Favorite (To Me) Posts of the Year

I’ve never done this before, assuming a certain shelf life to what I write here, but maybe I’ll start.  Now, this is completely self-indulgent, so you are warned.  Here are my personal favorites of the Distal Muses for 2012:

2012

The Last One

Narratives And The American Landscape

Music On A Saturday Night

Le Guin Again

Honor and Duty

Petty Stuff, Harlan Ellison, and Therbligs

The Golden (Silver?) Good Ol’ Days

Reflections On The 4th of July: A Personal Statement

Jon Lord, Deep Purple, Legacies

Gravity

Longer Tomorrows

Rights

Meanwhile

Post Thanks

 

I’ll leave December alone.  The last one is, I think, appropriate to end the overview.

I have selected almost no political posts—most all of them were topical, concerned with what was happening at that moment—and the few of a political nature included are far more general, more philosophical.

We had many deaths in 2012.  Here is a good list of the musicians we lost.  Here is a list of the “notable” deaths of writers.  I quibble and chafe at the label “notable” because there are so many whom the L.A. Times would never notice who mean so much to so many.  As well as Ray Bradbury, K. D. Wentworth passed away, a friend and writer, a wonderful person who left too soon.  Certainly more people will know who Ray was.

We should remember in order to go forward on solid ground.  Take what was good and make it better.  Learn from the bad so as not to make the same mistakes.  But never give up.

Have a safe, happy new year.

2012

I was never so glad to see an election done than this past one.  The only comparable year in my experience was 1968 and I can’t honestly say that comparison is viscerally valid, as I was 13 most of that year, 14 right before the election, and most of the issues washed over me leaving me unfazed.  But ’68 was the year of Nixon and Humphrey and George Wallace, Vietnam, the Counter Culture and the Anti-War Movement, and a resurgent Republican Party in opposition to LBJ’s Great Society.  I sensed the acrimony, the bitterness, the ugliness, but most of it made no real sense.  Looking back, I can see that it was very much a revolutionary year and now I can make at least an intellectual comparison.  2012, politically, was a war.

I just finished reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, part of his epic series Narratives of Empire.  Lincoln chronicles, novelistically, the Civil War from the viewpoint of Washington and inside the Lincoln White House.  I have read enough period history to recognize the essential accuracy of Vidal’s setting and the nature of the events.  It was tonic for me since it is a full court display of a truly ugly period of political history.  We have encased Lincoln in the amber of the past and rendered him “safe” for our nostalgic alchemy, but it is always instructive to learn about what really went on.  For sheer vileness, one would be hard pressed to find another period in our history to top it.  All the thoughtless charges this past year that Obama was destroying the country, that his re-election would signal the end of liberty, the gutter-level spite in even the most passing of commentary—especially by those in the upper levels of our political institutions—are rendered commonplace by gaining even a smidgen of knowledge of earlier times.  Lincoln, who is now regarded as one of if not the best president we ever had, was at the time regarded even by his supporters as a first-class mediocrity, called “the original gorilla” by subordinates and a Press that was never, seemingly, satisfied with his performance.  His own cabinet was comprised of men who, each of them, thought they could do a better job.  Whereas Obama is only feared as someone who would take away liberty, Lincoln did (the suspension of Habeus Corpus chief among his actions) and yet, here we are, 150 years later, having a hard time wrapping our collective heads around the utter humanness of his presidency.

Still, we didn’t live through the Civil War, we lived through 2012, and personal experience matters differently.

My reasons for not voting for Romney I made plain.  What I found so disconcerting this past year is how little reason impacted those who were bent on ousting Obama.  Once I left the realm of contentless rhetoric and starting talking policy, eyes glazed over, mouths became slack, the body language of my conversents acquired the fight-or-flight posture of someone beginning to perceive a physical threat.  I can only conclude from my small and thoroughly unscientific sampling that most of the people I knew who intended to vote for Romney cared not at all about such things.  Policy made no difference other than as a prop to a personal disdain for Obama.  Without doubt, I’ve lost acquaintances over this.

Worse, the response to losing has been one of the most bizarre congeries of absurdities in recent memory.  The complete denial of reality startled me.  It has been an antic, carnival year in politics.

Interrupted for me personally by my first encounter with mortality, namely an attack of appendicitis that laid me up for nearly two months.  The first week of August I developed a “fluttering” in my belly that resembled stomach flu, but wouldn’t settle out.  By the time I got to the emergency room, it was a full blown agonizing Thing.  My appendix had perforated and I was in Barnes Hospital for a bit over a day.  A few weeks later, I was back in because, one, the wound had become infected, and, two, I had developed an abscess.  Two months after the initial event, I was pronounced healed.  Two months of soup and sleep and reading books and contemplating vulnerability.

For whatever reason, I do not consciously consider myself the object of much affection, so it always surprises me (pleasantly) when people display it toward me.  (I don’t really understand this in myself, since I am in many ways a rather self-centered person, but this never seems to extend to expectations that anyone else pay attention to me…desires, certainly, but not expectation…)  The degree of sympathy and well-wishing that came during my convalescence both humbled and delighted.  Thank you, my friends.

As I said, this did afford me an opportunity to read and I plowed through several books I might otherwise not have managed.

I began a new job this year, at Left Bank Books.  Back in 2011 I started doing work for them of an unusual sort—what we call downtown outreach.  Left Bank is our oldest independent bookstore (1969) and four years ago opened a second location in downtown St. Louis, which proceeded to be ignored.  Well, it takes a while for a new business (or a new location) to acquire recognition, but in this economy they couldn’t really afford to wait.  So we tried something and I started going around to the businesses downtown to introduce them to the fact that they now have a full-service bookstore right there.  Many folks knew about Left Bank Books, but only remembered the Central West End location.  Naturally, they were thrilled to learn there was one within walking distance.

I sort of doubt I had much to do with their increased sales this past year, but it didn’t hurt.  After a few months of my meeting with office managers, building managers, hotel concierges, and the like, sales took a turn for the better.

As of October, I started training as a bookseller.  I’m still doing some of the outreach, but now I have some steady hours (much needed!) and the bonus is I’m getting to know a bunch of very smart, very passionate, very cool people.

Donna also got a new job.  In a weird way.

At the end of 2011, she was dismissed from USSEC, the Job From Hell.  The less said of that the better.  The money, as they say, was great, but everything else sucked.  Frankly, that job was killing her (and not doing me much good either).  Entirely due to office politics, which she hates, she was set up to take a fall and fired.

Cause for Great Celebration and Gleefulness!

We’ve been becoming reacquainted this past year.  Except that the search for a new job turned out to be far more labor intensive than either of us anticipated.

However, she went back to doing what she loves to do—temping.  Of course, the problems with temping are simple: not enough pay and no benefits.  But she likes doing it!

