Archive for May, 2011

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The Resentful Center

May 30, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

In almost every person, to one degree or another, lies the rankling idea that he or she, this person we are talking about, is nothing when he or she should be everything. Every person sees the world from the center of himself or herself. If God, as Augustine or Aquinas or somebody said, is a circle whose circumference is everywhere and whose center nowhere (do I have it right?), a man is an almost infinitesimal dot who, because of his self-consciousness, cannot help seeing himself as the clearly defined (to himself at least) center of existence.

Such a perception leads to all kinds of problems, not the least of which is resentment. I don’t know that I can add anything to the brilliant observations Nietzsche makes about resentment, but I will say that when resentment is coupled with a savior complex, trouble is brewing, this need to purge the world of its imperfections. In truth, Ahab’s hunt for the white whale is about Ahab, his flaws, not the imperfection of creation. We know that the white whale, or whatever the great beast is a symbol of, in its massive indifference will never give Ahab the validation he wants, the answers he wants. And if, as Melville intended, the Pequod is a microcosm of the world, then we see what kind of suffering and cruelty this kind of madness can evoke. Why do men listen to and adore the Ahabs? The wonder is that some don’t. Ahab taps into the darkest truth of mankind: why is the world not made to my desire? Why will the world not explain what it is the way it is?

I am indulging in blatherskite, I understand, and I am hardly fit to write about such things with any certitude, to shadow box while Melville and Nietzsche climb into the ring and slug it out, and I would not mention the topic at all except that last night while I was reading in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory I came across a rather remarkable insight into the resentful character, the man who would, because of his outrage at the arrangement of the world, strike at heaven, who would kill God and thus empty the world of all unfairness and whim. In the late 30s one Mexican province has outlawed religion, resorted to the shooting of priests and the despoliation of churches. Only one priest, a “whiskey priest,” remains in the province. He is on the run, finding refuge where he can, performing maimed rites for those who hide him for a few hours, give him shelter. He is pursued by an idealistic young police lieutenant, whose aim is simple: find the priest and kill him.

One day the lieutenant finds himself talking with a child, a peasant boy. Thinks the lieutenant:

[I]t is for these he was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth–a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes–first the church and then the foreigner and the politician–even his own chief would one day have to go. He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert. (my emphasis)

Those who want to destroy the world, flood the place with blood, turn the earth into a giant blotter to soak up the carnage, don’t know that this new world would eventually become just like the old one.

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Steve Earle, Me, And Ol’ Causa Sui

May 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Musician and author Steve Earle has long traded in stories of limits and transcendence of limits. This is the case in his latest offering. Perhaps I should say offerings because he has simultaneously released a novel and an album of the same name, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. This title, in turn, is a Hank Williams song. The novel revolves around Doc Ebersole, a fictional friend of Williams who is being haunted by the singer’s ghost ten years after his death.  The novel has met with critical praise.

The focus of this posting is a particular song on the album entitled simply, God Is God. The lyrics follow.

God Is God by Steve Earle

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God
And God ain’t me

I’ve traveled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God
But God ain’t us

God of my little understanding, don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all

I received the blessins
And Every day on earth’s  another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth, and maybe not
But I believe in God,
And God is God

What I find interesting in these lyrics is the use of traditional religious symbols and images in a modern way that is consonant with Ernest Becker’s insights. Images of mighty mountains and burning bushes, of miracles and prophesy, singing angels and little lights that shine are juxtaposed with the wisdom of knowing that you don’t know. I associate the insight most clearly with Socrates but it is found in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Earle addresses a “God of my little understanding” and acknowledges “every day that passes I’m sure about a little less.” His search for meaning concludes “maybe this is why I’m on earth and maybe not.”  Undergirding all this uncertainty is the causa sui realization that he is not the ultimate author of his mortal fate. God is God. Earle’s response to this reality would draw a knowing smile from Becker. When he refers to every day as another chance to get it right and commits to let his little light rage against the night he gives expression to the existential faith of a Tillich or Kierkegaard. Beyond these insights, Earle’s way of believing is also important. It is a tentative faith that leaves room for doubt and stands in contrast to the ideological extremism that characterizes too much religious expression. At the same time, it is powerful enough to allow him to rage, and most importantly, to create. Living in this liminal space is perhaps a way forward. Steve Earle is a fine traveling companion.

