Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Was Opa a Nazi?"

Via Mary (who tells me a Cree connection sent it her way) -- another Menno prone to excessive libations wonders: "Was Opa a Nazi?"

Ms. Klassen concludes, "It’s more likely [Opa] had come to understand his own position in the world as neither German, Russian nor Canadian. In Russia, he had learned that he wasn’t a Russian; in Canada, he learned that he wasn’t Canadian. And sitting by his shortwave radio, he eventually decided that he wasn’t German either. And the only label left to him was that of Mennonite." A lonely spot to find oneself in, to be sure.
Fortunately, the sunsets are to die for.
I'm grateful to her for posting this -- the question has an unfortunate piquancy, given the week's headlines and social media caterwauling.

Speaking of which, this video of Arnold Schwarzenegger's address to the President is making the rounds.

I find his performance cogent and punchy -- and surprisingly moving, as well. It is perhaps worth remembering there was a time when the MSM was not so gentle with Mr. Schwarzenegger. A right-wing upstart in the Land of the Left who almost certainly had designs on the White House, it was rumoured he had a script for a pro-Nazi film he was keen to see made. Then there was this ongoing business of sexual entitlement. And so on. Today, his is the voice of moral clarity.

I'm wondering who or what has changed, but perhaps that's a thread none of us is keen to follow.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Who is What? Miscellaneous thoughts re: Joseph Boyden, identity

We are having a controversy up here in Canada -- Joseph Boyden, one of our brightest literary lights, is in some hot water.

In his fiction and non-fiction Boyden has applied himself exclusively to a deep exploration and excavation of Indigenous Canadian identity. He has also claimed that identity for himself -- a claim that, no matter how you parse it, appears to have been made in haste without the rigor of consideration he applies to his work.

This past weekend the Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada's self-proclaimed newspaper of note) published "The Making of Joseph Boyden" a lengthy investigative report by Eric Andrew-Gee. I thought the piece was impressively sourced and researched, yielding some unexpected insights into the affair. I also wondered what sort of piece might have been written had Andrew-Gee been given the time and space to meditate on why he was commissioned, and why he chose, to write this piece.

Newspapers run on deadlines, of course, and these days the deadlines are especially tight. If we disregard the fury and flurry of social media, this country still has established cross-platforms like Macleans, The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, etc., who without doubt have their own Boyden-related long-reads in the pipeline. "First to publish" means something in this environment, particularly when newspaper sales remain in a tailspin (our current elected leader doesn't conjure enough revulsion and horror to get us subscribing, it would seem).

Introspection was a luxury Andrew-Gee could ill-afford, in other words -- and I get that. So in that spirit here are a few non-mulled-over observations of my own on the matter.

First, the obvious: Boyden writes well. His characters are, in the main, explicable and empathetically rendered. He pays attention to the five senses and their effect on a person's thoughts, on the way a person is. His novels are immersive experiences that leave deep trails in the psyche -- people I've discussed his works with often tell me their dream-life is altered after reading him.

I do have some kvetches, mostly minor. Despite his years in Catholic school Boyden doesn't "get" Catholicism, and up until The Orenda I didn't see much effort applied to addressing that deficit. Consequently his portrait of the evil the Roman Catholic Church has inflicted on indigenous people occasionally slips into simplistic villainy -- a posture very much in tune with the current cultural temperament and certainly adequate for keeping the narrative engine chugging along, but less than satisfactory for readers holding out hope for the sort of insight that penetrates one's ideological bulwarks.

But his portrait of indigenous life prior to the colonial-religious assault is, for this pasty Protestant reader, a bit-torrent of continual discovery and awe.

As for this "pasty Protestant" business . . .

Mennonites have invested themselves in the quest for indigenous justice. It's not a "100% all-of-us, right across the board" deal, but it is significant enough to comment on (Google "mennonite indigenous" and you'll quickly get the gist). More pertinent to this conversation, it's an issue our literary aspirants take on board -- just about 100% all-of-us, in fact (including Yours Truly). If anybody has called-out Rudy Wiebe or David Bergen for appropriation of voice, I've yet to hear of it.

There is, of course, a difference of scale on these matters. So far as I know, neither Wiebe nor Bergen has claimed any indigenous connection deeper than acquaintance or possibly friendship. Boyden has claimed tribal affiliation, at times quite explicitly -- an understandably contentious issue.

