Tis a Season

halloweenI always seem to be running late. Still, I wanted to be reading a book about Halloween on Halloween. If I might be pardoned for bleeding over into All Saints’ Day, I’ll share some thoughts this November on Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Academic treatments of holidays, I fear, often suffer because of dispassion. Academics tend to emulate Spock in their writing, and I think that those who write about Halloween should really “get” Halloween. Oh, one can discourse about its quaint history in this ever so rational world, but one might just miss what the whole thing is about. To be fair, Rogers was writing his book during the trauma of 9/11. He wonders if Halloween may be fading. Nashotah House was suffering under an evangelical administration at that time, and the usual Halloween spirit was muted. Some fifteen years on it seems that Halloween earns yet more money and people admit that it’s hip to be scared.

Rogers gives a brief treatment of the early, but hidden, history of the holiday. The Celts weren’t much into writing about their festivals and invaders didn’t think much of their quotidian life to begin with. Trying to understand Halloween from modern times, piecing the puzzle together back over time, doesn’t really help much either. Treating the day in its British context, then in its American context, Rogers favors a thematic approach. His section on Halloween movies is interesting. Like most modern treatments of the holiday, his book makes comparison with el Dia de los Muertos, and the usual complaints of cultural imperialism. Maybe Halloween is just too much fun to pass up. It also means this post isn’t that outdated.

Nobody owns Halloween. It is taken as a serious holiday by some Wiccans, but liturgical Christians are far more intense about today, All Saints’ Day. It isn’t a national holiday and no national government decides the correct day for trick-or-treating. Perhaps prophetically Chris Christie cancelled Halloween the year of Hurricane Sandy, but did he really? Sitting in the dark for a few days with evenings lit by candles—some of them in Halloween holders—felt pretty spooky to me. Halloween may be a source of intellectual curiosity, but it is a holiday you either get or you don’t. October is its prelude, November is its aftermath. It is, as the Celts used to believe, when cold weather seriously begins to take over and light is a rapidly vanishing commodity. I may be a day late, but Halloween isn’t quite over yet.

Holiday Weekend

John Seward Johnson II is a sculptor whose work is instantly recognizable by a number of people. Realistic, life-size bronze castings of people doing everyday things, some are painted so as to be difficult to distinguish from quotidian humans. Others are left more abstractly colored or sized so as never to be mistaken. They are, in many ways, explorations of what it means to be human. One of Johnson’s statues, “Double Check” presents a business man sitting on a bench, checking his briefcase. It is most famous for having sat near ground zero and having confused rescuers as a real person traumatized by the events of September 11. Memorial Day seems like a good opportunity to revisit the statue that many thought was human, and which many people still adore.

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While perhaps the most obvious question a sentient being can ponder, what it means to be conscious (and in our case, human) is without an easy answer. We are animals aware of our own mortality in a way that causes many of us angst, or even terror. Humans (and perhaps other conscious animals are) notorious anthropomorphists—we think of other creatures, and even inanimate objects as being like ourselves. We can mistake statues for real people. All too often we treat others as if they were made of cast bronze. Memorial Day is for remembering, but the fallen haven’t only been the victims of the madness we call war. Violence done to others for one’s own gratification is an act of war on a personal scale. Individuals who destroy many others need to stand long before a statue and ponder.

“Double Check” has become an icon of sorts. People left gifts and remembrances for the victims of the attack on the statue. When the real thing isn’t there, sometimes a statue will do. This can teach us something about being human. As we die, at least in this culture, we are buried and a headstone becomes our statue. Our representation for the world to remember that we were here. Our progeny may lay flowers on our grave on this date some day in the future while statues that look just like humans will remain largely unchanged, asking those who remain alive to check again. To think, what does it mean to be human? And when any of us may be tempted to harm anyone else, perhaps we should gaze at a statue and consider the implications.

Let There Be

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, as everyone knows, a military man. With the role of Commander in Chief, United States Presidents control a military that eats up an enormous amount of tax dollars. To keep us safe, we’re told. Even though he was a military man, in his farewell address Eisenhower warned the American people of the Industrial Military Complex, a group of companies that not only eat national budgets for breakfast, but also control the most dangerous technology in the world. Secrecy, we’re told, is key. We don’t want any other nation on earth knowing what we’re up to. In fact, most Americans have no idea of and no control over what we’re up to. When people like Edward Snowden come out, their tales are so extreme that it is fairly easy to dismiss them. Would a good government ever do that? Nah. We’re the good guys, right? These were the thoughts going through my head after I watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I always run a couple years behind, it seems, on major movies. This one disturbed me in a way uncharacteristic of the Enterprise and its crew.

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Since it’s been out a couple of years I don’t need to give spoiler alerts unless some readers are even further behind than me. Okay: here’s a spoiler alert.

