Monday, December 31, 2012
Here’s a second run at the problem of a query for “The Bone Chalice.” A friend did a bit of research and discovered that you can buy a genuine imitation skull chalice at: http://skullsdirect.deviantart.com/art/Ritual-Skull-Chalice-199101546 or actually http://www.skullsdirect.co.uk It’s a little hard to decide how to feel about it. Metaphors have a startling way of escaping into actuality.
Art is the expression of the relationship between a human being and the universe.
Holiness is the direct perception of the universe.
Worship, liturgy, ritual, ceremony are arts of perceiving the universe as directly as possible.
Play is the exploration of human experience.
Religion and dogma are institutionalized versions of information gathered through playful exploration of human experience that has been codified and systematized.
The criteria for systematic organizing into religion is beliefs that promote survival.
Morality is the systematic organizing of the trade-off between individual survival and group survival. It is often explored through theatre, which is a kind of play mixed with ceremony.
A human being is a creature that interacts with the universe (though a part of it) through the use of molecular/cell interactions felt as sensations, which are processed into patterns that guide the creature through the practical doing of ordinary life: gathering and preparation of food, creation of shelter, interaction with other human beings and animals and so on. In previous millennia humans tended to stay located in the culture/religion they knew and to which they had become adjusted by attrition (aka evolution). In the past two centuries a body of reflection and exploration has made it possible to analyze and experiment more than ever before. It has also raised questions about identity, what it is and how to manage it.
This manuscript reflects on the organization and practice of liturgy in its attempt to directly perceive the Holy Universe. This view is closer to play than morality. closer to art than dogma or institution, closer to theatre than therapy. But it is based on more than introspective philosophizing -- energized by the recent research on human brain neurology.
It has always been an aesthetic principle that any creation has a beginning, a middle and an end. Add to that the neurological theories that sensory information is taken in (in far more ways than the five obvious senses), processed at the point of intake by a neuronal structure (forming what we hear or see) so that can be sent coded to the brain, sorted at other evolved organs from the brain stem “upward” to the stacked and wrapped parts of the brain and their specialized cells, until it can be translated into actions, maybe as small as blood pressure and maybe as decisive as violent muscle use. These systems include the “nervous system,” the autonomic nervous system, the network of nerves that sleeve the intestines, and a number of organs that release chemical messengers (hormones and enzymes) directly into the lymph and blood of the body. Add to that the waves and rhythms of the brain, the heart, and those functions attuned to day length, season, and internal cycles -- the forces of fertility, sleep, and habit. All this is far too complex and subtle for any human unaided by technology. Unless it can be bundled into story, metaphor, art.
Liturgy in the contemporary world is a function of culture and mostly administered by institutions as a way of confirming their authority, but it also escapes. Religious clashes, particularly now that so many old boundaries are breached, are a source of war and famine across the planet as people try to secure resources for survival (self-defined). Most efforts at bringing peace depend upon written documents, technological force, and truth claims that were developed long ago. Institutional religion is very much enmeshed with the invention of writing: the Book. Many liturgies also depend upon written material: the prayer book, the hymnal, theological works and academia related to them.
“The Bone Chalice” is based on the poetic metaphor of the human skull as a vessel to contain thought in the way the Christian goblet contains wine/blood. It is meant to discuss the art of creating liturgy quite apart from institutions but not contradicting them; rather, finding the underlying contact with holiness. This is not about going to primitive cultures, except as examples, nor is it about ecstatic drugs, but rather what they do and perhaps why. This is not about content, but how content is derived. How grapes become wine, if you like, and why wine suggests blood suggests Jesus suggests sacrifice suggests the death of an individual for the sake of the whole, not neglecting the background of animal or even human sacrifice on the altars of the same peoples. (Are we returning to that -- in the same place? With rubble instead of monolithic altars?)
This work is in two parts. The first half is meant to review the theories of how our sensory interface with existence seem to operate. The second half looks at specific instances of liturgy: traditional, creative, and accidental. Where did they come from? What do they mean? Once they are established, they add another layer of meaning. Partly this comes from the individual memories of actual acts. (Methodist Communion with the clinking little glasses of grape juice on the silver containers which are passed along the pews. The embarrassment of the little Catholic kid who finds that the wafer has stuck to the roof of his mouth. The germophobe’s worry of sipping from a communal chalice. The judgment and skill needed to tear off appropriate chunks of tough artisanal peasant bread, thought to be authentic.)
