Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

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The Consolation of “The Sandman”

April 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

A hazard of working with Ernest Becker’s ideas is that they can increase the anxiety of being trapped in the human condition. Without the comfort of traditional religion and lacking Tillich’s “courage to be,” it is possible to fall into despair. Becker acknowledges as much and advises us “to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”   In reflecting on Becker I am constantly brought back to a Bob Dylan lyric: “Well I can’t provide for you no easy answers. Who are you that I should have to lie?”

While personal and collective creativity may be the most effective way to assuage our anxiety, I’ve also discovered a type of vicarious consolation in author Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, The Sandman.  Referred to by Norman Mailer as “a comic book for intellectuals” and penned in the 1990s, these comics focus on the exploits of The Endless, a family of supernaturals who are anthropomorphic personifications of the human condition. The seven siblings who comprise The Endless are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, and Delirium. They represent certain constants in the human condition that transcend particular eras and cultures. Their adventures and interactions with humans are not unlike those of classic Greek mythology. The central character is Dream, also referred to as Morpheus.

The Endless

An interesting feature of the series is that it employs the gods of past civilizations, Thor or Anubis for example, as characters in the story. These gods and goddesses no longer inhabit earth as in the past, having been superseded by new gods and beliefs. Rather, they have left to reside in a different realm and crop up periodically in the narrative to serve the storyline. The death of belief and what happens to the gods when this occurs is a favorite theme of Gaiman and appears again in his novel American Gods. It also features prominently in the Discworld novels of Gaiman’s friend Terry Pratchett.

It is precisely in the death of the gods and the ongoing existence of The Endless that I find consolation. Only a short leap separates the death of the Olympians and the death of contemporary gods.  Traditional religion has functioned as effective culture armor precisely by connecting individuals and cultures to something bigger, something transcendent. The Sandman does this by highlighting the endless universals of the human condition and in so doing conveys  a certain constant nobility in the human experience. This self-aware postmodern consciousness is quite distinct from the metaphysical certainty and security of the classic religions. Is it enough? Perhaps. In his interviews with Bill Moyers, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell observed that the shaman of former cultures had been replaced by the artist as a fashioner of the new myths. Perhaps The Sandman represents a small step, one of many, in the development of a new consciousness, an at-homeness, with the human condition.

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Frostbite: The New Jane Eyre

April 7, 2011

 

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre haunts the corridors of American education.  The plucky orphan Jane survives abuse, rejection, betrayal, and other afflictions to become an esteemed governess and finally the cherished wife of Edward Rochester.  Destiny rewards Jane’s virtue with a windfall inheritance from a remote uncle in Jamaica, even as the once-lordly Rochester is brought low by his mad Jamaican wife.

The magical undoing in this plot shouldn’t surprise us.  Most story-telling offers some sort of wish-fulfillment.  But Jane’s latest incarnation, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is worth noticing because the wishes it projects are more punishing than romantic.  And that may be telling us something about the mental weather around us these days.

As Ann Lewinson grumbled in the Hartford Advocate about the new Jane (Mia Wasikowska), “Most grievously, she cannot play Jane in love, and honey you are kissing Michael Fassbender [Mr. Rochester] — what is wrong with you?”  Well, Ann may have a thing for Fassbender, but in fact his Rochester is as tame as the unsmiling Jane. Their love scenes are achingly sexless. His past liaisons are so muted they could have been quilting bees.

Now here’s what’s striking: Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre almost exactly describes the new Jane as well.  Lush production, anemic passion.

How to account for this peculiarly damp romance?  One answer lies in the vindictive righteousness invested in Jane. While many feminists have moved on, 1980s victim feminism has hardly gone away. The recent Janes are outstanding victims of swinish boys (but not girlfriends), nasty schoolmasters, and a toxic stepmother.  Though the new Jane steadfastly stands by Rochester, you might wonder why.  She’s decorous to a fault.  Why depict her as such a stick?

One clue lies in her only inner spark – moral aggression.

We’ve gotten used to Hollywood and publishers promoting tough, self-sufficient women who can “Kill Bill” and other malefactors. The fury of Stieg Larsson’s viciously abused heroine Lisbeth Salander is gentrified in the new Janes.  This Jane’s not liberated-woman-as-killer, but as righteous judge.  Invite her to play, and she’ll zing you with cold rectitude.  When Rochester risks a little frisky wit, her repartee scolds.  Mistreat her and she will forgive you to death.

In this adaptation, young Jane behaves as if traumatized and, frankly, never gets over it.  She’s peculiarly anaesthetic.  The film gives her a stick figure, a joyless face, and stubborn teenage idealism that parents in the audience should recognize. She’s supposed to be a gifted artist, but she seems impassive about her beautiful surroundings chez Rochester. (Thank Adriano Goldman for the luscious cinematography. Love those Vermeer blue window shots and mouth-watering candlelight, and russet reds that bloom when passion soars to its tepid russet heights.)