Solution came in the form of an actual job offer from a temp agency to be a regular staff employee.  She works directly for the agency, takes what assignments they are now dedicated to getting her, and best of all she has benefits.  This is in most aspects a dream job for her.

We’re planning an actual vacation.  First one in several years.  (Long weekends aren’t actual vacations, we’ve learned this the hard way.)  But the best part is, she’s happy.

On the writing front, things are…much the same as they have been.  I finished the second volume of my alternate history trilogy (officially the Oxun Trilogy, consisting of Orleans, Oculus (now done), and Orient (forthcoming) and my agent loved it.  I have some revisions to make on it, but nothing major.

And we’re waiting.  I’ve decided to go ahead an write Orient this coming year anyway, just to have it finished.

I have placed a short story collection with a small local press.  Official announcement yet to come.

And I’m trying to write short fiction again.

My photography is continuing to improve (digitally) and I’ve taken my first steps into RAW.  Musically, well, I was playing fairly well until August…

The components of my youth are changing, passing away, metamorphosing.  Too many deaths of heroes, too many changes in landscape, too much maudlin reminiscence.  I won’t detail such things here.  Go back over my posts these last dozen months and you will see what I have mourned and remembered.

All in all, 2012 was a net improvement over the last few years in several ways, though I admit I have to think about it to see most of them.  The bout of appendicitis has been a bit of a wake-up call, with solemn contemplations of time left and mortality and reassessment.  I had blithely been living as though I had plenty of time left to do Everything I Want To Do, but even before August I was admitting that this wasn’t true.  August underlined it and put an exclamation point on it.

We do not make Resolutions normally.  I long ago knew that such things were little better than To Do lists that often get overwritten and superseded by circumstance.  But this time…

2013 will be different.  I don’t know how yet, but.

So be safe, be warm, love each other.  See you all on the flipside.

Give Up Expectations

As I previously noted, the reading group (study group, really) to which we belong just completed Dante Alighieri’s Commedia.  After seven years of more or less twice-monthly sessions, canto by canto, poring over etymologies, dictionaries, lexicons, and tossing ideas around in a whirlwind of interpretation, we came to the end, with more stars, and one may hope a better understanding of a text that has been at the center of Western Literature for centuries.

Hope, I think, is the key.  Which is to say, the meaning of that word in the famous line everyone seems to know even if they don’t always know from where it comes.  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

From Canto III of Inferno.  The full quote is:

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of Power divine,
Supremest Wisdom, and primeval Love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

The line became a common one in religious pageants, engraved over the orifices of Hellmouths, and used in countless bad horror dramas.

One thing emerged very clearly in our study—Dante was a master etymologist.  His use of the vernacular is often seen as both a radical departure and as a dismissal of possibly troublesome secondary and tertiary intentions.  But often we followed the trail of some word back through archaic Italian to Latin (and sometimes Greek, though famously “Dante knew no Greek”) to produce some rather fascinating alternate takes on what are otherwise common understandings of his lines.

Take the word Hope, for instance.  In Dante’s Italian, this is speranza.  it does mean “hope” but it also means “prospect,” which has a different connotation.  Follow the word back through Latin, from its primary source sperantia to the root spes and among the several meanings you find “anticipation” and “expectation.”

If we swap the traditional meaning from “hope” to “expectation” we not only get a somewhat different meaning to the phrase but a that difference that ripples throughout the rest of the work.  “Abandon all expectation, you who enter here” possesses all sorts of other context intentions that can, unexpectedly, alter our apprehension of what follows.

Because what follows is indeed unexpected.

Most commentators seem stuck on the basic idea that Dante was writing about the afterlife.  Use of “hope” in the opening scenes, on the verge of hell, tends to support such a reading.  Certainly there’s nothing essentially wrong with this, as the Commedia was part of a healthy popular literary form of the day, Vision Literature.  (We have more than 60 surviving manuscripts of these stories, guided tours through the realms of the afterlife.  The first we know of was recorded by Pope Gregory the Great around 590 C.E.)  The framework Dante used was well-established and by no means radical.

But like any great artist, he put it to other uses.

Most Visions of this sort wallow in the novelty of infernal tortures and the ultimate relief of heaven.  They are almost wholly sensual, an odd thing for works that ostensibly describe a decidedly noncorporeal experience.

Dante was exploring morality, ethics, and the theater of the mind.  By reading the famous admonition as “expectation” being left behind, it may be easier to see this.  There is no “hope” in the usual sense, mainly a fervent trust in an ultimate validation, reward, completion.  (By the time you work your way through Paradise you cannot possibly see this as any kind of promised reward.)  But in order to derive meaning—the meaning Dante intended—you have to leave preconceptions behind.  You must abandon your expectations and come to the work with an open mind, willing to see things as presented and as suggested.

Dante is throughout concerned with the human capacity to think and understand.  He states it clearly in Canto III of Inferno, just after the encounter with the epigram, where Virgil tells Dante:

“We have come to the place I spoke about, where you would see the souls who dwell in pain, for they have lost the good of the intellect.”

The Italian word used is dolorose, which does mean “pain”—but more, it means woe and regret.  In this phrasing the meaning of “intellect” can be taken in a Hegelian sense, basically that intellect is that which allows context—which is a fundamental differentiation between intelligent people and those who are merely clever, a distinction that goes back at least to Socrates.

Why would intellect be tied one-to-one with the regret of hell?  A simple answer would be that an abandonment of the intellect leads to an inability to make “right” choices and thence to a life of sin.  But Purgatory is filled with people suffering an inability to make choices.  Besides, salvation even then was believed to be a benefice of God’s grace, not anything to do with your own ability to think and understand.

Before that, Virgil tells Dante he must “leave distrust and doubt behind…put all cowardice to death”—namely, give up both expectation (hope) and prejudice (fear) in order to see things differently.  In order to see what is really there.

The course Dante takes after crossing over in Charon’s boat is one where the denial of intellect, the inability to use it, and the final embrace of all its powers defines the framework of life.

To underscore this, those Dante learns of who inhabit Limbo are all poets and writers.  Virgil of course, but also Homer, Lucan, Ovid, Horace.  At this stage they are the only ones with the light of intellect, but they live in light surrounded by darkness, the threshold of Oblivion.  They look but see nothing.  In a sense, this condition is recapitulated in Paradise where the inhabitants seeing nothing else but what is at their center.

(Dante plays a curious game with Limbo, which did not become “official” until 1254 C.E.  Limbo:  limits, a threshold, from the sanskrit Lambaté, a suspension.  Suspended animation.  Indo European s’lamba, to hand down.  A latent capacity, untapped until someone accepts it and puts it to use?  As Dante uses Virgil?  Limbo, perhaps, merely lacks a cultural basis for moving on.  It is a place held in reserve, with no telos (which the Limboites do not believe in anyway—and why would they?  It is not for them to find a direction), no concept of “paradise” toward which to move.)

