about it. Editors, by definition, read all the latest stuff.

We’re kind of like shepherds, my fellow editors and me. We try to keep the ideas in order. We’re not the owners—the authors are—but without an able shepherd you soon find yourself lacking the sheep that make you wealthy. The benefit of an editor is having dispassionate eyes—often knowing eyes—viewing a nascent book without the love of a parent. Don’t get me wrong—we often have great fondness for those books we didn’t write. We can tell the author something s/he is too attached to the text to notice. We can help the writer avoid mistakes. Not that we’re perfect, but we are critical because we’re rooting for you. Facilitators.

It used to be common for editors to be authors. With the growing atomization of specialization, however, this is fairly rare these days. As a colleague of mine once put it, editors are more like deans than faculty. We look at book budgets and statistics. We face the harsh realities. And some of us were once faculty. I receive dismissive notes now and again, supposing that I’m an English major who made it good. Unlike many editors, however, I write. I’ve sat on both sides of this desk and when I offer advice it’s for your own good. Academics and publishers need each other. For one, without books there’s no promotion. Without books, for the other, there’s no paycheck. Like any shepherd, however, we know that the sheep are the important assets. We shepherd ideas into books. But you have to trust the shepherd to do the job.

Sky Blue

How do you capture a true and abiding fascination in words? That’s a thought that comes to me once in a while when I think about the sky. It’s so hard to define, yet it’s always there. To quote myself: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine” (used with permission). I waited for The Imagined Sky: Cultural Perspectives, edited by Darrelyn Gunzburg, for years. I think I first saw an ad for the book two years in advance of publication (yes, scholarly presses can do stuff like that). I kept stopping by the Equinox booth at AAR/SBL to see if it was available. It was the same kind of drive that led me to write Weathering the Psalms. That hope of grasping the intangible. To hold the sky itself. One of my early creative writing club stories was about a boy who wanted the sky. I wanted this book.

Like all books of essays from different authors, it’s a mix of fruits and nuts. There’s some very interesting pieces in here while others seem to have been made to fit only with some difficulty. Still, the sky. I admit to being somewhat disappointed as I read along. This wasn’t for research—my book on the topic is already done—it was for pure intellectual curiosity, what passes for pleasure among academics. Many of the pieces were mired down in detail. Written bout the sky, they refused to soar. Then I came to Tim Ingold’s essay. Here’s what I’d been looking for. Someone who knew the sky could only be approached in terms that contradict themselves at every turn. There is something to say about the daytime sky. It has to do with the nature of light. And of the sky seeing us.

The sky, by definition, is larger than this rocky substrate we call home. It encompasses everything above us. I work in a cubicle with no access to outside windows. I wilt daily like a plant deprived of sun. (Although the wonderful article on light pollution by Tyler Nordgren gave me pause over even that.) I need to see the sky. When clouds block my view, my outlook begins to suffer. It’s that ethereal cerulean I crave. Without it I am but a troglodyte eking out a minimal survival on toadstools and lichen. The sky is our orientation. It is our timepiece. It is eternal. Of the things we do that are evil, polluting the sky is one of the most unforgivable. The key may be in the word “imagined,” but if we could only understand the sky we will have found true religion. They’re called “the heavens” for a reason.

Serpent Number One

I haven’t read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Yet. My reading list is frighteningly enormous and constantly growing. I just can’t seem to get on top of it. In any case, my wife sent me an NPR interview with Perry that set me to thinking about monsters. (It really doesn’t take much.) One of Perry’s answers in the piece by Ari Shapiro stopped me in my tracks. Perry admits that recent political events have made her question her belief in benevolent humanism. I’d never thought of our current crisis in that way before. This is one example of what happens when it’s—pardon the expression—every man for himself. We’ve stepped away from religion as any kind of public conscience. The religious right doesn’t fit any classification of religion that I know of, so I’m discounting it as a legitimate form of belief. When we look out for number one, a self-appointed number one takes over.

With an insidiousness that can only be called evil, our elected “representatives” tried to sequester away the facts of their healthcare bill that they wanted to ram through in order to give the wealthy serpents tax breaks. The thing about looking out for number one is that you’re only number one to yourself. There can only be one one. Lining one’s pockets with the tax money of others is a trick as old as civilization itself. In ancient times, however, they at least called themselves kings and emperors and made no excuses for what they were doing. We said we were advanced enough to do without the religion that supported these outdated views. We’re back to the days of kings and emperors. Anyone who believes differently is fooling him or herself. There have been snakes in the garden from the beginning. Getting rid of religion won’t clear them from the grounds.

There are many benevolent humanists. There are many more who are suffering under the weight of current political systems. Unhappy people elect dictators. It has happened before—in the current lifetime of many, no less. The warning signs are all there to be ignored. The fruit sure looks nice, hisses our constant companion. Looking out for number two is the first step. Then number three, and twenty, and eight-billion. That’s benevolent humanism. Anything less is, well, a walk down the garden path. We’ve been down that path before. Those who trust serpents must learn to count. To do anything less is less than human.

Fishers of Cars

The car was drunkenly weaving across lanes in substantial traffic along Interstate 80. Erratic driving that, although not breathalyzer confirmed, suggested impaired operating. It’s something you never like to see. We stayed behind the vehicle, knowing that it was safer to keep such a car in view rather than attempting to overtake it when the driver veered into the left lane. Since the same muted colors recur on vehicles these days, we needed a quick way to identify this driver at a glance. The Jesus fish on the rear served the purpose well. This situation struck me as a kind of parable, although it really did happen. One of my brothers is a driver by profession. He often tells me that if someone cuts him off in heavy New Jersey traffic, more often than not the car bears a Jesus fish. WWFD?