Reunited in the end with the blinded, gratefully emasculated Rochester, Jane’s safely in control of them both – and of the movie audience too.  There’s no question who will be running the show from here on out.  In a word, this is a gentle fantasy of righteous mastery and, by the way, getting even.

Third stream feminists argue that the 1980s emphasis on victimization promotes women’s helplessness.  But it’s useful to keep in mind that victimization can also fuel aggression: specifically vindictive righteousness. After all, from infancy, personality develops around convictions of “what is right.”  Shared with others, the sense of rightness allows us to feel at home in an overwhelming world.  It’s crucial to our mental operating system.  It makes the magic circle of everyday life seem natural.

One way of understanding the righteous Jane theme is to see it as a reaction against the tsunami of change that is making folks from Tahrir Square to Main Street feel orphaned and powerless. Granted, the Jane fantasy projects a gentry world in trouble.  And so it appeals to a gentry that today faces economic threats and values notoriously under stress.  In today’s terms, when Jane meets Rochester, fear of helpless unemployment meets what can jokingly be called “affluenza.”  Rochester has everything anyone could need, but can take no joy in it.  In order to feel, this limp couple needs Jane’s punishing rectitude and, finally, the crippling pain of a therapeutic fire that burns down the McMansion and makes pitying devotion exquisite.

Brrr.

But there’s a deeper level too.

You can also think of Jane’s masked anger operating in the service of mourning.  Like an old Harlequin Romance, the film stops the instant the lovers kiss.  But for all their supposed bliss, the lovers are implicitly mourning a lost past.  And the film is playing to an audience that is mourning for a world of fading verities beset by psychic storms: a world in which imagination will have to put mourning to work sorting out the old stuff and kindling it to new life.

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Lethal Inspection

March 31, 2011

"The Cephlapod" Cory Foster

One of my favorite television programs is an animated series called Futurama. It follows the life of a late-20’s slacker named Fry who finds himself unintentionally and cryogenically frozen in 2001 and then reanimated in 3001 (how’s that for an immortality project?). While trying to acclimate to life 1,000 years in the future, he befriends all manner of alien, mutant and robot life forms and actually winds up feeling quite comfortable in his new surroundings. The humor of the show is successful using its future setting as a vehicle for the satire of our world back here in the 2000’s. The characters in the show deal with largely the same problems that we do. Corrupt government, rampant commercialization and intolerance are all covered. I was, therefore, not surprised when the most recent season featured an episode covering the concept of mortality salience and the denial thereof, but I did chuckle to myself at the serendipity of its co-occurrence with the initiation of this blog.

The protagonist of this particular episode (“Lethal Inspection”) was Fry’s best friend, a bending robot named, appropriately, Bender. We learn through dialogue in the story that all robots in the 3000’s are equipped with a backup chip when built, so that if anything destructive befalls their bodies, they can simply be reinstalled in another body. Bender comes to find out that he is defective, in that he is missing this essential chip. This effectively makes him mortal. His reaction is one of rage and violence, and he vows to take revenge on the assembly line inspector whose responsibility it was to make sure that Bender was built to industry standards. He travels through North America on a frantic search for this “Inspector 5,” and eventually winds up in Tijuana, where he was built. I won’t give away the ending, but it is somewhat bittersweet.

Bender gets examined in "Lethal Inspection"

I found this to be a very Becker-centric episode of Futurama, for obvious reasons. It seems ideas about existential dread are certainly out there in the wider world, but it’s unclear how much they affect any of the viewership. Were most people in such denial that this episode did not register in the forefront of their minds? Did they react in some subconscious way, as in the various TMT experiments? I would be interested to see if there was a spike in violence or altruism after the airing.

Many of the writers on the show are Ivy League educated, mostly from Harvard, and their erudition shows. However, it was most interesting to see them tackle a softer science (psychology), instead of their standbys of physics and mathematics. When Bender asks the humans in his workplace how they deal with their mortality, they reply with “violent outbursts,” “general sluttiness” and “thanks to denial, I’m immortal!” One wonders whether they had used Denial of Death as an inspiration here.  We in the EBF know that Becker’s Denial is as likely to be denied in the Ivies as anywhere. Later, we see Bender reacting to his newfound mortality in a single-minded violent pursuit of revenge, and as he begins to accept his fate, there is a profound sadness apparent in a being that is supposed to be cold and unfeeling. The spirit of Becker was very apparent through the story and I can only hope that among the viewers several were sufficiently interested to investigate further.

For a transcript of this episode, visit: The Infosphere

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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.