Saturday, June 09, 2012


In my mother’s bedroom was a picture she had cut out of a magazine and put into a dimestore frame.  It was “Peace and Plenty” by George Inness, a pastoral scene of a cluster of majestic hardwood trees alongside a stream.  I used to look at it for a long time.  Recently I thought I’d google up the image to remind myself.  It was easy to do.  But this morning when I tried to summon it up again -- even using Google images -- I found instead a huge range of genres and subjects ranging from a Victorian mother and child to a Chinese dragon monster.  
I also found this quote:
A Nation announcing itself, (many in one,)
I myself make the only growth by which I can be appreciated,
I reject none, accept all, reproduce all in my own forms."
Well, all right.  There’s the challenge, putting aside the problem of nationalism, which is a challenge in itself.  What IS a nation when it is packed with the diasporas of other countries?  What is the religion of a planet full of surging populations when -- as I propose -- religious concepts come from the familiar ecology of the person aspiring to understand?  I could understand an ecology of cities, but what about an ecology of constant change?  
Do we go to outer space to form our planetary ideas -- the little blue ball in a velvet black cosmos full of spangles?  Or do we go inside ourselves, down deep where we first burst out of our mothers into shared social space that overwhelms our senses and forms our identities?   In Bibfeltian fashion (Art Durkee would approve) I say “both/and.”
In the second half of the twentieth century, religion for white folks in America was focused on Peace, Prosperity, Privacy, Personhood, Parenting and other factors in the can of peas that contained what people thought would be “good,” “safe,” family-friendly.  The result was that God died, withered since  a true God is none of those things.  Properly, “He” doesn’t even have gender.  In fact, our whole insistence on gender dyading is not really pertinent anymore.  We’re in the Age of Ambiguity.  Not just groping for the right words, but even for the right language.  Oh, forget words -- go for image.  Show me the pictures!  
This weekend the big media commotion is the space/opera movie called “Prometheus,” in which the spaceship looks like the Firefly on steroids.  (“Firefly” was a friendly, folksy space travel series, very popular and without pretensions.)  The heroine in “Prometheus” is played by Noomi Repace, the actress from the original movie of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
From the New York Times:  Something Wicked Their Way Comes, via the Galactic
In "Prometheus," Ridley Scott returns to the visceral
dread of "Alien" as a vessel lumbers through the
galactic void.
Slide Show: The Design of 'Prometheus'
Ridley Scott Returns to Outer Space
Noomi Rapace Arrives in Hollywood
Movie Details:
The sets for this faraway planet look remarkably like depictions of the American Wilderness painted about the same time as Inness’ pastorale.  The works of Moran, for instance.  And there is a giant face, something like the one in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Great Stone Face.”  (Note that we have two art genres here -- three if you count writing.  And we’ve turned from the European mythology of “Lord of the Rings” to the American mythology of the Transcendentalists and James Fenimore Cooper)  Who are we?  Where do we belong?  Can we handle the truth?  What is a human being?  The questions have escaped the pulpit.  Nor are they any longer private.
Prometheus is a Greek figure who is a kind of Jesus intermediary between the unknowable and often destructive (or at least withholding) God and ourselves.  This movie is Space Opera.  Opera was originally an attempt to stage great classic themes in as grand a way as Greek drama.  We seem to need to go back to that.  Prometheus brought fire to humans.  His punishment was to be chained to a rock where an eagle tore out his liver and ate it every day.  (How we torture our heroes!)  
What IS that fire?  Sure, heat is a good thing for cooking supper, it keeps the saber-toothed tigers at bay and all that stuff.  But isn’t the real flame the one that burns in the chalice of the skull?  The human mind and its constant questioning?  Sure, that’s nice poetry for religious humanists.
Turn away from words now, even the great myths and theologies.  There are many of both.  (I just got a book about Conan the Barbarian.)  Looks like “Prometheus” is providing a new vocabulary of images.  “Felt meanings” are more often contained in images or metaphors.   The cliffs, the multiple suns, the bubbled heads, the burst chests. 
What were the “felt” concepts I had at the age when I contemplated my mother’s magazine tear-out?  Safety within a context of destruction.  (It was World War II.) A yearning for heroes.  Awareness that at the heart of our house crouched a huge asbestos-clad furnace burning wood and coal, puffing warm air up its octopal arms.  My mother’s bedroom felt a sort of chapel, her private place kept locked except for our father.  In there the hot air register was shut off.  She was the priestess who controlled access, who would sometimes let me sit on the bed and gaze at her peaceful picture.  She was also the burnt sacrifice priestess who threw my filthy but beloved stuffed panda into the maw of the furnace.  It was religious.  Sorta.
The reason I couldn’t find “Peace and Plenty” is that I had the wrong name for it.  I was calling it “Peace and Prosperity” which is different.  I wonder if people know that.

“Peace and Plenty”

And isn’t this “Golden Sunset” a true “Molten Chalice”?  Or is it a stuffed panda burning?  Might it be the fire Prometheus brought us?  It matters how it feels to you.  That's what makes it religious.

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