A-changin’

The other day, while engaged in a mindless task, I had Bob Dylan playing in the background.  When I say Bob Dylan I mean the Bob Dylan of the 1960s.  I was an infant when he was singing songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  As much as I cast the 1960s in a rosy glow, I was in fact a naive child through my portion of them.  I knew about the Vietnam War, but I couldn’t point to the country on a map.  Likewise, I knew about the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I also knew that we had walked on the moon.  My family at this stage didn’t listen to popular music.  I grew up with hymns in my ears and the culture in which I was swimming slowing becoming absorbed through my pores.  Dylan was part of the latter.

One of the reasons I don’t often listen to music is that I really listen to it.  It is so significant to me that I don’t like to relegate it to the background.  While I work from home, for example, I don’t put music on.  I find it difficult to concentrate because, truth be told, I’d rather listen to the music.  As I had Bob Dylan on, I was doing a task where I could listen as the rest of my body went into autopilot.  The angry white men who are running things now, it struck me, were alive in the sixties as well.  As much as they seem like aliens who were beamed down after the expansion of human consciousness, they were lurking in the shadows all along.  If they sing along to Bob Dylan they’re hypocrites.  We need another Dylan.

Photo credit: Rowland Scherman, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s putting quite a burden on an artist, I know.  But Dylan captured the spirit of the times.  Even as scientism was growing the reality of the Zeitgeist was obvious.  I grew up in the chaotic seventies.  The eighties were bland with the Reaganism reaction—angry white men wanted to get rich at others’ expense, and we let them.  Not enough time has passed for history to decide on the spirit of the fin de siècle, I don’t think.  You see, we seem stuck in a feedback loop.  Dylan’s lyrics are as necessary now as they were more than half a century ago.  I’m growing weary of angry white men and their petty concerns.  Maybe I need to listen to music more often. 

Sixes and Sevens

Few eras conjure mental images as readily as the sixties.  As the first decade of my life, I idealize them a bit, I suppose.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the truly wonderful and troubling things going on around me, and being raised in a Fundamentalist family I probably couldn’t have enjoyed many of them in any case.  Morris Dickstein’s Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties was written in the seventies.  Since he’s a literary scholar much of the culture he analyzes is print culture, emphasizing the works of Jewish novelists and African-American writers.  That fits the sixties image pretty well.  He also looks at the music, but not as much as I had anticipated he might.  For me the music of the decade conveys what it really was about.

At one point Dickstein describes the political situation in the fifties that led to this incredible decade.  I had to remind myself that this was written forty years ago, for he seemed to be describing, with eerie prescience, the world of Trump and his followers.  Repressive conformity and the superiority complex of that era led to a breaking point where individual expression tumbled long-held rules and regulations that had tried to repress women and those that didn’t fit the WASP mold.  Most of us thought those controlling, catatonic days were over for good.  It seems we underestimated the will of those who lack imagination of where things might go if freedom were allowed to be free.  Some people, it seems, believed the sixties were a disease to be cured.

Historians who have a wider grasp than I do say that time has to pass before accurate pictures can emerge.  Instant potted histories tend to miss much of what becomes clear only with the slow passing of further decades.  To me the music defines them.  I only started to become culturally aware in the seventies, and that was in a small town.  When I learned to look back, largely in the eighties, I could see, and hear, that I’d lived through an extraordinary time.  The nineties, largely spent at Nashotah House, were again isolated from culture.  Who knows how this new millennium will be assessed?  Has a new music emerged that will help define us?  Or will it be, as Dickstein unwittingly projects, a new era of acceptance, love, and peace?  Or did the world really end at the millennium?   It could be, we might dare to dream, that a new decade as remarkable as the sixties is waiting to usher in Eden again.

Rule Book

gamespeopleplayMirrors can be such deceptive things. In my head I’m a much younger man than the one I see staring at me. And I have to remind myself that other people see what the mirror sees, and not what I really am. Things age. A friend who aged so much that she’s no longer alive recommended to me years ago Games People Play, by Eric Berne. Of course I’d heard of it before—I wasn’t born yesterday. I do enjoy reading psychological books. Psychology like having a window in someone’s forehead. If you could really master it you’d understand so much of what seems a mystery to people like me. But it is an old book. When Berne casually cites the year he was writing it as the year I was born, I began to suspect that some of the data might be outdated. The guy in the mirror certainly seems to be.

We still play games, though. The hope Berne expresses in the last chapter is that we might get beyond this endless game playing to true awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy—the things psychological games are meant to mask. I also have to confess to recognizing myself at several points and then reading that games are played by disturbed people. “So that’s why I x, y, or z,” I found myself thinking. Disturbing thought. And these ideas are as old as I am. Probably older.

