AN ATTAINABLE GRAIL

AN ATTAINABLE GRAIL

There are five individuals I can’t get out of my mind. This country always brags so much about its history, and then almost deliberately ignores half of those “hero” types who helped create and preserve it – because they were women. Perhaps it’s also because they weren’t native-born. Perhaps also because it was “so long ago.” No excuse. Alas, they’re up against the male ego which is still uneasy about women in warfare.

“In warfare” only in part. Most men still struggle with “a saraband of imagery – a vast round ovum engulfs and castrates the agile spermatozoon, the monstrous and swollen termite queen rules over the enslaved males” (Simone de Beauvoir from The Second Sex).

That said, and not to digress, if it weren’t for these five souls many covert campaigns during the most pivotal time in human history simply wouldn’t have happened. The most significant influences in history seem lost in time, ignored or denied, while always returning in the end to make an indelible mark on the truth. Here are five brief bios:

Nancy Wake – called the “White Mouse” by the Germans, New Zealand born but living in Nancy WakeMarseilles when the battle for France began, an intelligence officer for the Resistance when captured but then escaped to Britain, joined the Special Operations Executive, parachuted back to France where she was tasked with sabotaging Nazi operations, on one occasion killed a guard with her bare hands, awarded the George Medal, Medaille de la Resistance, and three Croix de Guerre medals.

Violetta Szabo – code name “Louise.” British-born SOE Agent, directed sabotage, Violette Szaboespionage, and reconnaissance, captured two days after D-Day by the SS, interrogated an tortured, deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was executed, posthumous recipient of the George Cross.

 

Virginia Hall – code name “Diane.” American spy with the SOE and OSS, the Germans Virginia Hallcalled her “Artemis,” the Gestapo considered her the “most dangerous” of Allied spies,” with forged ID papers contacted the Resistance and mapped out supply drop zones, provided refuge for commandos, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and an honorary MBE.

 

Odette Hollowes – code name “Lise.” Allied Intelligence Officer, captured and Odette_Hollowesinterrogated fourteen times by the Gestapo, her back was scorched with a red-hot poker and all of her toenails were pulled out, condemned to death on two counts in June, 1943, to which she responded, “Then you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed, because I can only die once.” Infuriated, the Gestapo sent her to Ravensbruck where she died. Awarded the George Cross and the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.

Lise De Baissac – code name “Odile.” Member of the SOE, among the first female SOE Lise-de-Baissacagents to parachute into France in September 1942, courier and liaison for a network set up to secure routes where agents could work, organized weapons-drops from the UK for the Resistance, awarded the Legion d’honneur, and Croiz de Guerre with palm and MBE. 1

There’s something exceptionally phenomenal about these women and others like them who remain collectively unacknowledged. It reaches more into the depths of the male psyche than their own which might explain the problems of control and assigned roles. Beauvoir again: “No man would consent to be a woman, but every man wants women to exist.”

That it has to do with birthing, psychic balances, the primal breast, and the need for estrogen to reign in uncontrolled testosterone is the old story – true, but old. There’s something else. There’s something these women answered to which even they were not consciously aware – or maybe they were. Maybe it is “the same old” story but needs re-telling from a different parallax. The old one is too facile, too pedestrian, too specious, too bourgeois, too easy. There’s a “grail” component to this.

It has to do with understanding, as in “standing under” the alarums of war and peace, the sturm und drang of human behavior. It has to do with the outward appearances of self-contradiction (killing) and the instinct to recrudesce something from the most primal depths at the same time.

In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children the main narrator says, “To understand me you have to swallow a world.” What happens in a book becomes the book. This approximates their mission which was more “covert” than the covertures initially planned. It was as if being outside looking in at themselves.

They intuited something deeper from the point of view of the earth-as-living organism: “Hatred” is the antibody of oppression, but also a symptom of oppression. The symptom fuels the antibody which ends up killing itself. There is no immunity from oneself. To presume so is to fall into hyperbole, artifice, and deception. In other words, refusing to see war as suicidal madness is like calling something counterfeit as different from an “authentic copy.” – Meanwhile, we die defending shadows and ghosts.

We are trapped inside “the tragic ambiguity of [our] condition,” to quote Beauvoir. We try masking it, but to no avail. We may harness the atomic bomb and pretend to master nature, “and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s…. [A]t every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men” (from The Ethics of Ambiguity).

These women crossed the English Channel to redeploy a fundamentally natural kind of ambiguity. They reached across to reunite human DNA. “You can only kill me once,” and then you have to re-member and re-collect yourself to yourself. It was all about ending a war of tyranny but also to rekindle a kind of intelligence that embraces (and forgives) our human irrationality. We are not a divinely chosen culture guided by some bright northern star destined for a Promised Land. We are a mess of conflicting, repressed, misguided and hyper-extended impulses, needs, ambitions, and fears, some based on reality, some not. We are the neurologically frail in constant need of coddling and understanding (and the womb).

Question: Do you ever get the feeling that whatever you do, whatever you attempt to say, you’re speaking to an unintended audience? To people you don’t know, don’t necessarily even want to know? And before you know it, you have a reputation, perhaps even a stigma and stereotype, affixed to your good name. We are eternally in the “co-presence of strangers,” said Ahmad Sadri. What this means is that we’re all members of a global arena, a collective dialogue, which is not always nice to us individually. This arena is frequently balkanized, an archipelago of mutually hostile islands. Some appear real, others mere shadows and mirages, the products of hybridity and pastiche. The world is messy. There is only ambiguity. There are no clear grands recits (stories, rhetoric, narratives) which reduce all this to a convincing religious mythology.

The young adolescent kills the parent for personal liberation and power. The mother allows it because she understands. The father does not. The “hormone of aggression” sees itself in the other and fights to survive. Men “court” danger, disaster, and self-preservation (amour) as if it were a woman; they speak of it almost fondly, nostalgically, remembering it as acts of physical-sexual prowess (eros). The mother archetype “parents” it through the lens of agape – unconditional (Christly) love. At the end of the day she “wipes their noses,” cleans up the mess, and breast feeds those who drew lines in the sand(box). It’s an arm’s extension of a feminine planet attempting to save her offspring – her rib, as it were.

As a footnote: Mother Earth, by the way, is just fine. She’s not going anywhere and will always be here, despite what goes on in “sandboxes.” She’s not going away. We are the ones going away. It matters not that it may take 80 million years to clean up our nuclear waste and Styrofoam. She has nothing but time and will simply start all over again.

That said, there’s a deeply subversive component to all this. It breaks the rules and protocols of war and peace. It appeals to everyone equally – to see ourselves within the other and to re-member. It conflates all the divisions of rank, status, and official justifications to divide et impera. In one sense it takes us backwards in time, to ancient Athens. Social responsibility was not just the burden of a few but everyone – democratically – including the skyward archetypes (gods and goddesses). There was equal participation in everything, including government and warfare. Social, artistic, and political projects were debated, voted, financed, and supervised together. Ever since then we’ve been trying to get back to this, to a demos (commons, community), kratia (strength) . But we remain reluctant citizens (fem. citeseine – world inhabitants). We await some kind of approval from somewhere. Seventy-five years ago they were fighting/waiting for something abstract and seemingly inaccessible. They were waiting for themselves.

One of the criteria for defining intelligence is the ability to adapt to abstract situations. Abstract concepts have always been the precinct of, and preoccupation of, the male psyche. One might say that the war was “hard” and “concrete” reality at its most lurid. But war is also a convergence of so many abstract forces and influences that it spins the head. The “abstract” male goes about setting things “straight” again (but Euclidean straight). The female sets out to heal them according to the stresses felt by people, children reaching for the womb. To the feminine it isn’t straight or curved, it has nothing to do with either. In war we are all children.

Another definition of intelligence is the ability to make successful responses to difficult situations. The first indictment to this definition should be what it means by “successful.” The second should be what it means by “difficult.” Though it’s obvious that war is extremely difficult for everyone, there are different approaches on how one deals with desperate situations. Some need to take control, separate, and alienate. Others keep specific units together. One exacerbates an already horrible situation (village-to-village). The other seeks to minimize difficulty and pain. One thinks of systems and protocols. The other thinks of people.