Or how about the possible heresies? The seminary female forbidden by her tradition to serve bread and wine so serving bread and water instead. The mockery of a soda/Twinkie communion. The tribesman who doesn’t know bread or the meaning of unleavened bread but understands that a communion wafer has high significance, and therefore takes some home to stick to the belly of his ailing child.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
When a manuscript is finished or close to that, one composes a query to send to agents or publishers or experts in the field to get a little objective reflection and possibly some offers to move towards publication. A non-writer but quite shrewd friend asks me how a writer knows when a book is finished. I guess there are about as many ways as there are books.
When the insight has been sufficiently explored.
When you can’t think of anything more to say except something that’s really rather different.
When someone wants the manuscript as it is.
When it fits the presumptions and prejudices of the several-layered establishment that fancies itself to be a “publishing” “industry.”
But the reverse is just as interesting: why finish? Now that blogs and websites offer the possibility of endless manuscripts, why not take advantage of it? Since there’s no money in publishing anymore, why worry about it? Every “book” I’ve self-published has showed up on Google for free. NOT the ones I offered for free, like the Blackfeet history compilations.
Since this is about liturgy, why not just email a pdf to everyone who shows interest? Or every UU congregation -- there are only a thousand of them. Maybe start a website where people can post videos of liturgy designed according to these principles.
The following is close to being a formal query.
This inquiry into the design of liturgy (ritual) is neither religious nor literary nor dogmatic nor institutional in any way. The object is the primal feeling of the holy when a human being as instrument detects the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” What are the parameters of such an experience? Invited or uninvited, enthralling or devastating, recorded or lost in the abyss?
What is this mysterium? Inquirers have suggested endorphins, epileptic seizures, dissociation, schizophrenia, meditation, concussion, supernatural beings (ranging from God through angels and devils to Martians), psychotropic drugs, hypnotism, dehydration, the holy spirit, and brain tumors. Maybe caused by intense virtue, desperate danger, exalting nature, the death experience itself, or really good sex.
In the split between rational theology and poetic ecstasy that runs through designed numinous experiences of all kinds and times, people become committed to what works for them. But WHY does it work? What makes it effective? Can we “eff” the ineffable after all?
This inquiry is proceeding on the basis of “felt meaning,” not reasoning, and not confined to the other kinds of thought we are used to distinguishing as the workings of the brain cortex, but rather a whole-body experience involving all the senses as processed through all nervous systems (including the hormonal, the autonomic and the gut-net-sheath) and the entire sequence of evolved brain parts from the top of the spine up. The premise is that some situations create perception of the Holy, maybe faint but real. It is as planned and designed as any art form, but more intense, reaching deeper. (The concepts of soul and spirituality are set aside as over-used to the point of being useless.)
Most central is Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane.” Highly relevant are the studies of “liminal place and time” by Victor Turner, the study of “focus” by Eugene Gendlin, the study of “flow” by Mihaly Czikzentmihaly, and brain studies by Antonio Damasio. These choices do not eliminate other theories, but they are the ones I find most helpful.
Roy Rappaport also supplies a basic key as follows: because humans can only connect to the larger world (or even detect that it is there) through their senses, their material cultures are the containers of their inner lives. Thus, the religions of different places -- growing up from awareness of what is precious in their locations -- value different aspects: water where there is desert, fish where there is sea. The impelling force in every case is the need for survival -- both that of individuals and that of the group -- but because what is most needed is different in different places, the symbolisms are different from each other. In fact, the only common element of all religions is that humans can feel sacredness. That is the unifying connection of all religions. But not everyone feels it and people vary in their sensitivity to their local metaphors. It’s tempting to think that liturgy can waken greater awareness in everyone.
