Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.

Light and Dark

Prophets, mothers, messiahs. A new religion for a new world. While these may not be main themes of Robert Repino’s new novel D’Arc, they’re clearly there in the background offering verisimilitude to a world turned upside down. Continuing the diegesis created in his previous two novels Mort(e) and Culdesac, Repino again shows an uncommon awareness that when survival becomes difficult people (and animals) turn to religion. Many fiction writers create worlds under stress and pretend that characters simply forget the religious option. That may be realistic on an individual level, but as history shows, not on a societal one. People—and mutated animals—are meaning-seeking beings. D’Arc doesn’t shy away from this fact. In a wildly integrated world of different species coping with consciousness and opposable thumbs in various ways, religion naturally arises.

If you haven’t been initiated into Repino’s universe, it begins with a virus and/or a plot—themselves religious—which allow animals to become bipedal and to grow human hands. They can talk and reason and they show us a true reflection of who we are. D’Arc, the female companion of Mort(e), finds her way in a world under threat. Planning to speed up global warming in a dramatic way, the aquatic antagonists conspire to melt the ice caps to flood the entire world. Repino knows the value of the flood story and uses it to full advantage. Along the way we meet beavers who’ve developed a religion that functions between water and dry land. Indeed, as a species their religion defines them as much as their engineering skills. This is a world that’s just been through war and instead of reconciling all species, there remain those (most notably humans) who can only live with their own superiority. This is a complex universe.

The hero of this tale, D’Arc, is sympathetic to the religious sensibilities that have sprung up around her. She herself is a character prophesied in this world where Mort(e) is messianic. There’s a scripture in the background somewhere and theirs is a world without embarrassment about it. There’s also plenty of action and adventure—the war with no name is really not over—but there’s a subtlety to the narrative as well. When things go awry many people do assume they’re alone in the universe and try to find their own way. It’s equally true that many look for meaning in a structured form of belief where all of this has been foretold. Such worlds, to me, seem to be more honest to the human condition, even when the characters are cast as talking animals.

Dark Lite

Maybe you’ve noticed it too. While certainly not universal, many forms of Gothic cultural expression (novels, movies, television, etc.) have a playfulness to them. As if taking the genre too seriously might be a misrepresentation. Even Edgar Allan Poe can be caught smirking from time to time. I’ve often wondered about this unusual combination of darkness and light. Catherine Spooner obviously has too. In Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of the Happy Goth she takes on a number of these cultural expressions—both Goth and Gothic—and tries to understand the lighter side that they often present. Sometimes it’s comedy and sometimes it’s irony, but those fascinated by darkness aren’t always as gloomy as they seem.

This book is a real hodgepodge of both British and American explorations of the smiling dismal. It’s a cultural contradiction, maybe, but it certainly feels authentic if you look closely enough. Although Spooner doesn’t discuss it directly, I couldn’t help but think of that great progenitor of the Gothic—the medieval church. Perhaps it was the very real fear of the plague and the nearly constant warfare of the time in Europe, but liturgy, when done right, has a palpable darkness to it. References to ourselves as “miserable sinners” begging God to “have mercy upon us” clearly call to mind some of the deeper elements of the Gothic sensibility. Having attended Anglo-Catholic services for years I came to know many who were compelled by this intensity. A Gothic chasuble is a thing of beauty forever.

Spooner, however, focuses on popular culture. Beginning with the Goth movement of the 1980s, a subculture formed that brought much of this darkness to light. She’s careful to point out that being Goth isn’t the same as being gloomy all the time. It is an expression of creativity, and, as Spooner notes, closely associated with Steampunk. Such things, however, require a recognition on the part of participants that in order to taken seriously, such expressions must become part of daily life. There are risks, however. Even in enlightened cultures we are not yet fully tolerant of those who are different. And really, much of the book is about this—accepting those who are not like ourselves. There is quite a bit going on here that’s beneath the surface. And depth is something the world could use a bit more of. There’s nothing wrong with having some fun while acquiring it, either.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

Noah Way

As a fleet of Noah’s Arks near completion, some critics would like to stop these Titanics from their mythical crossing. The Ark Encounter, despite announcements of its demise, is set to open soon in Kentucky. This Noah’s Ark replica, unlike its seaworthy compatriots, is land-locked in bluegrass country. According to a story originating in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Tri-State Freethinkers tried to take out billboard ads suggesting the ark advocates genocide and incest. Well, marrying first cousins has been done before (think about it). And if you go back ten generations things get even a bit dicier with Cain’s wife and that of Seth. All in the Family wouldn’t even air for 6000 years. As for genocide, well, this was more like genomicide. Not a race, but an entire species, apart from kissing cousins, was about to learn the hard lesson of being born not of chosen stock.

