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Non-podcasts

Washington Irving

WashingtonIrvingLess known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.

This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.

Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim is a movie that once again brings monsters and religion together in the cinema. Since I’m generally late seeing movies, I won’t worry too much about spoilers here, but in case you’re even later than me here’s the gist of it: giant monsters from outer space (properly an interplanetary portal) are emerging from the Pacific Ocean to take over the earth. These radioactive, dinosaur-like aliens are called Kaiju. Although they can be taken down with conventional weapons, the most effective fighting tool is the Jaeger, a colossal robot piloted by two humans acting as the two hemispheres of the brain. These humans must “drift”—share their brains—in order to control these massive machines in unison. Lots of action and destruction, of course, ensue. We later find out that dinosaurs were an earlier invasion of these same aliens, but that our environmental degradation has made the atmosphere much better for them, and this time they’re back for good.

The resistance is led by a mysterious marshal named Stacker Pentecost. Pentecost, of course, is the festival celebrating either the giving of the Torah (Jewish) or the giving of the Holy Spirit (Christian). In either case, it is a holiday celebrating God’s plan for humanity. As Pentecost leads his beleaguered and shrinking army of jaegers against the Kaiju, scientists Geiszler and Gottlieb disagree about how to conquer the beasts. Gottlieb swears, “Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God,” while advocating the predictive elements based on the statistics of the attacks. Science and religion have come to an uneasy truce here. As Geiszler seeks a Kaiju brain to drift, he observes some of the masses in Tokyo praying to the fallen beasts. A blackmarket dealer in Kaiju remains explains that they believe the Kaiju have been sent by God. Pentecost unwittingly concurs when he declares it is time to end the apocalypse.

Pacific Rim, like most Guillermo del Toro films, is a complex movie. There is also more than a sprinkling of H. P. Lovecraft here. The worship of the Kaiju keyed me in to the fact that these were the old gods, come to earth, under the sea, from space. As the first category 5 Kaiju swims past the camera, I couldn’t help but think of Cthulhu. Although Kaiju is Japanese for “monster,” it even sounds like his sacred name. We fear that which is larger, stronger, and unknown to us. When that fear becomes reverence we are on the brink of worship, and our monsters have become our deities.

States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

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The Friar’s Tale

Being a fan of Gothic fiction, I recently read an anonymous story from 1792 entitled, “The Friar’s Tale.” Those who linger among Gothic conventions know that the monastery is a common trope in the genre, often with debased clerics who use their authority to make their charges miserable. (Hmm. I wonder why I keep coming back to this kind of fiction?) Literary scholars tend to point to the late eighteenth century as the origin point of Gothic sensibilities which coincide with the Romantic movement. This then, is an early example of what people feared as industrialism and modernity encroached on a world once natural and full of mystery. The tale contains nothing to frighten a modern reader, but it does offer compelling commentary on the one organization that would seem most to benefit from retaining a pre-scientific worldview—the church.

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The story involves lovers separated by a cad who is after the lass’s money and who connives with the mother superior of a convent to lock the girl away from both her money and her lover. She comes to the realization that religion has ruined her prospects. The friar narrating the tale refers to religion as “that constant comfort of the good, and powerful weapon of the wicked.” Of course we had already experienced Reformation vitriol by this point in history, and rage against the use of religion as a means for personal gain had been thrown out for any who would care to utilize it. Clearly the author of “The Friar’s Tale” found it essential to the plot.

The truly interesting aspect of all this is how, in the intervening centuries, religion has continued to present this opportunity to the greedy and corrupt. Not all religion succumbs, of course, but when it becomes a hierarchy of any description there will follow those who find it a means of personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel movement comes immediately to mind. Those who putatively follow a man who is recorded as having said to give away all that you have in order to be his disciple have somehow missed the message and keep their treasure where moth and rust pose constant dangers. We think ourselves advanced since then, but the words of a fictional friar from centuries ago may still hold some wisdom for Gothic readers in the present.

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

Almost Purgatory

Although it is difficult to tell from 32,000 feet, I think I might have flown over Purgatory on my way home from the UK. The two days I was in Oxford were uncharacteristically sunny and warm. Although it was cloudy around London when we lifted off, the skies cleared by the time we hit the Irish Sea and once Ireland came into view I kept a close watch for what I hoped might be Lough Derg, the site of what was once deemed to be Purgatory. Our flight path took us over the right region, but the maps in the back of the in-flight magazine are never detailed enough for navigation, and the lake itself is not large enough to appear on any but the most detailed charts. Still, I think I might have seen it. If this was Purgatory and I was overhead, I guess I must’ve been in Heaven for a while.

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Symbolism began to kick in, despite the lack of sleep. Our view of the earth today corresponds in a rough way to that of the ancients. For sure, we are more sophisticated, as we suppose, but there remains a lake of fire beneath our feet and the heavens above our heads. The area in between, according to medieval thought, was Purgatory. It’s the place where we live. Believing in the intensely mythological development of a rich afterlife that borrowed elements from the Greeks, Zoroastrians, and Egyptians is hardly something anyone could undertake seriously in the modern world, but the trials we undergo here and now somehow make Purgatory believable as a symbol. When I think of the troubles over the past few weeks alone I can take some solace in a symbolism designed to help us avoid Hell.

As on my trip from New York, I watched hundreds of miles of ice floes, icebergs from the air. I’m not sure if this is unusual—I don’t fly overseas very often, and sometimes it is dark and I can’t see the water below. Of climate change, however, I am absolutely certain. We have undertaken to bring about Hell on earth because of industrial greed. I can’t help but compare how companies continued to promote smoking heavily even after they knew it was killing people. Lucre can make monsters out of ordinary humans. Was that Purgatory I saw back there, over the Emerald Isle? I may never know, but down here on the ground the warming trend continues. Perhaps the ancients knew more than we think they did.

Strange Days

The flight from London to New York is eight hours. Although I always travel with books, sometimes the selection made before the actual reality of time on a plane turns out to be too academic. I read academic books on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York and back, but these trips are not so drawn out as the long flight across the Atlantic. Since my flight was departing Terminal 2 at Heathrow, I had trouble finding a bookstore. There are stores that sell books, but having been to Blackwell’s the day before, the selection was not inspiring. I wandered to the magazine section. Magazines can be good travel fodder since they don’t demand the rigors of a monograph, and glossy pictures always add to the appeal. But what to buy?

ForteanTimesLooking over the covers, I found one featuring vampires. It turned out to be the Fortean Times, but since I had a row to myself on the plane, I couldn’t see the harm in having a magazine about strange phenomena. I’d never actually read an issue of the Fortean Times before, although I had a general idea of what to expect. While it may seem odd, there is a pretty solid connection between the paranormal and religion. I’ve noticed this for years. Reading through the Fortean Times, it was clear that others have made the connection as well. Many of the articles, including the ones on vampires, touched on obvious religious themes and motifs. This was so much the case that I began to wonder if any kind of solid wall can be erected between the two.

Religion, broadly conceived, tends to be concerned with the non-material world. Its claims tend to defy empirical verification, and its subject matter is often at odds with science (at least in the mainstream). The paranormal is open to scientific investigation in that it tends to be based on secular claims. Like religion, however, it tends to dwell in the non-material realm. After all, vampires coming back from the dead is hardly a phenomenon that is readily recorded with any instrument beyond a Hollywood movie camera. Still, most religions are hostile to the paranormal, and investigators of the paranormal may be unconnected to religion. Both, however, are an engaging recipe for a long flight. Especially if nobody is sitting in the row next to you.