Perhaps it is the precursors to actual ceremonies that will be effective reminders of the sensory threads that weave together the holy cloth. Pre-language, arts of movement, music, and the much neglected senses of smell and taste. Metaphors of relationship, transformation, and bliss. These would be local, familiar, treasured. Today the challenge is to find some way for human beings to value each other and the planet itself. The response began for many with the photo of the planet Earth from the moon.
The first part of this manuscript could be called “the ground of liturgy,” parallel to Paul Tillich’s phrase “the ground of being.” The idea is to look at the sensorium of humans and how they weave in and out of religious thought and feeling to create what I hate to name by the elevated term “semiotics” (which I only understand on good days), but which I can’t quite name as metaphor, especially if you paid attention to your high school English teacher and know it as a formal figure of speech. What I am pursuing is something like what Daniel Bor, author of “The Ravenous Brain,” calls “chunking.” Not exactly the same, since that seems to refer more to the dividing of things into categories which then become assumptions.
Maybe one could call it concatenating, accumulating, composing, structuring, or snowballing. It is the phenomenon of one sensory image getting stuck to another which suggests a third and keeps on complexifying until finally it becomes a concept -- not a word-concept with a name (which is why it’s so difficult to name) but rather a “felt” concept, as in a dream. It is what happens in the poet (whole body, not just brain) when hit by an insight which is then “composed” out of a midden of entangled memories, inventions, and rhymes into something that gives us that insight across the gap between author and receiver. The quality of the receiver is relevant.
The second part of the manuscript is examples and reflections on how and why the liturgies turned out as they did. I begin with the dignified and conservative and progress to the ghastly edge of survival.
This query is very much like the others I've composed for this effort. I don't like it. Too fancy for something so basic and natural that any child can do it.
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Logically there is no real reason why the 21st century should be different from the 20th -- a calendar is just a system of numbers, no matter what the Mayan devotees think. At the same time, a calendar is a way of segmenting the flow of time and though the “end” didn’t come neatly on a certain date, things are clearly changing.
In the first place, they are changing because we see them differently now. What I might call “Harold Bloom-ism” -- a kind of idealism that depends upon canons, authorities, certain rules and a general Levitican Talibanic mindset -- is rotting out from under us. One more teetotaling senator arrested for drunk-driving, one more leader indicted for sexually victimizing the vulnerable, one more “penetrating” or “unmasking” analysis of financial or governing systems -- and this time none of it hidden by media. In fact, EXAGGERATED by media, repeated and sensationalized by media, along with whatever debris they can find. It’s different this time because we SEE it. The person says, “I never said that,” and then they roll the clips of him or her saying it. “I never had sex with that woman,” and then they show the semen on the dress with the DNA analysis.
This has had a vivid impact on our portrayals of ourselves: we see life and therefore theatre as more of a circus, less of an occasion for oratory. We have seen the movie stars age, then we sit up late to see them so very young. We have come up against the limitations of the rational. We have seen the planet from outer space and though we keep trying to make that into a marketable cliché, it never quite sticks -- next day it’s new again.
Greed is our besetting sin, but now it is formed by algorithms and a constant flow of data that we can manage so minutely as to make money (BIG money) from tiny gradients of value difference that would have been imperceptible, let alone manageable, just a year ago. And it turns out that changes and opportunities -- at first seeming such progress -- turn out to have a very dark side, even pork belly futures, a factual development that is so metaphorically suggestive. For every Bakken oil boom, there is an influx of violence, drugs, hangers-on, underculture. And then it turns out that the fracking boom has put so much oil and gas on the market, that even re-opening known underground deposits is not so profitable. All the people who were going to get rich from building instant “man-camps” are now subject to state inspection standards, newly passed.
Gain the internet -- lose the post office. Lose print -- gain images/music. Instead of books, we have YouTube -- a new kind of “literacy,” a new code, a new penetration into the consciousness of other people. Lose old-fashioned religion (goodbye Benedict) gain . . . well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. It won’t be hierarchical. It won’t be pseudo-rational. Maybe Romantic -- in the philosophical sense.
A sense of planet. A new understanding. A new meaning. A new behavior. The issues won’t be Apollonian versus Dionysian anymore -- fewer binaries or rather binaries only to establish the spectrum along which reality arranges itself -- always moving, always intersecting with other spectrum. Emotion informing “facts”, facts always asking for evidence, propositions always investigating consequences instead of making “truth” or “virtue” claims. How do we know what we’re doing? We don’t. Never will.