An example much closer to home (involving animals): The rancher causes only more anxiety for himself when he separates a cow from its calf or a mare from its foal. Both are stressed and fail to cooperate. When united together a workable detente is formed. This epiphany is finally being realized by ranchers today. They are also learning that working with predator species for the sake of strong ecosystems works to their advantage. Everyone wins.

“Measurement” itself is a problem. John Gibson remarked: “Trying to evaluate the over-all intelligence of the sexes … is a little like trying to measure a ball of mercury with a yardstick.” An old Victorian saying is that the last thing man would “civilize” would be women. – Good thing that it failed, because, in the words of Ashley Montagu, “women, by being prevented from ‘yielding’ to man’s interest in things … have had to pay so much more attention to people, and therefore … are better equipped to solve the problems of mankind than most men. – Civilization is the art of being kind.”

This is a lesson unfortunately lost to many women today who “lose” themselves in the male environment – the professional (Athena) woman who excels in the corporate world, who learns to put money and power above people, family, and earth. It may sound terribly chauvinistic and sexist, but it makes an important point. There’s nothing wrong with high salary careers. The point is the forgetting- sacrificing of one’s instinctive (maternal) connection to the planet. The same point applies to women in the military.

Call it a Samson Complex I have (or a male stereotype), but when I see a woman without hair (cropped, shortened), in three-piece uniforms designed to mimic a man’s suit (in the boardroom or military), I see a woman who’s personal power has been sacrificed. It is still defined by men – by money, status, and Freudian “compensations” for the inadequacies of manhood (guns). Athena was the virgin goddess who excelled wearing the armor of war. The cropped hair, suit, and briefcase is the modern armor of corporate warfare. Montagu again: “Women no more serve the cause of humanity by aping men than Blacks do by aping Whites.”

As a final note to the “Samson” observation, personally speaking and in general, women who wear their hair long simply carry themselves differently. From a “body language” standpoint it simply appears that they’re in touch with something intrinsic and are happier with their lives, with themselves, overall. Those with short hair “look” competitive, hardened, alienated from things they wish they still knew, and, despite being “successful,” are generally unhappy. A never-ending question which will always haunt me is why the hair comes off after a certain age. It’s as if bowing to an old rule which says, “once you get old you’re supposed to look old – so act your age!” And so they do. I’ll never understand it. – Whatever happened to the color purple and going barefoot?

To this I would just add another comment by Beauvoir: “The fact is that the traditional woman is a bamboozled conscious being and a practitioner of bamboozlement; she attempts to disguise her dependence from herself, which is a way of consenting to it.”

Alfred North Whitehead said long ago that education was a guidance towards understanding the “art of life.” This is terribly vague, but it begins to make sense when made specific to embodying the “adventure of existence,” where its guidance is making men and women, not the maker of things, but the maker of “human beings” (hu – god, man – “measure of”).

These five women either knowingly or unknowingly responded to the “adventure of existence” and to a maternalism gravely needed at the eleventh hour. And as all things remain in flux and cyclical, they probably would have never anticipated that the epicenter of progressive change today (in Europe) is Germany itself. The social movements most lasting are those which are the most anti-systemic. They start small, keep their autonomy and became entities with a distinctive intelligence. They understand the dynamics of power and popular struggles. Post-war Germany has consistently been the most prolific in staging mass protests against the institutions of “corporatism” (Mussolini’s word for fascism). In Berlin alone private homes have become meeting centers, the “eyes and ears” against too much centralism in government. A vigil is kept, a kind of democratic self-discipline, on avoiding the colossal mistakes of the past.

And so, as always, a tribute should be given to such people. Tributes are there, like antibodies to oppression, to stave off historical amnesia. It should be no surprise that those most fitting should come from others who lived during their time (Whitehead, Beauvoir, Montagu). And as it happens, Montagu addressed the “maternal,” the primal breast, very eloquently. His words could almost fit in engraved marble over the memories of Wake, Szabo, Hall, Hollowes, and Baissac:

Maternal love is the purest and at the same time the most efficient form of love because it is the most compassionate, because it is the most sympathetic, because it is the most understanding and the least censorious. Maternal love does not dispense justice; it neither condemns nor condones; it gives support while endeavoring to understand, and it never forsakes those who are dependent upon it. Maternal love is much more than just, for it functions as if it were aware that justice without love is not enough. Justice is love digested through rational calculation; love… is justice adapted to the needs of the organism, and the maintenance of the organism then and thereafter in the warm ambience of its support. This, surely, is the kind of love we would wish to see prevail between human beings, rather than the kind of love that limits itself to the narrowest orbit …. ” (from On Being Human – italics mine).

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

1Information taken from thevintagenews.com.

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THE SUBVERSIVE MODE

THE SUBVERSIVE MODE

“If you wish to seek peace of mind and happiness, then believe. If you wish to be a disciple of truth, then investigate.” – Nietzsche

The subversive writer writes in a minor key. He never (rarely) begins or ends at middle C – where nothing is reached for, nothing augmented, bridged, or cross-rhymed. He’s committed to skepticism and resolved to remain unresolved. He’s certain about the uncertainty principle. His arch-nemesis is anyone who has all the information needed to understand everything.

The litmus test for whether you’re in the right key, aka, the subversive mode, is in the response you get from “out there.” As who you are is symbiotically tied to who you are not (to the other), it comes down to raw communication and honesty. “Community” by definition is about protecting certain beliefs and rejecting others – there are insiders and there are outsiders. In that setup begins a search for truth which overrides those commitments, kinships, and allegiances. It intrudes and transgresses.

Aristotle said that truth is the product of unfettered judgment. It also is not the work of any one individual. It has nothing to do with us. It is its own pre-established reality. Much like what Gibran said about “love” – which “gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed. For love is sufficient unto love…. And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.”

This is where ambition and truth collide inside a dark space. We develop and grow and become complex systems. And each singular entity soon becomes its own belief system. Eventually there are different versions of the truth as each serves the needs of itself. Religions and politics rise to justify one truth while opposing all others.

The subversive is so labeled because he indicts the first hint of sophistry. He puts it on trial and reminds us to step back from the complacency and forgetfulness which fuel it. He reminds us of our primal impulses which elicit a distinct set of bodily sensations, and the body is already an uncomfortable subject. That the truth summons a biological (psycho-physiological) response makes it much like a lie-detector test. “The body reveals,” and then intuitively informs us about “levels” of honesty and truth.

The subversive writer excavates and sifts. He dialogues with body language commonly transcribed into verbiage and literature. Thus, his subversiveness becomes stigmatized, condemned by the defenders of division and rationalized “truths.” He confronts established canons of thought and expediency while remaining eternally skeptical. Georg Lukacs said, “art becomes problematic precisely because reality has become non-problematic. The more that is hidden and suppressed, the more simplistic the representation of daily life, the more one-dimensional and caught in the dominant ideology the society is, the more art must reveal…. Art refuses to be easy.”

Another subversive thinker – mother nature. The truth always comes out in animals, plants, and the ambient “feel” of a place. Each living form assumes the stressers, peccadilloes, and neuroses of an environment and its occupants. When the plants die and the animals bite, it says everything about disconnection of body-to-mind and mind-from-nature. Everything suffers equally. Mystics call it a failure of “burning one’s seeds.” Reversely, “Thoughts thought all the way through no longer think anything,” said Alphonso Lingis. And the body responds in kind. Merleau-Ponty made a similar comment with his “embodied cognition”: thoughts illuminate only when they are unclear to themselves. Consciousness is a sensory phenomenon of bringing into alignment body perception and society. When unclear or obstructed, it creates constriction and anxiety. When aligned with the truth, everything is embodied together. There is no crimping between parts, and nothing stands out.