According to the article billboard companies have rejected the Freethinkers’ proposal. It might cause accidents, they suggest, which, although not technically genocide, do take the lives of the innocent, even in dry weather. The flood divides people. Thus it always has.

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The culture wars, curiously, pick strange targets. I’m not in favor of teaching children to read myths literally, but then, I’m not in favor of bringing them up as materialists either. There used to be a concept called the “via media”—the middle of the road. Now such a stance appears decidedly wishy-washy. Milquetoast anyone? It is much better to be combative. “Oh George, you’re always so forceful,” sighs Winifred. So we teach our children. Boys, push your way to the front.

Implications can be tricky things. Allowing opponents, no matter how naive, their say has always been a mucking out of the Augean stables. Nobody likes to accommodate other points of view. Watching the parade of politicians we must be assured that we alone are right. Still, the stillborn billboard has a point. Building arks is the sign of the ultimate intolerance. Not only do you condemn those who differ to the outside, you are giving them a self-righteous death sentence. Maybe the billboard should stand. Or maybe it should not. What would Charlie Brown do?

Rainbow Nation

By now I suppose it’s old news that North Carolina has joined the wall of ignominy as the latest state to try to discriminate against gays. It seems our aging leadership just doesn’t get it that a large majority of people in the younger generation just don’t have a problem with accepting homosexuals for who they are. Laws are generally still made by old white men, though. One might be tempted to say “good ole boys.” They may make the claim that this is political, but as one astute editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out, this is about religion. The editorial, which ran on Saturday, notes that studies have shown that when people learn a law sequestered under “religious freedom” is actually discriminatory, the law loses support. The government by the people thing seems to be working backwards. What will it take for elected officials to realize that we are a rainbow nation? And rainbows, according to the Bible, are good.

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I’m always amazed at these attempts to turn the clock back. It is the season of “spring forward” is it not? Religions that have a problem with homosexuality also have an unscientific understanding of human sexuality as well. Not one person in the Bible had a clear idea of how conception worked. If they didn’t understand the facts of life, how can we expect to learn the life of facts from them? What amazes me most is that such views don’t take the whole picture into account. Intersex individuals—of whom there are many—demonstrate that easy definitions of gender are sure to be wrong. Even tying the concept of gender to sex seems to be misguided. And yet we pass laws the favor a first-century understanding of what it means to be human.

In the end what will change the minds of the corporations will not be their heads or their hearts. The decision will be made by their backsides where their wallets will be growing a bit lighter as corporations decide to take their facilities elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary on our society when justice isn’t enough to strike down a prejudicial law. It takes money to do that. It is a strange world indeed where it take lucre to lead to light.

Dirty Words

I don’t have any bumper-stickers on my car. As clever as I may think any particular one to be, driving down the highway is not the place that I want other drivers to get ticked off at me. A more judicious use of turn-signals would be my preference over mass-produced witticisms. I suspect that most readers know of my liberal leanings. Some have even bothered to inform me that they no longer read my musings precisely because of this. On the information superhighway, unlike the real highway, you can just click off and not be annoyed anymore. My bumper, therefore, will stay clean. While in a parking lot recently I saw a bumper-sticker reading “Not A Liberal.” I had to ponder this a bit.

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I grew up conservative, although, as working-class folk, we didn’t label ourselves with that word at home. I wouldn’t have even known what it meant. Liberal, in its basic form, has to do with generosity and being respectful of others. The media has built it up into a kind of evil juggernaut that intends to take over the safe, unchanging world of religion and politics. I wonder how liberal became a dirty word. Who, among your friends, would want to remain so if you disrespect their views and refuse to show generosity? I get the sense that even conservatives are liberal with their friends. When I walk past the homeless sleeping on a subway vent to keep warm, I wonder if conservatives ever read the parable of the good Samaritan. What bumper-stickers would the homeless wear?

A polarized society had better prepare for the big chill. In my admittedly limited experience, people come in a continuum of positions, not just one extreme or the other. It makes better news, however, when we divide into camps, the more clearly to spar with one another. What separates us is more important than what brings us together. Yes, I grew up conservative. I continued, however, to grow up. I suspect in some things I am still conservative, while in many I am liberal. I’m not sure what I’d put on my bumper-sticker. What do I want people to know about me while I’m driving? I think it might be better to suggest “I Respect You,” than an implied “I don’t like your views.” Then again, since it happens so often, I now look for a Jesus fish automatically when I’m cut off in traffic. Be careful of what you put on your bumper, because dirty words are in the eyes of the reader.