Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Yearn Books

While this blog ranges over an outdated map of my mind, one of the two common elements that hold it together is books.  I don’t have many bibliophile followers, but for any who happen upon my pages, welcome.  Each year at this time I look back over the year in books.  I started doing this when I joined Goodreads.  I don’t put every single book in Goodreads, but it’s a fair register of what I’ve been up to.  This year I set a reduced goal of 65 books (I knew I’d be moving and commuting less, and I do most of my reading on the bus).  Happily I ended the year with 83 officially read, but then the first five months of the year were still spent in daily commutes.

Three years ago my wife discovered the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I can’t say just how much I look forward to the new year just to begin reading the books I select to meet that challenge.  The reason I do this is to force myself into reading things I might not feel like reading, or often, books I’ve been putting off for some reason or another.  It only amounts to a dozen books and if I can’t get through twelve in a year, something’s terribly wrong.  Margaret Atwood once said something like “Show me a person who’s read a thousand books and I’ll show you an interesting person.”  I didn’t really need that quote to set a goal, and I don’t think of it as bragging for readers to share their experience with books.  I started getting into books in middle school, and although I didn’t keep track in those days I likely read a thousand books before I graduated from high school.  Branches begin to bend to the light early on.

So, were there memorable books this year?  My reading, due to contractual obligations (I brought them on myself), has tended to be dark.  There were, nevertheless, spots of light.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Paul Bogard’s The Ground Beneath Us were early favorites.  I managed to stop my ears enough to miss spoilers from Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful Annihilation.  Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was artfully done, and Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? was a saunter down memory lane.  Selections from my reading challenge fiction that I really enjoyed were Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. And Lee Irby’s Unreliable.  And and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  The last inspired non-fiction title I read was Susan Fair’s American Witches.  I always appreciate suggestions, just sayin’.  Reading is the balm in my personal Gilead, and I look forward to a 2019 full of books, even if I can’t keep the pace of years past.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Addam’s Evve

MaddAddamDystopias can be optimistic. I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, and came away from it strangely at peace. The third of its eponymous trilogy, the story takes place in a future that is simply a continuation of where we are at the moment. Things have gotten pretty bad—most of humanity has been wiped out, genetic engineering has taken dreadful liberties with creatures human and non, and corporations have fulfilled their dreams and have taken over at last. The few good people left are tormented by those society has made into sociopaths. Global warming has proven the naysayers false, and yet, despite all this, there is room for hope. Tying together the various strands from the previous two books, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is probably the most eco-conscious trilogy on the planet.

Apart from the many obvious biblical allusions (I often wonder what it must be like to miss so much, for want of familiarity with holy writ), the book also introduces a fully functional faux church. Atwood can be at her best when taking on the charlatans of piety. Cynical and calculating, “the Rev,” father of two of the ensemble cast, is everything a televangelist is, and more. Indulging in all that he denies his flock, even Elmer Gantry would have trouble keeping up. The Church of PetrOleum represents the most damaging of industries in a world already suffering the consequences of the greenhouse effect. Corporations make it rich while the Rev takes out his personal issues on his wives and children. Instead of being on the side of paradise, the church introduces chaos.

Through the gloomy scenario she’s foreseen, Atwood is able to see glimmers of a future that has possibilities. The protagonists are the members of a commune of a green religion, earth-centered and bearing a resemblance to both Wicca and monastic Christianity. That spiritual tradition, an offshoot of more established churches, is seen as dangerous by the corporations. And with good reason. Despite what televangelists tell us, spiritual truth is not on the side of big business. Jesus was no trickle-down economist. Reagan was no messiah. Corporate greed leads to blocking laws to clean up our world. We do not have control over what geneticists are doing, and, in fact, most of us have no idea what we’re eating or wearing any longer. Or what it is they’re packaging our food in. We are the consumers. Taught always to consume more. And the more that we are told to consume is the very planet that gave us life. My hat is off to Atwood, who still seems some possible cause for hope.

Holy Trilogy

AtwoodAlumni magazines, thinly disguised appeals for money that they are, seldom merit much time. This doesn’t stop me, in any case, from sending notices of my new publications or blog, since I, like most fellow alumni, have never been cited as notable. One of the thousands who graduated and amounted to nothing. Once in a great while, however, I feel a slight twinge of pride when one of my three mothers does something of which I’m particularly proud. Most often this is Edinburgh University, although once in a while Boston University also catches my attention. A recent copy of Edit—an alumni mag that began some time after I graduated, American-style—has a familiar face on the cover. Well, not familiar in that I know her, but familiar in that I’ve read several of her books and feel like I know her. Margaret Atwood was given an honorary degree by my old school, and I am pleased to be a, albeit lesser, co-alum.

Over the holidays I picked up a copy of MaddAddam, the third and long-awaited conclusion of the trilogy of the same name. As my regular readers know, I have a soft spot for dystopias. In spite of attempts by many writers to paint a brighter future, it seems that given how far we’ve let things go, collapse before reform feels inevitable. The apathy I find when we read about the vastly disproportionate disparity between haves and have-nots, and the surging of deep, animalistic, primate, rage at injustice doesn’t seem to me a healthy mix. Atwood, although I can’t yet speak for MaddAddam, envisions collapse before florescence. The same may be declared about A Handmaid’s Tale. Complacency, it seems to me, is the real enemy.