On one level it is true that there is no “one” (monotheistic) truth. There are just “truths.” But let’s not confuse the two meanings. Both are true and untrue. They conflate when seen paradigmatically – not unlike free will and predestination. They end up as one inexplicable truth which has no name for itself. This becomes contentious when exploited and used to delimit one’s own horizons for selfish reasons. Entire religions have gone to war over free will and predestination. The subversive writer overrides this futility. The mind which refuses to step away and see it “from a distance” resides eternally in a state of imbalance. It tries “to fix” what never recovers from itself. He faces an interminable dilemma.

Western (allopathic) medicine is a good example. In the East healing is done by “listening” and rebalancing the body homeopathically. The last resort is to literally cut into the body, because everything is there for a reason. Reversely in the West, it’s the opposite. The “first impulse” in many cases of disease is surgery, to cut it out from the body. It’s taken the last 40 years for surgeons to realize that once an organ is removed, the body never regains a natural state of balance. Something is always working harder to compensate for something else. Drugs become band-aids for symptoms which never to away. – Another example would be removing certain species from ecosystems for short-term needs and interests. Ecosystems remain eternally out of balance from then on, requiring immediate and artificial compensations. Only politicians and the disciples of greed and hatred benefit from such balances.

Things get very complicated at the end of cycles, said Anne Tyng. But we also want them to end, because out of that also comes “a new simplicity,” said Harvard professor Mohsen Mosafavi. A “renaissance” and a new “geometry” translates into new cycles. But they don’t just cover old ground. They ascend upwards on a helix-like trajectory. New symmetries then become more a “state of mind” and less material as they journey on. Therefore, yes, endings get complicated, but only because they touch terra incognita. And the only way to transcend confusion is to allow it to continue, for cycles to resume unfettered.

This “state of mind” is therefore also about the paradox between clarity and ambiguity. Ambiguity becomes the truth, the conundrum of all things which the body constantly communicates to us. Existentialism by definition is the “philosophy of ambiguity.” Everything is entwined, fused and confused, and every effort to thwart it becomes a veil of illusion. Or, to quote de Beauvoir in response to those preferring veils – “the more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces…. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength….” – Tragically, ambiguity (in the West) is made synonymous with weakness, fear, indecision, the “feminine” mode, fear of commitment, evasiveness – and subversive (dark) “obsessions.” Abstruseness and “complication” are the devil’s details meant to trick and deceive.

No doubt, politics is all about trickery and deception and gives ambiguity a bad name. The “body politick” is aptly named for its own ambiguities but for the wrong reason. In other words, to “master” the world, not to embrace a conundrum. All sides are acknowledged equally – or not. The notions of “patriotism” and “nationalism” are frequently confused to exploit that confusion. There’s “self-determination,” then there’s the policy of aggression over weaker nations. There’s “pride in one’s country,” then there’s hegemony and imperialism. There’s “moral responsibility,” then there’s blind arrogance. There’s “loyalty and unity,” then there’s nationalism which is (quoting Orwell) “the worst enemy of peace.” There’s “tolerance and inclusiveness,” then intolerance and exclusion. There’s “gratitude” for one’s virtues and strengths, then a blind eye for one’s deficiencies and condemning the weaknesses of others. There’s the eternal effort to understand one’s own mistakes – versus – defending them as a “virtue.”

This is why artists historically speaking (writers, painters, performing artists) have rarely felt at home in the United States. Since the end of World War I (Hemingway and friends being prime examples), they’ve always seemed to flee to somewhere else. “Self-expression opens up a tremendous wilderness,” said James Baldwin, to such an extent that they must find an atmosphere conducive to their needs. He said “the US has its beauty queens and game shows and football games, but sooner or later a person needs to go somewhere to discover what he thinks.” As far back as 1861 Nathaniel Hawthorne was prescient when saying, “The United States may be fit for many excellent purposes, but they are not fit to live in.”

Seeing things from a distance for most Americans is “unpatriotic” (i.e., anti-nationalist). Short-term memories (historical amnesia) and fast solutions are the American Way. It even suffers from “nostalgia without memory,” which is an abdication of memory. Insofar as the subversive mode sees the world having adopted a “predatory” (capitalist) amnesia about long-term consequences, it sees human intelligence becoming, to quote Ernst Meyer, a “lethal mutation.” Unless by dint of some miraculous shift in our DNA and the will to shake loose of our vainglory and (national) pride, we’re doomed to follow the fate of all the other “higher” species which came before us. The average life expectancy of our ancestral primates is around 100,000 years. And the rule of thumb is that “the higher one’s intelligence goes, the more self-destructive it gets.” We’re on the same trajectory as our hominid forbears – just a “subversive” point of fact.

The subversive is a creature of the night. He hides while seeking the truth. Outwardly and socially he is commonly the most “benign” person around. He cautions himself not to make trouble or cause a scene because he simply has too much going on inside. There’s literally not enough energy to deal with exterior matters. Dr. Oliver Sacks was an example – socially the most mild-mannered, soft-spoken, introverted/withdrawn, and humble man imaginable. But underneath: “[I am] a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” His fire and fury were all housed in his creative imagination. Another such person was Oxford University’s 17th century librarian, Robert Burton – who suffered from melancholy. “I have lived a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life. I never traveled but on map or cart, I have no wife or children to provide for. I have little. I want nothing. All my treasures are in wisdom’s tower.”

Sacks and Burton both understood that our biggest wars and smallest arguments are with ourselves. To understand fascism (said Orwell) means that we must have a streak of fascism within us – again, another “subversive” point of fact. Otherwise there’s no feeling about it at all. From that discovery the goal is to then seek the kind of “symmetry/renaissance/geometry” mentioned above. We must educate ourselves out of it. Until we do we project that fascism outwardly and see it only in others.

Ignorance and laziness breed complacency and self-righteousness. Proust said ignorance breeds “habit” which dull the senses. Artists and children are commissioned to preserve the lost pleasures of innocence. The “Proustian moment” is something simple and delightful, inducing moments of intense remembering. But again the subversive mind reminds us that it’s never that simple, because simplicity itself can be a product of ignorance and laziness.

The subversive pesters “the habit” like a gadfly. He urges us to listen to ourselves, to the body, to the habits which imprison us. Most of us are determined “to fix” those habits like band-aids, willing to keep everything eternally out of balance for short-term results. But everything suffers for it. Hence the advocatus diaboli, the daemon of the night, unhinging the hinged, confusing the already confused. It’s much like the Zen koan – sending the mind into places where it can’t ask any more stupid questions and get into more trouble than it already is. It’s the minor note in the chromatic scale.

Oscar Wilde said it eloquently in Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We all straddle the abyss. [But] if we don’t look down how would we ever know who we are?”

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

THE LAST REAR GUARDSMAN

THE LAST REAR GUARDSMAN

That’s how it seems anyway. I’m the guy protecting the backdoor of today’s technology while sitting at the front door of yesterday’s antiques. Like the front end of a railroad car looking ahead at the car in front, I look into the future as it detaches and pulls away. I’m left inhaling the fumes of retrospection, old eurekas!, as my car dawdles and begins creeping along at its own “slow baud-rate” momentum. Those in the car ahead toss their junk out back into the refuse of hindsight and tall tales of yesterday..

I’m the anachronism du jour, unable to comment on anything technology-based, or current-events related, because my only frame of reference to things are passe. They rest in the railcars so far in the rear we forget they’re still there.

My heroes are all dead, and apparently so are their ideas. Jefferson, Paine, Emerson, Freud, Jung, Orwell, Huxley, Benjamin, Malraux, Steiner, Merleau-Ponty, Sontag, Said, Vidal, Hitchens, and so many more gave voice to an asthetik which is a charnel house of bones. Occasionally the dust from said bones are lifted by currents of air and blown through the alleys of current thinking, but they never stay and are hardly noticed. I drag my finger through that dusty residuum and remind myself of saner, and more intelligent times, while others complain of “allergies.” The metaphor couldn’t be more fitting.

To be sure, participating in a conversation about almost anything today with the younger generation leaves me in my own dust. I’m a cipher, an empty vessel missing whatever stuff it takes to stay conversant and up to snuff. It might as well be Greek or Vulcan. I can only reference anything I say through analogies from the past – longhand (Gutenberg) print, monaural records, hi-fi speakers, tapes that needed rewinding, note-passing in study hall, engines with carburetors, the classics (quadrivium), and old-fashioned Socratic-dialectic-syllogistic common sense.