So on that matter . . .

Tribes* don't produce novels, but they sure do produce novelists -- unintentionally, for the most part. If the novel is a métier you aspire to, be forewarned -- you cannot freaking win with your own people. There will be a bunch who will back you up -- the usual gentle agitators drawn, like you once were, to the losers and freaks among us -- and there will be a few who angrily call you out, but mostly you'll be shrugged out of town.

It's the shrugs that wound the deepest.They know the truth, these shruggers. You're not doing an honest day's work, for one thing. More to the point, you think you get us, but you really don't. You're of us, but you're not one of us. You're a pretender -- a fake, a fraud, and a phony.

The kicker is, this write-off is the truth, pretty much. In their zeal to capture the public imagination, fakery is a skill most young novelists are quick to adopt and hone as persuasively as they can. You're telling stories anyway, where exactly do you draw the line when called upon to make claims of earnest self-disclosure? If I think back to my lean and lonely SASE** days, had I been granted any sort of media spotlight at all there were precious few masks I would have had the inner fortitude to eschew. How else are you going to hit the jack-pot?

I am not suggesting Boyden's motivations are anywhere near as craven as, say, James Frey's.*** Boyden evidently identifies deeply with the fight to assert indigenous identity within an appropriated landscape. And if his claims of Anishinaabe identity are at best doubtful, the possibility he is from genuine Métis lineage is not at all out of the question.

But to my eyes this is the money-quote from Andrew-Gee's piece:
Lying at the heart of so much discomfort with the way Boyden has presented himself over the years, is a deep, basic gulf between the broad European and Indigenous notions of identity formation. The “Western” paradigm of self-actualization, of creating one’s identity through a process of lonely soulful questing, is to a certain extent incongruous with the North American Indigenous tradition of forging identity through community sanction and reciprocity.
For many Indigenous thinkers, the idea that someone would claim to feel Anishinaabe or Métis, and that others would put stock in that feeling, is nonsense.
Hm. More, please.
*"Tribes" -- a word I use in the Abrahamic sense, naturally.
** "Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope"
***Though Boyden's claims do strike me as somewhat akin to Michael Chabon's mischief.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Limits of Critique

I am feeling somewhat convicted after reading Michael West's appraisal of The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski. West's thoughts are short and to-the-point, so please read it for yourself. But here's a snippet that might suggest where I'm heading:
Felski shows that an exclusive commitment to critique can actually preclude recognition of one’s loves, of those things to which one is erotically attached (in the broadest sense of the term). “Why,” she asks, “are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves?” 
[She] asks what might happen if we looked not “behind the text” but “in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.” In doing so, she seeks to rehabilitate the validity and importance of what we might call “literary desire”: the force that drives you to reread your favorite book yet again; or to finish that work of genre fiction even when you know the ending; or to press a beloved book awkwardly into a distant acquaintance’s hands in hopes that she, too, will come to love what you love and might one day talk with you about it.
"Tongue-tied about our loves" -- hm.

Three years ago I bought the brand-new hardcover of Kem Nunn's latest novel, Chance. I read it, and I thought, Yeah, that's really good. That is really good! I pulled out a handful of passages that stuck to the ribs on the first go-through, scribbled a few tentative thoughts, read some of the other reviews, then finally thought, I'm not sure I've got what it takes to explain how I'm responding to this. [shrugs] Meh -- the reviews are good, that oughta be enough.

Yes, that is just the sort of prick I can be.

So consider this yet another promissory notice from Yours Truly. To be continued (and no, I won't be commenting on the Hulu show) . . .

Although I see no reason why I can't include a photo of co-star Gretchen Mol.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

RAW on RAW* -- Take 2

"Now then, we really only have two types of people anymore: those who divide people into two types, and all the rest" -- loose translation of a very old Plautdietsch Mennonite joke

Bear with me, as most of this is probably wrong -- dude wrote a lot, most of which I've not read. However:
"Don't say words you're gonna regret..."
Robert Anton Wilson made a variety of controversial claims, two of which I very much admire: 1) he asserted that agnosticism, properly understood, was the more honest and difficult intellectual stance -- much moreso than atheism. I gather he came to this conviction following another illumination, namely: 2) most either/or postulates are so fundamentally flawed as to be worthless.

