SOCIAL MEDIA

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Other Blogs by me

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE ART OF BOB SCRIVER, PLEASE GO TO: www.scriverart.blogspot.com.

Notes from Alvina Krause between 1957-1961 are posted at www.Krausenotes.blogspot.com


TWO REBLOGS:
Fiction about Indians at www.willowsticks.blogspot.com
Essays about Indians at www.siksikaskinitsiman.blogspot.com



Friday, October 31, 2008

DEMONIZING PARLICOOT

My aunt was an army nurse in London and Rheims during WWII and sometimes sent us picture books. One of them is quite beloved in English minds: “Parlicoot,” the little creature that was unlike any other and trotted through the countryside searching for his “playmate.” He didn’t even have a name at first, but when the little animals took him to the Owl for advice, that sage bird came up with “Parlicoot.” It was not until adulthood that I realized it was a French name: “parle ecoute!” Speak and listen.

“Parlicoot” is a benign and earnest little beast in the Disney and Beatrice Potter traditions and he has a lesson for all of us: that those who are unique can also be beloved. He plays with the squirrels and helps the bunnies and REALLY helps the frogs by moving a boulder that had shut off the water supply to the pond. They all love him and and beg him to stay with them, but he longs and yearns for someone just like himself, so he always moves on.

Finally he is going up a steep hill in a terrible storm when he sees a cozy looking cave and takes refuge inside. It is the home of Bill the Badger who cries out joyfully, “You’ve come back!” Parlicoot is confused, since he has never met this badger! When it is all sorted, Parlicoot and Bill figure out that someone just like him -- except for being female -- has been staying with Bill but has resumed her own search for someone just like herself. So Parlicoot rushes out, struggles to the hilltop and there, with a rainbow curving overhead, finds his Playmate. They marry with wreaths on their heads and all the animals in attendance and settle down in a grassy nest, happy ever after.

There’s a Australian version of this story in which a little swamp monster turns out not to be various reptilian creatures. Aussies are not so sentimental as the English and so their version might be a bit closer to the truth, which is that uniqueness is more likely to get a person demonized than admired. Of course, Parlicoot’s good character helps him make friends and fit in, more or less, even though he’s different. Usually, in human contexts, it’s not so simple, as Anne of Green Gables could tell you. Humans have a nasty tendency to solidify the group by excluding, punishing and even destroying anyone different. If there are enough excluded people who find stigmatized playmates like themselves, they’ll start a new group. Gays, feminists, artists, frontiersmen, blacks, Indians...

These “long-tail” groups (to use a literary reference) might be described as the thin and therefore “cutting edge,” where people are out on the perimeter of society, looking into the wilderness for new clues and alternatives, and finding the tools for renewal. This is so recognized now that there are universities where one can study “transgressive” and “alternative” artists, like Oscar Wilde wittily mentioning the unmentionable or Basquiat elevating street graffiti into formal paintings. Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Francis Bacon, Caravaggio -- make your own list.

Once discovered by wealthy patrons, which offers a bit of protection, these people can flower and become prized contributors to the culture as a whole -- filtering down from the top, so to speak, until someone like Barney Frank is a respected leader and Shirley Chisholm is a valued trail-breaker. But for those living with insecure, fearful, limited people, being different can result in a death sentence, either through a jury system contaminated by prejudice or by street profiling or because even a high school kid is seen as “fair game” if he or she seems unable to protect his or her self. In these sexualized times, such isolates are often repeatedly raped.

Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it. Authorities look the other way. They say victims invite abuse, “ask for it.”

In little towns on the prairie, families are supposed to protect their own, and at the very least the fathers are meant to do that -- just like the TV show. But in recent times fathers have been more vulnerable than mothers used to be in the days when they were so often lost when giving birth. Anyway, damaged families often choose one family member and blame that person for all their troubles, heaping accusations on them and deserting them when they need help.

Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it.

This is the business of the larger society because this demonizing shuts down experiments, freezes the growing edge, destroys the people who supply renewal. A recent newspaper article suggests that part of the reason we’re plunging over economic buffalo jumps is that all the energy has gone to manipulation, deception and closed-door deals instead of straightforward visions of the future. Journalists invent stories instead of going out to take a firsthand look, make snarky comments instead of checking themselves for bias, and completely ignore whole categories of people except to demonize them. Instead of financing real inquiries into the causes of the diabetes II plague (which may very well be caused by food additives and enviromental contamination), pharm companies invent minor variations on old drugs -- variations that can be life-threatening -- and discourage simple reform of diet. Even doctors will demonize peers who raise questions and objections.

What is the cure? Speak and listen. Parle y ecoute! Testify, tell the story, supply the evidence, and listen to the others who do. Over and over people who have joined their interests through the Internet have acquired enough power and compiled enough evidence to make a difference. Of course, they can be demonic as well, so consider carefully what you believe, what the results will be. We do not want to duplicate fascistic demonizing of the poor or "others," and yet I hear just that in the rhetoric of the current US elections.

In a week we’ll either have a clean start or we may have to go back to living off moose meat, the way my dad’s family had to in the Depression, way out there on the thin edge of Manitoba prairie survival where the banks felt free to impound the season’s potato crop without either legal or moral justification.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

BOOKS AS WICKED

Occasionally a certified if controversial “do-gooder” issue hooks into an unbalanced person and spills over into violent, even evil, behavior. I’m thinking of righteous snipers who shoot abortion doctors or leftist wilderness defenders who spike trees. The great popularity of Ed Abbey’s "The Monkeywrench Gang" shows that this tendency is often just under the surface, especially in the American psyche. I always remember the morning I was preaching at a mental hospital where there had been a fight on the ward. Everyone was medicated except the young black male orderly and myself. A stubborn heretic patient yelled out during the service, "God is evil!" The orderly screamed at him, “God is LOVE, you sunnavabitch and you’d better admit it or I’ll tear your goddamn head off!” I sent him out in the hall to have a smoke and walk around a bit.

Since American Indian issues have such a split personality -- on the one hand the historical material about evil red scalping devils and on the other hand the Disney idea of childish and innocent dwellers in Eden -- that they hook people this way very easily. Most people who don’t ordinarily deal with NA writing or even real NA people whether in a city or on a rez, find the whole thing so confusing and their own feelings so conflicted that they simply avoid the subject.

So NA literature is already vulnerable. Add to that revolutionary theories about deconstruction and post-colonial political correctness and you’re striking a match next to a gas spill. It’s hard to argue about Indians writing about Indians -- at least for a white person -- because there’s a certain entitlement in “being one.” But often technically enrolled Indians know less about their own tribe or NA’s across the continent than whites/blacks/yellows who actually visit them, as well as reading about them.

Because so many see Indians as “vanished” except for the anthropological materials collected in the 19th century, which locates them only in the past and only in the remoter parts of the country, they literally cannot see and recognize the Indians around them in their daily lives -- they see “Hispanics” or Arabs or Mongols. I mean, who thinks of Heather Locklear as a Lumbee Indian, which she is?

This is fertile ground for someone who looks like Victor Mature to claim an Indian heritage. (Don’t forget that President Clinton -- along with zillions of others -- claims a Cherokee grandmother the way guys who are genetically hip now claim to have the blood of Genghis Khan.) Making such claims can backfire, either if they get the claimant reclassified with a victim population or if they get the claimant “unmasked” and vilified for false identity. This is complicated since some people firmly believe that a diplomatic ceremony of adoption, meant to obligate the recipient to work for the benefit of the family or tribe, is some kind of actual transformation into being a hereditary tribal member. Congress, ever loathe to tackle an unpopular issue, gave each tribe the right to identify its own membership, opening up a lot of political payback opportunities whether positive or negative. Both Ward Churchill and Jamake Highwater (neither genetic Indians) were defined as members of a tribe, either formally through the tribal authorities or through private “adoption” ceremonies. DNA had nothing to do with it.

The Native American Literature Renaissance was instantly infested with people who wanted to play “gotcha” with writers. Some were Indian and many were not. The true NA writers who portrayed contemporary, ecologically-based, poverty-laden, violence-afflicted people -- maybe not on reservations -- fell by the wayside. The faux NA writers who portrayed stoic, noble, 19th century figures (maybe a little sexy in a benign way) were best-sellers. There were two sub-sets: the “Stay Away, Joe” crowd who loved the trope of slapstick Dogpatch life and saw the silly side of dire deprivation (the good old Napi tradition) and the misery voyeurs who wanted to know just how bad it is, so that they could weep over the poor little victims. (Indians have sort of been crowded out of this genre by black ghettoes and Third World countries.)

In the midst of all this, theoretical rhetoric sometimes became a sophisticated version of the “Officer Krumpke” defense: “I’m depraved on accounta I’m deprived.” But it didn’t help the local bar fight scene keep racial epithets out of violence or the discussion of violence. It DID help build up a ceremonial equivalent to literature which tried to recover 19th religious events once so feared that they resulted in the death of Sitting Bull and now so technically discussed that German aficionadoes sometimes seem to know more about it than the people whose grandparents were once ceremonial leaders.

These things are very difficult to talk about and even trickier to live in the midst of, esp. if one is white. But that’s part of their attraction. One constant indignation is that white people, by writing about NA matters, prevent NA writers from being published. I’d like to look at this theory head-on.