As James T. Kirk gets busted down in rank for violating the prime directive to save Spock, he takes over the Enterprise when Admiral Pike is gunned down in a top-level Star Fleet meeting. Vowing revenge, he encounters Khan, the eponymous villain of the old series Wrath of Khan. As Admiral Marcus had made an alliance with Khan the parallels with the Bush family and Sadam Hussein became clear. And when Scotty finds a super starship on a moon of Jupiter, secretly developed by Star Fleet to go to war with the Klingons, more than a touch of the Black Ops came to mind. Here was a government that couldn’t be trusted and that didn’t trust its people to know its intentions. When Khan pilots this Black Ops starship into San Francisco, the shot of it falling out of the air so resembled classified military craft that I actually shuddered. The destruction was a parable of 9/11.

Throughout the movie there is a dialog of ethics. Is it right to kill a known criminal without trial? Is it permissible to start an unprovoked war? Does might make right? Khan, despite being evil, tells the truth. The movie disturbed me because I can’t remember the last time I could truly trust the government. I vote Democrat because they are the party that seem to do the least damage to the planet and actually care for the poor. I was born, however, after the Eisenhower administration. John F. Kennedy was assassinated after my first birthday. My reading since leaving college has convinced me that we will never get the full story. Star Trek, although set in the future, has always been a projection of the present day. Those few groaners of episodes from the late ‘60s that delved into popular culture proved that. As I watched the crew of the Enterprise battling an enemy under its own flag I realized little has changed in the final frontier.

The Day After

I don’t mean to be insensitive. Sometimes I get so busy that I don’t even look at the date for days at a time. This can’t be good, but I was surprised when the anniversary of 9/11 caught me completely unawares this year. That’s the kind of summer it’s been. Not acknowledging 9/11 to New Yorkers is like making ethnic jokes—it’s inherently offensive. The City is always subdued on this date of infamy. Coming the same week as Labor Day this year, I think my timing was just off. In my family, September was always the month of birthdays. My present to my brother of the 12th was late in 2001. I wanted to find something old. Something solid. Something time-honored. I wanted a sense of stability to return to a chaotic world. Being an inveterate fossil collector, I went to a local rock shop and bought him a fossilized cepholapod shell. It wasn’t much, but it was a message and a metaphor.

Today, being a birthday and a day after, feels a little like an apology to me. At the time of 9/11 I knew a few colleagues teaching in New York, but in 2001 I’d not really known the city. I’d visited a few times. I was still employed, although my personal career trauma was, unknown to me, already underway. And looking at the state of the world some fourteen years later, I wonder how much better things are. We haven’t suddenly improved, and as a nation we seem more deeply divided than ever. Candidates who resemble their caractitures more than actual people frighten me. The rhetoric is a sermon of doom. Have we all forgotten how that morning felt?

Television reception was poor, or it may have been the tears falling from my eyes as I watched, at the safe distance of Wisconsin. We’d just sent our daughter off on the school bus and now wanted her back home. I called my brother in Pittsburgh in a panic. The news had said a plane had crashed in southern Pennsylvania somewhere. It seemed the the possibilities of horror were endless that day. And yet. I awoke yesterday fretting over work. My mourning routine was harried and frantic. I didn’t even know what day it was. I glanced a paper headline on the way to work and realized that I’d overslept a tragedy. Some scars never heal. Those wounds cut by religion are the deepest. So we find ourselves on the nexus of a tragedy, a birthday, and a new year. How we respond is entirely up to us.

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Devil’s Food

One figure among the standard repertoire of Halloween characters has never appeared on my list of favorite monsters. I suppose it may be because as a child I fervently believed there was a devil that he never made my A-list. Satan was real, according to my church, in some almost biological, corporeal form. Even as a youngster I knew vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, and the rest, really didn’t exist (even after I hid under my covers all night once, after putting my head down on a bat that had flown into my bedroom). The devil was, however, biblical. And I never felt tempted to dress up with red horns and pointy tail, carrying a plastic pitchfork. Halloween was always among my favorite holidays, but it was for pretend monsters and ghosts (which might perhaps be real, but which were not diabolical, according to my childhood economy of the spiritual world). The consequences of devil imitation seemed eternal, and even today, in the rational light of the twenty-first century, I can still be given pause even though I know the concept is a Zoroastrian one that morphed into early Christianity’s need for a kind of anti-Christ.

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There are many who still believe in a real devil. Some branches of Christianity (and Islam) teach that a literal devil lurks about in our world. In western culture he is a figure instantly recognizable, although there are differences of opinion in his anti-iconography. Last weekend I visited a fine little restaurant in a New Jersey town that has a reputation for being haunted (the town, not the restaurant). It was a seat-yourself day and the table my wife and I ended up selecting had shellacked cards on top as part of the decoration. There in front of me was the devil. I pondered this. The cards, all captioned in Spanish, had mundane subjects: an umbrella, a musician, plants, a spider (okay, so that last one’s a little scary too), but only one supernatural figure. Perhaps the entire deck, had I seen it, might have had more. No doubt, for a world that postulates a good God, a devil covers, well, a host of evils.