From here, he and his wacky wacketeers proceeded with "Operation Mindfuck," sowing mischief where certainty -- particularly of the political variety -- abounded. Through the '90s and into the Aughts I thought I admired this, also (albeit with reservations). But as events in the past year have made quite plain to even his acolytes, people with motives more malign and pointed have adopted those very same strategies to wide success and devastating results. RAW's bunch are now scrambling to launch "Operation Mindfix" -- which . . . well, good luck to us all.

More anon, hopefully. If curious, here are some further RAW links:

Friday, July 21, 2017

RAW on RAW* -- Take 1

*"Ridiculous Anabaptist Wanker on Robert Anton Wilson"

Some ancient history from 1991, when I first started working in the bookstore:

The Receiver there was a slender guy who dressed entirely in black and listened to the Sisters of Mercy. His shelf of special orders was a small collection of Crowley titles. I steered as wide a berth as possible around him and his freaky books (I dug the Sisters, however).

He was in the habit of tying up the company fax machine and sending long, obscenity-filled screeds to the city's radio stations. On the day management finally showed him the door, he collected his books, loped past me, then stopped, turned around, shoved a chapbook of Crowley poems into my hands and left the building.

I never took the chapbook home, but then I never threw it away, either. For all I know it still rests in the basement of that building.

Needless to say I was a tad freaked out.
I mentioned the gift to a co-worker I was slowly befriending. He snickered. "A little worried, are you? You know, there's this form of White Magick...."

My cage now thoroughly rattled, I thanked him for his kindness but declined further involvement of the esoteric variety.

A couple of months later I bought this issue of Mondo 2000 while on lunch break. I left it on the staff-room table and got back to work.

When the afternoon coffee break rolled around I returned to the staff-room and was surprised to see my friend reading the magazine. When he wasn't devouring Jackie Collins, his literary tastes were considerably more refined than my own.

I asked him what he thought of the magazine. He sighed and flipped it back to me. "You do not want to go any further down this road," he said.

I took the magazine home and read it. Even after a thorough perusal I had no clue what he was warning me about. The Timothy Leary/William Burroughs exchange was akin to the Chomsky/Foucault meeting -- a concept more exciting to contemplate than to see in execution. Brian Eno was his usual pleasantly challenging self, the graphic layout was delicious, but the larger think-pieces were the bourgeois-gnostic variety of "counter-cultural" that I'd encountered in baby-sitters and friends with older siblings and a small handful of university mates who were taking a stab at free-thought.

I shrugged and stowed the magazine in my archives, not giving it any further consideration -- basically putting my friend's advice into practice. Or so I thought.

A quarter-century later, I can't open an internet browser without being completely immersed in the very environment he was telling me to steer clear of -- one that our former Receiver was already swimming (or drowning) in.

And neither can you.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Post-Leonardian insight

We've made it to season 6 of Justified, a show that's generally been easy to watch. Right out of the gate it stayed true to originator Elmore Leonard's take on the heroic narrative -- Marshall Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a man on the cusp of midlife, old enough to have amassed experience and a touch of deep wisdom, while still virile enough to attract the ladies and mete out violence.

A television series is a group project, of course, and so a departure from Leonard's template was inevitable -- and, from my POV, entirely welcome. Leonard's women tend to be cyphers whose behavior is either inexplicably impetuous or inscrutably calculated. If the novel doesn't break the 350 page mark, I don't mind giving this take on the female psyche a "pass" -- any longer, though, and credulity is strained to the breaking point.

Although Givens' ex-wife/love interest is the typical Leonardian "inexplicably impetuous" type, the series nevertheless produced female characters possessed of emotional depth and motivational nuance -- particularly Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter).
Ava is another ex of Givens, one who actually sees through the bad boy charm and thus deflates some of the virility myth he is so pleased to exploit. She is present in all six seasons -- the contrast she brings to the Givens character becomes so persuasive the viewer is forced to concede something about Leonard's creation that Leonard, in all his years of writing, could never quite come around to: his "hero" is, in fact, an incredible asshole -- one who somehow, despite this character deficit, manages the heroic feat.