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The Psychic Bartender’s Handbook

May 23, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Guy comes up to the bar and bends your ear: “Listen, Joe.  I’m in finance.  I’m worth billions.  I got limos, seven houses, a private jet, cocaine, and Skye, who’ll do anything I want for $1K an hour in the afternoon.”

You say: “So?  You got a problem?”

Guy says, “I have it all but I’m still thirsty.  What have you got for me?”

You say: “Coming up.”

You mix him an “Insider.” It’s part  aphrodisiac, part alchemy, and part elixir of immortal life.  The  Egyptians were already drinking it back when the pharaohs were brewing  105 varieties of beer, and instead of TV evangelists, you had a priesthood as powerful as Wall Street bankers mapping out the  afterlife (don’t forget to tip the jackal and crocodile gods). You and I were eligible for the beer, but the afterlife was reserved for the  bigshot at the bar.  You and I only went along as little symbolic servant figurines, although when it comes to the afterlife, symbolic is better than actually having to pack your bags.

“The Insider” is what they drink at the top in the new America. In Charles Ferguson’s recent documentary “Inside Job,” you can watch them guzzle and then smash the empty glasses at your feet.  It’s your homework.  Don’t miss it.

After the Depression and WW2, fun-loving bankers and the corporate military developed a powerful thirst. The Vietnam War pumped up and  then blew out the economy, as today’s wars on terror have been doing.   “Free market” finance likewise pumped up and in 2007-08 blew out the economy, shattering windows around the globe.  Life-savings and speculative trillions bubbled away to nothing like champagne fizz, while flesh and blood people lost flesh and blood. Lots of it.  Finance and global gunslinging are now the heart of the American economy.  They’re both “too big to fail” and therefore beyond ordinary  controls.

As Ferguson’s film documents, financial culture favors gamblers and con men. They’ve invented complex forms of leverage—borrowing — that magically seemed both to multiply and to hedge their bets.  The new finance promised exponential sugarplums, but surreptitiously also magnified risk. The insiders stretched the rules and the truth, as in Goldman Sachs’s bets against the primo investments they were selling.  Insiders put insiders such as the Fed’s Alan Greenspan at the controls. For decades Wall Street types such as Hank Paulson have run the US Treasury. The guard dogs get steak and long naps. The insiders get rich.

Okay, enough moralizing.  It’s only money.  And unless it’s you waking up screaming in the middle of the night, it’s just regrettable  and annoying.

As psychic bartenders we want to know what to tell the poor billionaire slob at the bar who’s wrecking your house and his country  too.  What can we give him for his thirst?  Yes, a prison sentence would be nice, but we’re not the Justice Department.  The guy ‘s drink already has potent ingredients: limos, exotic vacations, cocaine, rental sex. The film interviews a New York madam and a therapist specializing in Wall Street masters of the universe.  Yes, they say, insider honchos want sex, drugs, and rock & roll.  But psychic bartenders know there’s no such thing as (ugh) materialism, This is all symbolic stuff, standing for power, privilege, freedom, self-esteem, dominance, comfortable excitement, blah, blah, blah—fill in your favorites.

The symbols are supposed to give you a thrill.  But they’re never  enough, are they?  The scale of corruption, recklessness, waste, and infantile self-diddling in America reached historic proportions in the 2007-08 meltdown.  It’s still rotting your neighborhood and your nation, which is why you want to see Ferguson’s film and read this.   The thirst is bottomless. The more you drink, the more you want.  More leverage, more risk, more bonuses, more bikini underwear and shaved pubic hair.  More blood.

Boom.

The bust reveals the fear driving the greed.  Think about the sad limits of pleasure. As the philosopher says, whoever gets enough life?  Money, fucking, ass-kissing, and private elevators?  Exquisite wines are eventually just booze and expensive adjectives.  The McMansion is basically just a roof and 27 indoor toilets. Sex for hire is eventually a queasy chore: genitals and noses can be boringly familiar. Sooner or later even the love of your life collapses into exasperating smalltalk.

And the twist of lemon and the knife is that the demand for more life can isolate and deaden you as you grab for it.  The higher you go, the further down you can fall.  More fear makes you more ruthless, like the executive whose nickname is “Chainsaw Al.” See the problem?  The honchos bellying up to the bar want not just the babe and the bullion. Like the rest of us, without the inconvenient second thoughts that check us, they want endless appetite, the eternal hard-on, and boundless self-regard. They want more life. This is a transitional moment, badly in need of some renewal. Where do we go from here?