No writers can keep other writers from being published. PUBLISHERS keep writers of all kinds from being published, mostly because they don’t fit the stereotypes and expectations of profit that publishers have. There are many kinds of publishers (no NA publishers that I know of). What a publisher does is to supply the capital for the physical production of a book, which is labor intensive in terms of preparation, actual construction of paper and binding, and then distribution. Major costs are in salaries for people who do the editing and formatting, advertising, and attracting and supporting reviews. There are mass publishers, genre publishers, micro-publishers, specialty publishers, directory publishers, and a host of variations -- all based on capital investment in the expectation of profit.

The issue is confused by the “honor of it all,” the status that comes from being “a published author,” which is sometimes confused with earning an academic degree since part of academic life is publishing in order to earn tenure. This would seem to impose the obligation for an author to be virtuous as well as skillful. But because of censorship battles, and because there is always more profit in the forbidden, there has always been a brisk interest in “wicked” or forbidden literature. I remember how agog one of my childhood friends was when she discovered what the Biblical Apocrypha was -- the books that didn’t make it into the major compilations that Christianity calls the Old Testament and the New Testament. And there are even MORE shocking bits of writing that didn’t even make it into the Apocrypha!

How is anyone supposed to get sense out of all this? I think it is a misguided expectation. Put away your Morality Monitors. Read with open eyes. Reflect. And maybe go to the actual place, meet some actual Native Americans. If you come to the rez, bring money but remember that if someone sells you membership in the tribe or a genuine imitation ceremony, they might have a bridge in their hip pocket. Think of how many books you could buy for the price of a bridge!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

THE FORCES AT PLAY ON NA LIT

“Indigenous literature,” as Europeans call it, varies greatly according to the point in history when first-contact with the local people was made, as well as other factors. One of the first problems, of course, was the difference in language, which in the Americas was usually oral, so that “literature” would have to be defined in the ways that would include European oral literatures: ballads, sagas, fairy tales, legends and so on. Since Euros considered their oral literature suitable for non-literate people like peasants and children, their impulse was to see NA oral literature also as primitive because it wasn’t written down. The tough and sometimes raunchy NA stories became Disney-fied.

As soon as the indigenous people along the east coast understood what writing was, they became literate in spite of efforts to prevent them, as well as slaves, from learning it, lest it give them an advantage. But to no avail. Benjamin Franklin had a helper who could set print, that is, as well as reading and writing letters to the editor, he could assemble print on a typestick in mirror-order. The biggest trouble in the earliest days was that when native people were around enough Euros to learn these skills, they caught germs for which they had no immune defense and died too young to accumulate much.

Since students learned to read and write in English or whatever, it took a while for the indigenous people to figure out they could write down their own languages phonetically. The kind of missionaries who were “book-focused,” mostly Protestants, were intent on providing translations of the Bible and various prayer books, so they were very helpful in learning the indigenous languages and providing a body of print. There were sympathetic Victorian ladies who volunteered to be interlocutors, giving many the idea that Indian Chiefs sounded like poetry-smitten governesses.

As industrialization began to change the face of Europe, ideas about the indigenous people became reservoirs for romantic thoughts about nature as a refuge from the pestilence and ordure of growing new cities full of factories served by gin-soaked wage labor. Thus in France and Germany, American Indians have become so identified with natural nobility and the innocence of animals and children that most folks don’t realize it is a concept -- they think it is actual fact. Because the first steam engines came to the American prairie as steamboats up the Mississippi/Missouri network and mighty railroads across the grasslands (often built by near slave-labor Chinese), the trope of the wild and innocent people who had lived there gracefully captured the whole world’s imagination, even that of the Indians themselves! Nineteenth century prairie tribes (AFTER the advent of the horse) became an idyllic version of Eden and their destruction by disease and massacre is the American Holocaust.

An email friend remarked that he didn’t know any Indians, that he was 1500 miles away from any Indians. I laughed. He was probably within five feet of an Indian descendant and if he was in a city he was probably within ten miles of a cluster of self-identified Indians. This continent is seeded with reservations, reserves, and ranchos (the California version). One hopes they do indeed constitute little seeds that protect kernels of wisdom from a badly fragmented set of cultures, but in any case they are there.

The idea of the “Vanishing Indian” (See Brian Dippie’s definitive book with that title) came out of the idea that Euros ought to hurry to record 19th century Indian culture before it escapes entirely. Thus the work of George Bird Grinnell, Walter McClintock, Frank Bird Linderman, James Willard Schultz, Doug Gold, and Charlie Russell -- all of them white men writing about Indians -- blurrily separated from “proper” anthropologists but were and are very popular, esp. when reporting legends or feats of bravery.

The next wave is writers who claimed they WERE Indians: Ernest Thompson Seton (Black Wolf), Grey Owl, Long Lance. This wave continued into the present, revived by the Aquarian revolutionary counterculture echoing the German Romantic anti-industrialists. This tendency has not settled down. A new twist is people who live like 19th century Indians, reporting from cabins and lodges. To most people, this IS unreflectively what Native American writing is all about, that yearning to escape to a better world.

But then came a wave of literary impulse supported by better education for Native Americans. A man like James Welch or a woman like Louise Erdrich could attend college and dare to be novelists in the adult Euro sense, writing about their own lives in the twentieth century instead of constantly putting readers into a time machine. They could employ such sophistications as Magic Realism. This was called the Native American Literature Renaissance, a host of Indians across the country writing about their own lives on reservations and in cities. I have a bookcase full of them from Adrian Louis to Louis Owens and back again with books of lit crit about them.

Woe to the unwary romantic who felt that he or she was psychically an Indian without a tribal membership to flash! The theories of deconstruction, post-colonialism, and other philosophies made the case that white men were stealing not only the land and the wealth of the Indians, but also their culture and their identities. The idea was that if the whites would just stop writing about Indians, then the Indians would get rich writing about themselves. At least those who ever got around to writing a book.

So why didn’t more Indians get to scribbling? Why weren’t they published, instead of posers? Academics leapt to the fray, universities serving as forts for the defense and interpretation of “pure” Indian thinkers by whites and Non-Americans. For a while there was a wave of books. Then they crashed into the remainder bins, leaving only a few in print and some rather embittered Indian intellectuals in the rubble of university departments.

About the time of the breakthrough understanding of the double helix of DNA, and about the time that a new generation of Indians were challenging whether or not their children should be on the tribal rolls if their blood quantum by provenance fell below a certain fraction, there was a great fascination with challenging the Indian identities of writers. For purist critics, only 100% blood qualified, which left standing maybe Ray Young Bear (whom no one read, though they ought to) and a half-dozen others. Bringing down best-selling “Indian” writers became a vicious pastime: Tom King, Ward Churchill, Louise Erdrich and Jim Welch, Paula Gunn Allen, Michael Dorris, and many others were attacked. As Sherman Alexie began to make money and become well-known, he was also criticized -- sometimes for a short story that hinted at homosexuality. One could demonstrate greater sophistication and inside knowledge by telling people the “real” stuff about Jay Silverheels and Grey Eyes. This quarreling and nit-picking, verging on Hollywood celebrity culture, discouraged ordinary whites from reading the books. Two sobering suicides of NA writers made some Indians reconsider their English majors. Probably the last blow was the publicity about reservation casinos. If one of the great pleasures of reading about Indians was nostalgia for a lost Eden, why worry about it if they’d all gone to Vegas?

Publishers didn’t much like contemporary realism about Indians anyway. Readers found it “so depressing,” their usual excuse for avoiding difficulties like poverty. Jim Welch found that his “Indian Lawyer” book would not sell, though the historical “Fool’s Crow” was everyone’s favorite. Publishers printed small runs, advertised very little, remaindered unsold copies early, and never tried to sell Indian books to Indians. Then they concluded there was no money in NA lit. The vortex grew. Attention to stories about lost innocence shifted to Africa where Djimon Hounsou replaced Cochise as Nature’s Nobleman.

More later. This is a long story. I'm composing it while wearing the red shirt with NW Indian canoeists on the back that Phillip Red Eagle gave me. Are you impressed?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

CANNIBALISM or COMMUNION Part 3

In reading mystics, one becomes aware of a light/dark polarity in the images. In mystical religious experiences of light, the characteristics are of fusion with great power, feelings of being woven into the universe, and intense delight. By contrast, the “dark night of the soul” experience is one of terrified abandonment or overwhelming confrontation by judgment and power. Often they are mixed, as in this passage from Catharine of Genoa:

“I see without eyes, I understand without mind, I feel without feeling, and I taste without taste. I have no shape or size, so that without seeing I see such divine activity and energy that, beside it, all those words like perfection, fullness and purity and that I once used now seem to me all falsehoods and fables when compared with that Truth and Directness. The sun that once seemed so bright now seems dark. What seemed sweet now seems bitter, for all beauty and sweetness that has an admixture of the creature is corrupt and spoilt. When the creature finds himself cleansed and purified and then transformed in God, then he see what is true and clean. This sight, which is not seen, cannot be spoken or thought of.”

The known is extended beyond the point of logic in order to express the inexpressible, and the collision of bliss and torture does the same thing to the affect. [The new dimension I want to explore is the actual dynamics of the brain in the midst of this. I will try to make the case later that the effect comes from the limbic system rather than the cerebellum.]

The boys in the plane crash were not conscious mystics. They did not have exceptional command of language and none reported visions of God, but only premonitions of what might be happening at home. The experienced situation itself made concrete this sort of image-ry, a stark intertwining of dark and light. The white snow stretched away infinitely dazzling on all sides, while the boys’ feet were black from frostbite. Sometimes the light was so intense that it struck them blind. In the dark freezing night the boys huddled against the warm bodies of their living friends. Nourishment came at the expense of dead friends. Rescue from outside was canceled so the boys had to become the searchers. Being in the face of non-being, non-being in the face of being: the two forces take on a figure/background relationship of fascinating intricacy and intimacy. One is reciprocal with the other, the contradictions can be contained (if not reconciled) within a larger Ultimate. In Christian terms, the Nativity is always in the face of Herod’s infanticide and the Crucifixion is always in the face of God’s love. The real and the ideal have this reciprocal, paradoxical, relationship within Reality because they arise from a shared Ground of Being.