I’m reading “The Felt Meanings of the World: A Metaphysics of Feeling” by Quentin Smith, partly because it had so much impact on Bruce Willshire’s books, which I haven’t finished reading yet. Most people read books because they are immersive; that is, they draw the reader in and so absorb him or her in virtual events that it becomes realer than real and time dissolves. Smith’s book is quite different: it’s resisting me. I have to shove myself into the sentences, rewrite them on a clipboard, scribble in the margins. It’s like some dry mathematician trying to explain the paintings of Frances Bacon. (In fact, he does mention both Bacon and Van Gogh in terms of their emotional impact.) But it’s as though he were discussing in terms of armatures and composition -- no, that’s not right; he’s not analytical in that way. Nor does he ever seem to realize that, for instance, color is the result of certain wavelengths of light hitting the human retina. The neuron studies are just beginning and haven’t reached the public yet.
So he’s trying to build a “FELT” meaning but without any way to describe “felt” except introspection, which forces him into metaphor. A meaning is spatial (high, horizontal, inside) or based on response (afterglow, importance) and he lets some things escape without meaning or importance and yet without the neuronal basis in the unconscious brain-editing of sensory information that worries me. Smith lets the “unimportant” fall but I’m always wondering what I’m missing. His ideas seem more aesthetic than moral, more aligned with pleasure than justice. That can’t be right.
So I must be missing something. That’s good to know, if only for a corrective to hubris, but how do I find out what I missed? Seems like that’s the problem of the whole global culture. What are we missing? How do we find out? I suspect it will come out of nowhere and blind-side us, maybe with pain and maybe with joy. A sudden access to an endless source of energy for all -- or a change in the atmosphere that cuts the population of the planet to one-tenth of what it is now. (I hope it’s quick and painless.) A new evolution in our own brains -- or dogs and dolphins that suddenly begin to talk. (Both already sing.)
Now I’m beginning a section in which Smith reflects on how we got the idea that “rational” thought is more “real” than anything “distorted” or “falsified” by emotion, which indicates the importance of realities to us. He doesn’t have to worry about how much the molecular recording of sensory inputs, “cooked” by our priorities down in the kitchen of the subconscious, separates us from as much as it connects body to world. But he does point out that the mathematical technology that convinces us of the realities of galaxies and photons cannot be proven by direct experience. Nor does math, rational and objective, account for our overwhelming awe at the existence of things we can only trace in particle cloud chambers or computer reconstructions. The cosmos, the quarks -- they’re so Romantic.
Friday, December 28, 2012
Those who wrestle with the kind of publishers who think narrative is the ONLY way to get readers involved and who believe that poetic image or metaphor is just frippery that can only justify itself with shock content, are busy with only one corner of the “how to write” world. In fact, there is a whole mozaic. At seminary I discovered a schism within the nonfiction category between rational deduction and the analysis of emotional truth. (Reflecting the division between Ph.D. professors and D.Min. ministers.) It was particularly problematic because traditional theology is a kind of offshoot of mathematics with theorems that must be proven with deductive evidence not necessarily drawn from life -- but ministry is about life itself. No footnotes available. Sometimes mistaken for “self-help” instead of true inquiry.
When I realized this and understood that this assumption could prevent me from achieving my MA from the U of Chicago Div School (which has a Ph.D. skew), off I went to the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore and bought an armload of books about how to think, most notably by Stephen Toulmin, like “The Uses of Argument” and “An Introduction to Reasoning.” And that took me back around to Dean Barnlund’s “The Dynamics of Discussion” and “Language and Thought” from my undergrad years in the School of Speech at NU. Without this crash course I could not have survived, but it was not because I picked up so much skill. It was that I realized what the Div School meant by choosing your method and stating it clearly. No muddling.