Reading this book from ‘60s, I noticed a strong sense of certainty that is now lacking. I can’t imagine too many psychiatrists or psychologists making quite so many declarative statements these days. I know it’s a classic in the field, and I know there are some valuable insights here, but we don’t call people “squares” any more, and a good deal of the analyses point to assumed gender roles that we now know are as much fabrications as the games themselves. I was looking for a game that my departed friend had pointed out to me. We both knew a man who was apparently picking fights because he wanted to leave his job but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Stamp collecting,” she called it. She may have been right, and I have to wonder if many of us really know why we do the things we do. Maybe I could use a window into my own forehead. Of course, I would need the mirror to see it. It’s a little game I play.

Last Call

A believer in equality across media, I decided to balance out my recent viewing of The Last Woman on Earth with its chronological sequel, The Last Man on Earth. I have seen I Am Legend a time or two, but I have not yet read the Richard Matheson novel. Knowing that the first cinematic attempt at the story was the Vincent Price version, I was curious to see what the last man and the last woman had in common. Not surprisingly, it was a church. The story has been around long enough that spoiler alerts are superfluous, so here goes: basically, vampires have taken over the world. Somehow Robert Morgan has survived and spends his days hunting vampires and whiling the nights away with jazz and booze. As the opening sequence rolls, the camera lingers on a church where the marquee reads “The End of the World.” Of course, in a quasi-literalist sense this is true. Robert is the only non-infected person left. He is eventually located by the infected-but-inoculated crowd and chased down to be staked to death at the altar of a church. The culmination is strikingly similar to The Last Woman on Earth where the final scene also involves a death at the altar in a church.

The noticeable difference, however, revolves around gender. There is very little in the way of sexual suggestibility in The Last Man. Even the scenes of Robert with his wife are chaste and emotional distant. The appearance of Ruth does not even tempt him after three years alone. The Last Woman, however, revolved precisely around this axis—one woman, two men. The sexual tension is the fuel that moves this entire movie along. Of course, the 1960s became the decade of the sexual revolution, but even so the female is decidedly an object in Last Woman. Even in The Last Man, the woman leads to Robert’s death. She was sent to betray him, and although she changes her mind and attempts to save him, it is in vain. Robert dies in her arms. This fear of female power has never dissipated. How many women have been elected president since the 1960s?

While maybe not the heart of the matter, religious constructs may be the lungs or stomach of the situation. Although current religious thinking often insists on equality of the sexes, a tremendous cultural freight placing women in an inferior status continues to weigh heavily on our cultural mores. The largest Christian body in the world still denies women access to the priesthood. Even the idea of denying access underscores just how deeply this sentiment runs. The movies of the early 1960s had neither the budget nor the cultural support to suggest that things should change. Indeed, in both Last pictures the message was that the world had ended already—why bother trying to change anything at this late stage? The final shot, the stolid interior of a church, underscored the message: the status quo has the sanction of the divine.

Hair Cut

“This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” So we hear in the first number of the musical Hair. Since my daughter is learning about the 1960’s counter-culture in US History, she asked her middle-aged parents what life was like then. Well, my wife and I were both born in the early sixties and were a little young to get the full scope of things through juvenile eyes. Besides, I was raised in a biblically literalist family—probably not the best place to gain a great deal of insight into popular culture. We decided to watch Hair instead. One of the few aspects of that era I recall is the Vietnam War (something George W. Bush apparently didn’t remember). The optimism of the hippie movement never really came to fruition leaving an entire era of disillusionment to hang over the remaining years of the millennium. Nevertheless, there is a sense of freedom in Hair that conveys the exuberance of young idealism—something I can honestly claim to have never outgrown. Without idealism we, as a species, are lost.

As I watched the movie for the first time in years its biblical subtext occurred to me this time around. The identity of the youthful protestors is in their counter-cultural hair. Indeed, the show takes its very name from that aspect. Apart from the ubiquity of the hirsute righteousness on the screen, it is essential to the plot. As Claude Bukowski stops in New York City on his way to join the army, he falls in with the Philistine element of society—the long-haired (read uncircumcised) misfits who defy the principles of decency. The dinner party at the Franklin residence makes that perfectly clear. When thrown in jail Woof protests over-strenuously to having his hair cut, leading to the title number. When the friends decide to visit Claude on the army base on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, George Berger has his hair shorn (by a woman) and subsequently loses his strength. His vital force of arguing his way out of any predicament is sapped as he marches to the troop transport plane that flies him to his death. Singing about believing in God as he goes.

