Dakota Territory

A few weeks back I found myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. This is a fashionable district in which to live, but back when the Dakota was built, as pictures from that era demonstrate, this was an undeveloped area. The building stands alone against the sky, not surrounded, as it is today, by neighbors. I’ve noticed this in other parts of Manhattan as well. New buildings can grow in seemingly impossibly slim spaces between other structures. Sometimes I wonder how construction workers can get their hands back there to lay the bricks. The city is so overbuilt that it is difficult to get into the Halloween mood of October. Yes, stores, restaurants, and bars do decorate windows, but the enormity of the surroundings makes them seem miniscule. Although New York is a gothic city, it seems to swallow up holidays. Perhaps because of its greater commercial potential, Christmas is much more evident around town. Halloween, however, is a holiday best appreciated outdoors.

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While in the neighborhood, we stopped by to look at the Dakota. It was under scaffolding the prevented seeing the entirety of the building, but the famous entryway was unobstructed. I know that it was near here that John Lennon was murdered, and I know other famous people used to live here: Judy Garland, for example, and Leonard Bernstein. To me, however, the visual aspect of that entry always suggests Rosemary’s Baby. Even the doormen still wear the uniforms that they wore in the movie, only today they have to shoo away those who try to wander inside the gates to snap a selfie where the other half live. For me it was once again being in the presence of a place I’d felt I’d been before.

Rosemary’s Baby still stands out among the classic horror films as being particularly effective. The Satanism scare of the late sixties and early seventies has moderated, and we know now that witches are not people to be feared. Nevertheless, the eerie pacing of the film, and the sense of threat forever mark this location as one of caution. Seeing Terry Gionoffrio lying in a pool of blood where John Lennon would, in reality be twelve years later, is prophetic in the worse possible way. Still, the tourists stopped to have their pictures snapped at this infamous location. New York can be like a giant movie set at times. I quite often walk through staging areas for films on my way to work. It is a city where fantasy can be difficult to parse from reality from time to time. Even being in the upper west side, for someone like me, is, I know, pure fantasy.


Imagine Thanksgiving

Although mildly jetlagged and slightly incoherent, a promise is a promise, so I took my family to Manhattan to see (the upper half of) the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Commercial and flashy, it is difficult to conceive of a more American expression of holiday wonder. It kicks off the secular Christmas season and the parade forms the background noise to many a feast preparation in the United States. Not living in the city proper, there are limits to how early public transportation can get one into town, so by the time we reached the Upper West Side, the crowds were pretty intense. We met our friends at West 72nd Street and tried to see the floats and balloons over the heads of a sea of humanity; if you could glimpse the flashing tip of a tuba, we counted that as seeing a marching band. The weather was cool but nice and in the dense crowd I kept my hands shoved in pockets, not always sure they were my own pockets, and waited for the next tall or hovering parade feature. In-between times I stared at the building to our left until a friend informed me that it was the Dakota. The site of John Lennon’s slaying and the exterior used in Rosemary’s Baby, where, presciently, a murder victim was laid out on the sidewalk not far from where Lennon fell. Suddenly the parade took on a profundity that betrayed the levity of the gas-filled characters floating by.

Mark David Chapman, a delusional, born again Christian, had spent many hours waiting about where we were suspended in the crowd. Thinking himself Holden Caulfield of the Catcher in the Rye, he murdered Lennon creating a saint and a demon simultaneously. Perhaps John Lennon’s ashes are still floating about Central Park, and as we walked through, the exterior of the Teutonic Dakota took on a haunting quality. Lennon was a lover and a protestor and an experimenter, and scenes from Rosemary’s Baby of Satanists smoking cigars also hung in the air. The shop window displays on Fifth Avenue drew great crowds, but as we drifted toward 51st Street, we decided to stop into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, along with the surging mass of the faithful.

Cathedrals are best enjoyed in quiet solitude. Nevertheless, we followed the pilgrims through the long nave, stopping to glance at the numerous chapels with statues along the way, each with a collection box, securely locked, asking for donations. And people say Christmas is commercial! Want to pray through your favorite saint? Please deposit a quarter. Preferably two. Or more. Their budget in candles alone would support many a smaller church throughout the nation. Advent begins this weekend, so the crèche was set up at the front with life-sized figures of the usual players: holy family, shepherds, wise men. And collection box. There was no baby Jesus and when my daughter asked why I said, pointing to the collection box, apparently they were saving up to purchase one. Keeping Christ in Christmas? Indeed. All those bronze, life-size Pope head statues can’t be cheap. John Lennon was cremated and his ashes scattered, leaving no trace. Popes are cast in bronze. Yes, John Lennon was wealthy, and once quipped that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. What is the truth of the matter? Looking at the façade of the Dakota, I know where I would rather light a candle.


Who Made Whom, Now?

John Lennon has great currency, in part, because he is a martyr. Music has moved on since the ‘60s and ‘70s, but aging Boomers still like to quote him, especially his song “Imagine.” In an article written for the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the local Sunday newspaper, J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer cite “Imagine” as the statement of what a world “that makes sense” looks like. I applaud their idealism. Citing psychological and sociological work that has been done over the past decade in the attempt to unravel “homo religiosus” they entitle their article “God didn’t make man: man made gods.” Much of the evidence they cite has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but the overarching issue—whether this explains human religious behavior or not—remains open. In other words, if evolution provided us with religion, it must have some survival benefit and humans are not easily going to dismiss it.

Admittedly, the evidence for human conceptions of God arising from the need for close connections in community is pretty convincing. Nevertheless, the issue of whether there is a God or not will never be answered by empirical observation. As I tell my students, belief is not based on empirical observation. We do not yet know why people believe, and even if we find the right node, neuron cluster, or sensory stimuli, there will always be those who insist that the hardware is sparked into action by the unseen Other outside the system. It is the classic chicken or egg debate, taking place in that henhouse in the sky. The problem is that God is more like the rooster in that scenario.

The human brain is an endless source of fascination. Science has given us a sense of wonder about our own on-board computer, but it has not managed to capture the sine qua non of the totality of the experience of owning one. Scientists also read, go to shows, make love and eat fine meals for the enjoyment of it all. But as Cipher says in The Matrix, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” Our perception of the world as a stable, unmoving center of existence is an illusion. Science has revealed an even stranger reality involving equations that used to haunt my nightmares. Should God ultimately be reduced to formulae, true believers will find another entity to name as the divine. “Imagine… no religion too”? As long as humans are humans such a world remains pure imagination.

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