I haven't yet finished the series, so this is as far as the grand theories and profound insights go. But it's one I'm grateful for. I recently commented (to my wife, of all people) that a man who doesn't have at least one friend who knows what an incredible asshole he can be (and who calls him out on it) is a man who leads a profoundly lonely life. Story telling that tips its hat to this reality is, it seems to me, doing beholders of this particular historical moment a great favour.

Friday, July 07, 2017

All roads lead to RAW, initial scribblings

Here's an artifact from '91:
It was sitting beneath my Sega Genesis!
I've even got the drop-out subscription card:
This will all lead to some thoughts on Robert Anton Wilson. Unfortunately I am way behind on a million things, including stuff that actually pulls in money. I hope to get back to this so's I can put something up this weekend.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Aging guitar heroes

Continued from...

One observation made, somewhat obliquely, in Edgers' piece continues to have me brooding: ask kids who their guitar heroes are and you get names from the '70s or even the '60s -- Jimi, Jimmy, Eric, Jeff, etc. Kids are trotting out the same names their parents -- well, their fathers, for the most part -- did when they were kids.

On the one hand, I find it curious that neither Jack White nor his nemesis Dan Auerbach get name-dropped by kids these days -- both these guys tear it up and put on a terrific show. On the other hand, this surprises me not at all -- had I been magically exposed to their music when I was 13, I'd have given it a wide pass.

The fact that I listen to White and Auerbach in my dotage is less an indication of my fondness for their contributions to rock 'n' roll than it is a grudging testament to the raw virtuosity of their skills. The strange admixture of garage DIY with technical formalism with "These are the lyrics, so suck it" attitude tends to put me in mind of the Christian Rock I listened to as a kid -- not quite the genuine article, but close enough to get me on my feet.

I -- along with countless other dads, I imagine -- really only queue these acts up when I can't be arsed to listen to Moving Pictures for the bazillionth time. That has to register with the kids. I suppose it's one reason why kids are keen to play "The Spirit of Radio" and less so, say, that little ditty about a doorbell.

I suspect White and Auerbach receive what passes for prestige studio treatment because A&R spotted potential to market to dudes like myself -- 'cos who else is buying music? So it goes. Seems a bit of a shame, though, that our kids don't really have rock acts and a rock sound to call their own -- or am I missing something?
Darwyn Cooke, just because.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Whither the "guitar god"?

My friend's two boys both play guitar -- the older one, a university student, plays when the mood strikes, but the younger one, still in high school, is a devotee and remarkably proficient.

For my friend and his still-at-home son there are sports, and sports-related road trips. During one of these trips Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" came on the (satellite) radio. My friend told his boy of the first time he'd heard the song. It was the late-'70s, my friend was roughly the boy's age, accompanying his mother to the grocery store and staying in the car to listen to the radio while the woman shopped. There were three, maybe four stations, all playing the same stuff. Then this song came on.

It wasn't anything like any of the other songs. A little like Eric Clapton, a little like Bob Dylan, neither of whom was getting much airplay in '78. It was such a pleasing, deeply-infectious song that for the rest of the summer my friend took every opportunity to turn on the radio in hopes of tracking it down.

Back home, some days after the sport-trip was over, my friend heard the boy playing "Sultans" in the bedroom.

Warms the old heart just a touch, doncha think?
"Where have all the guitar gods gone?"
My favourite Sunday morning DJ DarkoV directed me to Why my guitar gently weeps: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care. by Geoff Edgers, over at WaPo. I read it, thought about my friend and dismissed the piece out of hand. Then it kept popping up in all my info-aggregates. I had to go back.

The stats indicate sales for electric guitars are precipitously low and continue to decline, particularly for the two US giants, Fender and Gibson. Industry types seem to share the same POV on this matter: it's the kids these days -- the racket they call "music" doesn't have enough guitar in it. Perhaps if there was a new generation of "guitar god" the stats might change. Currently the best they've got is Taylor Swift.

The argument strikes me as just a bit precious (not the Taylor Swift part, mind you -- I'm totally on board with that). In both of my daughters' classes there were three or four "shredders" apiece who could be depended upon to provide colour at various school functions. My high school class of '83 had exactly one. And while he was permitted use of a practice booth in the school band room, it would be a very cold day in Hell before he was ever invited onto the public stage to demonstrate his chops to the assembled parents.