Anything less than a worship experience that acknowledges both the Void and the Cherished, has evaded its true role. If only existence, “being,” is considered to have value, the way is laid for idolatry, an attempt to impose one’s own desires over what exists. Paradoxically, to cling only to the known and familiar is to invite destruction and sorrow, for the only real permanence is change. Not to change is to die, as the survivors discovered in the most concrete way when they were forced to break taboos and do the unthinkable.

Therefore, worship has the paradoxical obligation of helping us to find meaningful metaphors in cherished reality, but to face the possibility -- even the desirability -- of having them destroyed or lost, and then to help us find new symbols in a newly found view of reality. The rhythmic pulse or shift of focus in worship that we have already noted corresponds to this deeply human death and resurrection of meaning as we grow up and move through circumstances.

There is no way to avoid the destruction of meaningful symbols. Human freedom is not freedom from destruction but freedom to re-create in the wake of destruction. This is why the Eliadean cyclical history, depending on periodic returns to the primordial chaos for the substance of new being, can be more meaningful than the linear history of the Judeo-Christian paradigm and more suitable to this theory of worship. The crucifixion/resurrection theme is played out over and over in the Eliadean schema, while in the Christian version it is understood to have happened once and for all, with reverberating consequences which we remember and act out cyclically through the calendar year and solar day. Thus Christians can claim to have the “only” true version.

And so, these young Christian men, stranded in liminality between life and death, paused at twilight to pray to the Mother of God, who was present at both Nativity and Pieta, those echoing tableaus, so omnipresent in our culture. As the weeks passed, the little band of survivors held onto their natural merging of personal and cultural metaphors for salvation. In the face of the great hostile sheets of snow that threatened to bury them in smothering avalanches, the most comforting image was the mother coming at bedtime to tuck them into a warm safe bed. Until she died in one of those avalanches, the lone female survivor did her best to act as mother, comforting the younger boys. The longing for that enfoldment as they propped themselves contortedly against the jumble of plane wreckage, trying futilely to make broken legs and infected wounds more comfortable, must have been as vivid as any mystic vision of paradise. As Willard Sperry pointed out, evening is the most naturally structured time for worship and in this case the content was supplied by a Catholic heritage and loving families. The source of the content of worship is always between culture and personality.

Thus the core of worship has to do with the relationship between the mystery of non-being and the known-ness of being. Worship is most necessary in the boundary moments: birth, death, transformation, emotional extremes, creation. What was NOT new comes into being. What IS passes away. All is transient and mysterious. Worship does not give us “scientific” answers about these things, except maybe traces on fMRIs, but rather offers metaphorical meanings that engage our brains at some deeply felt, wordless level. These meanings are not to be found analytically, but present themselves subtly under certain conditions.

These are clues about worship from thinkers this manuscript discusses:

1. The beginning and ending of worship are particularly important because they must establish a sacred space and time -- liminal, potential, virtual -- discontinuous with ordinary life.

2. In this space, this sanctuary, the people should enter an attitude of trusting vulnerability, open to their own inner poetic visions and able to respond honestly to others in an I/Thou way.

3. Worshippers need communitas, equality of belonging. All the usual social hierarchies and power structures must drop away.

4. Things, stories, songs, and other people may all carry “felt concepts” -- become the carrier of the hierophany. The concrete relationships with all these “objects” may act out the articulation of the concepts or become a paradigm of the cosmos and history.

5. True worship must include images of both being and non-being in order to make contact with the whole of the Ground of Being. This dimension of ultimacy separates religious meanings from artistic or playful meanings.

6. Chaos is a necessary return to the energy of the primordial time and place -- a powerful source of creativity, a re-forming in a profoundly meaningful way.

7. The power to trust chaos comes from early experiences of the dependability of life, faith that the mother will come. The reiteration of exposure to danger/chaos/falling followed by safety/order/embrace is a paradigm of life itself. It is the dynamic of worship. To deny the loss is to deny the rescue because the meaning is in the relationship between the two. A resurrection without a crucifixion is equally a denial of meaning.

8. The specific images used to bring to being the paradigm of death/regeneration into meaning will always be drawn from an interaction of culture and personality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

CANNIBALISM OR COMMUNION: Part 2

This is a very extreme example and deliberately so, partly because it is an excellent antidote to the notion that worship must be “pretty” or “aesthetic” and partly because it is an example of such strong emotional chiaroscuro that things normally taken for granted become more obvious.

There are two main points. The first is the enormous power of a deeply felt metaphor to order and enable the most chaotic and horrifying circumstances. The need for such powerful metaphors in a society like ours is very great. Even upper middle-class lives are threatened by economic, political and sociological shocks or the intervention of sudden catastrophe as in the case of this airplane crash. [This was written in 1982, before 9/11.]

The second point is that the formal structure we have been discussing grows out of a theological world view, perhaps distinctively Western, that is deeply binary. Human thought is almost defined by its capacity to envision the real and the ideal simultaneously, so that they can be compared, always to the detriment of the real because of the nature of the ideal. We can create a vision of the ideal out of the most ordinary of materials and then guide our daily efforts accordingly. Whether we locate the ideal in the past, the future or in some other place, it acts as a goal, a goad, and a justification. In worship, I suggest, the most central structure arises from the “felt concept” of the ideal juxtaposed with the real and our striving to reconcile the two, even knowing that the flesh is weak and time is limited. Our desire for the ideal -- that which is worthy -- impels us forward as surely as it did those boys struggling out of the Andes. Our sensitivity to the contrast between what “is” and what “could be” is the dynamic of our creative impulses, our drive towards perfection.

Creation is best activated under certain conditions: those that allow release from the givens of daily life. Such conditions may be sought, as when a monk goes on retreat or an artist goes to the studio, or may be thrust upon someone, as in the midst of an emergency, trapped by a blackout or forced into a hospital stay.

In the weeks on the mountain, the young men from Uruguay were in a “liminal” state; that is, ordinary reality was bracketed. They were over the threshold (the limen) of reality. Worship also occurs in a “liminal” context, as well as dreams, psychoanalytic situations, intense intimacy, deep concentration on problems, and children’s play. Ordinary social rules and hierarchies do not apply in such circumstances.

Says Victor Turner, the anthropologist who has developed this concept of the limen in his work on rites of passage: “... liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” Initiates who are voluntarily conducted into the liminal state are “represented as possessing nothing... It is as though they are being reduced or ground down to a uniform condition to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to enable them to cope with their new station in life.” (“The Ritual Process”, p. )

One of the strongest aspects of liminality is its link to “communitas.” Turner himself uses Buber’s definition of “communitas.” “Community is the being no longer side by side (and one might add above and below) but with one another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude, though it moves towards one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the others, flowing from I to Thou. Community is where community happens.”

Turner elaborates:

"Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in inferiority. It is almost everywhere held to be sacred or “holy,” possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency. The processes of “leveling” and “stripping,” to which Goffman has drawn our attention, often appear to flood their subjects with affect. Instinctual energies are surely liberated by these processes, but I am not inclined to think that communitas is solely the product of biologically inherited drives released from cultural constraints. Rather it is the product of peculiarly human faculties, which include rationality, volition and memory, and which develop with experiences of life in society...

"The notion that there is a generic bond between men[sic], and its related sentiment of “humankindness,” are not epiphenomena of some kind of herd instinct but are products of “men in their wholeness wholly attending.” Liminality, marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art. These cultural forms provide men with a set of templates of models which are, at one level, periodical reclassifications of reality and man’s relationship to society, nature and culture. But they are more than Classifications, since they incite men to action as well as to thought. Each of these productions has a multivocal character, having many meanings, and each is capable of moving people at many psycho-biological levels simultaneously. (The Ritual Process, p. 128)


Perhaps one last quote from Turner will help to show the relationship between liminal communitas as a concept and the communitas of formal Western worship in a Christian context.

"Essentially communitas is a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals. These individuals are not segmentalized into roles and statuses but confront one another rather in the manner of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Along with this direct, immediate, and total confrontation of human identities, there tends to go a model of society as a homogenous, unstructured communitas, whose boundaries are ideally coterminous with those of the human species."

Certainly the boys did not duplicate a social hierarchy but existed in a daily confrontation that was direct, immediate, and total. However, though there was no social structure as such, a time-structure soon developed. The base, as in any primitive culture, was day and night, the chores of preparing food and water, and the planning of expeditions. Formal worship appeared spontaneously at bedtime (Vespers), an element of structure that would be liminal in normal society but became an evocation of the known, loved and orderly in this context.

There are two important aspects of the Vespers Rosary that are worth exploring at length. The first is the fact that the prayer was at the transition of day into dark and the second is that the prayer was to the Mother of God, rather than the Son of God or God the Father, who could have been interpreted as precipitating them into this punishment for His own reasons.

To begin, let’s look at the transition factor. Transitions, borders, boundaries are always mysterious and full of potential. They are the ground of duality. Huddled in the wreckage of the fuselage, subsisting on shreds of human flesh, not knowing if they would survive at all (especially after their radio announced the search was abandoned), and facing a night of cold and pain, twilight (the hour of the wolf) must have been intolerable. One more day passed without relief. One more ordeal of restless nightmare. Even in the best of times people have bedtime rituals. In the worst of times religious ritual is indispensable.