One of the main reasons that public conversation about religion consistently ends up in a tangle, knotting up emotions so impossibly that no one can get sense out of it, is that it rules out emotion. “Feelings” are defined as a kind of irrelevant fantasy. How on earth did we get this way? The way to clear thinking is NOT to eliminate emotion, though that’s been the premise for a couple of thousand years. Rather it is to really FEEL the emotion as fully and as accurately as you can. Emotion is evidence. It is valid. It is not recreational.
Since my basic undergrad training was in theatre/acting, I knew this, and I went to a thinker who took it into account as “feelings” or “felt meaning:” Suzanne Langer, “Feeling and Form.” Since she was female, she offered no advantage -- couldn’t even save herself, much less me. I hung on tight to Richard Stern, the novelist, with his love of “modernity” which means psychoanalytical-style unconscious poetic concepts and their investigation in narrative. Those who are devoted to what they take to be “objective” rationality, enforce their point of view by mocking anything outside rationality as either deluded fantasy or contaminated personal interest -- both of which are taken to be weakness and over-sensitivity (lack of tough-mindedness) that justify stigmatizing and walling those folks out. Money, of course, can buy one’s way back “in,” even if it is acquired through the use of that same “over-sensitivity.” There is also a quiet willingness to pay for therapists to care for the victims of barren relationships that come from preoccupied rationality.
All this is outside what is discussed in Quentin Smith’s “felt metaphysics.” Smith, writing in 1984, is also outside the conversation powered by the relatively recent understanding of how brains work, both as pre-conscious complex organs and on the molecular/neuron level. He was too late for me at the Div School, but too early for today’s neurology discussions. In fact, there is so much to talk about, so many distinctions to be made, such a hunger to convert this all to practical uses in the search for bliss, that it’s necessary to constantly exclude this or that. Over and over I find myself searching for definitions and divisions, having to ask myself what it is I’m really try to understand and to what extent I’m only justifying my pre-existing self. Smith is clear that not everyone wants to think about metaphysics -- they have enough to do to keep up with the mundane tasks of their practical world. But also I find that people have a nagging worry that if someone (like me) really concentrates on metaphysics and thinking, that it’s a kind of access to power or somehow a “put-down” of their own choices.
Again, money is the enforcer. There’s no money for dreaming. Even on a campus the funding goes to the effective (technological) and the edge is cut off, unfunded. People in minority studies find this out the hard way. What was once an attempt to be “rational” and objective has hardened now into a callousness and intolerance. Or rather, the other way around, the amazing uprooting of boundaries that once justified the invasion of campus authority-figure offices, has now been ruled childish madness. Those in charge pit what they claim is reasonable conservation of resources against the demands of humanities. Confusingly, the real and verifiable limits of resources become a justification for the hoarding of them, further limiting them in the name of preventing waste. Students are told they are precious (a feeling) and then urged to go into five-figure debt (a fact).
My mother-in-law had a fine collection of family silver which she kept wrapped and stored, never finding any occasion grand enough to justify its use. In other words, it was the same as though she had no silver at all. Just so, in the minds of some academic administrators, feelings are an extravagance and therefore feelings are suppressed, even as sources of energy. As one of my classmates used to say, “This seminary would be a great place for learning if we could just get rid of all these pesky students.” (They’ve figured it out now: they call it “distance learning.” ) So our churches rule out-of-order all differences of opinion on grounds that they will lead to heresy; they suppress tragedy in the name of order. This, of course, can be so frustrating that the result is enough anger to overthrow the standing order, one of the practical uses of emotion now familiar to Middle Eastern authorities.
My key guide to my reading about ritual is whether the ideas are helpful to liturgical design for nice Christians, free-range Unitarians, and the oldest Blackfeet Bundle Keepers I ever knew -- the whole range. It’s a practice, therefore practical, combining emotion and reason.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
I claim special privilege of insight for this movie. One is that it’s my family history: I’m entitled to belong to the Daughters of the Oregon Trail since my great-grandmother could easily have been one of the women in this film. The Philpotts and Cochranes were early immigrants and my great-grandfather donated the land for the Pioneer Park in Champoeg. No matter how much I question such things: the mythology of endurance and tenacity in the face of hardship, the faith in relocation as a form of salvation, the belief that one is privileged by ancestors -- all remain part of my identity.