Edgers has a follow-up piece to this -- How much did this guitar story cost me? $2,376.99 -- which I think sheds a clearer light on a problem Gibson and Fender have pretty much created for themselves: they've flooded the market with garbage.

Consider this page from Edgers' cherished Supro catalogue:
These were the "entry-level" guitars of (I'm guessing) 1969. Adjusted for inflation, the Supro on the far right would cost today's kid $663.51 USD. Currently, a brand new, entry-level Fender Bullet Strat sells for $150. In '67 a brand new Strat cost $231 -- or $1,693 in today's currency.

If you head to the store and pick up a $1,700 Strat, you will have a very fine instrument. Similarly, if you spend $500 on a clone for your kid -- provided it doesn't have Fender or Gibson's name on it -- the instrument you take home (this one, say) will be solid, dependably wired and eminently playable (no high/ragged frets, fussy pots or toggles, dodgy Indonesian pickups, etc). Fewer trips to the back of the shop for adjustments, repairs and replacements translates to more time practicing and performing. Which translates to less time brooding over disappointing product. Which translates to a fighting chance of acquiring some truly impressive chops before trading in the cringe-worthy clone for an instrument that peers respect.

(An aside: I'm cogitating on those Supros (my uncle had one as well, actually). They definitely look Fender-ish, yet they are also aesthetically distinct from the company they ape. I suspect this very much adds to their current nostalgia value. Now consider today's entry-level Strats & LPs -- indistinct, at first glance, from the higher value pro models they're based on. What is there to feel nostalgia for, once you've traded in the cheap rubbish model for one that actually works, and sounds good?)

Anyway, I am all for on-line lessons and encouragement. But if you don't give the kids unique, dependable instruments they'll actually enjoy playing, good luck keeping them hooked.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Frank King, Gasoline Alley

Just because. The source (for a better look).
Original hand-coloured Gasoline Alley Sunday strip by Frank King, published in the Chicago Tribune, January 20, 1946.

Also: whether you're DC or Marvel or independent be sure to check out The Bristol Board's recent love for Toronto comics great Michael Cho.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Georgia O'Keeffe at the AGO

I was truly surprised to learn that Georgia O'Keeffe's relationship with Alfred Stieglitz was -- at least in its initial phase -- indeed a robustly carnal affair.
"Eyeh -- wassup, Alf?"
On university campuses in the late '80s it was de rigueur for the fellas (the more tasteful among us, at any rate) to festoon our dorm rooms with Escher prints. The gals got Georgia O'Keeffe. Each in their way signified a (dare I say?) gender-specific potentiality that may or may not have in fact existed -- playful abstractions belying an intellectual seriousness for the guys; a pointedly feminine and nearly explicit sensual in-touchedness for the ladies (So tread CAREFULLY, mister!).
"All these possibilities, before we stampede towards the..."
Consequently I've tended to view O'Keeffe's work as a little too coolly calculated, and perhaps not quite the idealized marriage of passion and intellect that others are keen to espouse on her behalf. Throw in her widely reported impatience with the common "Why, them's LADY-PARTS!" reaction to her floral paintings, and I think a (*sigh*) hetero late-in-mid-life dude could be forgiven for suggesting that just maybe "The lady doth protest."

Stieglitz was himself a hetero late-in-mid-life dude when he first encountered O'Keeffe (my present age exactly, in fact). His initial excitement over O'Keeffe was intellectual -- a mutual friend passed along some of O'Keeffe's early charcoal drawings, which Stieglitz promptly exhibited in his NYC gallery. It was some months before O'Keeffe found out about any of this; her response was to take the train up from South Carolina, where she was (assistant) teaching art, and personally bitch him out for showing her work without her consent (they want us to ask permission -- who knew?).

An epistolary relationship ensued and, erm, flowered. After two years of increasingly impassioned penmanship, she moved to New York City where Stieglitz arranged for a pair of modest suites -- for each to abide, separately, in presumed chastity, while Stieglitz figured out how best to divest himself of "Emmy," his long-suffering wife of 25 years. The ruse was abandoned within weeks and the ensuing genitive hijinx were duly Olympian.

Stieglitz was 52, O'Keeffe 29.