This situation lays bare the ultimate religious duality: that between being and non-being. The most basic possible religious decision is whether or not to go on living. (There were no overt suicides in this catastrophe, though some seemed to give up.) Not until the decision is to live -- to be -- is the issue how to be, what to be, so that the decision becomes moral. Tillich said, “...religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.” (“The Courage to Be,” p. 156) I take that to mean that the will to live is very strong and drawn from existence itself, both within and without the person. Tillich relates it to mysticism, saying, “In mysticism the individual self strives for a participation in the ground of being which approaches identification... all mystics draw their power of self-affirmation from the experience of the power of being-itself with which they are united.”

Schweitzer spoke of “life in the midst of life, life that wants to live.” This is much easier to say in the jungle than on a high mountain where there is no other living thing, not even a passing bird. These boys were thrust up against the non-being, non-life, being small, solitary and vulnerable life in the middle of sky, stone and snow.

Ths analysis of worship we are pursuing is at heart mystical in the sense that it requires recognition of the ground of being that contains all the potential of non-being. Religion thus becomes creativity in a liminal state, an assertion of being in the face of fate and time.

Back to Tillich: “The mystical courage to be lasts as long as the mystical situation. Its limit is the state of emptiness of being and meaning, with its horror and despair, which the mystics have described. In these moments the courage to be is reduced to the acceptance of even this state as a way to prepare through darkness for light, through emptiness for abundance. As long as the absence of the power of being is felt as despair, it is the power of being which makes itself felt through despair. To experience this and to endure it is the courage to be of the mystic in the state of emptiness. [Kenosis.] Although mysticism in its extreme positive and extreme negative aspects is a comparatively rare event, the basic attitude, the striving for union with ultimate reality, and the corresponding courage to take the nonbeing which is implied in finitude upon oneself are a way of life which is accepted by and has shaped large sections of mankind.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

CANNIBALISM OR COMMUNION?

This is a chapter from my original Meadville/Lombard thesis. I need to type it out again anyway, since I did it last time on a red Selectric I bought from an African-American female minister who belonged to the South Side Chicago “Prayer Tower.” I really hated to sell that red Selectric! She hesitated to sell it to me because I wasn’t “Christian.”

This is about a near unsurvivable event and how religious understanding became a life-saving near-liturgical way of going outside normal behavior.

“On October 12, 1972, a Fairchild F-227 of the Uruguayan Air Force, chartered by an amateur rugby team, set off from Montevideo in Uruguay for Santiago in Chile.” (from the book entitled “Alive!” about the incident) So begins a story that is both terrible and inspiring. The airplane crashed very near the top of the Andes. Sixteen young men survived for 72 days and two of them eventually walked for ten days down out of the mountains. Their means of survival was cannibalism.

Not only did the youths survive well enough to recover good physical condition after their rescue, but also they managed to maintain sanity and morale while living jammed into the remains of an airplane fuselage with no amenities or even enough clothes to keep warm, since the tail section with all the luggage fell far from the rest of the plane. The source of their real strength was religious.

The first suggestion of cannibalism was when one of the boys, seeing how short the food supply was -- only accidentally carried snacks in pockets or luggage -- threatened half-jokingly to fortify it with chunks out of the dead pilots, since they had made the mistake that caused the crash. This kind of ironic fierceness was characteristic of the boys. They were fighters, partly because of the South American macho tradition and partly because of their athletic training. Many were descendants of people displaced by WWII who had endured much hardship. Also, their minds were shaped by their schooling with Irish Christian Brothers until they were a remarkable and resilient mixture of matter-of-fact practicality and poetic confidence in other-worldliness. The boys were the cherished sons of large, conservative, closely-knit families. Rebellion and scorn were not directed at their parents, but at those who fell short of family standards. Many of the families were ranchers, so the boys were used to coping with emergencies and knew meat for what it was. Two boys were first year medical students who immediately turned their attention to the wounds imposed by the crash.

For some days several of the boys had realized that if they were to survive they would have to eat the bodies of those who had died in the crash. It was a ghastly prospect. The corpses lay around the plane in the snow, preserved by the intense cold in the state in which they had died. While the thought of cutting the flesh from those who had been their friends was deeply repugnant to them all, a lucid appreciation of their predicament led them to consider it.

... Finally Canessa brought it out into the open. He argued forcefully that they were not going to be rescued: that they would have to escape themselves, but that nothing be done without food, and that the only food was human flesh. He used his knowledge of medicine to describe in his penetrating, high-pitched voice, how their bodies were using up their reserves. “Every time you move,” he said, “You use up part of your own body. Soon we shall be so weak that we won’t have the strength even to cut the meat that is lying there before our eyes.”


Canessa did not argue just from expediency. He insisted they had a moral duty to stay alive by any means at their disposal, and because Canessa was earnest about his religious belief, great weight was given to what he said by the more pious among the survivors.

“It is meat,” he said. “That’s all it is. The souls have left their bodies and are in heaven with God. All that is left here are the carcasses, which are no more human beings than the dead flesh of the cattle we eat at home.”
[pp82-83]

The argument among the boys had the searching depth and progression of a sermon. One of the deeply Christian elements that emerged was a sense of oblation: willingness to give their bodies to the others.

“I know,” Zerbino went on, “that if my dead body could help you to stay alive, then I’d certainly want you to use it. In fact, if I do die and you don’t eat me, then I’ll come back from wherever I am and give you a good kick in the ass.”

This argument allayed many doubts, for however reluctant each boy might be to eat the flesh of a friend, all of them agreed with Zerbino. there and then they made a pact that if any more of them were to die, their bodies were to be used as food.
[p 84]

The first eating of meat was ritualistic. Canessa, the medical student, cut twenty slivers of meat from the buttocks of one corpse and laid them on the roof of the plane to dry. He invited the other boys to begin and when no one would, he prayed and then forced down the first piece as an example.

The boys wrote letters to their families and novias constantly and there was a testimonial feel to what they wrote.

“One thing which will seem incredible to you -- it seems unbelievable to me -- is that today we started to cut up the dead in order to eat them. There is nothing else to do. I prayed to God from the bottom of my heart that this day would never come, but it has and we have to face it with courage and faith. Faith, because I came to the conclusion that the bodies are there because God put them there and, since the only thing that matters is the soul, I don’t have to feel great remorse, and if the day came I could save someone with my body, I would gladly do it.”

Even in such extremity the boys could say the equivalent of Prayers of Intercession for others.

“I don’t know how you, Mama, Papa, or of the children can be feeling; you don’t know how sad it makes me to think that you are suffering, and I constantly ask God to reassure you and give us courage because that is the only way of getting out of this. I think that soon there will be a happy ending for everyone.”

The salvific image of the experience came spontaneously from one of the boys, probably the most unlikely one of the bunch, certainly not like the others. “He was shy, introspective, and a socialist, while they were boisterous, extroverted, and conservative.” Some of the boys and an older married couple could not force themselves to take the flesh, in spite of progressing weakness and neediness.

Marcelo Perez having made up his mind that he would take this step, used what authority he still possessed to persuade others to do so, but nothing he said had the effect of a short statement from Pedro Algorta. He was one of the two boys who had been dressed more scruffily at the airport than the others: as it to show that he despised their boureois values. In the crash, he had been hit on the head and suffered total amnesia about what had happened the day before. Algorta watched Canessa and Fito Strauch cutting the meat but said nothing until it came to the moment when he was offered a slice of flesh. He took it and swallowed it and then said, “It’s like Holy Communion. When Christ died he gave his body to us so that then we could have spiritual life. My friend has given us his body so that we can have physical life.”

The young men -- or at least some of them -- were sophisticated religionists and oddly enough Algorta was the most humanistic of the lot.

They were not induced by the extremity of their situation to talk at length about the more fundamental philosophical issues of life and death. Inciarte, Zerbino, and Algorta -- who were the three most politically professie among the eighteen who were still alive -- once discussed the relationship between religious faith and political responsibility. On another occasion Pedro Algorta and Fito Strauch discussed the existence and nature of God. Pedro was well trained by the Jesuits in Santiago and could explain the philosophical theories of Marx and Teilhard du Chardin. Both he and Fito were skeptics, neither believed that God was the kind of being who watched over the destiny of each individual. To Pedro God was the love which existed between two human beings, or a group of human beings.

Exalted landscapes stretched away from the improvised camp, which soon became a foul and stinking charnel house since the boys had no strength to do more than a minium of maintenance. At night the boys clasped each other tightly for warmth and reassurance, but in the day time they sprawled carelessly in the sun, half-blinded by the dazzling sweeps of snow. Every night Carlitoes Paez led Rosary.

After their rescue the young men’s decision to eat human flesh and their justification of it through the image of Communion was accepted, despite their fears. A Catholic curate arrived at the hospital where they were first taken, confirmed their wisdom in saving their lives, judged the cannibalism necessary and not sinful, and gave Holy Communion to those who wished it. Later the Roman Catholic church simply cautioned them that it was not a true “Communion” since the flesh was not in any sense the flesh of Christ. Thus they maintained their ownership of the concept.

Coche Inciarte was the first to seek and find reassurance.