At Canto V we come to the first thing in hell which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is carnality.  But Dante is not a simplistic moralist.  He was ever concerned with context and seemed to suggest that things in themselves were not immutable in the sense of being categorically right or wrong.  Carnality is the first thing in hell, the last thing in Purgatory, and again the first in Paradise, transformed into eroticism.

Much has been written about Francesca and Paolo, hell’s first victims, and one may legitimately wonder why they are here.  After all, they only wanted love.

Again, it is a question of intellect, and this first example sets the stage for what follows.  Paolo and Francesca’s “principle” seems to be unbounded sexual passion, romanticized by models they have taken from fictions and poets, being “in the moment.”  But moment follows moment.  It is telling that Paolo never speaks and here is the problem.  The distinction is between self-awareness and self-involvement.  Self-awareness is necessary to recognize the affect you have on others, and neither Francesca (it’s all about her) nor Paolo display the least degree of awareness and end up blaming their unfortunate state on everything and everyone else.  They reject context, refuse to acknowledge responsibility, act out of absolute sensual impulse ungoverned by any consideration beyond their own gratification.  Consequently, they enter upon level after level of betrayal, beginning with self-betrayal.  (Francesca completely depersonalizes Paolo, never even naming him, but referring to him as “this one.”)  The eros is not what they’re in it for, but the denial of everything but the capture of a momentary impulse which they do not even try to understand.  (The idea that this canto is based on “the autonomy of passion and the heteronymy of sin” would make more sense if the terms were reversed.)

It is here where we can see what Dante was playing at.  On the surface, Francesca and Paolo are “innocent”—young lovers only wanting each other—but they indulge their pursuit by rejecting forethought, understanding, any kind of self-awareness, and accept only appetite as a justification for…anything.  It is not so much the act but the lack of any recognition that has put them here.

We completed the entire work this year, so I’m adding this post to my end-of-year reading assessments.  I’ll be returning from time to time to mull over more of the work.

Along with this, though, I read the Barbara Reynolds’ biography Dante: the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man.  Ms. Reynolds was Dorothy Sayers’ personal assistant and aided Sayers in her translation of Dante (and finished it when Sayers died before completing it).  Reynolds also wrote a biography of Sayers.

I can recommend the Dante biography as a biography, but I found her analysis of the Commedia conservative and traditional, despite her claim to have a “new and radical” take on it.  Like most commentators, she accepts unquestioned that Dante was talking about the afterlife.  In my view (decided amateur, to be sure, and unacademic, but it is mine) Dante was not at all concerned with the afterlife in his great work.  As an exile, a nearly perpetual outsider, Dante had a view of the secular and temporal whole as a network of political, philosophical, and intellectual systems and codified that view here.  He cast it in the framework of a Vision and thereby wrote what might otherwise have been condemned outright as heresy.  But by the end I found it difficult if not impossible to see this as anything other than a precursor to later examinations of Reason and the human condition.  (There’s even some interesting physics thrown in here and there, especially concerning optics, but also concerning time, which on some levels are related.)  He was very much writing about the here and now, the there and then, and problems of right action in a corrupt world.  His opening charge, to give up expectations—prejudice, preconceptions, hopes, fears—is intended to clear the mind for the work of seeing fresh.  He ties intellection to salvation, but it is not the kind of salvation one’s expectation may anticipate.

…And the Winners Are

I should be writing fiction instead of writing about it, but I must continue my year-end summations.  I’m off tomorrow, so I intend to get down to serious stuff.

Anyway, I read some pretty good novels this past year.  Much as I admire, respect, and feel a duty to read broadly in nonfiction, when it gets down to it, fiction is what I live for.  (Well, Donna comes first, sure, but as we’ve been writing a novel with our lives…ahem)  Fiction takes me away.  It opens things up, offers newness in a way nothing else does.

As I get older I find myself reading more slowly, soaking in the sentences.  This has the consequence of making me impatient with poorly-written material.  Or material that is well enough written but really has little to say.  Not that I’ve always got my nose in weighty tomes or Significant Prose and Important Literature, but there’s gotta be some meat on them bones, know what I mean?

That said, I caught up with what I consider “snack” reading in the form of Margaret Maron’s  “Deborah Knott” series.  A new one just came out, otherwise I could claim to have read all of these.  I don’t know why I’m so taken with these.  They fall into the crime fiction category of “cozies”, a term I learned only in the last couple of years.  It’s about solving the crime and shows little gore.  Not thrillers.  More personal, character-driven excursions.  PG-13 (although Deborah herself…well, you need to read a couple of these).  I like the characters, the setting is a small community in North Carolina, and Maron tilts at obviously long-favored windmills.  She has a separate series set in New York, the Sigrid Harald series, and in the last Knott book—Three Day Town—the two meet.  They are evidently related and from what I’ve seen of the new one, this is a trend that will continue.  The difference in style and approach between the two series is striking.

I also did some “catching up” with older SF that I never read—or, if I had, I’ve forgotten.  In that vein, I read a pair of Doris Piserchia novels—Star Rider and A Billion Days of Earth.  Piserchia could be a good representative of the waning days of New Wave science fiction.  Her skill was in novelty of idea and velocity, whipping you through the story so fast there is no time to notice any flaws.  Both these novels were part of Bantam’s Frederik Pohl Selection series from the early to mid-1970s, a line that included Delany’s Dhalgren and Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey.  According to Pohl, Dhalgren was the only one of these that actually made money for the publisher, which is unfortunate if true—he published some very good novels.

Also, because I was involved in an event with him at the St. Louis Science Center, I read David Gerrold’s Yesterday’s Children, which is basically a science fiction take on Run Silent, Run Deep, and really demonstrates Gerrold’s skill with psychology.  I also read his Space Skimmer.  Gerrold is most famous for his Star Trek episode, The Trouble With Tribbles—and deservedly so—but he is a really fine novelist and ranges across a  wide spectrum of subject and form.

After that event, I was asked to introduce the screening at the Science Center of the movie Fantastic Voyage, which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years.  To prepare, I read both Asimov’s original novelization and his second version, Fantastic Voyage II, which he published in 1987—because he really wanted to address some of the problems inherent in the original premise.  I was amused at his “solution” to the key problem of miniaturization and mass.  I still possess my original paperback of Fantastic Voyage (a bit worse for wear after 44 years) and enjoyed the return visit.

