Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

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Great Gatsby! Green Lantern!

January 7, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!

Oath for charging a ring on the Power Lantern

There must be something in the ether. Dan Liechty started this blog off with a riff on a Star Trek Next Generation episode. I am introducing myself in these pages by glossing on a comic book super-hero, Green Lantern, who will debut on the big screen this summer. Here’s the URL for a YouTube trailer:

“Blak Lantern,” my username for blogging here is a kind of meme negative image of “Green Lantern”. By the time this post is finished, the graphic sic-if action hero rap, which may appear frivolous, will change into something of a brief cultural critique.

Here’s the quick scoop on Green Lantern. Some of you will recall that Green Lantern lives in the DC Comics world, which is an earth parallel to both the Marvel Comics world, and our own lacklustre world, where super-heroes with infinite power are somewhat rare. The Guardians of the Universe decide to appoint a new Green Lantern to the sector in which Earth is located. The Green Lantern Corps is sort of intergalactic Canadian Mounties, but green not red, and no horses. Allan Scott, a young railroad engineer (circa 1940), who has the distinction of being fearless is offered this cosmic appointment after he performs a heroic life-saving deed. He accepts and becomes one of the thousands of the Green Lantern Corps, who protect the populated sectors of the universe, each one a fearless exemplar of their species. That’s what typifies the Green Lanterns: fearlessness, iron will, and active imagination. Allen wears the infinitely capable Power Ring that emits a transmogrifying green laser-like light that is responsive in shape and intensity to the bearer’s will and imagination. It is refuelled by a Power Lantern that emits a green glow. Unfortunately, the power ring has a yellow shadow: it can’t affect anything that is that yellow, unless the bearer can totally master his fear.

As the comic series progressed over the years, the Guardians choose more humans to become the Green Lantern of this sector of the universe. (Probably a galactic affirmative action program. There are other intelligent species in the sector, after all). In the early 1970s, John Stewart, an unemployed African American architect, became the Green Lantern, making this series one of the first racially integrated ongoing super-hero series.

As the saga progresses, the Green Lantern Corps does battle with the Black Lanterns Corps. The latter are deceased super-individuals (some heroes, some not, more essentially amoral than evil). They are reanimated by their resentment of the living and they are bent on ending all life on earth– but first they must muffle all emotions except fear and hatred.

The Green Lantern hero-system is pretty straightforward and meaningful to the average early teenage male, who probably appreciates the transparency of simple allegory, with its one to one symbolism. Bravery, power, and goodness make us heroes and are green. Green is also the symbolic garb for the Green Arrow, Green Hornet, and J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, a green super-detective from Mars. My teenage friends and I were sure he was African American and he was being “passed” because the times were more ready for a green hero than a black hero. There was one Superboy edition in which this Martian morphed into an African American and worked on the Kent farm, and was comforted by the young Clark Kent after he was attacked by a racist mob.

Green is historically connected to the green light that flutters in the distance at the end of the dock in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and is one of that novel’s recurrent symbolic motifs:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning –

Like the Green Lantern, Gatsby’s greatness lay in his ability to use imagination and will to make his dreams become realities. Gatsby craved an orgiastic future of unending material wealth that he believed would secure his self-esteem and immortality. Teenage boys are content with just the virtues of goodness, power, fearlessness (and the Nike gear that goes with it), which will undoubted secure their reputation with other guys and win the admiration of foxy chicks. Gatsby’s green light has a darker side. The novel piles up rancid dreams, adulterated with deception and exploitation, and ends in Gatsby’s accidently killing his lover, Molly, by automobile in the “ash heap of the present.” This is followed by the murder-suicide of Gatsby by Molly’s betrayed husband, who was Gatsby’s friend. The future is unbearable “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald is saying the wages of the American dream is this kind of death of meaning in which one despises the present and is inexorably drawn into the fog of the past. The moral universe of the comics is almost as complex although drawn more allegorically than symbolically. The Black Lantern Corps embody death and its reaching out to us in a literal Halloween way, in a universe where the dead aren’t quite dead. The original green “go light” that appeared to permit Gatsby to zoom past his personal history has changed its meaning over the passing decades. Now Green also means sustainable environment, eco-empathy, but like Gatsby and the Green Lanterns, this new Green also will have its alter-ego and shadow. One wonders if we have hero-exemplars ready for the boys and–perhaps more importantly-the girls who will be forging the new green future.