The ostensible purpose of the Jesus fish is to witness to the world “here is what a true Christian does.” While the New Testament, if I recall, indicates that the true believer puts others before him or herself, the rule of the road is somewhat less spiritual than that. None of us are saints when we get behind the wheel. We’ve got places to go and the drive isn’t really much fun with thousands of other cars bunging things up constantly. Still, if you take the extra effort to put that Jesus fish on your car, aren’t you signaling that this driver holds her or himself to a higher standard? Or maybe the fish is a talisman, like “Baby on Board,” that will somehow protect from the careless, aggressive driver thinking only of self.

The irony here is not that the driver is making poor, or aggressive decisions behind the wheel—let the one without sin cast the first stone—but rather that s/he implicates Jesus in the act. There’s a ready, steady market in evangelical paraphernalia. The WWJD bracelet keeps the question within sight much of the time—but keep your eyes on the road! One of the main problems with the Ichthys symbol is that it is generally on the rump of your car. Out of sight, out of mind. As you finish that last drink before climbing in behind the wheel, the fact that your personal Lord and Savior is being announced to the world may just slip your sodden mind momentarily. The real question is whether a car is the best place to announce your religious commitments. It was the the man in front of the fish, after all, who said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Except in heavy traffic, of course.

Media May I?

“Television today plays too great a part in our national life for us to allow it to fall into misuse by unprincipled hucksters. We must demonstrate at the polls tomorrow that we will not be treated like suckers at a nation-wide Republican carnival.” The words aren’t mine. Nor are they of this decade. Orson Welles (not the actual source) was reputedly speaking for Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 campaign against Dwight D. Eisenhower. There is a larger context, of course. That context, with a changed cast of characters, reaches right up to this minute and is explored in David Haven Blake’s Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics. In the 1950s Eisenhower disliked and distrusted television as a serious political tool. As Blake traces the story, however, his televised likability led to key components in the elections of John F. Kennedy and the once Democratic Ronald Reagan. Americans, swept off their feet by media advertising, ceased to elect the better candidate, starting over half a century ago.

Don’t get me wrong—Blake is no conspiracy theorist. His book was published before the otherwise inexplicable election of Donald Trump. It is a disturbing thesis to contemplate. The progression is impossible to miss. Eisenhower permitted Madison Avenue ad men to commodify him, reluctantly. John F. Kennedy embraced the media. He was, however, a career politician. Richard M. Nixon tried to play the game, and did so sufficiently to win. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, a Democrat inebriated by the money and power of big business, was a B-movie actor cum politician. He won elections like any high school popularity contest. The course was laid. Elections would be won or lost on superficial appeal. No longer would education, intelligence, and the good of the nation be primary in the minds of the electorate. We would vote the way the media decided we would vote.

Blake’s book, as stated, was written before Trump. Many noted last year, although the media was against him, it handed him the election. Front and center in headline after headline, in retrospect how could the election have gone otherwise? His narrow victory (and downright landslide loss in the popular vote) required every bit of energy on the side of reason to combat. Reason, however, is hardly a worthy opponent to media. We want an entertainer, not a leader. After all, that’s what television’s for. Even now the Tweeting’s on the wall. We mainline our news and wonder why things are the way they are.

Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.

Science of the Immaterial

One of the truly frustrating things for the honestly curious is a lack of good resources. Specifically here I’m talking about ghosts. More generally, about the supernatural. “Don’t worry,” laugh the reductionists, “there’s no such thing.” But some of us are seriously curious. Those who are willing to admit candidly the events of life will eventually confess to things they can’t explain. People have been seeing ghosts since at least the Stone Age, and yet finding a serious, non-dismissive approach to the topic can be annoyingly difficult. Curious about the background to the film The Conjuring, I wanted some kind of objective treatment to the Perron family haunting. One of the girls involved has written a three-volume treatment, but that will take some time to get through. So I turned to the investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens were (Lorraine is still alive) some of the world’s first ghost hunters. Self-taught and deeply religious, they referred to themselves as demonologists. Lay Catholics, they couldn’t perform exorcisms, but they could assist in them. Apart from the Perrons, they investigated Amityville, the haunted doll Annabelle, and the Snedeker house, and many other famous cases. A guilty pleasure read, Ghost Hunters, written by Robert David Chase, along with the Warrens, thumbs through several of the investigations. When all is read and done, however, people who claim to know better accuse the hauntings of hoaxing and since there is no arbiter, the curious are left with that unsatisfying state of “he said, she said,” but no real answers. Ghost Hunters contains a potpourri of cases, mostly of demonic possession. Nothing about the Perron family, though.

No doubt much of the hoopla around reality television ghost hunting is clever marketing and nothing more. Even the acclaimed Ghost Hunters were caught gaming the system a little on their Halloween specials. That doesn’t stop people from seeing ghosts, however. Some academics have attempted to address the issue and soon find themselves in untenured positions (so much for freedom of speech) or mocked by their more “serious” colleagues. What ever happened to old fashioned curiosity? Materialism isn’t the only show in town, is it? We need treatments of the subject that move beyond the anecdotal. It’s difficult to get a ghost into the machine, apparently. Science hasn’t figured out a way to study the immaterial yet. Until it does, those who want to know the truth will be left relying on those who make a living by addressing questions even empiricists fear to ask.