Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.

Leggo My Lego

Given my proclivity to seek the profound in what is often considered the banal, I have been mulling over The Lego Movie.  Before you cast the first brick, yes, I know this movie is five years old and I know that it has sophisticated intertextuality with other movies and sly humor.  I use banal in the sense that Legos are, quite literally, plastic and they don’t work well in conveying the human form.  Our overactive psyches help here, and we give the characters their necessary humanity, but this is a movie for kids, even with its Trump-like President Business forecast some two years before the last election.  With all of that being said, and the word “forecast” already being used, my “Bible radar” zeroed in on the prophet in the movie, Vitruvius.

Vitruvius is based on a combination of Tiresias, the blind prophet, and any number of biblical characters who forecast the future.  Dressed like Moses, but named after a Roman author and architect, Vitruvius utters the prophecy at the beginning of the film and returns as a character that combines Obi-Wan Kenobi and the prophet Samuel.  (I said there was sophisticated intertextuality.)  Whether any of this is intentional is difficult to say—well the Obi-Wan part is pretty obvious—but it plays into the common view of prophets.  One of the points I make in Holy Horror (which deals with a different genre of movie) is that people understand biblical ideas through the lens of pop culture.  Prophets, through that lens, tell the future.  In the Bible itself they don’t do that very much, but since the New Testament reads itself into the Hebrew Bible (more intertextuality) the idea became pretty fixed that prophets told the future all day long.

Ironically, Vitruvius—a name that sounds like “virtue”—was famous for describing perfect proportions.  Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” sketch is based on this idea.  As ideas go, this is a false one against which many of us struggle our entire lives.  There is no perfect, Platonic human body.  Yes, certain people are attractive, but genetics and circumstances make us who we are.  And some of us grew up without Legos, but despite that deficiency we came to know the product.  The Lego characters aren’t in any sense of Vitruvian proportions.  Witty and intertextual, they’re made of plastic and they encourage us to buy for our children.  And one wonders whether Vitruvius is a prophet or a hidden symbol of that word’s homonym.  Let the building begin.

Cool Cash

The seller’s market is the place to be in a capitalist society.  Last year, when we were looking for a house, it was a seller’s market.  Our realtor said he’d never seen inventory so low and staying so low.  We found a domicile we liked, but it was older and had obviously (only after moving in) been neglected.  The previous owners, it was clear, had simply let things go (and they were younger than us, and had no excuse).  When we asked for a new roof they had flat-out refused.  With no other options (our lease was about to expire) we agreed to take it on anyway.  We’ve been having the roof done in installments—and if you’ve been getting the record levels of rain that Pennsylvania has, you know our decision was, in a literal way, short-sighted.  Ah, capitalism!

So, just after I noticed the piles of sawdust that the web tells me are carpenter ants, the refrigerator died.  Of course.  I tried to keep cool.  We don’t have what the overlords call “liquidity.”  Our cashflow is dammed at the source, as it were.  A new major appliance was not a welcome addition to the fixer-ups that appear nearly every day.  The first warning was that my soy milk was room temperature when it splashed on the cereal yesterday.  All of this made me reflect on how much we rely on our appliances, our modern conveniences.  When talking to my mother later in the day, I realized that as recently as her generation not everyone had a refrigerator.  You could live without one.  You could also live without a dishwasher, believe it or not!  

The whole episode of packing the food in ice sent me on a Calvino-esque reverie of what we keep in the refrigerator.  There are foods that must be kept cool or they’ll spoil, foods that are better if they’re kept cool but can be left at room temperature, foods that you prefer to drink cold but can be kept anywhere, and items which are technically not food.  Considering the state of our kitchen, there are also foods that you keep on top of the refrigerator because no amount of cupboard space is ever enough.  As the carpenter ants make their free lunch of our porch, we have to throw away food for which we paid because an appliance has come to the end of its life cycle.  And since it’s a holiday weekend we’ll pay for a more expensive replacement unit because it’s on a holiday sale.  For unlike my soy ice cream, I lack liquidity.

Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

Price of Learning

Holy Horror, as some are painfully aware, is priced at $45.  Even those of us in publishing have lessons we must learn, and one of them is that writing a trade book involves more than just a “friendly narrator” style and non-technical language.  It also involves a subject the public finds engaging (or at least what a literary agent thinks the public will find engaging).  Holy Horror throws two apparently disparate topics together: horror films and the Bible.  The fans of each don’t hang out in the same bars—the fans of the latter, in some circles, don’t go anywhere near bars!  My thinking was that this juxtaposition was odd enough to qualify as trade, but I also knew that you have to work your way up to that kind of readership.  That’s why I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook (followers and friends welcome!).  It’s not like I’ve got tons of spare time, but platforms must be built.

Book publishers face a dilemma: they have to sell books, but as I’ve noted before, they must do so profitably.  There are people like yours truly who’ll occasionally pay essentially a dollar a page (or at least a two-page spread) for a book that’s essential to their work.  As the capitalists grin, it’s “what the market will bear.”  I never thought of myself as a market.  To me, knowledge is priceless.  The effort that it takes to write a book is truly unimaginable to those who haven’t done it.  Obstacles exist almost from the inception.  Getting the resources you need, unless your employment comes with a free library pass, involves sacrifice.  I still look at other books I must read priced at about $45 and groan—how can I justify the expense?  It’s a strange club to which to belong.

My mother asked about Weathering the Psalms: “Is it the kind of book you get money for?”  In theory, yes.  I’ve yet to see any kind of profit from it since the tax forms you need to file for royalties cost more than the actual checks contain.  At least it’s not vanity publishing.  And you truly learn what it means to rob Peter to pay Paul.  It has nothing to do with gentiles.  Publishing is the price you pay for following your curiosity.  My books are very different from each other, a fact that comes with an invisible price tag that has little to do with money exchanging hands.  Well, maybe it does.  And maybe it does have something to do with gentiles.  Or maybe it’s an appeal to a higher power.  In a capitalist nation we all know what that is; herein lies holy horror.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

Patchwork

I don’t wear clothing with advertisements.  Perhaps it’s my Quaker-like sensibilities, or maybe it’s just that I hate being a shill.  What has any corporation done for me that I should give it free advertising?  Actually, not free—advertising that I have to pay to give?  I do have a few college sweatshirts, though.  Always a booster for education, I don’t mind wearing that brand.  Otherwise, I sit back and marvel how marketers get people to think it’s cool to strut their (the marketers’) stuff.  Brand names declare one’s tribe, one’s level of affluence.  I used to rip any exterior labels off my clothes but it became clear it was a losing battle, especially when brands are incorporated (note the word) into the very design.  And we play along.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  After all, corporations are people too.  At least in the cataract-infested eyes of the law.  They have rights just like, or even more than, individuals do.  We live this fiction and watch the wealthy grow loftier, and we wear their brands so that others will sense where we belong.  Long ago I began to object to this.  Maybe it was because I grew up poor and wearing cheap knock-offs of brand names was embarrassing.  The cut of your trousers said something about what your folks could afford.  I actually began buying all my own clothes at the age of fourteen and, consequently, habitually wear things until not even Goodwill will consider them appropriate for resale.  And I still tend to buy generic.  Thoreau, in a patched quote from Walden and Civil Disobedience can be made to say it well:

As for clothing, […] perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. […] No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

The fact is we despise the patch-wearer for not playing the capitalist game.  You’ve got to pay good money for jeans with tears already in them and the world of the facile has no room for posers who actually wear through the knees.  If we ever meet you’ll know me by the frayed edges of my sleeves and cuffs.  I’ll likely be the guy sitting on a bench without a Starbucks cup in my hand, cradling Henry David and nodding vigorously.