So that gives you a flavor of what I would like to do in these pages. Play around with symbols, look at the darker and the humorous or lighter side of things, as “one likes to recall that  the difference between comic side of things and their cosmic side, depends on one sibilant.” –Nabokov. To further play on Blak, I may have the occasion to comment on issues (and select them) from an African American perspective (my A.A. perspective, anyway). This post only slanted things this way by noting how long it took to get an African American Green Lantern or other black super hero, for that matter. You are wondering, why spell it Blak and not Black? No, it’s not a form of Ebonics. The name “Black Lantern” was already taken in this blog world, so I had to innovate. Even here, going for the odd spelling, I ran into claim stakes. Coke put out a French high-octane beverage “Coca Cola Black” a few years ago complete with an accent.

Are we reaching some kind of cultural singularity where everything imagined has already been done?

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Blessed Mortality? Maybe…

January 7, 2011

"Normal Dan" Daniel Liechty

by “Normal Dan” (Daniel Liechty of Normal IL)

Like all species, human beings are driven by the urge to continue living. We usually call it the survival instinct. But because our species conceptualizes death as finitude, and can think abstractly and symbolically, the urge for continued life quickly morphs into what Ernest Becker saw as the psychological “denial of death” and an urge for symbolic, if not actual immortality. We are literally animated by an heroic struggle against death in all our ventures.

But what if that underlying wish were granted, we were immortal beings and there were no human death? I think it is instructive to at least consider that if there were no death, if our lives just went on and on and on, human life itself would be devalued and soon lose its deepest meaning. Think of all you would like to do in the next 10 years. Now imagine you had 10,000 years to accomplish it, or 10 million. Would we be happy just doing the same things over and over and over again? Sure, we would all probably love a decade or two more than our allotted 3 score and ten. But endless life? Would not life at some point become rather boring and tiresome?

I remember a character in the Star Trek series, the godlike but impish character named Q, who came from an immortal and omnipotent species called the Q-Continuum. He was totally fascinated by the human species because of their need to find meaning in everything. For a long time he couldn’t understand it and would purposely create chaotic situations just to watch Captain Picard and the other humans squirm. I remember as kid spending long hours messing up ant hills with a stick, fascinated to watch the ants run around in confusion and then slowly rebuild the hill. Q was initially something like that, only we humans were his ants. How does the saying go? “Evil is a robust child.”

But as Q got to know Captain Picard and humans better, he recognized that their urge for meaning was not so much a deficit but rather the very thing that made them human, and that furthermore, this urge for meaning stemmed directly from their mortality, the one aspect of being human that Q could not experience. In one memorable episode, Q let Picard experience what life in the Q-Continuum was like–not directly, which would have been impossible, but by creating an illusory world which conveyed at the human level of perception the basic idea. The illusory world Q created to express on the human level what life in the Q-Continuum was like was that of a series of quaint and beautiful little houses in desert environment, in which very beautiful and well-dressed people sit in rocking chairs on the front porches, staring endlessly out across the barren landscape. All their desires and needs are already so totally fulfilled, they are no longer even  aware of having desires or needs. They don’t really speak with each other because they all already know the same things. On first impression life is beautiful, but soon one is overcome with the realization that it is also just plain boring. If I remember correctly, Q actually voluntarily took on mortality at one point just to escape the boredom, an interesting take on the theme of divine incarnation if there ever was one!

The meditation on death in the Reform service book of American Judaism suggests that death and mortality is the “tax” we pay for meaning in life. It is exactly because life is limited that it is precious, sweet, and not to be wasted. I am not advocating some sort of Goth romance with death. I don’t even quite want to say that we should welcome Death. But perhaps we can come to befriend and appreciate our mortality as a blessed state, a gift we have been given. Or at least set that somewhere  ahead of us as a goal for our maturing spirituality.