He told Father Andres about the mountain -- not in the cold language of a detached observer but in lofty mystical words which more accurately conveyed what the experience had meant to him. “It was something no one could have imagined. I used to go to mass every Sunday, and Holy Communion had become something automatic. But up there, seeing so many miracles, being so near God, almost touching Him, I learned otherwise. Now I pray to God to give me strength and stop me slipping back to where I used to be. I have learned that life is love, and that love is giving to your neighbor. The soul of a man is the best thing about him. There is nothing better than giving to a fellow human being.”

Ironically, Algorta, the man who had the original insight connecting flesh and communion bread, was the one who refused the priest’s ministrations. Perhaps his intellectual irreverence, which allowed him the freedom to use religious metaphors unconventionally, also denied him the emotional directness of accepting comfort. Or perhaps he was arrogant or depressed or simply needed a different kind of religious ministration than formal Roman Catholic liturgy. Or perhaps he believed that the Christian communion was a people’s rite, not one to be dispensed by officials.

There was one question the priest could not answer for any of the boys. “Why was it that he had lived while others had died? What purpose had God in making this selection? What sense could be made of it?” “None,” replied Father Andres. “There are times when the will of God cannot be understood by our human intelligence. There are things which in all humility we must accept as a mystery.”

Coche Inclarte said simply, “I’m full of God.” Who could argue? No one did.

This terrifying experience took place directly on the boundary between worship and profane life.

[To be continued tomorrow.]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

WINDY THINKING

Civilization, I was taught, began when hunters turned to grain-based agriculture, which led to towns where the accumulation of grain could be stored and defended, which led to the concentration of population and specialization of occupations, so that some people had the luxury of time to learn the arts of reading and writing. Then those gradually developed into the fine privileged professions of doctor, theologian, lawyer, manager and author.

Authors, it was generally assumed for a long time, live in the city where they can live in lofts, hang around in cafes, attend the theatre and cinema, wear black turtlenecks, and develop eclectic taste in foods and beverages. University towns are also good, esp if you use libraries. It’s a lifestyle function of population density, like being a Unitarian. The rule, when I was trying to make congregations grow, was that roughly one in a thousand people was a good potential Unitarian, or maybe two or three times that in a university town. Since it takes at least two hundred people to support a minister and building, a Unitarian minister must live in a town of 200,000 or more. There is no town in Montana larger than 100,000. Therefore, my choice was stark: Montana or Unitarianism. You know what I chose. (But there IS a lot of grain here.)

It’s estimated that there are 8,000 enrolled Blackfeet on the reservation and another 8,000 scattered throughout the diasphora. It used to be that everyone kept in touch only through travel or by mail, but increasingly the tribe is re-united by the Internet. It used to be that an “intellectual” (that is, someone who focuses on thought in print) had to choose between solitude and stimulation from others. But now it’s possible to have a tribe of one’s own through the Internet. Problems remain.

How do we find each other online? I mean, people of the same interests at the same level of discourse? The great advantage is that one doesn’t have to hang out in bars. The scale-tipping of appearance is removed, but the “social interaction” websites are not for me with all their chatter and clutter. Academic listservs are good except when the calendar preoccupies everyone. (There’s always a lot of posting when people are supposed to be grading papers!) Still, competition intrudes. Dogma...

It is possible now to read a book, be really moved by it and to contact the author -- even when that author is not exactly a cozy type. This has happened for me with Tim Barrus, though it has been problematic in that three of his books were marketed as memoirs of a partly Indian man. More about that some other time, but they attracted the attention of witch-hunters who object to white people writing about Native Americans on grounds that they prevent Native Americans themselves from writing. Oddly, these witch-hunters are often white and I knew at least one of them already (vaguely) from listservs about NA writing. He’s an Englishman living on Cyprus, getting a doctorate (about white writers who pretend to be Native American) from King’s College in London by correspondence, with a female Portugese post-modern theorist as an advisor. What they know about Indians is only what they have read. Partly, the tie between Barrus and I is that we really HAVE lived and taught on reservations and are emotionally invested in people there. Much of the rest is a love of metaphor, risk, and story. (I just ignore his transgressive outbursts.)

Then there’s the tech problem, which has two pressing sides. One is the risk of malevolent intervention, like theft of information that gives access to one’s money or sometimes just malicious disruption. Barrus continues to run a school/group/home for boys “at risk,” which means that in spite of their considerable art talent no one else wants them. They are web-located because they create and post videos and because they rove through locations with the Internet connecting them. The witchhunters target them with violent threats which sound quite real to boys who are war survivors, street sparrows, and hustlers. These cyberstalkers have played around with my blogs and email as well. Defending against them takes a lot of time, money for special programs, and so on. So far my best defense has been Feedjit, which shows who’s online. I’m experimenting with adding Google Ad Sense for money, but have no idea what that will mean. It OUGHT to mean that Google and the advertisers will have an active interest in keeping me operational.

What I seem to have evolved into doing -- without humanities grants -- is a little micromagazine with one writer who produces a thousand-word essay every morning. Readers are about half happenstance, who find the blogs by Googling for a subject (and must sometimes be baffled or frustrated by what they find) and about half deliberate readers who come by near-daily. Some of them also blog but I don’t know any who define their blogs the way I do. Most make short posts about transient events and many post digital photos.

That brings up the next problem with online community: it soaks up time that isn’t focused on quality of writing. As in the ministry, there are always people who want to pull one over to the side for a private relationship. It sounds mean and selfish to say that’s not... well, what the blog is about. Anyway some of those people are dear and important to me -- they are invariably the ones who will stop sending messages at the least complaint. Some people I would love to draw into “aside” relationships myself, but they aren’t interested. I get frustrated when serious discussions devolve into personal kidding around, esp. when everyone knows each other in real life: I’m excluded. A few times I’ve found a group that talks about exactly what I want to talk about but have quickly been signaled “go away,” for instance, the process theology group in Edinburgh. No girls allowed.

Circling back to the technical problem, the computer people themselves are always complexifying, adding new features, upgrading the operating system. So Netflix says I can’t communicate properly with my movie “queue” because my browser needs to be updated, but my browser can’t be updated without updating my Operating System which will cost me $100 or so. (Think money changed hands backstage?) “Gotcha” marketing.

But isn’t this the cost of doing business anywhere? Isn’t writing, truthfully, an occupation that requires upgrades and contacts and investments, the same as any other? Isn’t it pretty naive to think that writing is something angels do with magic pens, scribbling on the clouds for free? Aren’t I still an ink-stained wretch in spite of the computer? And aren’t my blogs evolving into blooks, which are close enough to being books to count even if they ARE self-published? Why be a snob? Why complain at all? Well... writers DO that!

Friday, October 24, 2008

GAMES COUNTIES PLAY

http://www.greatfallstribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081023/NEWS01/810230305&referrer=FRONTPAGECAROUSEL

If you go to the link above (and if it still exists at the Great Falls Tribune), you’ll be able to read some of the comments generated by the incident I described in a previous post ("Cut Bank Racist Violence"). I downloaded them this morning so I could look a little more closely.

At one end of the spectrum is Calvin Tatsey’s comment (note that he’s using his real name) invoking professionalism and legal duties in a dignified way, even using “Mister” in the NYTimes manner. At the low end (that which survived editing) is name-calling and a lot of accusations that have little to do with the subject and a lot to do with being poor and feeling downtrodden.

The most worrisome assumption, to my mind, is that violence is okay (or at least only a misdemeanor) and if it’s a bar fight (actually I think it was at closing time in the parking lot) then no sanctions can be enforced because what can you expect? Everybody in a bar is racist or up to no good in the first place and that guy who got beat up should never have been there in the first place.

Maybe the best way to look at these comments is in terms of games people play. Nothing surprising in the games and nothing to be blamed for, but these are the strategies I see so far:

1. The Medicine Line Game AKA Jurisdictions:
“It’s only bad on this side or that side”; or “Stay on your own side,” or “My side is none of your business.”

2. Blame the Victim: “If the victim was in a bar, he shouldn’t have been there. Only bad people go in bars.”

3. Uproar:
“You hate me, you’ve always hated me, and that’s why you hate me!”

4. The Uber Motive: “Must be drugs involved.”

5. Playing it Down:
“Oh, it was just violence. The name-calling was just, um...”

6. My Hero:
“All public officials are blameless because they’re important people and they wouldn’t be public officials if they were crooked. And if they’ve been in office a long time, that proves they’re doing a good job.”

7. Rez vs. County:
“Hey, seven-mile strip! Smile when you see me coming! See this voting finger? See this checkbook?”

8. Super Stay Outta the Joints:
“Do your shopping in Kalispell.”

9. Changing the subject:
“And those shopkeepers all think that Indians are shoplifters!”

10. Invoking myths:
“Indians get a free ride, unlike whites who have to work for a living.”

11. Blaming the messenger: “All bad stuff belongs under the rug.”

12. The Sins of the Fathers: “Europeans invaded our country, gave us smallpox and took the land. Therefore, I'm entitled to this can of snoose.”

Off the top of my head, it looks to me as though the GF Tribune could do us all a service by pointing out exactly what payments in what sort of amounts "Indians" actually get and where it comes from, what the rates of welfare payments and various entitlements like SSI are between the rez and the rest of the county, etc. etc. and then put that in the context of ag and oil subsidies. I think that many people can't distinguish between income from trusts managed by the BIA, profits derived from tribal enterprise, and government targeted funds meant for compensation or development. Probably there are a lot of tribal members who don’t think much about where their money comes from either.

As far as being considered shoplifting suspects, I must confess that I'm often shadowed and suspected by shopowners whenever I'm not dressed up. And Indians who ARE dressed and groomed nicely are left alone. KIDS of all kinds are suspects. It’s more of a class issue than a race issue, but class and race overlap.