O'Keeffe was not the first woman in her late-20s to turn Stieglitz's head, nor was she to be the last, either. Still, what they had going for them seems to have worked out well for both (give or take a few nervous breakdowns), not just personally but professionally, and they remained married until he died 28 years later. Aside from her considerable chops as painter, O'Keeffe had the gift of Blarney, the absolutely indispensable trait of every successful artist, while Stieglitz took his camera and energetically competed for attention among the international avant garde and their very public avant garde proclivities (e.g., Nude Torso, etc). Attention was paid, with financial success in its wake.

Even an ideal marriage of passion and intellect was not enough to curb Stieglitz's impulse to philander, alas. Faced with her husband's infidelities, O'Keeffe eventually permitted herself a single fling -- with Stieglitz's one-time mistress Beck Strand. It was what it was. At the end of it all, O'Keeffe opted for a hermetic life in New Mexico, entertaining the occasional arty-type guest, while largely devoting the rest of her life to just doing the work.

And this was the work that finally "reached" me, when I surveyed the O'Keeffe exhibit at the AGO this past weekend.
Black Door With Red, 1954
Alongside My Last Door, 1955
By all means, supply the Freudian sub-text to my text -- I'll be the first to affirm it (if you know what I mean by "affirm" -- psh-HAW!). It was a Sunday -- Father's Day -- and I was cognizant of the many willowy young gals in their late-20s drawn to the show. Hey, the late-20s are an exciting time for either/any gender -- all that psychic experimentation and trying-on of costumes and attitudes is finally settling into an honest-to-God identity! What's next? Good question. I know a few people in your line of business -- want me to introduce you?

Of course, family and friends have assured me (unsolicited, I might add) of that which I am already well aware -- they can conjure no lower form of stoopid than to envision me stepping out on my lovely wife in hopes of reinvigorating myself with the affections of a younger woman.

Which leads me to my final thought on the show: Yo, gallerists and curators! These works weren't produced by gods who walked the earth, no matter what their stentorious claims at the time -- they're the byproduct of fallible primates, just like the rest of us, prone to some gobsmacking errors in personal judgement.

So how's about injecting a pinch of sass and irreverence into the "Great Artist" narrative already? Don't you think it's just a little way overdue?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper's, and other Dad Rock-related thoughts

AV Club asks its members "Which is better: Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's?
There are songs on both that I like, and there's no denying they're both impressive aural achievements, but in the main I have to confess I don't regard either album with much fondness. I suspect there's an inescapable "You had to be there" element to both of them that simply doesn't kick in for those of us who weren't there.

An example from my own experience/library is probably RUSH's Moving Pictures. After devoting 13 months of gathering with my buds and giving Permanent Waves our closest attention, charting the stylistic evolution that occurred in the band's back catalogue and speculating what might come next, then bringing home the LP on a cold February night, slitting open the cellophane and catching that pungent whiff of fresh vinyl whilst cradling the record between thumb and forefinger and gently dropping it on the platter, then cautiously lowering the stylus so as to induce a minimum of surface wear on this precious object, and hearing that initial "THWOMP, Zoom" opening to "Tom Sawyer" -- how does a Participant Who Was There pass along any of that element to the current generation?

Though, to be fair, it's still plenty heartwarming to see kids these days finding lots to love in that album (mine do, at least).

Tangential: a 13-minute conversation on Q about "Dad Rock," that also explores the kids (Mac DeMarco, etc) taking a crack at nü-Dad Rock. My reaction? So sweet of you to be thinking of me! Now where's my Donald Fagen?

Book Culling

A reckoning long overdue (alas).
My wife was determined to paint the bedroom, which meant the bookshelf had to be moved. Which meant the books had to come off the shelves. Which meant I was now scrutinizing impulses that should have been properly scruted years ago.

It's all about perspective, isn't it?

One friend has gone almost entirely digital, and I must admit there is a great deal I find attractive about the option. Not sure I could commit myself to it for most works of fiction, but for reference items the digital option is increasingly my go-to mode. And these days digital is very much preferable -- in terms of image quality and ease of storage -- to "analog" when it comes to comic books.