In the digital age this is mostly all gone. And my personal bias regarding young people is that they know they’re being reduced to mere data inside bandwidths, inside algorithms, inside computer files. They intuit something is wrong but are deprived of the ability to know what it is. They have nothing with which to compare it. They were borne into it, which is not only tragic but frightening. “Frightening” because they are the future; they represent our technological, if not evolutionary, path. But again, this is just an observation coming from a railcar far behind the one in front. What the hell do I know?

I still read old-fashioned papered books, have never owned an I-Phone or any of its predecessors, and haven’t a clue about what people mean when they “route, ping, stream, uplink, add-on, bang, bundle, plug-in, and drag & drop,” even though I may have unknowingly executed a couple of these commands on a laptop. I’m still transfixed by the magic of the cursor, the word processor (cutting & pasting), and how electricity is captured in a light bulb. I remember when a writer’s best friend was a portable (Royal, Corona, Underwood) typewriter and when Susan Sontag refused to be “jump-started by a cursor” (even the most progressive-minded are are prone to petrifaction). I’m also, like a good Marxist, still a believer that (real) progress is subject to the laws of historical necessity.

The very first painting came from memory or a captured subject. The photo came from the painting. In the same way, the first theater was dramatized literature coming from the deployment of illusion and artifice. From theater came the cinema and the immovable camera. From the “frontality” of images and characters on stage came stylized and exaggerated gesturing. From this came the more subtle movements and more natural (lowered) voices afforded by cinematic sound. But it’s here that Sontag made a poignant observation: “Movies are regarded as advancing from theatrical stasis to cinematic fluidity, from theatrical artificiality to cinematic naturalness and immediateness. But this view is far too simple.”

Indeed, way too simple and premature. But even she was unaware, in 1966, of the depths that “simplicity” (unidimensionality) would take us. The rectangular screen replaced the proscenium stage, the illusion of two-dimensional space replaced three-dimensional reality, and the camera replaced “us” as spectator-witness-voyeur-interpreter of fantasy and illusion – which could also (now) be recorded. And yet because of the intimacy (and tricks) of the camera, theater is still regarded as staged artifice while film is committed to “reality” – even while theater still demands live exchanges with audiences and film does not. Theater is still “pretentious and staged” and even old-fashioned, while the synthetic, abstract, and subtle leave “progressive” impressions. The tricks of technology are the synonym for existential honesty.

When you look at it honestly, from a distance, cinema is a regression, a step backwards. Moving into two-dimensional worlds takes us back to the painting again. And though the manipulation of space & time is much cruder and improvised on stage (even with modern computers), it’s still achieved in real time. It’s vulnerable to unknowns and mishaps. Film is “mediated,” theater is not. And yet, again, the opposite is assumed just because of film’s “larger than life” edits and special effects, again, even when theater is seen with our own eyes and film is what the camera sees.

Sontag made another interesting observation: Cinema is loaded with (“cursed by”) memory. Theater is not. Films resurrect and compare the present with the past. “Films age,” whereas theater is “always new.” When watching a film we instantly use the “emotion of nostalgia” and compare it to earlier films of the same genre with similar themes. Theater’s success or failure is not burdened with comparisons to other plays as a rule. A play is its own production, its own live experience.

Cinema is not theater, and it’s certainly not a step up from theater. Theater is not a more primitive form of cinema any more than a painting is just a picture frozen in time. A painting is a mood, a state of mind, which lasts forever and is constantly revisited anew. Nothing is fixed about it. Whereas film and its methods “get old.” It’s portrayals (captured images, fixed narratives) become dated. — From this, how in the world was photography ever supposed to have liberated painting? How was film ever supposed to have liberated the photo? (Do photos get old? If so, then why do we keep them?) – Do you get the curious sense that everything has been going backwards?

In spite of this, cinema has co-opted theater and taken it over. By popular demand theater has been “updated” with “mixed media” – beginning with electricity and ending with digital backdrops, light shows, and artificial sounds. The effort has been to shore up time, “waste,” and the danger of too much risk and improvisation, the worry being the patron’s worst affliction today – boredom. The idea is to dazzle the mind (and to basically mimic film). The stage is more compact and performances are shorter. But, again, what has been the real result of this? We can draw an analogy to the digitization of today’s music. “Analog Man” (said Joe Walsh) is gone. Replacing him are purely synthesized sounds made by non-human special effects and computers. One can make an entire album, with orchestra, guitars, drums, and vocals without a real human ever even entering a recording studio.

In the end, Sontag said presciently, one “must continue to question” art. What looks like progress is an “assault on the audience… by reinforcing rather than challenging the deadness of the audience.” This is what I observe about technology in general as I ride along in the caboose of this very long train – as I see the remains of yesterday’s technology tossed overboard from the cars in front. The landscape is strewn with the instruments designed to deaden and “assault” the senses (not enhance them). “Digital Man” is not more alive or aware of anything. “Analog Man” (i.e., Gutenberg Man) has been replaced and discarded. He is the myrmidon of random “intelligences” programmed to suit artificial gains for artificial (temporary, arbitrary) agendas put forth by virtual “bundles” sometimes comprised of humans, sometimes not. All in the name of efficiency and “speed” – an abstract concept which has no beginning, no end, and no moral compass. It simply spins out into the universe like a wheel from its axis.

The caboose is where all this is observed only because it is allowed the old-fashioned “space & time” of outmoded ways. It’s the car of irrelevance, antiquity, the lost and forgotten; hence the harmless. From here I can watch old films on the walls and gaze at old pictures and “remember to remember” their historical relevance. The cars up front, those pulling us along where they want us to go, may be stronger and louder. But they’re always “out of time” it seems and lost in their haste to get “somewhere.” From my viewpoint, I can look up ahead and see it all burning out on a track leading nowhere. But that’s just me – a rear guardsman long forgotten by the chief engineer (a computer).

(c) 2018 Richard Hiatt

BEAM ME DOWN

BEAM ME DOWN

There are two scenes I remember vividly from the original Star Trek episodes. One was when Captain Kirk instructed a guest to use the computer screen for “anything you want to know.” The other was when Kirk’s job was threatened by “M5” – a computer that was theoretically capable of running the Enterprise all by itself. After some successful tests Star Fleet Command refers to Kirk as “Captain Dunsel” – a pronoun referring to a machine part (or person) which “no longer serves a useful purpose.” Bewildered, he walks off saying, “I’ve never felt like this before.”

Well, touche! I’ve seen those episodes, like everyone else, a thousand times. And yet every time he says to use the computer “for anything you need to know,” I cringe. Something is still unsettling to me about that foretelling statement. It tells me to give up a vital piece of myself, my autonomy, and surrender to a universe that has no substance, nothing to touch or feel. Everything is digital, texted, and algorithmed. There is nothing else. The rule is to float in space aimlessly, with no cynosure, no vector, no flight plan, no meaning. We are all henceforth Capt. Dunsels genuflecting to “M5.”

When I hear products (it matters not what they are) promising to work faster and faster, again I cringe. Everything is now designed to out-sprint everything else regardless if it spins us off into the dark void with nothing to hold onto. The question should by now begin to loom: Do we really want to go any faster than we are? Are we not already moving so fast that we have no time to even think, to stop and regain just a little balance? I suppose, underneath it all, that’s the whole point – not to be balanced, to escape under one’s own momentum, to run so fast from oneself that nothing can catch up. In psychology there’s a phrase for that: “agitated depression.”

“Fast” is the selling point for everything today. God forbid we should ever catch ourselves with a self-conscious thought or a mundane task. We might remember something. I suppose it’s the answer to fast cars, fast women, and fast food in the pre-digital age – that time starting just after the war when postmodernity found itself in a newly synthetic, convenience-based, Tupperware culture, and Americans were about to feast on a new and global high imperial noon. Gadgets didn’t sell unless they wore labels like Impala, Silver Streak, AirStream, Charger, Road Runner, Cobra Jet, Cascade, Power Glide, “push button control,” and all equipped with “instant” features.