I have never used drugs—life has a way of being weird enough already without them—but the sixties seem to have had a moral righteousness that the Tea Party just can’t claim. It was a righteousness borne of speaking the uncomfortable truth to a society that honored the status quo above all else. The very status quo ante the Tea Party craves—a society of bigotry and inequality. A society of privilege and strict conformity. A balding society that has lost its voice. Drugs are not necessary to see unbelievable things. One of the Bible’s original Avengers, Samson tears his Hulk-like way through any crowd, felled only by the cutting of his hair. Hair also led to the death of Absalom, the son whose life David valued more than his own. At the end of the show it is quite clear where the righteousness really lies.

No God for Women

A friend recently asked me to write a post on the feminine image of God. Specifically, she noted that images of God tend to be overwhelmingly male, even today. Having written a book on the goddess Asherah, and being very interested in gender equality issues, I was intrigued by this request. Growing up male it seems natural in our culture to find representations of God as a man. It stands to reason that in a culture more open to feminine experience we should find female images of God. They are, however, still lacking. This combination of improbable facts kick-started some ideas about both religion and culture. To begin at the beginning, although the Bible makes passing references to God as either non-gendered or even female in rare places, clearly the predominant metaphor is masculine. The third-person masculine singular pronoun (i.e., “he”) is almost always used for God, beginning in Genesis 1 and running straight through. The Judeo-Christiani-Muslim deity is decidedly male in his demeanor. All three religions developed in circumstances of male social dominance.

Enter the 60’s (1960’s, that is. C.E.). Women were able to begin expressing their needs without the whole weight of a social McCarthyism bringing down the girth of the government upon them. Instead of finding feminine traits to the god of the Bible, interest in goddess worship revived. Now, serious scholars disagree on just how much a role the goddess played in the development of monotheistic religions. The end result, no matter how you parse it, is pretty masculine. Therefore some women found the goddess to be more conducive to fulfilling their needs. Problem is, there never was, historically, a goddess monotheism. There were always goddesses, plural. Without the unifying force of a single, female deity societies just never fully coalesced around a single, strong image of feminine deity. Some have tried to put Asherah in that role, but she was defined by her husband El and shared the stage with Anat, Shapshu, Ashtart, and a host of other potent females. In a world of two basic genders, monotheism favored the male.

Are there female images of god? Undoubtedly there are. There will be a great deal of difficulty finding them because Christianity very quickly invented the idea of heresy (something Judaism fortunately lacked). This assured that the “orthodox” voice would always be the loudest in the shouting match that we call religion. This situation has had two millennia to ferment and brew. Theologians (mostly male) early on stated that God really has no gender. After all, a male god does imply a lady somewhere in the wings—otherwise human maleness is really superfluous, theologically speaking. Rather than embrace castration, let’s just keep god male, the thinking seems to go. Religions are conservative by nature. They may breed radical free thinkers, but natural selection comes to their rescue by reinforcing the bearded, chastely clothed, divine father. Until society is ready to embrace true equality, however, religion will continue to privilege the big man upstairs.

Monotheism’s bete noir?

Dreams of Equality

Shortly after my wife and I married, over twenty years ago, while living in Scotland we needed cheap entertainment. Growing up one of my chores had been washing the dishes. I continued this calling all through college, working in the dishroom to pay my way through. My wife was pleased with this trait and offered to read to me while I scrubbed away. This was our cheap entertainment, but now, after more than twenty years of the practice, we have read over 100 books together. Last night the book we finished was Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13. Most Americans do not realize that during the space race, thirteen women received non-official tests to qualify as astronauts, many of the tests more extreme than those undertaken by the Mercury 7 crew. Because of social prejudices of the 1950s and ‘60s, the women were never given the opportunity to actually achieve space flight.

Apart from the moving account of how these women strove for the stars, this account also chronicles a social prejudice that remains today. Ackmann reveals that during the ‘50s and ‘60s, scientists and physicians had never really taken an interest in women’s physiology. They were, in this McCarthyian era, considered to be an inferior version of males, the dominant social gender. Although the Mercury 13 were accomplished pilots – some with more flight hours than the chosen astronauts – many political and military decision-makers feared that social fabric would fray should women prove as adept as men. It wasn’t until 1983 that an American woman was allowed to enter space.

Here in the 21st century, many religions throughout the world still staunchly hold to the myth of female inferiority. In a monotheistic worldview where non-gendered deities need not apply, one sex will always be somehow less god-like than the other. In a world where men still pay women less, they are reminded daily that God is a white man and that the mythology declares man was created first. Religion is as often used to repress as it is to liberate. The women who sacrificed careers without personal reward to demonstrate that space belongs not only to men deserve our gratitude. And even that old white man, sitting up there beyond the dome that surrounds our flat earth, must be smiling.