I also read a couple of Mack Reynolds novels from the Sixties—Commune 2000 A.D. and The Towers of Utopia.  I say “from the Sixties” and my ghod can you tell!  There is a charming-if-maddening naïvete in these novels that make them read like something for children (if not for the almost innocent obsession with sex).  Both are set in the same world, a time when the planet has come under the thrall of a single government.  Everything is fine, needs are met, but of course there are Those Who Don’t Fit In—Libertarians, basically—and revolution is in the offing.  It’s not so much that the premise is bad, but the execution…so Sixties.

Also from that time, though, was The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd, who had a steady if not stellar career and published some interesting novels.  This one, though—his first—remains the one everyone seems to remember (if they remember him at all).  This is one I think I read when it came out (1968) but I couldn’t remember, so I reread it.  Again, there was that delightful, nostalgic naïvete, the flavor of Something Lost.  But Boyd was not quite so innocent as Reynolds in his understanding of human psychology and the problems of political solidarity (of any kind!) and while the end becomes almost absurdly optimistic and playful, I found the novel to be a fun trip through some really interesting ideas.  It’s an alternate history, but you can’t tell for a good part of the book.  Only toward the end, when time travel becomes a factor in “restoring” history, do the variations make a larger sense.

Some of these novels suffer from compression.  Today, it’s nothing for a science fiction novel to run 300 to 500 pages, which allows for a full examination of premise and ramification, but Back Then there were constraints, and most of these books were usually only 200 pages, sometimes (often) less, and a great deal got crammed in.  The practiced reader could fill in the gaps, so to speak, but this was one reason so many readers coming late to SF found them ridiculous and indecipherable.

That said, many others seemed to have no trouble with the length given.  Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Ursula Le Guin’s early work—none of it felt particular “slight” by virtue of such compression.  The difference between a fine writer and a merely good one?

Roger Zelazny was one who had no difficulty working within the confines of 60 to 80 thousand words.  I’ve been making my way through his oeuvre for some years now, and he is a gem in the tapestry of SF.  This year, I read Creatures of Light and Darkness, Doorways In The Sand, and My Name Is Legion.  The last was a bit of a clunker, but the other two are classic Zelazny.  (I am not much taken with his most famous series, Amber.  Don’t know why—they’re fun reads, but they leave me flat.)

Another “vintage” writer I’ve been catching up on is James Blish.  Most folks remember him for the series of Star Trek collections he wrote based on the original series.  Blish was a prolific writer who did some solid work in the 50s and 60s, including his other “most famous” work, Cities In Flight.  He was also one of the first serious critics in the field, publishing still-relevant essays as by William Atheling.  His novels, though short, are studies in the efficient telling of idea-centered stories. This year’s reads were The Star Dwellers, its sequel Mission To The Heart Stars, and Titan’s Daughter.  The last is particularly interesting, being a eugenics-and-bigotry story, told very much with the 50s civil rights movement in mind.  Blish, unlike Boyd and Reynolds, was not naïve.

Moving briefly away from SF, I read Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, the first in his epochal series Dance to the Music of Time.  Some have claimed this is a British Proust.  Frankly, I found it dull and uninteresting.  The kind of thing I have no patience for in so-called “mainstream” literature.  Minute studies of people with whom I have no connection nor, through the instrument of the novel, desire any.  Very well-written, but navel-gazing at its refined best.

On the other hand, I read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal, which is also a minute study of character, but one I rank comparable to Gaddis, Pynchon, Bolano.  The difference between this and the Powell is in its innate ability to twist your sensibilities and take you through An Experience.  Powell’s novel hinted at such, but really came down to just a cataloque of what these people ate and where they went.  The Genet puts you Somewhere Else.  (Which is one of the chief pleasures of science fiction, by the way.)

Which brings me to Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, the first of his epic Aubrey/Maturin series.  I’ve tried to read this a few times  before.  This year, sitting at home recovering from appendicitis, nothing else to do but eat soup, sleep, and read, I took another crack at it and got through.  I’m a Hornblower fan from long ago.  This is very different from the Forester.  The detail is fit for a historian and, for my money, drags the story, which by the end of the book had me.  I’m told the subsequent books get better and that, really, it is all one long novel interrupted by covers.  I’m not sure I’ll continue it, but I’m glad I finally read it.

I reread Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and once more felt carried away by the sheer ebullience of his language.

I then read Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, written in the 50s, but with none of the sentimentality of the usual SFnal doomsday fare.  This is a well-reasoned study of a changed society and Brackett never flinched from looking human fear and prejudice squarely in the face.  This one should be talked about on par with A Canticle For Liebowitz, On The Beach, Fail Safe…Brackett, if she is remembered at all anymore, co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.  She was a first-rate writer and did some great SF, but this one is her masterpiece.

There was a handful of newer works I read that I want to recommend.  Embassytown by China Miéville I have written about already.  I have also written something about Jo Walton’s Among Others.  I may have inadvertently and certainly unintentionally given offense there, but I want to stress just how good a book that is.

But my friend Carolyn Ives Gilman published her epic novel (in two parts) over the last year-and-a-half, the second volume of which is Ison of the Isles.  (The first part is Isles of the Forsaken.)  Go.  Buy.  Read.  Great stuff.

I also read the new Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, Garment of Shadows, by Laurie R. King.  She continues to delight in this ongoing series about (and ostensibly by) Holmes’ wife.

Our reading group completed Dante’s Commedia finally, after seven years of canto-by-canto reading and analysis.  I intend to do a post or two dedicated solely to that, but I’m still mulling it over.

I haven’t mentioned a number of books which I read and enjoyed.  No slight intended to any of them, but this has gone on long enough and I hit all the points I intended to make and recommended what I wanted to recommend.  I may cover a few of them in a separate post (in fact, I’m looking at my list and seeing a couple that deserve longer treatment) but for now I can wrap this up.

Naturally, I think everyone should go out and buy some of my recommendations.  If you do, do so at Left Bank Books.

Good reading to you.

The Scroll At Year’s End

I read around 80 books, cover to cover, this year.  Currently I’m in the middle of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and odds are I won’t quite manage to finish it by the 31st (annoying life-type stuff keeps getting in the way and I do not want to zip through it; too many delicious bits to risk zipping past) but I will say a couple things about it at the end of this.

Of the historical nonfiction I read this year, a chunk of it went into the second volume of the trilogy I’ve been working on for a while (which, before you ask, still has not found a publisher, but I’m going to start the third volume next year anyway).  In that vein, I read The Red Prince by Timothy Snyder, a biography of Wilhelm von Habsburg, one of the last archdukes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Pleasurably readable, this chronicles the familial ins and outs of a complicated imperial family during the period in which empires collapsed all over the world and the scions of such dynasties found other things to do with both their time and their pedigree.  While it may seem odd today, Wilhelm was one of those who “adopted” a nation to champion—Ukraine—which more or less had to be created from whole cloth out of certain ethnic minorites other states claimed.  I read this mostly for the background, which informs the second volume of my own book, but I was so taken by Wilhelm that I inserted him in one scene.

