Archive for August, 2011


A Reading for the Fall Program

August 30, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

As many of you know, the EBF Fall Program will have an environmental focus. With this blog I’d like to suggest a reading that would be an excellent preparation and perhaps provide a common foundation for the variety of perspectives that will be presented. The book that I have in mind is entitled Anthill by Harvard  professor  E.O. Wilson. Professor Wilson is a naturalist whose prolific teaching and writing career has opened the study of nature to a broader audience much as Carl Sagan has done for cosmology and Joseph Campbell has done for mythology. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for The Ants and The Naturalist. The book Anthill represents his first foray into fiction. Well, fiction of a sort, because the adventures of the main character, Raff Cody, mirror the youth and maturation in rural Alabama of Wilson himself. In broad strokes it is the story of a young man’s love of nature, his education in the forest, and his commitment as an adult to protect the land. Early in the book young Raff has a near death encounter with a poisonous snake. The experience shakes him and, “In time he understood that nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it.” The proximity of death deepens his understanding of both the fragility and sacrality of life. The remainder of the book deals with issues of population, religion and politics as Raff battles to preserve the land he loves.

The particular feature of Anthill that speaks to the EBF Fall Program is the marriage of deep scientific understanding with a powerful love of the land. Wilson is a brilliant scientist, and the book is filled with information about the culture of ants. Far from being sterile data, however, it is embedded in a narrative that could only be written from direct experience. It is this direct experience of nature that has motivated Wilson in his own life and empowers his novel’s protagonist.  As we try to understand the powerful grip of ideology and dogma in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, it is tempting to throw our hands up in despair and lament the stubbornness of others. This is where Wilson’s message is particularly helpful. Concern for nature is not born of abstraction but rather direct experience. I’ve seen this in my own classroom. Teaching about environmental issues can be a political minefield, and I’ve had classes blow up in my face. One day, I hit upon a strategy that has made a real difference. I began the unit by asking my students to write about where they played outside as a child, perhaps tell a story about the place. Stories flowed. Then I asked them about what the place was like today. In many cases, the ‘cool woods’ or ‘awesome field’ was no more, a victim of urban sprawl. The tone of the classes changed as the students realized that environmentalism was also their own story. They had a dog in the fight so to speak.

A number of years ago I attended a workshop with poet Robert Bly. At one point Bly told the original version of what has come to be known as the story of Beauty and The Beast. Originally an Italian folk tale, the early version reversed the gender of the two main characters. The Beast was female. Bly explained that it was a nature allegory and that the central message was that Nature is horrible…until you love it and then it becomes beautiful. In essence, this is Wilson’s message in Anthill. I encourage you to read this book, take it to heart, and then take it to Seattle for the Fall Program.


Don’t Pick the Buds

August 23, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

The below poem, “The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers” by Andrew Marvell is a pure Beckerian poem, by which I mean it moves from a simple and delightful sight of a pretty little girl among some flowers to a desperate and futile plea against blind fate and death, the movement from sweet illusion, simple decoration, to the apprehension of humankind’s greatest fear. The poem begins in jest, in good humor, Marvell having some fun watching the little girl at her play. He pretends she is a goddess; then he pretends she is, as if during the Middle Ages, a disdainful mistress.

The poem takes a slight turn in the fourth stanza when the poet once again suggests the little girl is a deity who can change the laws of nature. She “can reform the errors of the spring”: she can give tulips a sweet smell; she can do away with the thorns on roses; she can keep the violets from fading.  Marvell knows better, and so do we. Even for Marvell to make such a statement is to confirm the audacious falsity of them.

Then the poem makes the “crucial” and Beckerian turn, moving from the subject of the little girl obviating the irrevocably laws of nature to the much too common happening of Marvel’s time: an early death. Marvel knows we are helpless in the hands of blind fate. The healthy child can take sick today and be dead tomorrow–at least it was so in Marvell’s time. (Some say that T. C. was one Theophila Cornewall, whose older sister had died In childhood.) Suddenly, the poet is all seriousness. He urges the child not to pluck the the young buds of the flowers because the true goddess of the flowers, Flora, may punish the child that she too, the child that is, dies early. Some might say this interpretation is too dark, that the poet is dealing in poetic convention, that the ending of the poem is mere dramatics, almost done tongue in cheek. Perhaps so.