Anyway, I'll take a small selection of items to the local library, which they can appraise for their own needs. The rest are headed for the curb. Seems a shame, but so it goes in this the age of content excess.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Religious Identity Politics, Narrative Appeal & Tarot Envy

It's not uncommon for me to throw a book across the room. If the content is religious, this reaction is pretty much a given.
Only one dent -- must've liked it!
I vigorously abused a recent biography of a "spiritual artist and Christian mystic" before finally depositing it in the blue box. This particular biographer was intent on discerning not just the character of the artist, but the character -- or "Character-with-a-capital-C" -- busy at work shaping the artist. Any number of religious impulses tend to chafe me, but the one that infuriates is the effort to establish Divine Narrative in a person's life.

"And yet you call yourself a Christian."

Yeah, well. I usually dodge that by saying "'Christian' isn't an identity you claim for yourself, it's an identity other people claim on your behalf -- or not."
T(o) wit.
Still, the human concern with naming and claiming a particular narrative is inescapable, fraught and freighted. We all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For most of us, particularly those of us confronted with tragedy, that is not enough -- even the most ardent materialist is keen to reach beyond beginnings and endings in the name of something "larger" ("History" or "Science" or "Family" etc). If I say I am religious (but not spiritual) I admit to some hope that the grammar I attend to attends to me also and does indeed place me within a larger narrative at work in humanity.

Nuffadat -- let's play cards.
For me the unhappiest development under the aegis of 45 thus far is just how thoroughly his belligerence has beguiled every single one of my favourite information aggregates -- some of which had once been remarkably catholic in their scope of concern. It is doubly remarkable, then, to note which subjects seemingly unrelated to the man and his effect on, well, seemingly everything remain a matter of curiosity and exploration.

Tarot, for example.

This week over at Aeon we have James McConnachie, your typically cheerful British skeptic, asking, "Assuming that tarot cards do not work as a method of reading the future, why does tarot persist? How has tarot survived as an object, a practice, a text, and a peculiarly velvety strand in European popular culture? Where did something so strange, dream-like and overburdened with symbolism come from?"

Previously we had Bookslut Jessa Crispin relate her transformation from reluctant querent to invested (and in-demand) reader -- which she has parlayed into a real live book.

And of course there are creative types like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jeff Vandermeer who have spun remarkable narrative gold from Tarot typology. Even Tim Powers, a devout Catholic, purchased a deck of Ryder-Waite Tarot cards to assist his writing -- which he unpacked but did not shuffle.
The typology has a certain flexibility to it.
All of this is, as McConnachie dubs it, "soft tarot" -- a flexible sequence of images used to prompt the psychotherapeutic or creative process. "Hard" tarot practitioners view the cards as gateways to otherwise hidden plains of consciousness -- explicating the buried motivations and indiscreet behaviors of people not in the room, say, or catching a glimpse of the oncoming tide of fate, the better to surf the wave to favourable results.

Below: Tarot typology retrospectively applied to historical narrative in the opening title sequence for HBO's Carnivàle. -- a brilliant manipulation of viewer intelligence and narrative yearning. We know the characters are perched on the cusp of a grand historical drama, of which they are ignorant. Yet we are beguiled to learn how the characters' particular drama(s) will unfold within these larger currents. The sequence is recycled in the opening title for FX's The Americans.

Tarot fascination is strictly page three material, of course. But still -- why the fascination at all? Where are the page three stories on palmistry, phrenology or tasseography?

My guess: due to its visual content, Tarot has become a universal story with easy, immediate appeal. The images in a deck of Tarot cards are invested with narrative, in contrast to the narratively neutered images of the face cards in a standard player's deck -- or the tea-leaves at the bottom of your cup. Essentially, everybody who beholds Tarot images "reads" them at first glance. Hey, this is a story! I get it! I'm in it!

If my Facebook feed -- to say nothing of the feed my daughters participate in -- is any indication, the predominant narrative being fostered in our collective consciousness is that of identifying as the beleaguered or even actively persecuted victim of larger forces -- "an arms-race to feel the most victimized," to quote Clay Routledge. Nobody is immune to its appeal -- that a Tarot reader was able to elevate Ms. Crispin's internal gaze from a self-defeating investment in this narrative was, from the sounds of it, an unexpected blessing. We should all be so fortunate.

This is, I suspect, why the Tarot Story has become a fixture on the third page (alongside Ayahuasca ceremonies and the reassurances of LSD microdosing, etc). Even smartypants skeptics seek affirmation they are playing a valuable role in the human drama, and not just that of a sad-sack tragedian in denial.