Today, it’s ironic that there’s finally some kickback to this, with product labels like Nostalgia, the Classic, Yesteryear, Old England, and Vintage – suggesting that perhaps we are moving just a little too fast for our own good.

But you’d never know it in the digital age, because there’s no one left to even ponder the question. There’s no mind for it because there’s time for reflection. There’s no time because there’s no linearity of space/time, nothing sequential. There’s no objectivity because there’s no sense of separateness, or relative-comparative awareness. Everything is all-consuming and “now.”

Software, the stuff of binary language (zeros & ones, bits and bytes) enable limitless interactions and group-associations. This has disabled normal connections, specifically the way we think by what McLuhan called the “Gutenberg mind.” Our mental processes flatten with artificial intelligence by reconfiguring our brain patterns. This is the result of using computers and I-Phones much too much. Algorithms favor ubiquity and flatness according to zeros and ones which in turn create unfamiliar artificial mental environments – fittingly called “codes” – which put everything on a one-dimensional plane.

This is why doing “art” on a screen simply doesn’t works. Art requires dimension, and there is no feeling or empathy without dimension. In this environment there’s no room for human empathy. Art so contrived doesn’t reach out to human beings with a “Gutenberg” type sensibility. Everything is flat, even when the screen “appears” to show something in 3D – it isn’t. Go ahead and Google the meaning of “art” itself and what downloads is everything from “artery” to a German Punk band named “R Twerk.” Add to this, the feature that literally everything is now just a keystroke away. Being virtual, planar, and abstract isn’t enough. Now it’s “instantly” grasped. Again, no feeling, no dimension, no sense of time or distance.

From the screen an entire universe is epigenetically layered – virtual worlds of compressed data into bandwidths and codes. The absence of feeling (numbness) creates what experts call “haptic dissonance.” The cumulative effect is a loss of faith in our original powers of imagination. We imagine less, desire less, work less, think less. And what once provided a moral compass and intellectual guidance is forfeited for a new politics of identity, new “unreal” intimacies of class, relationships, sex, race, and so forth. – The fact is, we need our realities to be ordinally arranged, physically held and recognized to find meaning in them. This has been lost.

This is why reading anything on a screen simply doesn’t feel right. Reading (and writing) feel more like following redundant commands where nothing is connected except random functions – digital results in digital print. And now that everyone can be heard saying literally “anything about anything” within seconds (just post a blog), the result is the feeling that no one is hearing anyone anymore about anything. “Everyone’s talking, no one’s listening.” There’s just white noise, a low universal drone of dissonant sound – called “earth” (to anyone listening in from “out there”).

As a writer I feel like another Capt. Dunsel, or more specifically what Will Self recognized as a “skeuomorph.” This is “a term for a once functional object that has, because of technological change, been repurposed to be purely decorative.” He says, “I put it to you that the contemporary novel is now a skeuomorph form.” But to this I would add the writer himself, someone who no longer knows who he is. Quoting Self: “there’s not an algorithm that parses text for instances of the personal pronoun.” We communicate with hashtags, acronyms, secret codes, and Tweeted character limits, where speed again seems to be the top requirement – keeping pace with whatever media carries the message – computer, TV, I-Phone, radio, ebook, electronic newsprint.

Marshall McLuhan rather boldly anticipated, even welcomed, this transition in our mental evolution. “The medium [was] the message” in that “the mode of knowledge was more important than the knowledge itself” (Self). He premised his argument on the theory that we all began with a Gutenberg mindset – thinking, reading, communicating sequentially. He assumed that we started with a strong sense of autonomy and individuality. However, this is still contentious. He’s right that the “Gutenberg mind” is gasping for its last breath of air, but it didn’t necessarily begin with the kind of mental clarity and autonomy which he imagined. In fact, it may not have been rational at all .

Yes, as McLuhan said, we are moving into the last phases of creative disorder. The lines are blurred. Nothing is in sequence, hinges are loosening. Cartesian order is moving into a new and difficult syntax of experience. Even music faces calculated hazards by “clusters of possible simultaneous tonal occurrences.” He even thought this was a step forward in human evolution. “New configurations” of perception would liberate man’s powers of integration from what he considered “closed” and “passive” systems of Gutenberg cognition.

But, in the words of George Steiner, he may have “put the cart before the horse.” “Can we assert … that the era of oral … communication possessed the gift of integrated perception? …. [T]here is no … solid evidence for it. In many respects the [early] medieval community was as fragmented.” In other words, the Gutenberg mind may have simply been an intellectual interlude between traditions (one oral, one post-oral) which were/are similarly fragmented, irrational, and disjointed. And as Susan Sontag said in 1967, “The human mind possesses now … a perspective on its own achievements that fatally undermines their value and their claim to truth.”

It seems to me that this is the wrong question and the wrong issue anyway. The question is, what do we lose when losing the Gutenberg mindset which has been ours for such a long time? We lose ourselves. We’ve already lost ourselves, or so it would seem. Capt. Dunsel is a useless redundancy because he’s henceforth just a datum among bits and bytes, heard by human ears but belonging to those also lost in algorithms and bandwidths (and plagued by agitated depression). The human factor floats in a maze of digital meanderings which reduce him to a screen “blip” that once was, and no longer is. There isn’t time to even reflect on this. It (or he) has already vanished, and it might as well have happened a thousand years ago.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

THE LANGUAGE OF CLICHE

THE LANGUAGE OF CLICHE

In 1965 George Steiner wrote, “The very opposite of freedom is cliché, and nothing is less free, more inert with convention and hollow brutality, than a row of four-letter words.”

I give you the entire lexicon of modern American discourse – informal (and nearing the formal). The grammar used in everyday conversation is the language of an army barracks or a football stadium – whichever comes first according to weekdays and weekends. They become one and the same ever since a bivouacked-triaged America began embracing the rules of strict surveillance, reduced rights, nervous patriotism, xenophobia, intolerance for dissent and multi-diversity, and regimental “toughness” in the manner of Rambo and Chuck Norris – where everyone is a “weekend hero-warrior.”

Khaki has become the new chic in myriad patterns at Walmart, the flag more sacred than what it’s supposed to symbolize, guns a national obsession, law enforcement fully militarized (tanks, SWAT teams, military-grade surveillance systems, deployment methods to contain crowds), and one never EVER criticizes Jesus or American exceptionalism. A Marine typically owns two books: the Bible and the Marine Corps Field Guide.

It’s tragic that, in the spirit of unwavering obeisance to instant results, any interest in history has been devalued. History neither alters tactical advantages, renders dramatic gains, or proves lucrative in wholesale profiteering. So, who needs it? Hence, the decision to remove it from school curricula. More room needed to be made for the sciences, business, and math – careers designed not just to invent more sophisticated weaponry against foreign infidels but guaranteed to furnish high salaries and huge budgets.

It is a tragedy because America could stand to learn a little history now and then. For instance, about pre-World War I Germany and the language used then to reduce IQs, free thought, and indoctrinate its people into a militaristic predatory nationalism. After centuries of poetic geniuses like Luther, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, and so many others, it was a kind of death to the German language. What took over was a kind of imperial (il-)literacy demanding its own pomp, mystification, and romantic grandeur. Leading up to the war universities, publishers, churches, and secondary schools were allegiant to clichés, slogans, catchphrases, and soundbites which supported a saccharine (nativist) pathos. It was tribalism recrudesced from medieval mythology.

The real lessons of history are always in aftermaths – what happens after events take place – consequences forced upon a people because of decisions made. When German soldiers went to war, they took their language with them. At first it led them confidently into battle. Then it merely followed them in lowered decibels. Finally, it left their lips altogether leaving mostly verbal paralysis. Returning four years later, beaten and demoralized, they were pensive and silent – no words to describe what they had witnessed. Interestingly, however, at home that same linguistic fervor survived. Safely buffered from the front, distant from the forces which tested it, the rhetoric of war stayed strong. In fact it thrived. It managed to flip the truth of defeat into a language of victimization done to the righteous and chosen. – In history people may forget and change, but language does not. It remembers.