But it seems to me that a poem that begins in a flood of whimsy ends in terror. “Be careful!” he wants to cry to her, though he knows his cries are bootless and impotent. How helpless men are against the power of death. The poem seems to me to reflect a great mind following the truth where it leads. It is, I think, a very great poem. A man watches a child at play. She delights him. He lets his imagination run free. Then the poet’s mind goes the only real way it can go. “Gather the flowers,” he says to her (in his mind he speaks to her), “but don’t pick the buds,” for the child is a bud, and who knows what cruel fate is behind life ruthlessly and randomly picking the buds of human life.

The serpent is always in the garden, eh? Underneath the most innocent and sweetest of human ventures lurks the inexorable fate of humankind, all the darkness that lies beneath or behind or below and beyond all pretty little girls, all flowers, all arts, and all words. The incongruity contained in the poem is almost too much to bear, but the poet pulls it off. One might conjecture that the rhyme and meter of the poem make its truth easier for us to bear. After all, art is creative illusion at its apogee. This poem presents the human dilemma, the maddening contradictions and paradox of a self-conscious creature as clearly, though more succinctly, as do Becker or Rank. In an era when infant mortality was high, rampant, more the rule than the exception, who’d not see beautiful children as fragile buds being picked by the fell hands of merciless death? And who’d not, even in our time, if he or she looked with a cold mind, with a terrified but an honest imagination, at the field of flowers and contemplate that stuff out of which the sweet flowers grow, the great bone-yard and blood-blotter of the earth? Who’d not?

The Picture of  Little T. C. in a
Prospect of Flowers

SEE with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, and gives them names;          5
But only with the roses plays,
And them does tell
What colour best becomes them, and what smell.

Who can foretell for what high cause
This darling of the gods was born?   10
Yet this is she whose chaster laws
The wanton Love shall one day fear,
And, under her command severe,
See his bow broke and ensigns torn.
Happy who can   15
Appease this virtuous enemy of man!

O then let me in time compound
And parley with those conquering eyes,
Ere they have tried their force to  wound;
Ere with their glancing wheels they drive   20
In triumph over hearts that strive,
And them that yield but more despise:
Let me be laid,
Where I may see the glories from some shade.

Meantime, whilst every verdant thing   25
Itself does at thy beauty charm,
Reform the errors of the Spring;
Make that the tulips may have share
Of sweetness, seeing they are fair,
And roses of their thorns disarm;   30
But most procure
That violets may a longer age endure.

But O, young beauty of the woods,
Whom Nature courts with fruits and flowers,
Gather the flowers, but spare the  buds;   35
Lest Flora, angry at thy crime
To kill her infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’ example yours;
And ere we see,
Nip in the blossom all our hopes and thee.   40


Full Faith and Credit…How I Figured Out What’s Going On with Congress and Wall Street