A second qualification is that my family camped across the country, particularly in the Northwest, by means of a folding tent trailer, not that different from a covered wagon. The scent of sage, the yellow blooms of rabbit brush, the slow burn of alkali dust, the twisty shredded bark of found wood for a campfire, and the steady brushing of wind are all part of my sensory vocabulary. When I see someone trying to find footing in a swift stream up to their waist, I know that slow and uncertain progress.
Third, because Montana has the same green wet strip on the west edge that sustains easy prosperity, unlike the eastern vast flat dry ancient seabed -- far more of a challenge -- and because my life has rubbed along among the indigenous people of all these places, I’m prepared to think about issues most people don’t know. Especially the larger context of culture, ecology, and spiritual balance.
No art form can replicate a reality entirely because then it wouldn’t be an art form anymore -- it would be a second reality. An art form selects those aspects of the reality that can configure meaning and transmit it to someone else. When one draws a tree, one draws the closest leaves in detail but lets the others recede into a blur, the same as one’s eyesight is edited by the brain.
Here is an historical account of the actual facts of Meek’s Cutoff.
And here is the website for the movie: http://meekscutoff.com/
From my point of view, these are the best reviews. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0739998/news
Kelly Reichardt had done mostly wet green stories until she came to this one, which is drily existential, a peneplain of suspense with a vague beginning and an even vaguer end. Her specialty is the small moment, the quiet gesture, the authentic detail. The only thing inaccurate in this case was that no animals were killed or hurt in the making of the film. In reality the Oregon Trail was as hard on the animals as it was on the people, who also died -- gaunt and sick. One of my female ancestors went mad. Well, was “never the same again.”
Once the script has been developed and the location scouted, casting is crucial. I’m always interested in the way the faces rhyme: these are distinguishable but similar enough to be related, even Peter Greenwood except for his Spanish moss hair. (More usually he plays a Kennedy or a gallant, upper-class gent in a tux.) The women have almost doll-faces. It is the Indian who has the very different look. Rod Rondeaux has had a deliberately invisible but long-time presence in movies because he has been a stunt double. http://www.indianstunts.com/RodRondeaux.html You’re not supposed to recognize him. He was in “Comanche Moon” so I watched it this afternoon to see if I could recognize him, but I did only once: he was putting a horse away. None of his acting in “Meek’s Cut-off” was corny, like the acting in “Comanche Moon,” which was an entirely different kind of Western: self-mocking Cormac McMurtry, a Texas hybrid, very violent.
For those who couldn’t handle a slow, realistic, no-explosions plot, the end of the movie -- just the Indian standing at the edge of what look to me like the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge (though you can’t see over that edge), just looking, with the woman’s sewing basket (her “possibles kit”) in his hand -- is too ambiguous to be borne. What has come out of that impatient criticism is very interesting: an intense curiosity to know what it is the Indian says when he speaks “Indian.” (There are no sub-titles.) Rondeaux is evasive. (Do not play stick game with this guy.) He knows the trick of film-acting: don’t act. Just be real. This is a man who has been around, been hurt, seen a lot, thought a lot.
The lines were written in English, translated to “down river Nez Perce” and probably augmented by Cheyenne and Crow since Rondeaux is from the Crow rez. Judging by his French surname and receding hairline, he’s got a bit of Metis in him. The trick riders around here undoubtedly know him -- probably the rodeo crowd as well -- and they will know that the Crow -- unlike the Blackfeet -- were allowed to keep their language and also allotted an excellent piece of land for their reservation. They were, in WWII terms, collaborators with the US Cavalry. He’s complicated. The pioneers are not. They have locked onto a goal and intend to get there, no matter what. By the time of the movie, they have no choice anyway.
Kelly Reichert wanted us to have to interpret the guide in the same way that the pioneers do -- read the body language of someone from a different culture. The heroine who succeeds in this understands that he’s not stupid, that he will negotiate, that he’s very much engaged in the world and will participate in their lives as much to see what will happen as for any big reward. She knows that moccasins need to be maintained and that kindness is an investment in the future.