Germany, according to its newspapers lost because of unfair and devious politics, treachery, and mendacity among foreign leaders. It was “stabbed in the back” and “robbed” of human and economic rights at Versailles. The language became a political weapon to be taken up by a young Corporal Hitler in the 1920s. He plunged into the undercurrents of barbed expressions teasing out the lingo which spoke to an angry generation of (mostly) young men. Metaphors and similes walked the zones of darkness, into reservoirs of venom, and with rasping cadences. He gave hell “a native tongue.”

In the years to follow, though the nation suffered economically, the drumbeat of revenge fueled itself through a reserve of militaristic terms and ideologically driven phrases. This grew undisturbed until his Reich had taken it to the point of pontificating words no one would have ever imagined being uttered by rational human beings.

The language championed innumerable falsehoods and fantastic myths. Where there was abysmal failure and criminality – nothing but lightness and victory. Wherever truth slipped by its own propaganda – betrayals of the virtuous and brave. There were the guardians of language, but also many betrayers of the language. The line between the two formed the blurred stigma of “collaboration” which bled into World War II twenty years later. As Herbert Lottman said in his book The Left Bank (1982), “everybody collaborated…. If everyone was compromised, how could anyone be punished…. [M]ost active collaborationists were never punished.”

Still, there were those who knew exactly what was happening to the German language from the 1930s on, and for many (especially writers) the only way to publicly announce it was to exile oneself. Among those were Walter Benjamin, Hermann Hesse, Bertolt Brecht, and Thomas Mann. Mann said, “The mystery of language is a great one; the responsibility for a language and for its purity is of a symbolic and spiritual kind; this responsibility does not have merely an aesthetic sense. The responsibility for language is, in essence, human responsibility.”

Again, language remembers. Whenever it is injected with falsehood, it becomes its responsibility to cleanse itself. When it attempts to do so, historically speaking, it’s usually in post-war periods when it’s been sufficiently censored and stripped of meaning. It then suffers a period of dull and insipid literature. Nothing much makes sense, and there’s nothing to fill huge aesthetic voids. After six years of high (mythological) drama, when Aryan gods were saving the German culture from evil Hydras, medusas, and sea monsters, it no doubt had huge voids to fill. But the language recovered anyway as surviving writers of conscience, those “betrayers” of the old barracks-lingo, once again unearthed the words and references to a higher intelligence and civility.

Simone de Beauvoir said, “Journalists, writers, budding filmmakers discussed, planned, decided with passion, as if their future depended on themselves alone.” Resistance veterans came out of the woodwork along with a vigorous purging of intellectuals who lived in the Parisian underground. Underground publications surfaces as well. The first issue of one magazine printed a “Manifesto of French Writers” which stated: “Let us remain united in victory and freedom as we were in sorrow and oppression. Let us remain united for the resurrection of France and the fair punishment of the imposters and traitors.”

In the end the language of indoctrination ended. For those with any memory at all, it’s clear that what prevails today is simple prologue to the past. Today language needs serious cleansing again. The catchphrases and cliches of military camps and stadium locker rooms (more importantly the thinking they evoke) need to remain contained inside those camps and stadiums while hopefully growing a patina of self-reflection.

Such a recovery is a uniquely American challenge. The language is dull, redundant, and tautologized. It follows tightly woven circles of self-referencing and validation: “We’re great because we’re Americans. America is great because we say so.” “God created the world. God created God.” “America means freedom of dissent. If you disagree you’re un-American.” “Free will exists…. we have no choice.” – This is the language/mentality of football and military camps. It’s the language of everyday social interaction on our streets and most tragically (dangerously) the language which decides how we vote. Hence, the kind of hook which brings poseurs and demagogues (like Hitler, like Trump) to power. What Hitler and Trump have in common is an instinct for ferreting out the words of irrationality, high emotion, anger, and brutal (base) instincts.

If language remembers, then indeed it must remember itself now. The good news is that the words and phrases of not so long ago, before the cult of militarization took over, have not been entirely lost. And they are retrievable. As with most things unpopular or banned, they’ve simply gone underground. They’re dormant while the storms of hatred and exclusion blow furiously topside. The storms will inevitably wind down. They always do. And at that moment literacy will once again, hopefully, take seed, germinate, and come to the surface. All things are cyclical. But they also follow an upward arc, like a double helix (we return to places, but not really). We can only hope that language will redeem us from a trajectory of destruction and global annihilation.

In 1941 the average vocabulary of the high school graduate was 10,000 words. Today, thanks to the language of TV, mass-media, and politics, it’s 5,000 words. Literacy and the general ability to speak with any clarity has gone south. Back then one could back into sentences with participial phrases. Today it’s a “Dick & Jane” English – “subject, verb, predicate” separated by verbal stutters and “homeboy” gangland one-liners. As Orwell said, we’ve lost the devices of irony, to say nothing about the powers of abstraction and reasoning.

The good news, again, is that those powers have not gone extinct. We need only give them a chance to reclaim the (social, intellectual, political) landscape. Even in “redneck” rural America, where literacy seems to have never existed, there is an arc upwards proving that “one never puts his foot in the same river twice.” They only need to stop and realize that, despite their holding fast to tradition, everything changes.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

IN DELICTO AT THE RITZ

IN DELICTO AT THE RITZ

All that separates us from one another are the “lower,” more superficial, statuses: wealth, race, geography, nationality, religion, gender, political and sexual orientation, etc. When we wipe away all the facades of difference, all we have left is our DNA, what we hold in common. We seem so bent on distinctions and exclusions that we fear what might happen without them – the erasure of meaning and purpose. We would have no boulders to push up mountains and no one to blame when we fail.

The Ritz is just a metaphor for one (or two, or three) of those statuses – wealth, politics, and sometimes race. It also stands for anywhere we find ourselves “getting caught.”

“Getting caught” is a loaded phrase, indeed. It gives us away, so to speak. It reminds us of everything we have in common behind closed doors, behind the facades of otherness, superiority, and worst of all “being above” the lurid, scatological, nocturnally shameful and embarrassing. In other words, all things which instantly invalidate that hard-earned veneer of human virtue, the epicene-eunich who never engages in anything neanderthal-like, savage and prurient. We don’t “touch” ourselves or even visit restrooms for the normal reasons because (in polite society) we don’t have genitals.

The denial of who and what we are is so thick that it does nothing less than recrudesce Freud’s theory of “compensation” and Jung’s enantiodromia – what Alan Watts famously called the “backwards law” or the “law of reversed effort.” If you don’t like pink elephants, do not try not to think about them. This, one could say, is the baseline problem for most in our culture – the seemingly deliberate effort to misapprehend “absolutist-extremist” energies. The very idea and meaning of moderation has been censored from the American lexicon and even demonized.

With this in mind, “getting caught” is a symptom of extremism and the result of denial in its most convoluted forms. It not only shows that we have things to hide, it attempts to hide/deny the human tragedy itself. We suppress, repress, and oppress while becoming the worst critics of any gaffe or faux pas exposing an inappropriate urge. It/We are safely disengaged, oblivious, chaste, and simple. The distance between visceral sensation and delayed reaction (discretion) buffers us from the disquieting facts about us.

What is “The Ritz” to the average patron in light of the “house rules?” It’s a temple built to contain what someone once called a “wilderness of mirrors.” It’s the world’s answer to Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in a purely symbolic continuum of blundering, boorish, misguided, ill-natured, and sometimes malevolent behavior. It’s a gilded abattoir for the privileged. This is why its patrons almost always carry the countenance of someone who has committed a crime, who snarl at critics and perambulate self-righteously, evasively and defiantly in public view. They (and we) know they’re “getting away” with something. They don the glaring signs of guilt in the court of public opinion.

The den of thieves concept is fitting and universal, hence the gold melting into lead, the alloyed chemistry of entitlement, a “zircon in the diadem.” The Ritz is the boudoir of whores, salesmen, and politicians off to work plying their wares for the greater good of self-promotion. The rooms are festooned with mirrors strategically angled for the purpose of evasion, excuses, and skulduggery. The fake persona passes off as the real thing, lying as the official truth, pantomime and rhetoric as honest sharing. The atmosphere is gilded from top to bottom, while the mimetic and vacant assume their role in the panoply of norms.