August 18, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

I too was confused, until I realized that the model for understanding the whole thing was sitting in the trunk of my car. I have been driving around Seattle with it for months now:  a battery-powered coin counter stuck on “on”, counting perfectly identical wafers of air. At first, I had decided to donate it to some good cause, like Good Will, along with a bunch of other stuff and get the microscopic tax deduction. (I bought this thing back when Sharper Image was just getting the reputation for being artful at featuring junk in up-scale; design-conscious shops hosted by with-it 20 something’s rattling off why Shaper Image junk is better than other junk. Sharper image junk was, well, just sharper!  Cooler. (I had wanted a coin counter for months. I had the fantasy of rolling up all the pennies, and even the silvery coins lying around my home office cabinets and counters and in nooks and crannies of my car, but especially the pennies, because they actually are worth more than one cent as scrap metal. You could actually use them to wire your house, with enough work at it. You know how pennies can pile up like hordes of dead roaches lying around on top of each other, all helter skelter, after the Unthinkable has happened, I mean the Apocalypse, the second coming of Raid.  Unlike the roaches that will survive the nuclear holocaust, these dead dud cooper shells didn’t desiccate as the weeks and years tick by (the love of money is surely the root of all evil and the wages of sin is death), mocking all decency and mortality they had stayed heavy enough for me to almost break my long toe (you know the one that’s always competing with the Big Toe by trying to be the longer toe (It’s such a puny 90 gram runt, but then its running in the tight field of only four other competitors, and its clearly the only one with a chance of beating out the Kauna Toe, Mr. Krakatoau to you, bub.) when I kicked a Glad bag of them in my office, which had been propping the door open like a half-packed sandbag. I had been pretending it was a kind of lumpy, slumped over pigskin, after giving up on shooting paper balls into my wastepaper basket, as being too much like shooting fish in a barrel. When I look down at my long toe duct-taped to my Kahuna toe, I see clearly why office football has never caught on like office putting or wastepaper lay-ups, but at the time it had felt like a manly, non-nerdy thing to do, until I had done it and then cast from the garden, had to walk around for weeks with the secret castration anxiety of a guy with an offending, rebellious long toe taped to that same envied Big Toe, the disapproving, unwilling Big Brother who you can’t shake and who can’t shake you, like you were duct-taped side-by-side by Mom.)) The guys at Sharper Image sold me said battery-powered coin counter with lots of those little paper condoms you fill up with quarters or nickels or those roach-head Lincolns, and yes, when rolling coins, as in much in life, size matters. I actually counted several bags of coins, at least of wine-rack refill value. (I had had even more loot forthcoming back in the days of the great Green Rush, back when S &H Green Stamps went from the Green Shield Standard to electronic “green points” and there was a run on the Redemption Centers. Many were called and much was chosen. (There were still millions in Green Stamps that were never cashed in. Better round-up your greenbacks, history repeats.)  When I hauled my rolled coins proudly into the  bank, and heaped the bags like gold ore on the counter in front of two 20-something Neo-con finance nerds who somehow reminded me of the same guys at Sharper Image who sold me the electric toothbrush “with a frequency for cutting plaque that none of them can touch.” I had to push the bags through the bullet plate glass contraption that keeps out offending dental decay and even Bonnie and Clyde. They looked at my bags of loot as though they had been the end result my walking my pet elephant through the neighborhood while scrupulously observing the leash laws. (They had the same look on their faces that I imagined must have been on the face of a local court clerk when my brother showed up to pay the fine of their local-yokel speed trap for us urban city-dwellers who were guilty of driving while reasonably civilized. He paid in odd change sitting loose in bursting plastic bags and torn paper bags. He said he had counted it and that if they didn’t believe him, he had time to wait for them to count it on the spot)  Anyway, these nerds told me that no way could they take my count as accurate, they would have to count it again, and that mean they would have to unroll it, which meant a fee for me. After that the dust grew on my coin counter and it was put out to pasture via my trunk. It has never made it to Good Will, despite my good will to get it there. I put it in a plastic see through bag, complete with the paper condoms (which would protect you from the filthy lucre, had there been any) and left in batteries. I have been cranking out these air coins, and by golly, that’s the key to the perpetual motion machine. Whenever I look, it is still cranking them out. With each whirl, a plastic gear turns and makes these air wafer coins and rolls a stack of them in an air spiral and pays itself to keep going. Sharper Image has gone bankrupt. Green Stamps are worthless after the decades in the sixties when folks had just started forgetting how to save, and the rewards catalog was the most widely circulated publication in the United States and three times as many Green Stamps were being issued than U.S. Postage Stamps, which is, after all, a kind of cash. (What’s the last time you’ve seen a Green Stamp). Now they are closing down the U.S. Postal Service too. I understand now how they also have been cranking out these air wafers, Congress, Wall Street and them, and the US and Them (China, of course) are duct-taped together like the long-toe and the Kahuna toe, but neither brother wants to give in to who is really the Kahuna toe, and who is just, you know, long, but not as long. That’s how I figured out what is going on with Congress and Wall Street. Really, after tracking it like through obfuscations as bewildering a labyrinth of parentheses you are forced to run for speed like close hurdles, but sometimes they’re spread out, just to trip you up.) But I swear, I am pulling over to Good Will sometime this week, and I am asking the guy from Pakistan who runs the place what he thinks is fair to put on the blank tax receipt (the one they give you for donating stuff ) for the gift of my perpetual motion money maker and counter. A one and how many zeros?