I was interested that the bartenders in the story had Hutterite names. I wonder what those dynamics are. I'm aware of single Hutterite men here and there who sort of interface between the colony and the "outside." Do they not marry? Are they outcasts or just not settled down?

Academics with big emphasis on Marxist and post-colonial theory have done some mischief. They depend upon indignation to whip up interest in their classes, but they themselves don’t go to reservations, not even to address those issues or research them. They take no care for the use of the ideas to justify some pretty bad behavior and to fan racism.

I'm impressed that so many people are out there keyboarding, though they have a tendency to spell like Lewis & Clark and to get locked into one-on-one sword fights instead of advancing the topic.

What seems clear to me is that the underlying government, the human infrastructure, as it were, is being overwhelmed by the changes in society. The good ol’ boy network that meets in the back room to decide how to deal with trouble has gone the way of Deadwood.

Montana, it’s generally agreed, has a great many counties -- probably more than necessary because of the efforts of one historical person who went around the state selling the idea of creating new counties. They are not rationally based, nor do they match natural constituencies. In fact, the state’s voting districts are so tortured that some include more grizzly bears than people, with even less consensus than one might expect between those two populations. Most were created in the days of horse travel. I’ve seen almost no analysis of how an Indian reservation ought to be treated in regard to a county. A reservation cannot ever be the same as a county because treaties (which are higher legally than state laws) give reservations the status of sovereign countries. Yet many functions such as welfare or marriages are handled on reservations by county and state entities, by agreement with the tribe.

The public schools are state institutions supervised by the county school superintendent, but that public office has greatly changed, as have the duties and responsibilities of the county attorney and probably the sheriff. Water quality, irrigation districts, conservation districts, and a host of other entities carve up the territory in confusing ways. What about hospitals, transportation, grocery supply lines?

When so much of the population is transient, few people really understand these geography-based entities, what they do, how they are paid for, where the lines are. I would suggest a “citizen’s handbook” to be kept in the county libraries, but who would pay for it? Maybe something online would work, or at least help. How many would stir themselves to read it? So much easier to complain, to stigmatize, to blame others, to just let things go along as though they really were inevitable. In the meantime, let the full weight of ALL the laws come down on the Fighting Molendas.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

SNOW CAKE: A Review

My new Netflix movie-finding technique is to use the DVD trailers appended to the front of the movies I like. It works pretty well. “Snow Cake” is a good example. I’m sure the title is supposed to echo “Rain Man” since it also about an autistic person, but it hadn’t registered with me until I saw the trailer.

I suppose it’s a bit of a chick flick, although Sigourney Weaver is one “chick” I can cheer for. Some reviewers suggest the movie was written for Alan Rickman, the English actor who sort of specializes in arrogant disdain. The plot is really another variation on that “wise virgin” trope, part of the role being played by a youngster with purple hair who’s killed very early, and part by her mother (Sigourney) who will never be more than a child and remains virginal (if not just repressed or something) in spite of having given birth. She doesn’t remember the conception because she is autistic and wasn’t able to raise the child, who rejoined her as a young adult.

They call this woman a “high functioning autistic” because autism is considered a spectrum disorder. (Sarah Palin’s baby has Down Syndrome, which is NOT the same thing, though McCain thinks it is.) Some victims of autism must be cared for constantly. Some others can get along pretty well if they have a little help. Sigourney’s character is out-of-sync and certainly obsessive-compulsive about everything having to be a certain way, but at least according to this script she is occasionally the “wise fool” who tells the truth.

The basic idea is that Rickman’s character just got out of prison, is making another of those “learning journeys” across Canada, and is more frozen than the weather. A semi smashing into his stopped car kills the girl with the purple hair in an echo of the loss of his son in an accident. There’s more, but it would spoil the symmetry of the story to tell you, even if it is pretty predictable. The girl has just bought some sparkle balls for her mother -- I wish I knew where to buy some! Jolted, tossed, dropped, they flash rainbow lights. Sigourney’s autism makes her super-sensitive to these, to jumping on a trampoline, and to snow. She loves the sensation of snow in her mouth, which she claims is better than an orgasm -- which she’s not supposed to have had because all nice girls, etc.

Anyway, this is the key relationship but to create an excuse to talk about it and to keep the Rickman character from falling into a too warm relationship inappropriately, there is a third character, a beautiful and generous woman who is intrigued by this veddy Henglish gent and his stony attitudes but plummy accent. Wawa, Ontario, not unlike Valier, Montana, keeps a close eye on all this and occasionally puts in an oar. There’s also a funny-looking dog. I think you’ll recognize it.

Autism is exceptionally interesting to me and a lot of other people right now because the rates are going up and up, especially in boys. It appears to an non-expert that the problem is most likely in the part of the brain I’ve been reading about: the limbic system, which is where things get taken in, sorted, remembered or dropped, intensified or dulled, and so on. Deficits can lead to obsession, hallucinations, wildly out-of-proportion emotion, mistaken substitutions, extraordinary number skills or music skills, addictions both to substances and to situations, and probably a lot of other things we just haven’t really pinned down yet, like hand-flapping, banging one’s head on the wall, cutting, and other self-afflictions in an effort to relieve huge inner threats and tortures.

BUT the normal kinds of bonding, humor, judgment, preference, can sometimes co-exist in there with all the jumble and trouble. I shouldn’t even try to comment since I only read about it. Even the people who work with autistic kids all the time might not be able to explain what’s going on. A human being woven together with shadows and terrors: we’re all like that to some degree, I guess.

In the end the Rickman character, whom some reviewers didn’t find believable, certainly persuaded me both that he was able in the end to at least sympathize -- maybe even empathize since he himself had been seized by unreasonable vengeance -- and to grow because of his exposure to sparklies, snowflakes, and straight-ahead fact on the part of this autistic woman. He grows up enough to see that an unbearable loss -- not just the death of his son but also never having really known him in the first place because he was casually produced in passing -- happens to everyone and isn’t unbearable after all. We bear it. We go on.

This story just misses sentimentality by an eyebrow hair or so. It DOESN’T become just another Hallmark card about crips because of the enormous authenticity of Sigourney Weaver’s creation of her character, coached by a woman with the misfunction. And also because Alan Rickman is so wryly acerbic while intelligent, trying honorably to play “cartoon scrabble” with made-up words, trying desperately to find a place to sleep, something decent to eat, how to do the right thing. And then finally getting taken to bed for comfort that doesn’t mean attached strings or judgment. He’s really “out of jail” by that time.

It seems to me that movies like this, and access to them in our homes, are changing the culture itself, even as our technology keeps throwing us new challenges. There’s no doubt in my mind that autism is being caused by something in our food, our inoculations, our environment -- something undetectable by ordinary means and therefore deeply disturbing. Our paranoia increases, our educations fall short, our safety nets -- WHAT safety nets? What can we do to be saved? What can we do to save those around us? How do we keep from freaking while we try to figure it out?

The clues here are: community, generosity, warmth, sensory pleasure, and -- oh, you know, that corny stuff we lump into the idea of love. Reaching out, tenacity... a funny looking dog.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

GIVE US THIS DAY

The day did not start well. I had done some re-organizing and even some rebuilding of my kitchen and forgot where I put the cats’ food. I planted one foot firmly in the middle of the cats’ water. Then after stripping off the soaked sock, I couldn’t find my slippers. But I didn’t have time for slippers anyway, because I went to Great Falls for supplies. Cat food is up to 55 cents a can now. Because they can. They know little old ladies will feed their cats no matter what. But they have become a major expense. Good thing they're a major comfort.

It’s eighty miles to Great Falls so I was pleased that we’re down to three dollar gas. Thirty dollars is about a half-tank of gas, which is enough to get me to Great Falls and back once. So that’s it for GF for the month of November. Social Security is actually paying me for October -- they pay in retrospect -- but these groceries must last to the end of November except that I buy green stuff along the way for the sake of my diabetes II. Also, my vitamins and antacids ought to last through the next two months. They are increasingly expensive. I bought my Halloween boodle: breakfast bars. That gets rid of the teenagers. And I carry the remainders in the pickup as emergency food.

This time of year there is no picturesque scenery along the way, just subtle Whistler-type atmospherics. A painter only needs three tubes of paint: Payne’s gray, yellow ochre, and terre verte. The fields are shining pale stubble, except for the chemical-fallow fields where everything has been killed to ash. (Would you buy honey from bees next to those fields?) The sky is shifting gray, many clouds of many shapes moving swiftly across the screen because the wind is so strong. A fur cloak of storm slid along the Rockies. All the windmills along the way -- more all the time -- were whirling furiously, making money. “’Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good!” Because of the wind yesterday, the sky is dark blue today, cleared so the sun is intense -- if chilly.

In Great Falls I had the brilliant idea of showing my Blackfeet research aids to the librarian at the University of Great Falls where many Blackfeet folks go to school. She welcomed them and wants to order them but the college policy is to only order via the mail and pay after receiving an invoice. I’m thinking the thing to do might be to look for grant funding to get the materials into the state’s and tribe’s college libraries at the least, and maybe into the high schools of the bigger cities. Everything boils down to capitalism: where is your capital? How will this generate more capital? But capital is more than money: it can be good will or vision.