The Meek character (note HIS “possibles kit” with all the elk teeth sewn onto it!) has his tall tales to sustain him. (“An’ he ET that thar bear!”) The Indian character has his mythic vision to guide him. In fact, the Christian baby Jesus and Moses promised land stories aren’t a bad fit. And so they all rub along together, walking separately, embracing in times of trouble. A story is a river is a trail is a life.
I’d love to read the original short story by Jon Raymond that this script came from. There were three Jon Raymond books on Amazon. I ordered all three. Sixty cents for the books. (Forty cents for one, nineteen cents for another, a penny for the third.) Twelve bucks for the shipping. I think they are all set in Oregon. Is this an existential peneplain or what? Just keep walking, reading, writing. Wading.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Googling along in search of threads about ritual or liturgy or worship, I find huge categories of ideas and points of view that were NEVER mentioned in seminary (’78-’82). It’s possible that they were not perceptible in that time period, but it’s far more likely that they were never perceived because no one wanted to look. The idea was to keep everyone focused on the founding assumptions of the cluster of seminaries. It worked best on the faculty.
Sliding up and down one spectrum of rites-of-passage, I see “high” church traditions as in defined religions and at the other end a kind of prosperity-based social event as epitomized by the very nice Australian lady on this website, a little more than wedding planner but a little less than ordained clergy: http://ritualdesign.com.au/home/aboutme There’s something Edwardian about it, with a New Age vibe on the side. Strange that it should crop up on a continent that is the home of one of the most mystical and ascetic people on the planet, the Australian aboriginals.
This “lady” sort of thing is all very civilized and pleasant -- even efficient, particularly since it dodges all the hard questions. It’s the sort of attitude that thinks putting a teddy bear on each child’s desk (same desk but in a building down the road that has been redecorated to look exactly like the scene of massacre BEFORE the massacre) is a mental health intervention, an assurance of safety, when in fact it is the same denial that led to the tragedy in the first place. In my most savage moods, I think the people of New Town should have been marched past the actual grisly remains of the massacre in the same spirit as Eisenhower requiring the people of Germany to come witness the concentration camps. (In this case, any persons who themselves had previously shot a child with a high-powered rifle should be excused since they were probably military. I suppose ghetto child-killers generally use 9 millimeter handgun.) THEN ask for mental health funding commensurate with the need in the community. Witnessing is an important religious function.
England seems to be full of websites about ritual, ranging from those who celebrate their successful return, after a long period of rather unsuccessful experimentation, back to the Book of Common Prayer -- to a group of Wiccan nature-worshipers bemoaning the shallowness and lack of daring in their ceremonies. (I suppose the edge has worn off naked dancing in the night now that it's in so many movies.) Most appear to be reaching back to former times when either things were safely settled and reassuring -- or by contrast, full of the excitement of discovery. I suspect both are reactions to the pressing changes of mixed demographics from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, uneasy felt differences.
A friend sent me a link to an online magazine called Aeon http://www.aeonmagazine.com. It’s packed with restated old ideas. ("We do what those around us do"; "intense terrifying experiences cause identity fusion." See Harvey Whitehouse’s article about “Human Rites”.) And as well, ideas so new as to be almost incomprehensible except to those initiated, like Will Wiles on the New Aesthetic. To me both ideas are relevant to the Bone Chalice. Although I’m not Martine Batchelder, a Frenchwoman who writes about becoming a Buddhist meditating monk in Korea. And though I enjoyed Bella Bathurst’s vivid evocation of wood chopping as meditation, I don’t DO it.
I travel alone. Not that I don’t dip into memory with old friends and even a few relatives, and not that the work of Alvina Krause isn’t a source of inspiration and insight (but also a painful example of the times turning away from one’s life achievement), and not that I don’t have a source of energy and inspiration who travels parallel, never touching, never directing. But that I get up every morning and go to my keyboard. It’s not an altar -- it’s a door that opens the world. A way of being with other people.