Just the right lighting, distortion, and iridescence turns the hotel into a carnival-like hippodrome – voodoo masks and curl-toed jester shoes lurching out at newly arriving guests naively seduced by the glitz and stories of pioneering industrialists and barons. Sitting beside them are clowns telling them jokes, juggling, and doing magic tricks while accomplices pick their pockets. And of course, when caught, it was all in jest!

The most obvious sense of “getting caught” is the reference to all things salacious. Rooms show the telltale signs of violation, betrayal, diminution, sadomasochism, onanism, and brutality – those strongest of human instincts still (always) hiding in the reptilian brain. It’s here that we entertain the full spectrum of human desire, where the obsession over an endlessly redundant act is like trying to carry pi to its final decimal. We look for more and more orifices which simply aren’t there, more positions, contraptions, and participants, when finally it all collapses back to the same final outcome, the same predictable (and disappointing) orgasm. Everything’s been tried before, at least ever since Empress Theodora resolved to “satisfy all amorous orifices of the human body to the full and at the same time.”

The Ritz attempts to (quietly) enlist “high pornography” on its marquee, as opposed to mere fucking in rooms rented by the hour. It comes down to language and semantics, the rhetorical device and narrative sophistication used arouse while denying any references to the bowery. It’s all about creative ways of enriching the common stock of temptation. It’s about imagining exactly what the body is capable of experiencing, but with “taste” (clean sheets, complimentary condoms, room sanitizers).

The reach for “high” sex is the sign of a modern sensibility. It’s even an expression of “the classics” if it uses the right phraseology. But deep down it’s also about expressing a “final frontier,” where raw energy engages the real stressors of our time. “Talent” translates to the extent to which we use the diminishing reserves of feeling and lust. The power to feel has withered, and with that (said Orwell, Benjamin, Arendt, and others) comes the neutering of life itself. This is also part of the gild in a gilded age, the fast and furious flashcards of appearance.

What is constantly missed in all this, again, is that there are no “new” freedoms, no great releases that have not already been excavated, no new escapes from the endless integument of planned deceptions. No respect is given to the patron, the reader, or the participant, and they know it. But they don’t expect any either. There is just “getting off” and with that confirmation of what we are underneath the scrim of civility, taste and discretion.

These are our choices in the presence of electronic media and communication which now expose our every thought and action – cameras, viruses, and bugs everywhere. Extremist measures sponsor more extremist measures leading to nothing more than the kinds of entropy and doom prophesied by Oswald Spengler and others. In the end there’s just more “low” porn, addiction, pressure, and denial. Any sense of moderation has been scuttled long ago. We’re back at the bowery again.

The most interesting product of extremism is monotony (just as George Steiner said “the very opposite of freedom is cliche”), the compulsive habit of “repeating the same behavior to achieve a different result.” The only thing capable of stopping this is “perspective” (a gift of moderation), hence it also having left us. And minus both (moderation and perspective) comes the need for stronger and more bizarre stimulants just to achieve the same end – delighting both the porn industry and drug companies.

Which is the greater fool? Innocence or predation? The word comes from the Latin follis, meaning “bag of wind,” a bellows, or that which contains breath or air. The extent of how tangled our webs are becomes clear in Lear – where the jester is the most trusted source of insight and advice and is thus given free reign to say and do what he wants. He wields the power of the king himself. He symbolizes the will towards total subjugation, mendacity, and crookedness. The best at the art of deception is rewarded, praised, and elevated to the highest positions in government and business. They’re the heroes of our culture, memorialized in bronze and marbled busts. The message is, “It’s the way we are, so accept it.” This admission turns the worst in us into a hollow virtue.

Those who witness “the best in human behavior” at The Ritz – the busboys, chauffeurs, dishwashers, elevator operators, maids and butlers – have the advantage. They work side-by-side with the machinations and charades of cigar-smoking thieves while reserving the right of discretion on how deeply to actually give themselves to it. Unrewarded, ignored, abused and underpaid, they don’t really play the game. They work the job but maintain “perspective.” They know what they know, see what they see, while carefully keeping silent, out of the way, measuring their actions, and giving a jaundiced wink to each other while passing in the hallways. They are in the Ritz, but definitely not of the Ritz. For them wealth is found in other forms and by other means. The gilded and bedecked remind them of this everyday.

Unbeknownst to the privileged, those servants do not envy them. Instead they murmur “there but for the grace ….” No jester sits beside them, no gimmick attempts to separate them from their meager wages. They’ve seen the games. They are also keenly aware of living in moderation. Moderation is a daily tagline.

Ironically, where the jester was Lear’s closest confidant, the maid and chauffeur are the rich man’s closest and most trusted confidants. The king confides in the servant about literally everything because there is no one in his own circle who does not betray at the earliest convenience. No one among the rich can be trusted. It’s one of the protocols of house membership – thieves living among thieves. But the lowest subordinate in this hierarchy threatens no one, the one who feeds and clothes the king. Either by design or accident he becomes a soundboard for myriad lectures and soliloquies; he witnesses the highest and lowest moments in his employer’s life. He’s the only person around guaranteed not to steal his thunder, his persona, or his money. The two are on a first-name basis for years and share the most personal, if not intimate, secrets. Implicit trust and respect are reciprocated – out of desperation from the king, out of sympathy from the butler.

It is the king’s one and only sanctum – to watch and admire the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – the seamstress, mechanic, and food preparer – all seemingly working with a subtle and silent air of contentment. It’s watching Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim humbly sharing what little they have, in love and simple gratitude. It’s watching simple things being made into “art,” learned skills handed down from generation to generation, along with stories and myths. The jealousy thought to be coming from the servant comes instead from the king himself. He reads the The Prince and the Pauper and dreams “if only for a day.”

The Ritz thus stands for a myriad of things which constitute the human condition. The principle it really strives for, despite its history, is what might be imagined to exist on some imaginary floor – a floor elevators never find. On that floor is the final coming together of our human frailties and strengths. It’s where nothing is hidden. No one “gets caught” doing anything, or, if they do there’s no consequence because we all do it. Hence it’s not worth concealing. Extremist behavior is left to the lower floors, along with obsession. The lobby gathers the masses, the upper floors separates them according to statuses, but the imaginary floor (above the penthouse) tells us that real excitement and liberation comes from all of us embracing our limitations.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

LIFE AS A SHORT STORY

LIFE AS A SHORT STORY

Or is the “short story as life” a more realistic phrase? The story catches up with it. All it needs is a protagonist, a theme, a plot, an ending, and it breathes life. The notion of it “coming to” life congers the image of a lost child coming to the warm fires of recognition. The sharp and short contours of brevity are those of life itself – here and gone before one knows it. The epilogue almost reads as an incredulity: “Was I here at all?”

The story line begins with mental and sensory units piecing together patches of meaning – from phonemes.to intonations and holophrastic phrasing worked by conditioning and biology. Patterns begin to gather, without consistency or definition, but patterns nonetheless. Words attempt to translate: “This is the time of our lives.” “I’ll take your word.” “Then again.” “Does a front porch swing and a diamond ring?” Meanings emerge from what became grammatical rules and conventions, between the literal and figurative, noun and verb. Time and space assume more complex dimensions, but first there are the problems of being and having, real and simulated, concrete and abstract (not to mention lode and load, plane and plain, prey and pray, bazaar and bizarre) – the very problems facing a computer receiving commands. – In the end we face an irony: returning to a computer’s ignorance. The story’s intro and epilogue transpose.

It took the patches of meaning from others to inform my own. They seemed to know more than I did. Eventually small patterns found larger ones which found yet larger ones, and a narrative began. Or should I say small themes that had not yet found larger narratives? Soon the narratives acquired a voice. They took on their own bouyancy.