Along those lines—since this is the character I put Wilhelm in the scene with, and because I’ve used him as the bad guy throughout the trilogy, albeit in a somewhat distorted form (we are talking alternate history after all)—I read The Panther’s Feast by Robert Asprey.  I’d read this back in high school—in fact still have the Bantam paperback copy of it—but remembered only that Alfred Redl, who ended up the most powerful intelligence officer in the Austrian Empire, was a traitor, selling secrets to maintain his exorbitant lifestyle as well as his secret life as a homosexual, and set the stage subsequently for the rout of Austria in the First World War.  I chose him for the antagonist and did some fiddling with history to make him a count.  Asprey’s book read like a novel, but he backs up his portrayal with an impressive amount of research.  Again, the full flavor of the Austrian Empire is on display.

Much as it is in Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor, which is largely about Vienna in 1888 and ’89 and the last days of Crown Prince Rudolph.  The cast of characters running through this short but meticulous work brings the period to life—Klimt, Mahler, Freud, Herzl, and Schnitzler.  (I have Morton’s Thunder At Twilight on my TBR pile, which is about Vienna on the eve of WWI.)

In preparation for volume three, which will be set during the Napoleonic Era, I read a decent biography of Fouché, who was minister of police under Napoleon—but also involved in the Directory and worked also for Louis XVIII and the restoration.  His legacy plays a part in the series as the namesake of the state police in my story—the Fouchendarme.  A most fascinating player in that whole period, the man who literally had the goods on everybody and thus not only escaped the guillotine but maintained considerable power.  According to Hubert Cole, whose biography of him I chose, he was a more or less consistent republican throughout that period, but he was also a pragmatist.  He should be remembered for the tremendous number of people he did not arrest as for those he did.

I needed background on Paris as well.  I found one book that purported to be a street by street history which was so difficult to keep straight, I gave up.  (I may try again.)  But I found Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, which is not only very readable, but contains stories that delight (for instance, the tale of how Marie Antoinette delayed the royal escape by turning the wrong way coming out of the Tuileries and ending up doing a long nocturnal circuit of the city, eating up hours while the king and court waited).

Tangential to these—using the writing of a novel as an excuse, really, to range over some histories I wanted to read anyway—I read America’s Constitution by Akhil Reed Amar.  Amar has done a book on the bill of rights as well and more recently published a more speculative work on our “unwritten” constitution.  In this one, he breaks the constitution down by section and analyzes it both historically and legally and sometimes philosophically.  His command of minutiae and understanding of shifting context make this a pretty good work on which to base a deeper understanding of our Founding documents.

I’m becoming more and more interested in early American history.  The last several years have seen major distortions in public by prominent politicians who seem to feel that the general ignorance of the American populace of their own history is sufficient for them to think they can get away with blatant misrepresentations.  But it is a complex history and even people reasonably conversant with the broader outlines of our history can be forgiven for not knowing—well, a lot.  So I have a growing pile of books, one of which this past year was Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, which is a thorough re-examination of the life and impact of Aaron Burr.  She details in the introduction the unfortunately shoddy history of biographies about this man, of whom most people only know that he shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was later tried for treason.  (That he was tried seems enough to convince most people that he was guilty, even though he was thoroughly acquitted and the real traitors in the affair were never indicted.)  Hard upon that, I read Gore Vidal’s novel, Burr, which obviously predates Isenberg’s biography but also seems to anticipate it.  Vidal evidently didn’t think much of Jefferson and his portrayal of some of the key figures in the Revolution may make some people’s back teeth ache, but it is an excellent novel and succeeds in bringing the period to life.  (As noted above, I’m now reading his Lincoln, which thus far feels equally well grounded and evocative of time and place.  Novels and biographies such as these play a very important role in public life, insofar as I think it essential that we do all we can to lance the boil of deification which enshrouds our famous forebears in cauls of inhuman adulatory buffer.  One need not shortchange someone’s reputation for significant achievement by also pointing out that he or she was in many ways just like anyone else, and could be just as much an asshole or an incompetent.)

Among the other nonfiction books I read this year, I can recommend four in particular.  In no kind of order, they are: Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahnman, Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon, Nom De Plume by Carmela Ciuraru, and Sleepwalking Through History by Haines Johnson.

The Kahneman is a detailed study of how people make decisions, how, in fact, the brain and mind process information and come to conclusions.  While this may sound like a dry tome, it is anything but, as he uses illustrations from his own life as a researcher and tells the story in a lively style.

I have come to the conclusion that one should read at least one Heat Moon book just for the sheer elegance of his sentences.  More, his has a gift for evoking place and mood.  Blue Highways is his first book, a chronicle of a circumnavigation of America by way of the “blue roads on the maps”, the lesser used state roads. In this instance, it is also an evocation of time—the late 70s—before America began to change with the Reagan “revolution.”

Which segues nicely into the Haines Johnson book.  Johnson chronicles the actual workings of the Reagan Administration and the cultural context and tears away the curtain to reveal the man at the levers.  Reagan’s reputation as a “great” president is one of the best pieces of spin control we have ever seen and this books shows why.  It is easy to point to Reagan’s presidency as the time when everything started to go sideways for so much of what America wished to be and become, but it can be tricky making the argument among certain people who venerate the man—a veneration born of image rather than substance—and having a source of details is very useful.

The Ciararu is a delightful history of famous pseudonyms.  Mark Twain, George Sand, George Eliot, Simenon (a lot of Georges!) and others.  Concise biographies open the door on the how and why of these authors and their pen names.  Fun.

I also read Ellen Chesler’s admirable biography of Margaret Sanger, Woman of Valor, which also chronicles the history of the birth control movement in America and the contiguous struggle for equality of women.  Historical amnesia can have serious consequences, especially in a time when gains made decades ago are now in danger of being lost because so many people simply don’t know what it was like and what it took to achieve what now can be taken for granted.  This a good place to start to find the social and political grounding of some of our current absurd culture wars.

These were the significant nonfiction books I read this past year. I’ll do the fiction in a separate post.

I wholehearted recommend everything I discussed here—in case there was any doubt.

Mayan Sunset

Mayan Sunset, Midwest Theater
Mayan Sunset, Midwest Theater

 

Daylight.

Vast dome of god-magma, spare us!

(Whew!)

That was close.  Had we chosen a different calendar, things might have gone differently.  The Great Cycle, though, has been completed and now, we stand upon the apron of a new Age.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote a slim volume back at the turn of the century about Millennialism, calendars, the human urge to impose order upon the innately disordered.  He wrote lovingly about what is basically our habit of taxonomic assertion.  These things go here, those over there, and by all means we must keep this stuff apart.