Concluding miscellany: "I'm the victim here!" -- liberals, conservatives, free-thinkers: whatever ideology you've subscribed to, you've probably bought into the victim narrative. And with that self-effacing disclaimer out of the way, allow me to state the obvious: evangelical Christians have swallowed the victim narrative hook, line and sinker. War Room, God's Not Dead 1 and 2 -- "these are films for people who have a fetish for feeling persecuted, and that to me is where the exploitation comes in." Thank God for Jesus, Bro! -- a parody of Christ-sploitation films. Irreligious intellectuals of liberal or conservative stripe will just have to settle for South Park reruns.

And finally some personal disclosure (Mom, this is for you): I was raised to steer clear of activities such as card-reading. Steer clear I have, and steer clear I shall. Too many friends have come back with stories about turning over the Death card -- "Bear in mind, this is a symbol of sudden, dramatic change, and not necessarily..." -- and having a loved one keel over within the week. For me the "soft" use of Tarot will never completely shake free of the "hard" -- why invite that spectre to hang over my shoulder at all?

Which circles me back to my opening peeve: if the New Testament suggests anything at all about Large Narratives, it is that humanity is spectacularly inept at discerning them. The Son of God shows up, we kill him. He reappears three days later and even his closest friends have trouble recognizing him. It takes 150 years to get the broad strokes of the story down. Message? If you think you've got a lock on THE Narrative, odds are you're wrong. Best, then, to pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.

Shalom -- WP.

Friday, June 02, 2017

The nostalgic gaze, and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild

The summer I turned 21 I was working in the shipping bay of a furniture factory. My boss was a few years older. Big guy. A gorilla in charge of baboons.

We all had motorcycles.

One lunch hour the others in the bay all howled out to some greasy spoon. My boss and I watched them go, then he turned to me and said, "You know, when I bought my bike I thought I was going to get this amazing feeling every time I climbed in the saddle." He smirked. "What a dummy, huh?"

That seemed to sum up a lot of what I felt -- about the entire year, really. Twenty-one -- I was a publicly acknowledged adult in all of Canada and most of the United States.

What did I do with that privilege?

I took that motorcycle and rode with a friend down to Los Angeles. We spent our days riding roller coasters and our evenings watching David Letterman.

What a dummy, huh?

Twenty-one wasn't an awful year, not by a long stretch. A bunch of weddings, a couple of funerals -- including a beloved grandfather. The usual youthful dramas, all self-inflicted as various personae were tried out and tried on. Good health, better than I deserved. But, you know -- I thought I was going to get this amazing feeling every time I climbed in the saddle.

My former boss came to mind when Joel asked me to reconsider Aliens. My boss loved that film -- saw it twice the weekend it opened, and several times more that summer. So far as he was concerned, Aliens was the apex of cinematic expression.

Joel admits nostalgia is a factor in his fondness for the film. It's been 30 years, but I imagine my boss probably has nostalgic feelings for it also. But as I surveyed the films of 1986, I was hard pressed to stir up nostalgic feelings for any of them.

The sole exception: Jonathan Demme's Something Wild.
"Where we goin'? Who knows?"
Something Wild really is just that terrific, for one thing -- one of those rare movies I almost regret seeing because I wish I could see it for the first time all over again.

It drops one depth-charge after another, and it never lets up. Just five minutes into it, I realized I had never seen these characters before. I had no idea who they were, where they were going, or what was going to happen next. And I wanted to find out.

A relationship forms between two strangers. It begins with high risk stakes, and concludes with everything on the line. Somewhere in the middle, as these two drive further into the heartland of America -- a disarmingly benign biosphere that plays host to beat-box gas-station rappers and clubs that cater to motorcyclists and their dogs -- a sense of trust develops between them, a sense of . . . love?

At 21 it was the one movie that seemed to affirm what needed affirming -- namely, you will need to take risks, and they will necessarily be high. And it won't end up the way you might expect. That's just life.
Though, as a rule, a fella should be cautious around girls reading Kahlo bios.
Endnote: it occurs to me that last summer's A Bigger Splash presents Dakota Johnson, Ms. Griffith's daughter, as essentially the same "wild" unknown figure, this time to tragic effect -- well worth watching as a companion to Something Wild.