The word “devil” is somewhat loosely applied these days. New Jersey has its own cryptid called the Jersey Devil, which has led to iconic names for sports teams and perhaps a public official or two. But even in the aftermath of 9/11 there were those who seriously postulated seeing the face of the devil in the tumbling debris of the twin towers. For a character of the religious imagination, the devil has managed to impress deeply on the human psyche. I know in my rational mind that I should simply dismiss all of this and get on with the business of enjoying the monsters that will show up at my door later this week. Nevertheless, when the waiter comes out with our food, I look down at the table and decide to pass on the hot sauce for today, just in case.

Disarmament

Maybe it’s just where I cast my attention, but debates over belief or unbelief seem to be everywhere these days. The word “militant” is used to describe belief (or lack of belief) systems with a worrying stridency. We want to prove what we believe, with violence, if necessary. So in anticipation of 9/11 Nick Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “The phantom menace of militant atheism“. He points out, rightly enough, that you seldom hear of militant atheists being suspected of acts of terrorism. When a bomb goes off, we look for the religion behind it. For each pyromanic a religion can boast, it has a larger number of pacifists, in most cases. As Cohen points out, atheists aren’t blameless—Stalin and Mao remind us of that—but in today’s world of free agent religious ordinance missionaries we seldom, if ever, hear that the atheists have been plotting and planting explosives. In that Cohen is surely right. Humanists (to generalize) tend to hold humanity up, not blow it up.

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is, however, a strange disconnect that Cohen, and countless others, point(s) out—atheists (and I would broaden this to humanists) are considered immoral. As if the concept of deity were somehow a mark of moral maturity. Of as if a specific belief system were the default for humanity and the rejection of it somehow a willful attempt at evil. Humanists, however, have been around for a long time. We tend to overlook that fact because they weren’t busy plotting to destroy others. Being raised in a religious environment, I didn’t even realize that long before I was born quiet, ethical, good people had come to think that religion was a delusion. Sure, some humanists have weird peccadilloes, but as the headlines remind us, so do the religious. The problem comes in when militants are the measuring rod. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” a pacifist once said.

At the root of all this blustering is the unrelenting urge to convert. Those who are truly convinced they’ve found the right way—believing or un—want others to see it their way. Problem is, others want the same thing, the other way around. Apart from Cohen’s observations, I would note that we never hear of tolerant believers or unbelievers attacking anyone. Physically or verbally. The mantra of live and let live applies up to the point that a belief system mandates harm and then the old contradictions begin to resurrect themselves. Some belief systems are, by dint of their very premises, immoral. The majority, however, are just fine. If the zeal for conversion can be kept under control. I can envision a world where evangelical atheists could exist side-by-side with those who believe and don’t believe at the same time. And they might even meet together peacefully if only we would leave the militancy at home.

Working Dead

AmericanZombieGothicPerhaps being born into and reared in a working class environment naturally predisposes me to the populist variety of entertainments. Although this may be true, serious scholars have begun to pay attention to the subjects traditionally classified as “lowbrow,” and particularly zombies. I mention zombies not infrequently because they are monsters with religious origins (although not the only ones). Reading Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic (and who could resist such a title?) resurrected all of these interests for a few happy days on the bus. Subtitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Bishop’s study goes back to the beginning with zombies and their religious origins. Since the concept of zombie required the blending of Catholicism with its root African indigenous religions, it seems natural that the concept would emerge in Voudon (voodoo) religions of the Caribbean. What Bishop makes clear, however, is that the zombie is a way of coping with slavery, since, as originally conceived, zombies represent the horrors of enslavement. In other words, they represent a social justice issue.

Dismissed as puerile and unsophisticated, zombies had a difficult time catching on in American culture. Once they caught on, however, they didn’t let go. (They are zombies, after all.) As Bishop shows, this appeal has many bases. George Romero’s zombies were always social critique. Exploiting their shock value made a point, but other filmmakers soon followed, enamored of the potential violence, gore, and exploitation the zombies offered. Then, following 9/11, zombie movies proliferated, demonstrating that even the undead might perform some kind of catharsis. As Bishop notes, zombies were primarily a movie phenomenon, slow to catch on in literature.

Having read a few zombie novels in the last few months, I have pondered this last point deeply. What is believable, momentarily, on the big screen is rendered laughable with the ponderation of reading. When your brain has time to process what slick visual editing denies, it is clear that decaying corpses would have a pretty tough time getting around—even living bodies have trouble with it from time to time. Zombies, after all, are not really ever literal. They are signs, or even prophets. They point to a reality beyond themselves. Zombies, in reality, represent enslavement—whether literal or figurative—that holds us back from our true potential. No wonder they’ve become such fixtures in a world where opportunity has become effaced and terror can breach even secure borders. They may be lowbrow, but having lived the working class life, I have always had profound respect for the walking dead.