What defies rational explanation is our apparent fascination with End Times.

Or does it?

There is something oddly relieving in the idea that Something will take us out of our situation, arrange the universe in such a way that we won’t have to deal with the irritating minutiae of actual existence, day in and out, year upon year.  Taxes.  Utility bills.  Listening to the weather report.  The latest world disaster.

The death of friends.

There is a thread of the Apocalypse long favored by science fiction writers, primarily, I think, for its wonderful trick of wiping the slate clean and allowing for a brand new start.  Of course, we won’t be swept from the stage, only all the rest of a burgeoning, unwieldy humanity that seems to make it so difficult to straighten things out.  We—the protagonists (of course)—would have the opportunity to start all over.  Even something as nascent as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds offers the chance to redraw the maps of tomorrow by thoroughly trashing today.

Some of our favorite stories are about exactly that.  Even in the Bible.  The proto disaster novel had early beginnings.  The Flood is exactly that kind of wishful thinking.  To a lesser extent, the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Clearly, Lot and his lot thought of themselves as the new versions of Noah and his brood.)  It looked like it was going to happen again, too, when Yeshua was crucified.  Read those passages and all the components of a ripping End Times yarn are there!  Earthquakes, bad weather, lightning, the oppressive sense of doom.  (The story teller there played a trick on everyone, though, and the world didn’t end and the next day everyone woke up and realized they still had to manage.  Damn.)

Alas, we aren’t to be let off the hook that easily.

I think this one, being so well-publicized and consequently such a big let-down, should be seen in a more positive way.  We survived the Mayan Apocalypse (which was never in the cards anyway, never predicted—the only thing that ended was a cycle of the Mayan calendar, specifically what they called an Initial Series) and the day dawned and look, Christmas is still, as they used to say, right around the corner.

Another end that didn’t.

Maybe, though, we should look at it as an opportunity for the kind of new beginning we always talk about, hear about, dream about, but then never really do anything about.  Look at it this way—the weather (at least here) was pretty severe, the elements were getting ready to dump abyssal payback upon us, and collectively we were spared.  We have found ourselves survivors upon our spinning world, alive and in possession of the possibilities of a New Dawn.  For whatever reason, another chance is ours.

People are always coming up with End Time scenarios, but what happens the next day is always a bit thin after all the sturm und drang of the actual apocalypse.  But then, that’s for each one of us to write, hmm?

After all, one Great Cycle has now ended, the previous Initial Series is over, a new one is upon us.  Maybe the next cycle really can be great.  For a change, maybe it would be a good idea to do what we keep telling ourselves is the best part of the season.  Stop hating, open up a little.

‘Tis the season.  We’ve survived.  So what are you going to do with your second chance?

Peace.

Addenda Tragicus

I mis-reported something in my previous post.  I said Adam Lanza did this with a pair of pistols.  At that time, that was the report I had, from early news items that did not mention the assault rifle.  But he used one after all, so a correction is in order.  I also said 26 people had been killed, but that was students and teachers and did not include Lanza’s mother, who he killed at home and was apparently the first victim, nor Lanza himself.

I said “we are a people enamored with violence” and yes, I meant Americans, but obviously that is no real distinction, and the bizarreness of such incidents is hardly confined to us.  This report from China is about a similar tragedy.  (This man used a knife, and while some folks are making a point of the fact that none died as opposed to the Newtown event, I think that misses the central fact.  The report goes on to detail that this attack was only the latest in a growing number of similar assaults.)  Here is another detailing a slaughter in the wake of something we may sometimes characterize as a “western” trigger.  Then of course we have become so inured to stories of honor killings and the massacres of terrorists, it may be that we simply discount them and are willing only to focus on our own tragedies as if we should somehow be immune to this sort of thing.

But there are two things I want to add to what I wrote yesterday that I suggest feed this kind of inexplicable event.

The Westboro Baptist Church plans to try to picket the funerals of the children in Connecticut.  Why?  Why else?  Homosexuality.

But we are beginning nationally to discount them as nutjobs, obsessed with their own religious celebrity.

However, Mike Huckabee has weighed in, telling us that the shootings occurred because “we have systematically removed God from the schools.”*

When I talked about the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, this is an example.  Most people are going to shrug this off, the overblown posturings of a disappointed presidential candidate with a viewpoint sharply athwart mainstream.  But I think that also misses a crucial point.

I said we like very much to find reasons, to explain things, and in the face of the inexplicable we tend to grasp at anything that seems to offer a reason.  We are reluctant, it seems, to simply say “I don’t know, it was one of those things” and then keep looking for meaningful answers.  Meanwhile, these kinds of explanations hang around, suffuse the zeitgeist, drift about until sympathetic minds adopt them.

Theology 101:  if, as we find in many strains of christian thought, “god” is by definition “within each of us”—because we are his creations and, presumably, he loves us—then any one or number of us who go into a place bring him with us.  Furthermore, children are by christian operating principles “innocent” and certainly the special ones of Jesus’ attention.  Which means that god is inextricably linked to gatherings of children and a school is chock full of god.

Obviously, this isn’t what Huckabee and his ilk are talking about.  They mean we refuse to put up a crucifix in the classroom and hold organized prayers every day.  They aren’t interested in the nous and spirit of their propositions, only in the propaganda opportunities missed by means of the separation clause.  They don’t trust individuals to carry god with them wherever they go, they want public demonstrations and regular indoctrination seminars.

And because we won’t do that, they suggest that god is letting slaughter happen.  God, in other words, is holding hostages and killing them (he’s all powerful, right?) when he doesn’t get his way.

Back in the aftermath of Katrina, Pat Robertson was spewing a line that New Orleans had been inundated because we have shoved god out of our lives.  This in one of the most religious per capita nations in the Western Hemisphere.  “God doesn’t go where he’s not invited.”  He should have done a survey of the number of neighborhood churches there were (and are) in New Orleans.  It was a cruel, unworthy sentiment that was also based on the idea that his god punishes people because others ignore him—and then doesn’t tell anyone that this is the reason the tragedy happened.

Oh, Scripture?  You mean Sodom and Gomorrah and the search for the righteous?  Lot, who was so righteous he intended handing over his daughters to a mob of horny debauchers rather than risk pissing off his god by letting his messengers be diddled?  Lot, who then later got drunk in a cave and fucked those same daughters, at their contrivance (of course, because it’s always the women at fault) because they thought the whole world had been destroyed and it was time to act like Noah’s kids and repopulate?  That story?  Very uplifting.  (I got in trouble in grade school over that one for (a) bringing up the cave and (b) wondering how come if god could send angels to Sodom to warn Lot’s family he couldn’t have sent the same pair to the cave to tell them the world was okay.)**

You’ll forgive me if I find that kind of reasoning specious and insulting.