The bread I buy in Great Falls is Oregon Hazelnut bread, not because of loyalty to my birth state but because it doesn’t have a lot of chemicals in it. It costs roughly four times as much as Wonder bread, more than Wheat Montana bread. Still, the nuts are nutritionally valuable and one slice of this bread with whipped cream cheese or sliced avocado on it counts for me as a meal. Lots of vegetables (including beans), one piece of meat at night, maybe a few eggs, a lot of peanuts, and that’s my gorilla diet. My blood glucose readings are now in the eighties except right after a meal. But brain function and muscle performance are better than they were before I began to eat this way.

The first grocery store I visit in GF is Van’s IGA, which is a family descendant of the first grocery store to ever give me credit: Teeple’s in Browning. The motto of the big Van’s chain is “home town proud” without anyone ever realizing that the hometown in question is Browning! Dolly Teeple gave me the credit, writing my purchases into a steno book from under the counter. It’s her son-in-law, Paul Van Der Jogt, who grew the little store into a chain. The original store now occupies a whole block on the highway in Browning.

In the email when I get home is a message from England saying that one writer’s agent of nine years has dumped him because he has left nonfiction science essays in favor of sci-fi, which she doesn’t know how to represent. He’s been self-publishing on Lulu anyway. This is a prosperous family man embedded in an excellent editorial job but he says he feels like a newly divorced man camping out in a seedy motel where he must cook over a gas ring. Too too tragic.

Another email friend sends a conversation in which two of the most brilliant and far-seeing economists, Taleb and Mandelbrot, say they are terrified of what might happen. (Krugman in is agreement.) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec08/psolman_10-21.html Someone sent me a very long and complex analysis of how world economics were reorganized after WWII, why it all became dependent on the US (mostly because none of the war was fought on US territory so we didn’t have to rebuild and because we didn’t come into it until late), and how the US went off the Gold Standard, and what that all means and how we might reorganize now. What I get out of it is that we have invented this world game called economics -- it’s ALL Sim City and weather forecasting, which is to say, anything COULD happen and those in control will make sure they survive. Hopefully they will realize that they survive ONLY if we survive, or what will they be controlling?

Then last was a “notes on books” from the woman who grew up across the street from me, though our backgrounds and life paths have been entirely different. She’s reading Sam Harris who rails against religion as the root of all evil. Of course, he defines religion as the major world institutions, each of them grown out of small tribal ecologies which he doesn’t acknowledge. To Sam all religions have books and buildings, but -- even worse -- authorities who do not like Sam Harris, who wants to become THE authority by destroying them. Forget the big monotheisms, Sam. Go back to the Greek tragedies, all about hubris. Iconoclasts out to set themselves up as icons, or at least make a lot of money, always fail in the end. The success of Jesus is based on humility, which is why Sam so loves to attack Jehovah instead: intolerant tyrant against intolerant tyrant.

When I make the next grocery run to Great Falls in a month, we’ll have a new president and there will probably be snow on the ground. For now, I’ll note that though the robins have migrated, the cotoneasters that the robins planted under the poplars are waist-high and blazing with red and orange.

Monday, October 20, 2008

CUT BANK RACIST VIOLENCE

BORDER STUDIES is a formal discipline that looks at the economics, politics, geography, and sociology of places along both sides of a border like that between the US and Mexico or the US and Canada. The two sides of the border, which may seem very similar geographically since they are only divided by a river or an arbitrary surveyed line along a parallel, generate differences like the economic gradient between Mexico and the US that drives a constant stream of illegal immigrants north. This in turn creates law enforcement entities as well as emotional prejudices that can “justify” violence.

“The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada
” is Tommy Lee Jones’ comment on a real life incident in which a goatherd plinking at coyotes triggered a high-tech lethal shooting by a border patrolman. Jones’ addition was borrowed from “Lonesome Dove,” the return of a body home for burial. But the guilty border patrolman is made to do the heavy lifting in this journey of learning. (The movie makes an excellent compare/contrast exercise with “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.”) The result is a powerful movie, best seen twice, once for the story and again for Tommy Lee Jones’ comments.

The Canadian border has been so peaceful for so many years that it hasn’t attracted much study except in terms of the past when whisky trade, displaced tribes, and the Riel Rebellion in Canada made life exciting, but maybe that is changing. Homeland Security has suddenly electrified all borders, the hardening of the Mexican border has shifted the attention of drug dealers and illegal immigrants to the north, and energy development along the east slope of the Rockies has changed economic dynamics, especially for the tribes that straddle the border.

Some people study the borders of the Indian reservations where white people on one side pump money out of the tribe through liquor sales and financial dealings and renegades use the on-reservation ambiguities and underfunding of law enforcement to their advantage. Mexican drug dealers stand out in white towns, but not on the reservation. The previous economic gradient here has lasted so long that the white towns have bought into the idea that Indians have no power, no economic clout, and therefore are fair game for hatred and the violence that goes with it. It is a rule of thumb that the closer to a reservation a white community is, the more likely the whites are to have contempt for Indians. This is ironic, since they are also more likely to be part-Indian, which leads to the nasty predicament of self-hatred.

Recently, as their prosperity and education grows, Indians have become politicians, able to pass laws that criminalize hate-violence. Such a law has been passed in Montana. The next step is convincing small town white officials that they must enforce this law: Montana Code Annotated 45-5-221, "Malicious INTIMIDATION or HARASSMENT relating to CIVIL or HUMAN RIGHTS." Carol Juneau, one of the sponsors of this bill, remains a state senator, well-situated to insist that the law be observed.

A recent fight outside a Cut Bank bar in which the assailants shouted racist obscenities as they beat up two respectable Indian citizens, one of them a county commissioner, has put the heat on Larry Epstein, the white county attorney, to enforce the law.

Cut Bank is not typical of the state of Montana. First of all, it occupies most of that portion of Glacier County not on the Blackfeet Reservation. The story goes that when the capital of the county was up for election, Browning would have won except that a trainload of drunken Indians were brought to Cut Bank and paid to vote for the capital to be there. The town turned out to be a place for white people to live while draining reservation people by acting as a conduit for any state business while stepping out from under tribal regulation. Also, the eastern boundary of the rez was jiggered to put the major oil pools on the Cut Bank side. Maybe it’s time to go back to the idea of conflating the county with the reservation, thus eliminating many complications.

The depleted huge oil reserves combine with a new influx of semi-skilled single male labor, this time focused on wind energy. The latter re-invigorates bar culture, centered on bragging, violence, and rough talk. It’s not a good place to be law enforcement. New Homeland Security officers are finding places to live in Valier, even though it adds thirty miles to their drive.

I taught in Cut Bank High School for a few months one fall. Teachers were ordered to stand in the hall between classes to monitor violence as the students passed. Winning at sports was the goal of the school, whose superintendent was an old coach -- and of the local newspaper whose owner is the basketball coach. Boys good at sports had a discipline “free pass,” if not a scholastic advantage. Drugs were everywhere in spite of regular inspections by a sniffer dog. The town has had a problem with “extreme fighting” in back alleys. Anyone weak, poor, female or “different” was fair game for harassment, sometimes extreme. The coach and superintendent were frank about considering hazing and other “pranks” to be simply amusing. I quit after a few months.

Before I did, several boys confided in me. One underage white boy said he spent his evenings hanging out in a local bar because his parents had moved in search of work and left him behind to finish his senior year alone in the house. When I expressed disapproval, he assured me that he always sat with Larry Epstein, the county attorney, and “just talked.” He found this a sign of high status. Another big goofy boy was never persecuted by classmates. I asked the usual suspects why not: they said, “Are you kidding? His family is a motorcycle gang!” As it turned out his father was a former student of mine in Browning, one I liked though not for his skill at grammar. (I have a fifty-year history in Browning and other reservation towns.) He never struck me as violent, but the reputation worked. To Cut Bank High School boys anyone on a motorcycle is a gang.

The macro-forces of economics give permission for violences (not always physical) that play out in micro-attitudes and actions in individuals so complex they are hard to describe. The school wanted Indians if they were good athletes. The coach wanted “red-meat-eating” players and didn’t mind them preying on their own student body so long as they functioned as a team. Old men with deep pockets nostalgically remembered the wild and woolly days of oil boom while today's younger men scrambled to make a killing, trying to learn from those old guys. Seen “There Will Be Blood”? Happened all over the West. Read “Mean Spirits” about the Osage oil strikes in Oklahoma? Happened on reservations everywhere there was something worth killing over.

And the women? How do the women play into this? I can say that even the most dedicated athletes who had mothers and grandmothers imposing good behavior managed to escape the violence. But many townswomen of Cut Bank want prestige, assurance that they’re as good as the women on TV. The way they understand “good” is well-dressed, faux-manicured and driving a nice car. That means money, honey. Add that to the mix.

A law against hate crimes is the first step in a sequence. Next comes enforcement. Then officers who will arrest offenders. The school and newspaper will change when the administration and ownership change. They will change when Cut Bank realizes why they are often called “Crank Butt", Montana, and that having a winning ball team won’t get them the right kind of respect. In the meantime, someone ought to be taking notes for a thesis in border studies.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE INSULA & NEUROTICISM

Long ago when I had fantasies of becoming a clinical psychologist (not really knowing what such a creature was) I took a class in motivation, which I thought would be like Powdermilk Biscuits giving a person the will to do what has to be done. Instead it turned out the class was about why rats get hungry and thirsty.

Much later -- when I’d turned to a new fantasy about becoming a Unitarian minister -- I took a class from Stephen Toulmin about how the body thinks and feels. I still vividly remember the “kinds” of thinking he defined in waking up and starting the day. How do you know to wake up? At what point and how is the decision made to actually sit up and throw your feet on the floor? When you put your socks on, how do you decide which one to put on first? Then there’s all the breakfast stuff: what to eat? When to turn your egg? How to eat it -- yolk or white first? Or do you care or do you mix them?