Add to that an (albeit rough and clumsy) rhythm and continuity. There were vignettes building up a kind of mental terrain. I didn’t know if they conveyed anything real or not, just that they were mine. These were not events per se but intuitions of meaning. A path began to appear alongside many obstructions. Wrong turns and falls became the basic training for a much longer road marked with indicateurs – signposts and alarums. Bumps and bruises forced me into certain paces and cadences. They became a kind of keynote signature, a thumbprint of myself. I began leaving footprints while looking over my shoulder for missed signs of incomprehension

Memory suddenly took on a brand new significance – both voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary memory allows us to zero in on things along a grid of recollection. But it’s the involuntary kind, said Bergson, that really counts. It’s the real gateway to the past. “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

By now I had a small backlog of memories, though not enough to construct a plot or narrative. The irony here was that I had not yet learned that even plots make no sense without an outline forced upon it. Alone, they have no purpose. Ambiguity is part of our DNA. Nothing makes sense and, arguably, isn’t supposed to. But the narratives we bring set out anyway to draw models of consistency, even if all they amount to are soliloques to ourselves. We build elaborate patterns, and then more patterns on top of them, like layers of an onion. The conspiracy of meaning we quietly agree to is ignoring the onion’s core – where there is “nothing.” One is careful not to peel off too many layers from the specters of meaning. It’s why we invent religion.

Soon I was old enough for this story to elaborate on itself and expand into colorful subplots and casts of characters. Adolescence is a period of restive confusion and unruly impulses, finding the complexities of love and regret for the first time, all covered up by thin layers of composure. It’s mostly about covering up, denial, and making impressions. A certain continuity builds along with character development showing (for the first time) the scrim of credulity. Still mostly random and self-defeating, brief moments of show new patterns worth remembering and repeating. My landscape was also beginning to overlap with the landscapes of others where common ground appeared. For the first time I began experiencing myself as a social being, for better or worse.

This was the groundwork for the beginning of what’s called “perspective” – the onset of a new phase. We take a half-step back and our relationship with the past changes. Nothing is fixed or arranged, and cause & effect falls into a new alignment – nothing linear. But certain new memories suddenly avail themselves to us.

We go through life believing that everything is rushing towards something, even when starting with nothing and ending with nothing. Friendships and dating are all about fulfilling “something” – something more than nothing. Merging with the minds of others could do no less than tempt the notion of getting somewhere together. We share memories which are irrational and even counterintuitive, and yet we use them to excavate associations of meaning. Late adolescence is the launching point of countless odysseys filled with desire and passion, heroically denying all rumors of disillusionment. We groom an histoire with multiple perspectives ending in romanced (and tragic) denouements.

Early adulthood is a phase of adding a subtitle “east of the colon.” Things take a turn towards the existential, and our fictions already amassed begin to be an inquiry into what is to be human. Suddenly one’s private landscapes are no longer self-reliant. One thirsts to walk in the steps of others if only to learn more about himself. It’s about confirmations, suspicions, regrets, hopes and fears about the human condition. There’s a conspiracy ongoing between inner and outer worlds, “reality” and thought. This whole phase becomes one of radical immersions. A sense of conscience surfaces out of nowhere, and the artist feels duty-bound to justify himself. We document and try to explain our human behaviors even if they’re based on lies – because by now we have no choice but to continue on. We’re in too thick to turn around and reverse course.

A second piece of this immersion involves the cast of characters already before us and their own submissions as plotlines. It’s watching widely disparate voices plunge into their own adventures, some faintly familiar, feeding a mutual sense that we’re caught in a common current – while, again, faintly signaling to one another (intuitively) that we’re going nowhere. Heroes and villains rise out of ashes rendered from ancient narratives introducing new narratives to old themes – continuity, irony, complex plots and subplots. They’ve been there since the dawn of time, like archetypes carved from the basement of history.

Another piece to this existential phase is the discovery that we’re not even the main characters in our own story, even when it’s our story. As protagonists we actually only enjoy brief cameos as our plots thicken. The narrator is always someone else, if not a persona then an alter ego crashing the scene like an understudy. “I” am on the periphery, in the wings, while listening to a story being told about me – a cosmic curveball, just one repercussion of again thinking we have a plan with a certain direction. One must stay perceptive enough to remember who’s story it is. Memories bring us back, but unchecked fantasies take us away. Standing in the wings we find ourselves jealous of the past and dreading the future as “actors” play out the events of our lives. This is how we begin to discover our sense of belonging, our psycho-social natures, by virtue of how we retrieve memories and piece them together. Psyches meld, as do associations and identities. The seeds of our “invincible” adolescence germinate into tentacled vines.

Midlife is mostly about realizing how little of what we know is true. It’s about disconnection. We are nameless narrators collating scraps of what we see and hear. We need patterns, so we search for what we need people to say to us and what we need to say to them. We know enough about the past that we begin to really fear the future. It’s about new connections and disconnections. Meanwhile we ponder another fact: How is it that we all got older? We freeze-frame our moments every step of the way, chapter-to-chapter, but then realize that scenes and events elapsed years ago. We try to fit our introductions and prologues inside our final chapters. We have no conclusions, no prepared epilogues.

Eventually everything shifts to a humbling meditation on how everything breaks down. The mental tools we thought sustained us simply no longer work. Language no longer works either. We thought we were intelligent, progressive, and evolved. But we begin to accept that the troglodyte within never left us, and our strongest instincts are still all about the pressing demands of self-preservation at all costs. Something deep inside calls out the harlequinade which is life as we’ve made it and forces the unmasking of souls.

Cut to the final act (w/ new backdrop): The short story then gets even shorter, abridged, collated, and fast-forwarded, by what some say is the penultimate evasion – the digital universe – introducing an entirely new (and infantile) way of being. We come full-circle. It forces its own mental associations leading us into different corridors of meaning, mostly confused and violent, as if also again running from something we want to get back to. It amplifies the quintessential “push-pull” of the schizophrenic mind. The short story is no longer oral or handwritten in normal sequences and chronologies. It’s cut & pasted, fact-checked, and spread out into cosmic ethers like atoms in a void of electrical impulses. It leaves and returns in whole chunks of byte and bundles. We’re back again to a stage of infancy where verbs, nouns, and phonemes surface. We’re “cooing” and “babbling.”

Still, we assume that we’re moving progressively forward, along a linear arc, since the prefix “cyber” comes from the Greek, “to steer or govern.” We must be going somewhere. We dismiss the fact that it also means “control” which again implicates a specific “psychology” of cyberspace. Communication becomes a series of cryptic flashcards leading to digital nonsense. The short story, plot and characters, both get reduced to “ones and zeroes.” The short story is now an algorithm built by hackers in Silicone Valley and Moscow – the new fiction writers.

The double whammy of never returning to a period of sanity is the primary theme of the new fiction. We face a new dilemma: If any of us ever find his/her way back to a clear thought or a hard fact, the actors on our stage aren’t prepared to accept them. They don’t even understand them. Thoughts and facts cannot be voiced without first being formatted down to a compatible binary code – a DNA of compressed data. We return once again to the memory of children lost in the wilderness seeking the light of recognition. Meanwhile, new actors and scripts continue to show up (on our stage) never before seen and speaking incomprehensible lallations (cooing and babbling).

It’s in the late hour, and finally we ask ourselves the baseline questions: “Has what happened really happened?” “Are we doing any good here?” “Have I made any difference to anything?” And if so, “Did it really matter?” We congratulate and praise ourselves and say that we’ve done well, but everything we touch (as a species) – in all honesty – we seem to fuck up. We plant eucalyptus trees thinking we’re helping the land, only to discover that they increase drought, flooding, and fires. We dig culverts and rearrange nature for the good of the species (but not the planet). We leave the stage as ignorant as when we entered it. We leave the land uninhabitable. This is our legacy (so far), what we’re finding in that search of what it means to be human.

The short story continues on. It morphs and expands into a novella as we discover more secret passageways into ourselves. It writes itself as we travel down new and uncharted ideas. Life imitates the story while it doesn’t at the same time. Because, remember: while life is the story, the story is also whatever life is recounted by the imagination.

(c) 2018 Richard Hiatt