Obviously, it doesn’t matter to these people what may actually be going on in the hearts and minds of others, only what we appear to have going on.

So in the wake of a tragedy that, in any meaningful way is the equivalent of an earthquake or a tornado, we see certain folks adding to it by twisting the circumstances into an opportunity for theocratic propaganda.

Which, intentionally or not, feeds the paranoia of certain folks by reinforcing the kind of final solution thinking they may already be indulging and which may from time to time lead to more tragedy.

We have better stories than this.  We need to be telling them.  Often.  Loudly.

Oh, and Huckabee’s position on firearms?

My position on the Second Amendment to the Constitution is as clear for me as the position held by most journalists toward the 1st Amendment. While I do not consider myself a “gun nut,” I proudly own a variety of firearms and enjoy hunting as well as sports shooting. But even if I were not a hunter or did not enjoy shooting, I would still be a firm believer in the 2nd Amendment right of Americans to own firearms for self-protection and as a matter of principle.”

But of course, using the same twists of logic he used about Newtown, we have no right to be safe from his god.  Not even children.  (Yes, I am making a point by making an extreme case.)

We can do better than this.

_______________________________________________________

* Does it need pointing out that what did the killing did not come from within the school?  That, metaphorically, evil broke in?  Yeah, well, maybe it does…

** Yes, I state it crudely—it is a crude story and deserves no better.

 

 

Insanity

Doubtless whatever I say, someone will find fault, take offense, withdraw into positions, place guard dogs at the gates and lookouts in the towers.

We are a people enamored of the idea of violence.  We like the idea that when it gets down to the proverbial nitty gritty we can and will kick ass and take names.  Americans are tough, not to be messed with, ready to exact justice by knuckles or 9.mm.

Until something like this happens and then we recoil from our own defining myths with a collective “but that’s not what we meant!”

Adam Lanza murdered 26 people in a grade school, 20 of them 1st graders.  Children.  Reports indicate he shot some of them multiple times at close range.

Someone, somewhere, by now has made the argument that had any of those kids been armed, Lanza would have been stopped.  Maybe not in the media (but I could be wrong) but in living rooms and over dinner tables.

Because we are almost as obsessed with Finding Reasons as we are of retaining an image of personal power born of a romanticized version of a Frontier that for the most part never existed.

Back in the metaphorically rich Sixties, at one of the last “above ground” meetings of the Underground, there was a session dedicated to the proposition that it was encumbent upon good revolutionaries to set about killing all newborn whites.  Because, the argument ran, through no fault of their own they were destined to grow up to be part of an oppressive ruling elite and it was necessary to nip this in the bud before the conditions of oppression found new blood to enforce the status quo.

Now, this was not acted upon.  I bring it up to make the point that people adopt narratives and take positions that in their extremity produce bizarre ideas.  The vast majority never come to fruition—they are ideas, discussions, bandied about by people who, in their own way, are trying to find explanations for and impose order upon a world that seems chaotic and malign.  To some extent, we all do this.  There is even an upside to it—fiction writers produce cathartic works that thrill and entertain.

And, in a sane world, go no farther.

But there are always those who internalize the narrative extremes and find cause to act.

We’ve had a string of these recently.  Just this morning there was another report of a shooting, in Newport RI I believe, some loon snapped off fifty shots in a mall or on a beach.  No one was injured this time.  All we have is the lone gunman shooting at the demons around him.

Demons?*

Listen to some of the rhetoric of the past couple of decades, rhetoric that once had a limited audience, but since the age of Cable and the Internet has blossomed with a concomitant ease of isolating narrow bands of data, enabling people to create bubbles and live in them in ways never before possible, seems today more concentrated, vitriolic.

Back in the early days of the Moral Majority I heard Falwell preaching blood in the streets.  End Times Nonsense.  The Apolcalypse is upon us.  Final Days.

Insanity.

But that does not mean these people—preachers and preached—are themselves insane.

No doubt there will be an attempt to characterize this young man as mentally ill.  How else could he have done this?

I believe this misses a crucial point.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt made the case that Eichmann—and by extension most of his colleagues in the Third Reich—was not evil, not in any classical sense of being demon-possessed or mentally deformed.  He was a functionary, a bureaucrat, doing a job.  The most you could say is that he had bought into a paradigm that was at base evil, but it came from many factors.  Key among them was the narrative he had accepted that allowed him to think along certain lines that led to Holocaust.

It’s frightening because it tells us that any one of us could be just like him.

If you live inside a bubble, your view of the world is distorted, the solutions you may find will be at odds with the common, but you do not need to be clinically insane for this to take hold.

Which brings me to one of those gnawing, irritating factors in the second half of this issue.  The guns.

Lanza did not do this with an assault rifle, which has become the icon of mass killings.  He had a pair of pistols.  Automatics, to be sure, but that only makes what he was able to do faster, not any more terrible. And here is the frustrating point that so many of us of a certain generation wrestle with.

I grew up in a house full of guns.  My father was a gunsmith at one point.  We had the equivalent of a small armory in the house.  Several of them were antiques, but a number were quite modern.

It never occurred to me once to use one to settle a problem.  And trust me when I say that if anyone would have fit the profile of one of these killers, it would have been me.  Bullied, ignore, frustrated, introverted, socially inept, and very, very stressed from a feeling of injustice in the way I was treated.

It never crossed my mind to kill anyone.

In terms of the weapons themselves, I treated them with the utmost respect, fully aware of their power and potential (we hunted).

Now.  What the hell has changed?

I do not here side with the NRA.  They have taken it upon themselves to advocate a position which crosses the line into inanity, but which is based on the self-perceived rights of a constituency which for a very long time was perfectly mainstream.  But like other such issues, a worm of right-wing paranoia has crept in.  They do not come right out an say it, but they represent people who believe in their bones that the 2nd Amendment gives them their sole guarantee that the United States will not become a tyranny.

What I will say is that this position makes it very difficult to even discuss rational limits on firearm possession.

Something which once was entirely at the determination of local authorities.

(I find it ironic that people who reject “federalism” out of hand for any number of other matters—schools, healthcare, poverty relief, etc—depend more and more on a federal solution to even state attempts to control firearms.)

An insistence that people like Lanza are mentally ill in some way combined with this absurd stance on a presumed right to not only own but potentially use lethal force for political purposes and a marrow-deep suspicion of government has created an unconscionable situation.  We can all of us not only imagine but I suspect name people who should not own guns.  Neighbors, even.  They are not insane.  They may be irresponsible.  It’s likely some of them—many of them—side with the no-limits attitude of the NRA.  They may simply espouse a worldview born out of narrative completely at odds with reality.