How about those Egyptians.  Crocodile gods, 105 varieties of beer, and little ushabti figurines that will take care of all your needs in the afterlife.  And now howling demonstrations demanding renewal.  Keep pouring.

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Cross-Species Altruism? Something to think about…

May 19, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

I had a very strange experience earlier this week that has really stuck with me. I don’t want to over-interpret it, but it really got me thinking. Here’s what happened:

Every morning at about the same time, I walk my dog along a bicycle-walking path near my house. The path, which runs for miles through our town, was once a railroad line track the city repossessed and made into a recreation facility. Wooded on both sides of the trail, it is normal to see lots of squirrels, and while many people feed them and they are quite tame, they always stay way clear of anyone walking a dog. But on this morning, as I was walking from north toward the south, a couple of squirrels came right at my dog from behind us, chattering away. We turned around and my dog immediately went for them, but was on a 20ft leash and the squirrels kept outside of her grasp. I just stopped and let her pull on the leash, the squirrels kept chattering away. I remember thinking that was pretty unusual behavior, but I have seen squirrels in our yard tease the dog when they know she is tied up or behind the sliding glass door­–in other words, that they have a pretty good sense of where she can get to and will taunt her outside of that line.

Back to the story… this scene of chattering and tugging went for some 30 or 45 seconds, and finally I started to pull the dog away, turning south again, to get on with our walk. And when I did, down the trail about 40 yards ahead–just about where we would have been had we not been interrupted by the squirrels–I saw a mother duck crossing the path, trailed by about a dozen little tiny ducklings. Now I am a rather skeptical sort of guy, but for the life of me, it looked unmistakably at that moment like the squirrels had run purposeful interference in order to keep the dog away from the ducklings. It was simply astonishing!

Now, the skeptic in me says that this had to be just a string of coincidences. How could it be otherwise? But all week I have been considering the implications if this was just what it seemed, that is, a case of cross-species altruism–one species (squirrels) putting themselves at potentially mortal risk, in order to increase the survival probability of a completely different species (ducks). Now of course there are many examples of dogs and other companion animals defending their masters even at the cost of their own lives. I don’t know much about the media diet of kids today, but guys my age were literally raised on “Old Yeller” and “Lassie” tales like this!  But this was a case of “wild” animals, not defending “their own” but the young of another species. Talking about this experience this week, one person reminded me of a YouTube video in which a deer protected a kitten, even charging at a dog in the process. But I was never quite clear if that video was staged, and in any case, these were tamed pet animals. Another person pointed toward fairly well-documented cases in which dolphins have surrounded human swimmers to protect them from shark attacks. I wonder how many other experiences of cross-species altruism there are out there.

So what’s the difference? Why has this experience sparked such interest in me? Because if it be true that cross-species altruism is more than a mere fluke occurrence, that is, if it be true that unrelated species “in the wild” are motivated to put themselves at risk in service of mutual survival, then this brings into question the fundamental assumptions about altruism stemming from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, assumptions fast becoming axial truth in educated circles and spilling into many other disciplines, including moral philosophy itself. According to this view, the “grand synthesis” of genetics and natural selection dictates that over time all living species are driven to exhibit only those characteristics and behaviors that promote “getting their DNA into the next generation.” Ultimately, characteristics and behaviors are interpreted as genetic “survival strategies.” Charles Darwin noted that altruistic behavior was the thorn in the side of his theory of natural selection, but Darwin was not acquainted with genetics. But in light of genetics, we see that altruism is just another manifestation of the “selfish gene,” following a genetic survival strategy scripted by millions of years of evolution. Altruism is really just self-interest in disguise. Even in the most selfless and morally admirable acts, if we properly pull the curtain back, we see that same selfish gene behind it directing the behavior, maximizing its odds of being in that pool of DNA that will be replicated into the next generation.

This is quite convincing in explaining altruistic behavior among close relatives, for example, parents giving up their lives to ensure the survival of their own children. It becomes a bit more strained when looking at altruism favoring those who are not close relatives, but even there, a bit of fancy math adequately preserves the point, since genetically speaking all individual members within a species are carriers of similar DNA. But–and here is the kicker–if any noticeable aspect of what is going on the drama of the evolution of life on this planet is cross-species altruism, then minimally we must conclude that the processes are much more complicated than our synthetic theories have outlined thus far. In that case, perhaps the much-ballyhooed deflation of altruism in our behavioristic theorizing is itself an aspect of our denial.