It appears now that most of these questions are turned into answers by the insula, which uses information from the parasympathetic nervous system -- nerves that monitor breathing, heart rate, digestion, perspiration, body temp, and so on which I would say are roughly synonymous with emotions -- to form expectations and then register fulfillment. This recently became very interesting to researchers when a patient with damage to his insula gave up smoking without any symptoms or yearnings at all. The theory is that what he was hooked on was not just the nicotine, but the responses of his body to nicotine PLUS the other associated conditionings like posture, inhaling smoke to the lungs, holding the paper cylinder, the smell and taste, and so on. All the things the insula records and organizes. Since his insula no longer set up the expectation of these things, he didn’t miss them.

There’s another theory forming about what happens when a desire is not fulfilled by the actuality. What about a person who expects a rich pleasure from chocolate but then has an impaired ability to really taste and assimilate it? In her last year or so my mother constantly craved “a really hot cup of coffee,” but even right off the stove coffee didn’t give her the satisfied flush she had expected, the surge of energy. She had a blood cancer that evidently interfered. This may be a reason for over-eating: the first helping doesn’t have the wished-for consequence, so a second helping is tried. This interface in the insula has something to do with wanting and not-wanting, with expectations versus fulfillment, with emotion as a physical state and emotion as a personal characteristic.

Which brings me to the question of “neuroticism” which preoccupies me so easily because it keeps getting waved at me in many forms, beginning with Old Lady Otto remarking in my infancy that my red hair meant I would have to be “broken early.” I’m aware that cat personality is closely related to cat color, so if there is a genetic link between red hair and “neuroticism,” which means something like being a “hot reactor” with intense emotions and desires, I won’t be surprised. The problem is finding the right social context for such equipment. And maybe it helps to have two X chromosomes, like a calico cat with three colors the third of which is on the second X along with a little extra moxie. To mix animals, maybe the problem is more horsepower than usual, which is a little harder to handle.

The Big Five inheritable personality traits are supposed to be openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and that wicked neuroticism. Without a lot of questionnaires I can tell you I’m at the top for Openness (art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiousity, and variety); unreliably Conscientious (I do it if I think it matters); not in the least Extraverted (I had to look up “surgency” which seems to be code or jargon for the things that create success: “dominance, self-confidence, competitiveness, outgoingness, decisiveness and getting ahead in life,” my lack of which explains a lot of things); again, unreliably Agreeable depending on what’s involved; and quite high in Neuroticism (emotional “instability,” getting angry, depressed, anxious or vulnerable). Pretty much resolved that last with solitude. Actually, it’s GOOD for a writer to be neurotic, isn’t it? Sensitive? Reactive?

What’s particularly interesting when I got into the depths of the Wikipedia discussion is that the inventor of the basis of this classification system was Sir Francis Galton FRS (16 February 1822 – 17 January 1911). A half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was "an English Victorian polymath, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician." He was knighted in 1909. Inventor of the twinned terms nature/nurture, as well as twin studies, and the coiner of the word “eugenics,” he pioneered the uses of questionnaires, invented the statistical standard deviation, and figured out how to group fingerprints. He thought all the best people (defined as most intelligent) should marry other best people and have best children. This preoccupation with what comes perilously close to being fascist “high class” is what tips us off that he was not value-free and what he valued were his own characteristics. My guess is that he was not in the least neurotic or even emotional, and that he was irritated by people whom he considered to be like that.

So this guy with a phlegmatic insula, highly focused on statistics and the measurable characteristics of the “criminal class,” came up with the beginnings of the Big Five Factors by making a list of all the dictionary terms for temperament and grouping them into a taxonomy. Following his example in 1936, Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert sorted 17,963 words for describing personality, and reduced them to 4,504 according to their own criteria of validity. In the 1940’s Raymond Cattell added terms, eliminated what he considered to be synonyms, boiled the list to 171, then used questionnaires to get 35 major “personality traits.” In 1961 a couple of Air Force guys defined five major factors. VOILA!! Triple-distilled personality definition, culturally framed. All that remained was to demonize them by correlation with the categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, the WORST traits were those things about not being agreeable and being too neurotic. Troublemakers, so obviously they were troubled.

It’s a far cry from figuring out how a rat knows it’s hungry and ought to eat some pellets to figuring out why this particular rat is a troublemaker and ought to be “adjusted.” Of course, if you can make the rat stop wanting to smoke... The Scylla for this Charybdis is that in eliminating desire in the rat -- its “get-up-and-go” -- what you get is a rat that doesn’t care, doesn’t even bother to eat, lies around in the bottom of the cage until it dies of inanition, failure to thrive. I’ve seen too many kids like that.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

RIDING ALONG FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES: A Review

“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” by the Chinese director Yimou Zhang, is widely praised for its beauty as an account of a old man trying to make up to his dying son for the lifelong division between them, evidently because of wanting to be alone. It is beautifully acted, a classical “changed by journey” story, against a background of ravishing scenery, both the Japanese rocky coast and the far inland eroded badlands of a remote part of China. The director is widely known for “House of Daggers” which made enough money for him to finance this small but expensive film. The regal and uncompromising old man is played by Ken Takakura, a Japanese actor of much fame and stature. Most of the actors are simply locals playing themselves and this works just fine.

But there is much in this movie that would reward analysis by a sociologist or historian. Takata-San, the old man, is not just traveling far into the Chinese interior, but as he goes he is moving back in time. In the beginning we see him taking a bullet train to Tokyo where people live in hives, extremely modern and slick, as individuals making their own decisions. But when he gets to the village of Stone Flower, riding in a farm cart pulled by a tractor, the village is a collective: people living interwoven lives by consensus. Decisions there are made by the whole group, expressing themselves through their village council. Along the way he passes through various bureaucracies trying to reconcile the individual with the group. The scariest for Americans is the prison where the inmates march in formation, chanting, “We will improve. We will renew ourselves. We will be obedient.”

When Takata-San finds the small boy he must bring back to the prison to meet his father, the kid (Yang Yang) turns out to be utterly rebellious, a nonconformist who chooses running away over getting along with the group. Just like Takata-San and -- as he discovers -- his own son, who had seemed to like remote China for aesthetic reasons but turns out to have liked the solitude of being different, an exception to all the requirements of the society. The son went to the remote traditional place to sit apart and watch, just as his father “hid out” in the little fishing village. They resist being “known.”

So Yimou Zhang sets up tensions and questions between the ancient village culture of China -- progenitor of Japan -- and the modern ironically isolating, contemporary, urban Japanese life where people die of overwork and drink. One could easily see translating this film to America by sliding a remote Indian rez into the place of Yunnan Province and a Long Island wealthy but solitary father of an anthropologist. In fact, it might even be possible to work in the key to this film, which no one seems to mention in reviews: the traditional “mask opera” actor, since American Indians also used masks.

Li Jiamin, a real mask actor famous in his own context, especially for the lead role in the traditional opera called “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” is in prison for stabbing a man in an act of passion. His eloquence when masked is nothing compared to his real human grief and remorse, his longing for his son, also the result of an act of passion. Takata-san envies him his open weeping, his transparency, which brings Takata, the warden and the other convicts all to tears. The stubborn small son, who refused to come see his father, is not the point. Completing the intention of filming this performance is not the point. The point is putting aside the mask, at least temporarily. And the question is whether the villagers, living collectively in the old way, are not in the end more honest and compassionate than the impersonal crowds of Tokyo.

Since I’m not a big martial arts fan, I haven’t seen “House of Daggers.” But I have seen another earlier Yimou Zhang movie, “Raise High the Red Lantern.” This story, which happens in China in the Twenties, is about another stubborn person, this time a beautiful young woman (Gong Li) forced into being the fourth wife of a powerful man. She pits her will against the control of the man and his other three wives and endures terrible suffering. So many Chinese movies are about this refusal to conform. I love ‘em.

American movies are confused in this dimension of conform/don’t conform, and French movies celebrate nonconformity in a context of freedom, a triumphant defiance, but then worry about being adrift with no meaning. The British play out the theme in terms of class: is the upper class truly able to be free or aren’t they trapped in expectations just as much as the cook and butler downstairs?

I think Yimou Zhang is subtly subversive in his stories, quietly moving public opinion in several countries along the continuum between public and private to a reconciliation that allows unity but leaves people their personalities, their emotions, their desires, their griefs. He’s not against the collective, but rather wants them to show the compassionate motives that spare the unique and excessive.

This is not a change of subject. In preparing to write about the brain part called “the insula” I keep running across “neuroticism,” which is supposed to be one of the five inheritable dimensions of personality. “Neuroticism,” you can tell by the choice of the word, is not nice. The formal definition is a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability; sometimes called emotional instability. Big no-no in America. Shows a need for “adjustment,” being confined, being made to march in step chanting “I will reform, I will be reborn, I will conform.” There are pills for it. If those don’t work, maybe electroshock therapy. “Depression is an illness.” Nonconformity, failure to be pleased, anger -- we don’t allow those. And we’re not even China.

Another irony of “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is that in the documentary interviews everyone agreed -- and these are Yunnan Province villagers talking -- that the director and the star of this film are the friendliest, easiest-going, warmest people they’ve ever met. They are not cranky geniuses shouting and throwing things, and yet they are the source of this eloquent defense of both private choice and personal emotion.