The Good Place of Religion

August 15, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Sunday afternoon, while driving through west Bloomington (what we might call “the poor side of town”) I saw a sign that said “Free Sale.” Intrigued, I followed the arrow to a bunch of tables with all sorts of stuff on them. The idea of this “Free Sale” (which learned takes place every other Sunday afternoon) is that if you have something to give, you put it on a table. If you need something you see there, you take it. It was like the old hippie days, the Diggers and the Hog Farm, all over again! So now I wanted to find out what was behind it all. I got into a conversation with the people running the affair and learned that they are a collective dedicated to “raising up the neighborhood,” with projects including a whole free education program (if you have something to teach, just sign up for a time, if you want to learn something someone is teaching, just show up at that time), a garden vegetable exchange, and weekly democracy discussions, and other such projects. Included also are some regular buying ventures, such as a food store stocked with things going out of date at local grocery stores (3x weekly pick up at the stores) and a sort of crafts store stocked with items like embroidery made by local community people.

So, social work professor that I am, I immediately thought of this project as something that could potentially involve some of my students. I exchanged contact information, but then the thought hit me that these energetic, scruffy-looking folks may be part of some religion, and I had to check that out, given that my affiliation is with a large, secular state university. If they were indeed religiously affiliated, that would not be a problem in and of itself, but if I were going to encourage my students to become involved in some way with their activities, I would need to make clear to students up front that this is a religiously affiliated organization, so that students could make their decision to become involved with this information in hand. I explained my position to the neighborhood organizers, saying explicitly that if there were going to be any proselytizing, either of student volunteers or as any part of the program, I would need to know this front so that there would be no surprises for students who decided to get involved.

Their answer was very interesting. They said, in effect, that while many of them are Christian or of other religious commitments, there was no uniform religious basis for what they are doing. Their unifying desire is to build up the neighborhood at the grass roots level. And while some of the individuals among them are clear that their motivation for this work does spring from religious teachings about love for others and concern for the poor, I could rest assure that (and this is how they said it) it all comes from “from the good place” of religion and I wouldn’t have to worry about proselytism. All are welcome to join in the work regardless of religion or no religion, with no distinctions made.

This week I have been mulling over that phrase, “the good place” of religion. It is a peculiar phrase, but said what needed to be said rather succinctly. They recognize the difference between the “good place” of religion and, what(?), the rest of it? What gave the phrase its clear meaning in this situation was exactly the work they are doing. “By their fruits you shall know them,” is how the Good Book says it. I sure would like to see more of the good place, and a lot less of the rest of it!


The Dark Knight Needs Paris

August 11, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The trailer for the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, begins with the following intonation: “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal,  then you  become something else completely: a legend.” Holy causa sui, Batman! I didn’t know it was that simple. Of course it isn’t that simple, but the line from the trailer struck me as an example par excellence of the human desire to transcend our mortality. Failing that, some of us help ourselves along by sharing vicariously in heroics of another. I suspect Bruce Wayne will be thwarted in his bid for legendary immortality. Even legends die out eventually. But perhaps the movie patrons will leave with their anxiety temporarily assuaged.

I have another suggestion. Their time might be better spent on Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight In Paris.  Set in modern-day Paris, the plot centers on protagonist Owen Wilson’s love for the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein. Director Allen employs magical realism to allow Wilson to travel through a time portal back to this golden age, meeting many of his heroes. Without giving away too much of the plot, he comes to realize that every age is golden, every age has its luminaries, and there is no time like the present. He returns to modern-day Paris with his love of the city intact and a commitment to live in the here and now.  He forgoes magic for everyday reality. This acceptance and willingness to engage the present reflects the existential “courage to be” that theologian Paul Tillich described. As I left the theater and walked into the sultry Louisville, evening I felt a certain satisfaction, a calm if you will. The time is now. Thank you, Mr. Allen. Good luck, Bruce.


The Psychic Bartender: Pole Dancing

August 10, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

No, no: not a guy from Warsaw doing the boogaloo.  Racier than that.

Guy saunters into the bar wearing a striped tie with a gold kangaroo tie clasp.  He lights a cigar the size of a rolling pin.  I tell him there’s no smoking.  He smiles: “We want to buy this place.  Think the owners would sell out?”

“Who, the EBF?”  I shrug. “They’re a group of pointy-headed philosophers, so they’re always broke and begging for money.”

“Good.  First we ditch the Denial File thing.  That is so retarded. Then we liven up the joint by bringing in pole dancers.”

“Pole dancers?  You mean gorgeous babes stuffed with silicone like a kielbasa who swing around a pole wearing fresh air and false eyelashes?  All in favor, wiggle your ears.”