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On The Porch

May 16, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Most members of the EBF, I’d wager, have heard of Wittgenstein’s little fable of the fly in the milk bottle. Earlier this afternoon, while I exercised in an out room out back, an insect caught in the room futilely beat at a window, consternated, or so I projected into the fluttering little thing, it could not soar into the blue sky just beyond it. The sight reminded me of Wittgenstein’s fly. I captured the insect, opened the door, and as I freed it, I remembered my experience a score of years ago with the bees on the porch.

When I first got married, my wife and I had cat name Ric (he, a stray kitten that showed up one morning, was named by my nephew, a name I avuncularly accepted, for the wrestler Ric Flair), and like many male cats, Ric got around, often coming home only to get something to eat, perhaps sleep awhile, before venturing forth once more. Withal, though, he was a loveable cat, and from time to time he’d curl up in my lap, but his true loves were amour and fighting other males about amour. He had the scars of combat to prove his courage, if courage applies to cats. Since we never knew when Ric was going to show up, we always left food and water on the front porch, a huge screened porch which fronted our lovely old house, a charming “starter” home. With the porch door left partly open, Ric could enter, eat and drink, and then leave, his passion driving him forth once more, Ric impelled by some force as old as time itself. I still miss that capacious porch, its high ceiling, the hours I spent swaying back and forth in the swing.

It didn’t take me long to learn that bees and other winged creatures flew through the slight opening of the door and became trapped on the porch. (I won’t mention the time I found an opossum on the porch, poaching Ric’s food. I didn’t see the creature until I had almost stepped on him. He hissed at me, scared me, and I hurried inside the house. I watched, peeping from a window, while he finished eating, and I was relieved when he then waddled off the porch and back into the bright world.) I’d come home from work, early afternoons, and often find a bee or two trapped on the porch. Occasionally I’d find a bird, but then all I had to do was open the porch door completely and the bird would find his way out. The bees would see the blue sky beyond the screen, attempt to find it, but all they did was walk back and forth between the interstices of the screen, walk to one, then turn and walk to the other one, and back and forth they walked until of course they died. To save the bees I had a large plastic cup on the porch. If I got home from work, found a trapped bee, I’d take the cup, scoop up the bee, and then release it outside.

I used to tell my students that one of the purposes of education is to help us get off the porch, to find the door and subsequently the way out. It’s a simple tale, but perhaps a noble one or, for all I know, a specious and overly clever one; certainly, though, it suits the needs of pedagogy. Ignorance can kill us, but of course I was referring to a more subtle kind of knowledge. I have known men who have grown old and almost content, men who have never read a book, never heard of Becker or Rank, who, certainly, have never read a poem. I can’t prove it, surely not to this kind of man, but art is a way of getting off the porch (or is it merely the best illusion for us to think we are off the porch?). Nietzsche said that it is art that makes life endurable. True? I don’t know. A filled belly might be a better way to endure life. Besides, in my life I have found the big differences between people (my control group is perforce small) is never a matter of intelligence; it is usually a matter of temperament. But I really don’t know. As I grow older I find one of the maddening thing about the accruing of years is that a person senses he or she can be certain of nothing.

I do understand, however, that in some way we poor humans are forever trapped on the porch. We are, as Becker knows (some might say it’s Becker’s main point), irrevocably shackled by the human condition, the imperatives of life–mortality, suffering, misery, all of the woeful items in the box opened above our heads to fall pell mell upon us, beating down on us like hard hail. This is not to say, though, that the sky beyond is not blue and beckoning and beautiful. The problem, when I back it into the corner, is that there is no deus ex machina to remove us from our “porch,” unless it is the illusion of art or, to be blunt, oblivion, death, which, ineluctable as it might be, is of no great comfort, not with that beautiful blue sky—and all it connotes–just out of reach, just on the other side of the screen.

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Getting Drunk on Osama

May 12, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Listen, pal.  Osama bin Laden’s dead.

Somebody just told me about a bar that’s begun serving “Osamas” – some sort of fruity blast of alcohol in a glass.

I love it.