The scary thing here is how close this issue brushes up against 1st Amendment rights.  If, as I seem to be suggesting, we need to look at the kinds of stories we’re telling ourselves about ourselves, doesn’t that border on advocating censorship of some kind?

No, I do not.  But it should be recognized how closely entwined the two things can become.

What I do advocate is some kind of program that punctures all these bubbles people have been living in.

When the Republic was founded, the fact of the matter is the “armed forces” was The People.  We didn’t have much of a regular army—in fact, rejected having one—and our various police forces were not very good.  The fact is, a substantial portion of the population lived in isolated, frontier regions where owning a firearm was not only desirable but essential.  We live upon that founding narrative, even though the frontier is long gone and the fact is that the police and the armed forces are so far and away better equipped than any citizen soldiers might be that the idea of resisting them is almost laughable.  But the fact is, we likely wouldn’t resist them.

But this nonsense over the intent of the 2nd Amendment is silly.  The phrase is “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” not “the right of persons (or the right of people)” to do so.  The Framers understood language, sometimes clearly far better than we do.  By not saying simply “persons” or “people” but instead “the people” they made it clear they intended a political entity, not individuals under any circumstances.  They meant that the militia was the local community, that used to muster to drill from time to time in the town square, and as things became more and more settled, fewer and fewer individuals owned firearms of their own.  They would get them from the local armory if need be (which is exactly what the British were on their way to seize at Lexington and Concord).  What they meant was the right to exercise military force belonged to the citizens.

Let me finish by pointing out that the one thing we seem reluctant to talk about, on either side, is precisely that lost element of responsibility I mentioned earlier.  What the hell happened to us?  We have gone from, presumably, a nation of responsible adults to a nation of emerging armed camps with no ability to teach the next generation anything of value.

I do not know why Adam Lanza did what he did.  I would very much like to know why he thought what he did was not only acceptable but his only option to redress whatever ingrown, isolated, paranoid wrong he thought needed redressing.  I want to know why he thought that was okay.

That is just as important, if not more so, than rationalizing this asinine debate over the proliferation and possession of firearms.

_______________________________________________________________

* No, I do not believe in demons as in “Satan’s minions” or spawn or what have you.  But some folks do believe in them and act accordingly.

12-12-12

Because I can’t resist the date.

Urban Abstract 2, 2012
Circles and Levels and Clocklike Movement

This particular confluence of numerical coincidence won’t happen again this century.  Proper appreciation must be shown.

Or, as Stephen Jay Gould once said, “I have always and dearly loved calendrical questions because they display all our foibles in revealing miniature.  Where else can we note, so vividly revealed, such an intimate combination of all the tricks that recalcitrant nature plays upon us, linked with all the fallacies of reason, and all the impediments of habit and emotion, that make the fulfillment of our urge to understand even more more difficult…”

It is in our nature to reject coincidence as simply what it is, especially when it comes to cosmic events.  Long ago human beings decided the devices we invented to keep track of time actually meant something to Time itself, as if the universe was somehow required to acknowledge our conceits.

Still, even as a purely invented coincidence, 12-12-12 is kind of cool.  How many babies will be born today and be considered extra special just because?  If someone happens to win a lottery today, the efficacy of numerically based sympathetic magic will be reinforced, even though it will still have exactly the same relationship as the odds of a coin face coming up with each of a hundred tosses as if the collective numbers of heads or tails somehow imposes necessity on each one (namely, zero).

On the other hand, any day you wake up with something to marvel on is a win, so I’ll take my small pleasures where I can.

I’ll be writing up a year-end assessment in a couple of weeks.  Soon it will be 2013—a numerical change about as meaningful as today’s date in the greater scheme of anything.  For instance, it is 2012 in our calendar system (Gregorian—the older Julian is similar, lacking but 13 days, which would make today the last day of November, with today’s numerically alliterative advent still to come) but 5773 in the Hebrew calendar. (A more concurrent calendar is the Holocene, which starts at the beginning of the Holocene Era—ours—by adding ten thousand years.  So it’s 12012 H.E.  I like that.)

It’s 1434 in the Islamic calendar.  Sometimes I ponder the significance of time lapsed in cultural evolution to try to understand where a given institution is along the line.  In this case, I remember where christianity was in 1400 when seeking to comprehend current attitudes and events.  They were on the verge of the Reformation, with seething splinter groups roiling under the surface about to explode into a family feud they’re still trying to settle.  Hm.

One of the youngest calendars is the so-called “Minguo” which is from the Republic of China (Taiwan) and dates from the founding of the Republic in 1912.  Their centenary was just celebrated.  It’s 101 in the ROC Minguo calendar.

We’re fortunate not be stuck using the Unix calendar, which is expressed in seconds.

The true measure of time is change.  Change in the environment, certainly, but for our purposes, changes in ourselves.  There is no calendar for such things.  Some changes are temporary, some seasonal, others permanent.  They may be profound or just occurrences that seem to have little import.  It’s a question of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Passagway
Passageway

It’s a common fallacy that our lives are telec, that they have a narrative structure, a beginning and an end in terms of purposes and goals.  If they do, it is a fact that we impose such things, but we’re not born with them.  (Born into them, perhaps, in the case of those who arrive swaddled in family expectations actively imposed.)  We have a start and a finish, which is not quite the same thing.  In between, it’s up to us to find meaning and purpose, make it out of whole cloth if we must, but waiting around for cosmic enlightenment to tell us what we’re here for invites a wasted life.  In an attempt to impose structure and suggest meaning, humans have invented numerous things—like calendars, with attendant rituals and anniversaries.  Out of the matrix of such things many of us find relevance among ourselves and that is not a bad thing at all.

In truth, each of us brings to such things what we have and are, whether we accept others’ definitions or not.  I wish people Merry Christmas despite the fact that I impute no validity in the defining mythology, because Christmas is what we make it.  I don’t have a lot of patience for people bent on souring everyone else’s holiday by indulging a political or theological hissy-fit—on either side of the Belief Divide.  I have my own resonances with it and take pleasure from the memory and æstethic significance on which I accrued that meaning.  I watch A Christmas Carol every year, drink egg nog, embrace my friends, and nurture a hearth-glow of fellowship.  I do not have to accept the fables to experience a “holiday spirit” every bit as real as those who do—nor do I appreciate those who insist on dumping cynicism and political scatalogy onto the season in an attempt to ruin it for everyone else in a misguided pursuit of some adherence to reason.  Truth and fact are often only coincidentally related, and the truth of the season is something greater than what is contained in the details of a given story.

The Gift of the Magi is my guiding narrative…for what it may be worth.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Season’s Wishes, etc etc etc.

Whatever calendar you use, have a good day.

Place Marker

Because I have nothing much to say this morning.

 

Machine Bones

 

However, our reading group is doing the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso today.  I will have something to say about that.  Later.