And universities continue to send me alumni magazines that instead of inspiring me, rub my face in my own mediocrity. I spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on my education and I am paid less than most janitors at most colleges. Not that I was ever in it for the money. I did, however, envision a hopeful future where I’d be teaching, perhaps at a small college somewhere, writing my thoughts in books rather than blogs, and having a modest impact on the world for good. Instead, I have found myself living in a dystopia. As I roll over and see that 3 in first position on my bedside clock on a table with the legs broken off, I know it is time to face the cold of a drafty apartment so I can await the bus to pay for another day’s privilege. My comfort is that Margaret Atwood made an impression on Edinburgh University, and will soon be making another impression on me.

Free Think Ing

It is not exactly pride that I feel when I see my undergraduate college featured in a Chronicle article entitled “Group Aims to Help Conservative Parents Counter ‘PC Indoctrination’ at Colleges.” I almost feared to scroll down the page. Yes, good old Grove City College has to thrust its manly credentials into the face of reason once again. The problem is that what such conservative groups decry as “indoctrination” is, in reality, critical thinking. It took me a long time to learn this distinction. I grew up in a conservative family, but I didn’t choose Grove City because of its flaming commitment to sixteenth-century values. I chose Grove City because it was a selective, intellectually honest school close to home. Being a first generation college student, I had no family tradition on which to draw. Guidance counselors didn’t know what to do with a religious kid who seemed to have some smarts. Other colleges seemed so far away. I didn’t even know what I wanted to study. You see, being raised in humble circumstances you learn to react to the many unpleasantries that life throws at you and there really isn’t time to plan out a future. It never works out that way in any case. I felt driven, but I didn’t know where I was going. Some day I hope to find out.

In the meanwhile, Grove City College has grown even more reactionary than when I was there in the 1980s. The Chronicle article states that “Conservatives have long complained about a perceived liberal bias in higher education,” and that Jim Van Eerden, an “entrepreneur in residence,” (shudder!) at Grove City has started the ironically named “FreeThinkU” to counter the liberalities students receive in school. Talk about your mixed messages! I wonder if Van Eerden has ever considered that Free Thinking has a long association with the very progress he abhors. Free thinkers gave us the gifts of evolution, rational thought, and for a while anyway, free love. Free thought gave us Kate Chopin, J. D. Salinger, and Margaret Atwood. They literally gave us the moon and have landed our probes on Mars. Somewhere lost in space a metal plaque is spinning in infinity with a naked couple and directions to planet Earth. I think the mis-named FreeThinkU might be better rechristened as Don’tUThink.

Higher education has a long, long history with religious thinking. Early universities were often outgrowths of theological colleges. Over the centuries, as our thinking matured, the ways of the past were recognized for what they were—outdated, short-sighted, unchanging for the sake of being unchanging. The reality that meets our eyes through the lenses of logic sometimes claims beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed glasses and greased back business haircuts as its victims. The earth is warming up. We did share a common ancestor with the apes. Our universe is even larger than we ever thought. And yet “FreeThinkU” suggests that we need to set the clock back a little. Maybe just a couple of centuries, but enough to hold our kids in the twilight of misperception. Progress has to be more than raping the earth and getting rich. Free thinking has to be a willingness to use the minds we have. I wonder what the aliens will say when they land here, our Pioneer 10 plaque in hand. If they land in Grove City, I suspect, they might feel they were sold a false bill of goods.

From the alumni mag; think about it...

From the alumni mag; think about it…

Confessions of a Luddite

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. I learned my computer skills on a Mac, and I have been an adoring follower of Apple ever since. Every time I see Windows at work, I sneer at how they try to emulate the real thing: the Mac operating environment. Only clunkier. It is like watching hand-drawn cartoons in high-definition. Regular readers of this blog expect a daily post, but my valiant laptop, alas, had what is akin to a religious experience and I’m losing it. I’ve done my blog posts from that laptop for nearly two years. I sometimes work on them during the long commute to New York City. When my Mac Book encountered the plethora of signals from a Manhattan office building, it froze up. At home it no longer recognizes my base-station router. With my limited technical knowledge I’ve tried every trick on the Internet that doesn’t involve some Geek God going off into jargon that a humble reader of ancient languages can’t understand. I am grieving.

Yesterday, thinking about my plight, I saw the parallels with religious experience. My laptop in my eighth-floor office is like Moses climbing Mount Sinai, but less robust than the 80-year-old prophet. Having encountered a higher being—signals from the heavens, hundreds of them—it has bowed in acquiescence. It has received an epiphany that I missed while going about my daily editing duties. When it returned home, it was not able to recognize the one signal that has been its lord and master since it was first booted up. Nothing from restarting the router to reinstalling the entire factory-set system to clearing and restricting the access to the one true network has helped. My computer, to borrow a phrase from Atwood, has gone into a fallow state. That is a kind way of saying it is a mere paperweight or doorstop.

According to the standard interpretation, that is similar to an encounter with the divine. It leaves you marked, transformed. Sometimes incapacitated. Or perhaps the correct analogy is that of idolatry. My computer has gone on after foreign gods and no longer recognizes the one who gave it birth. I have suffered through two sleepless nights because of it. I even visited the local Apple store where they suggest I clear the AirPort history. Like I know what that means. Perhaps I have the analogy all wrong. Maybe my computer is the deity and I am the acolyte. It is mysterious and powerful and I am left in tears after an encounter with it. But really, it feels like a friend has died. I haven’t been able to post my quirky observations. I have to borrow a friend’s computer. Am I a prophet or just another Luddite awaiting my own theophany?