It’s a tonic of course, booze laced with 100 proof symbolism.  You quaff it down because you want to feel better.  Just a friendly pick-me-up like caffeine or a snort of cocaine in the toilet.  For psychic bartenders, the symbolic ingredient is especially important in the recipe.  The dose of “Osama” is pure evil, hateful, demonic terrorist rich guy from Yemen who scared the hell out of us by personally incinerating the twin towers and those thousands of terrified trapped victims.

To be clear about this: yes, innocents suffered atrociously in the 911 attacks, and yes, Osama was implicated and certainly despised the US and its allies.

But this is where the bartender’s manual turns a page.  Osama is also “Osama”: a boogeyman, a condensation of all the complicated concoction of rage and fear and injustice that we feel.  An “Osama” is an abstraction, the way Hitler has become an abstraction: a global celebrity who represents all the evil we love to hate.

Now before you say, “But they both really were evil,” let’s remember that the evil they stand for was and is much bigger than either of them.  Osama is especially tricky to define, because he and his followers believed they were acting out of religious piety, serving the Lord, ridding their countries of American armies and multinational corporate invaders.

Right or wrong, the Osama motives are really part of a much larger historical storm of conflicted ideas in a part of the world struggling toward modernity.

What interests us here in psychic bartenders’ school, is how this new drink is concocted and how tipsy it makes the customers.  Because let’s face it, after the killing of the symbolic mastermind and his burial in a vat of fermenting sauce, the crowd at the bar wanted to toast each other with glasses of the stuff.

And you know why.  Swallow enough of the elixir and you feel triumphant, optimistic, virtuous, on the top of the world again.  Like a football victory.  You feel right about the world and your place in it.  You’re drinking in Osama the way a vampire drinks vitality from strangers.

Capital punishment is supposed to work this way.  You direct all of your fear and loathing at one particular criminal and take satisfaction, to put it politely, in his suffering and death.  Yes, the guy may really be guilty, but even so we’re using him as a scapegoat.  We need him to carry off the filth and fury that always potentially threatens us.  People do this night after night around the world, tuned in to crime shows whose script whacks the villain in the end.

Hey, it’s how we’re built.

The problem with capital punishment, as Christians insist, is that you may kill an innocent like Christ.  And in that event it’s almost impossible to admit that you were wrong, because that means you’re guilty of judicial murder.  So prosecutors do cartwheels to avoid having to reopen bungled cases, and losers like Cameron Todd Willingham die after embarrassing, vicious miscarriages of justice.

But righteous killing can be so intoxicating that it overrides ordinary logic and inhibitions.

The Catholic Supreme Court Justice Scalia, for example, defends his enthusiasm for executions by assuring us that “for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.”  Only wishy-washy “post–Freudian secularists .  .  . think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.”

Got that?  “Death is no big deal.”

Unless of course you happen to be wrongly put to death.

Or unless one too many Osama-bin-Cocktails gets you too drunk to think straight.

Now some wishy-washy types have argued that Osama died in a vigilante execution, a sort of surgical lynching.  But that’s not the point here.  Us psychic bartenders are more concerned with the effects on the customer of drinking in an artificially hyped-up symbol of superhuman evil.  We know it can be intoxicating, blur judgment, and so simplify the world that – let us say – you could feel really right-headed and go after “enemies” in a bar fight.

If you’re living in a tense, complicated world like this one, you’re bound to feel under stress at some point.  Hey, why go to the bar unless you want some relief from the everyday grind?

For bartenders the problem is nagging: how to keep the customers from tearing up the joint.  And that means trying to persuade them that “Osamas” aren’t Osama, and Osama isn’t what’s making you thirsty, pal.

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The Single Hound

May 5, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Below you will find the poem with the phrase “single hound” in it. It’s a metaphor for self-consciousness, that creature, entity, phenomenon (you call it, Doc) that attends, always there, always faithful, always excruciatingly lonely, the faithful creature attending to the soul. Now is not the time, I suppose, to quibble over the semantics of “self-consciousness” and “soul.” It’s enough to say that a human being has self-consciousness, from which all that is human (and it runs the gamut) comes. In this poem, and I agree with Dickinson, the haunting thing about self-consciousness is its ineluctable reminder of how singular each of us is. We are alone in this bewildering interval between our birth and our death. We are, as Rank and Kierkegaard, and Becker, et. al., knew “condemned” to loneliness, locked away, as Miss Emily says in another poem, that house without doors.

This Consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men —

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.

Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be —
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.