“Get with the program, mate.”  The guys draws voluptuous female curves in the air with his glowing cigar.  “Nudity is so totally yesterday.  Live sex is a yawn.  A little grunting and scuffing, then some sweet nothings and mopping up. Next.”  The smoke seems to be coming out his ears.  “No, we’re looking for real stimulus. Real juice.  Customers want fresh fear and anger to put a little spark in the tank.”

“Fear and anger about what?”

“People are worn down by the everyday grind of underemployment, overwork, and having to step over all the junk they’ve bought from China.  They’re numb.  My pole dancers can get them fired up with thrilling fear and righteous wrath.”

“Excuse me,” I say.  “But pole dancers?”

He pats me on the head with his burning cigar, helping me understand fear better.  “Don’t be a dufus, Rufus. My business is media.  Pole stands for Polarization, and Dancers means Dancing Around Facts.  It’s the cleverest and also the stupidest trick ever invented.  We headline pole dancers like Wisconsin tea party organizer and children’s book author Kim Simac, who’s compared American public schools to the Nazi regime. We spotlight sexy congressmen who call the president Antichrist or tar baby, and op-ed liberals who call conservatives with firm opinions terrorists.  Some people get off on information.  Bo-o-ring.  We polarize.”

“I’m confused.”  My brain feels like a wad of chewed bubblegum.  “Some extreme positions are realistic – like ducking a tornado, say.  And some are lunatic rant.”

“So?  It’s all news.  Pay attention to business. You can’t have a real tornado every five minutes. Customers want a drink with some kick in it, not the tepid stuff you serve here.  Let death help you think about the beautiful meaning of life.  Bo-o-ring.  Bend over and we’ll give you a beautiful enema.”

“That’s an extreme example.  I’d have to disagree.”

“Ah, disagreeing!  Fired up already.  Good.  Let me take your pulse.”

Guy grabs my wrist and in some sort of judo hold making me howl and the cash drawer spring open. “Hey?” I squawk.  “Hands off!”

“Just testing.  Now pay attention.  Let’s take the negotiations over the US debt ceiling in the news.  It’s just bargaining, poker bluffs, winking.  Bo-o-ring.  So we polarize it.  Presto.  Suddenly it’s political enemies fighting to the death.  The socialists are bankrupting us with medical and social security giveaways and the debt will kill your grandchildren.  The patriotic conservatives want to shrink bloated government and toughen us up to create jobs and prosperity.  See, the two sides are exciting enemies.”

“Wait.  You’ve loaded the argument to make all social programs look bad and toughness sound good.”

“Oho!  You favor flabbiness?”

“Not what I said.  This is like the buildup to World War 1.  Half of Europe was pushing for a short, brisk war to stop the countries going soft.  Only the war turned out to be one of the most insanely stupid and destructive in history.  Unbelievable death and suffering.”

“So?  What’s your point?”

“Look at the fears today that the US is going broke, everybody’s a fat and lazy welfare cheat, so we need lean and mean government to toughen up.  You’re pushing the same polarized delusions.”

“I’m strictly objective.  We present both sides.”

“Are you telling me the rich aren’t trying to squeeze the poor?  Or that the corporate military isn’t running history’s most expensive empire? Or that — ”

“Ah!  Look at you!  All fired up!  Beautiful!  –Wipe the spittle off your lower lip.  Don’t you feel better telling me off?

“But people don’t think straight when everything’s polarized.”

“Tut tut.  You and I are polarized right now.  Are you telling me you’re not thinking straight?”

“Polarization is white hats and black hats.  Angels and demons.  God and Satan and burning the neighbors at the stake as witches.”

“Yes, that was a thrilling time to be alive.  You could watch sinners squirm and scream as the flames rose, and you’d love being on God’s team — you can really put some feeling into your prayers of thanksgiving after a triumph like that.”

“Triumph!  People must have stunned.”

“That’s the great thing about polarization.  It’s inside you as well as all around you. As your neighbor burns at the stake, you can weep at the pity of it and curse the Evil One — and enjoy a tasty hotdog and beer afterward.  Isn’t ambivalence wonderful?  It’s great to be alive.”

“That is really perverse.”

