Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.

Dancing

An artist is never really gone.  I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.  Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.  Especially when they saw it coming.  Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.  Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.  Still he sings of girls and sins and God.  There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.  The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.  The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.  Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.

Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.  Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.  Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.  Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.  For me he has no pretense.  Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.  For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.  His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.  Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.

Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.  I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.  There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.  Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.  Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.  Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.  Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.  Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.

Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Blood Brothers

Every once in a while I take a chance and write about music. I don’t do this too often since it’s a very personal thing, and as open as I may be on this blog, I’m not as accessible as I seem. We all need a place to retreat in this world, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is one of those places for me. Late last year, just after it was published, Springsteen’s Born to Run—his philosophical and revealing memoir—sold briskly for several weeks. Since it made its way into my stocking I’d been intending to read it since then. And putting it off. There’s something disillusioning about finding out your heroes are only human. The best among mine are heroes precisely for that reason. Gods need not apply. Overcoming my fear, I dove in.

Two things stood out in this autobiographical account: religious imagery looms large, and depression mingles liberally with it. I recall reading an early review where the writer expressed surprise that the Boss suffers from depression. I responded (perhaps out loud), “have you ever listened to his songs?” I became a Bruce fan because he sang about working class people. Bruce and I share that background. He knows that your roots never let you go. Indeed, roots are what keep you grounded. Many of my academic colleagues, I learned, were simply carrying on the family business—and a privileged business it is. Those of us who had to overcome poverty to get in the door were never really welcome in the ivory tower. You can’t help where you’re born, but you can sure be punished for it. Bruce understands that.

I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I don’t even like to listen to his music when someone else is in the room. There’s something deeply personal about communing with someone you feel understands you. Of course I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen. I probably never will. He won’t know the kind of influence he’s had on my life and I feel that I’m risking an awful saying so here on this blog. There aren’t too many heroes in my life. I’m not inclined to idolize people. In this memoir, however, Bruce won’t let himself become an idol. He’s not perfect and he takes pains to make sure that you know that. We were, nevertheless, raised in situations not dissimilar from each other. Unlike Bruce, I have no musical gifts. No, I’ll never likely meet him—and if I did I wouldn’t want it to be with other people around. Some things are just too personal that way.

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?

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This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

The Last First

Pluto_by_LORRI_and_Ralph,_13_July_2015

Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.