“Not so glum, chum. Think how much creative energy the settlers unleashed by deciding that the only good Indian is a dead Indian.  A little forty-niner gold, a little Custer bluster, and why, in a couple decades they had the wild west laid out for the Chamber of Commerce.”

“It’s not that schematic,” I protest.  “Personality isn’t an on-off switch.”

“Yes, you’re right.  I’m wrong. The sad truth is, personalities are boring.  You could waste hours trying to figure out other people’s inner muddles when you could be golfing or collecting rent or choosing the right nail polish.”

“Wait.  What about love?  Desire?”

“Good point.  Airbrushed models and celebrity stars make perfect pole dancers because you love them and they love you.  And, best of all, they show up the losers and enemies that you need to despise.”

“Hold it.  That’s not what I mean.”

“See? There you go again.  Trying to show you’re different.  Everybody wants to believe they’re special.  And nothing makes you feel more special than polarization.  It works better than flags and tattoos.”

The cigar smoke was making my eyes water.   I coughed: “You can’t walk in and buy this place like a broadcast monopoly.”

“Hey, don’t lose your temper at me,” he says blowing a perfect smoke ring.  “I already own most of the bars and customers on this street.  They love me.”

“So what’s it like being in your shoes?  What’s in it for you? Where are you going with this pole dancing empire?”

“Whoa, Joe.  This isn’t about me.”

“Sure it is.  This is a psychic bar.  People say what’s on their minds, I listen.  Stick around.  Have a drink.  If you know the polarization is all manipulated, where do you fit in?  Ever feel like you’re the richest guy on the street with the cars zinging past and nobody knows you’re alive? How do you feel about — ?”

“Hey hey, that’s personal.  I don’t do personal.  I have PR people for that.  I didn’t come in here for an enema.”  He bursts out laughing and reaches in his suit pocket.  “Here, mate.  Have a cigar.”


Mortal Grossness

August 5, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

This morning, another bright and hot one here, easing toward the end of torpid July, I sit in my study, sip coffee, listen to “Bolero” move ineluctably toward its climax, that great crescendo at its end. I check my e-mail. I have one from a literary friend, an extremely bright man, one who can write wonderfully well. An austere, even strict, New Englander, he knows the power of brevity, the beauty of the lucid and succinct sentence. Somehow he manages to tolerate with courteous grace my Southern tendency to indulge in rhetoric. We make a good pair: “Book ends,” he calls us. He wants to talk about some thoughts he’s had on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He tells me he just finished reading the play again. He talks a great deal about the scene where Puck gives Bottom an ass’s head and then, at the orders of Oberon (the King of the Fairies), ensorcels Titania into falling in love with the creature, this half man, half ass. Afterwards, when all is sorted out, Bottom will refer to this eerie episode as “Bottom’s dream.”

I don’t want to read too much into this episode, but sometimes I think that we human beings are Bottom, stupid and ignorant Bottom, beneath all our pretense nothing more than an ass, a creature, a both arrogant and fawning creature who wants the world to love it, some fairy princess to confirm our worth. We want the universe acknowledge us, to “look at me,” as Kirby said a month or six weeks ago in one his blogs. We want some transcendent being far beyond our pale mortality to nod at us, even as we scratch at our hairy and itchy ass-faces. (It’s mere coincidence, but last night I read the chapter “The Excremental Vision” in Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death in which Brown argues that Swift’s “scatological” poetry is not the product of a madman but rather that of a man who understands how pitifully pretentious human beings can be.)

Says the mesmerized Titania—she is madly in love with Bottom–to Bottom transformed into an ass:

I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee;
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.

I imagine Shakespeare writing these lines, the stink of London and the city’s attendant horrors all about him, the grinding poverty, the suffering of humanity impossible to avoid. Surely Shakespeare, if any man ever did, understood the truth of the human condition. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, /  They kill us for their sport,” a newly-taught Gloucester—he has just had his eyes gouged out–says in King Lear. Yet men dream of fairies, of worlds far removed from the one they live in. Who among us would not like some immortal being to purge our mortal grossness so that we could go about eternally like an airy spirit, instead of dragging this fading body about with us, this hunk of flesh that will betray us? Who has not dreamed of what happened to Bottom: to be transformed?

Who would not like to cry out joyfully for Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed and have the four fairies come to his beckoning, fairies fairly glittering with immortality?

Years ago, when I was a serious student of lit a rah choor,  confident it held the secret to the human predicament, the great secret, the girl next door had named her four kittens Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed. I would be writing at my desk at dusk when she would step outside her door and call to her kittens to come home. I would step to the window and watch the four kittens come bounding out of the brush, a rush of meowing, a flurry of fur. That’s as close as I have come to see airy spirits flash through the twilight.

The truth is, nothing can purge us of our mortal grossness. No Titania, the Queen of the Fairies eager to redeem us, awaits us, and if the night wind utters meaning, it sings not of comely spirits, delicate fairy creatures. No, it moans of a man’s fate. In truth, it does not sing or moan. The wind simply is, nothing more than air moving.

The night is empty of gentle fairies and elves, except in our imaginations, but most of us start when we hears a strange noise outside our window, out there where the big trees stand in shadow and where we suspect chaos lurks. The wind blows over the boneyard, rustling the tendrils of green summer grass that curl over the edge of the grave marker. No matter where a person’s imagination takes him or her, sooner or later, as Becker says, the experiential burden will settle in once again, this old maddening and terrifying contradiction of individuation in finitude.

Earlier in the play, Shakespeare has Lysander speak to the human condition, the briefness of joy. Whatever a man cherishes:

War, death or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to conclusion

The truth has emptied life of fairies. We are mortal creature under the mute skies. Consolation, perhaps, exists, some kind of reconciliation with the truth. Does beauty lurk in the guttural cry of the lone crow crying at dusk as it beats it way to roost?


Reading Ernest Becker in 2011

August 1, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Recently a person contacted me to say that he had read Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death, and felt that it was more or less entirely worthless because what Becker wrote about homosexuality was outdated and wrong. I have heard similar strong criticisms of Becker’s work because he failed to directly criticize patriarchy and his language follows the style of using male pronouns. We do, of course, always have to be willing to criticize (that is, read critically) authors of earlier times. But I am not sure it is fair or just (or good scholarship) to dismiss an author because he or she reflects in specific instances the standards and assumptions of his or her own time rather than out own. I have no idea what the standards and assumptions will be 50 or 100 years from now, but I am sure that my current writing will violate something. I hope the readers of the future, if they be kind enough then to still read anything I have written, will do so with grace and a critical eye. Anyway, here is what I wrote in reply to this gentleman:

“I am sympathetic with you for what you went through in coming to terms with your sexual orientation during a time [1970s] in which homosexuality was still extremely taboo in this country. I have heard personal stories about this struggle from a number of close friends. I can only say that I respect you for what you went through and for bearing the brunt of the social prejudices, opening the doors so that it is at least somewhat easier for the current generation of adolescents and young adults.

You are, of course, absolutely correct that Ernest Becker was a human being, a man of his time, and despite his insights into certain aspects of the human situation, his thinking in a number of areas was not particularly progressive. It would be a tragic mistake to approach any of Becker’s texts as some sort of fixed scriptural cannon from which only pearls of truth and wisdom magically emerge. His texts also are only all too human.

Therefore, we can and must simply jettison and ignore what Becker wrote about particular religious, social and political issues of his time, including especially his few statements about women and homosexuality (which, while not particularly progressive to our ears, were actually much less patriarchal and homophobic than much of what was in the literature of that time.) That said, many of us have found key aspects of Becker’s work (most specifically, the death anxiety thesis) that continue to be very useful in constructing a more liberated ethic and philosophy in our time. It helps us understand at a deep level the ins and outs of human motivation, both at an individual and collective level. It lends itself well to explicating dynamics of transference, idolization, scapegoating, alienation, disgust, and many more, tying these various dynamics together and showing that they spring from a common source.

That hermeneutic continues to keep Becker’s work fresh. For example, while what Becker wrote about homosexuality fairly well followed the standard line of established psychoanalytic theory of the 1960s, might it not be that the death anxiety thesis does contribute to understanding some of the key human dynamics involved in the social ostracism of sexual minorities during the 1970s (and, unfortunately, ongoing into our own time, though hopefully that prejudicial ostracism is abating)?

Perhaps, given your experience with Becker’s text 40 years ago it is impossible to approach this work with anything but contempt. That is certainly understandable. At the same time, as said, many of us have found the death anxiety thesis to be of continuing value, and that by standing on Becker’s shoulders (so to speak) we can see much farther than Becker ever could or than we could without him.”