Is it genetic that my sympathies tend to react to a Brit online mag more than the glossy products of American elitist nature-mongers? The whole category of “Nature & Cosmos” in Aeon tells me more than the endless economy-based wrestling matches over the perfect laws, the proper boundaries, the most deserving beings, the cost-benefit analyses. All day I’m pleased to live on long dry rising plains near mountains, but then in the evening I gravitate to the River Tyne where they produce all those glamorous English scenery mystery tales full of stone fences, brushy lanes, and brick houses with thatched roofs. Claustrophobic, infested with relentlessly embellished lampshades and class snobbery -- intended to be creepy in a domestic sort of way. Like some people’s churches. The ones I grew up in, full of power-plays and tricks of rhetoric. Things that couldn’t be changed -- they thought.
The “purest” ceremony I’ve found is the one designed by an experimental artist whose name I can’t find in my papers at the moment. The idea is that you go into a closed room where an oscillating fan is blowing. Sit down in front of a big sheet of chilled glass and lean forward to breathe on it. Your lung-air, laden with the moisture of your deep interior, creates a cloud. Lean back. The cloud disappears. Repeat while considering your nature as a mortal living process of exchanges and participations. This can be done as a shared exercise if someone else will sit on the other side of the chilled glass (existence). Take turns: contemplate the exhalations of each other.
In Aeon Whitehorse hinges his essay on the phenomenon of primitive tribal South Sea island communities, excluded from our considerations, who extend compassion to the victims of modern Middle Eastern cities destroyed by rebellion. They go so far as to send money to help refugees, though they have few sources of income. They have a lot of heart. Their own hardships have made them more generous, not more guarded. What need do they have for teddy bears when they have actual parents on hand?
The people of “Tanna” believe in a cult that claims some day all the black people will peel off their dark skins to become prosperous, educated white people. Someone sponsored a trip to England where leaders met with their ideal type: Prince Philip. They were thrilled and came back to tell wonderful stories. The anthro reports: “There was, however, one theme that kept recurring in these stories that caused the islanders evident sadness. That was the phenomenon of homelessness: people destitute on the streets, ignored by passers-by as if they were not really human beings at all. It is hard to convey how distressing this spectacle was for my friends from Tanna. It was one of the main reasons why they politely offered us a message of kindness: they thought we needed it.”
They were our witnesses. I hope they pray for us.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
One religion claims that the only salvation is to cut someone’s living heart out and offer it to the sun. The next one claims that the only possible way to save the world is to kneel before a newborn baby whose Father was God. One religion believes that it is best to die in battle, gloriously; the next believes it best to withdraw quietly into a life of contemplation. The specifics of religions result from the interaction of human beings with their ecology, the conditions under which they survive. The recommendations may govern the survival of individuals or of a whole society. No one religion can provide a universally successful strategy, though most will claim they do. Not even peace will always work.
Human beings evolved from mammals and then primates through the accumulating and complexifying evolution of the brain, each new ability built on the foundation of what had already been achieved. The term “emergence” refers to some new characteristic produced by the interaction of other less complex things so as to produce something new, maybe never anticipated. What emerged from human brains, a kind of birth, was NOT religion, but the feeling of Holiness that can then develop into a religion through the human struggle to survive in the place where they are, whether forest or savannah.
If the awareness of the Holy seems to come from somewhere that only humans can conceive of -- another place and way of being beyond anything our senses tell us is in this world, but extended from our experience with this world -- then we call it “transcendent.” If the awareness of the Holy seems to come from within the world and our experience of it, then it will named be “immanent.” Religions can combine the two in various ways, each insisting that their way is the real way and that all competing systems are evil, to be destroyed; all differing opinions are heresies to be driven out.
Some suggest that science is religious and they are right. Some suggest that capitalism is religious and they are also right. But these systems cannot persist anymore than any other religious system. They are gathered wisdom about survival and prosperity for individuals and one’s larger society, however defined, even to the extent of including all humans or all living beings or -- indeed -- every existence on the planet, even inanimate. Technology and profit have colluded to create an unforeseen result: that the happy survival of humans (at least some of them) can destroy the entire earth, the basic understructure of all ecologies, and force deprivation on a huge part of the human population. Unless we reconsider our assumptions, it is clear that the whole species will suffer, possibly to the point of extinction. The answer, which may or may not come, will be emergent. It cannot be imposed by ideology.
We do not like emergent forces -- we follow Herod in trying to murder the newborn in order to protect our existing grip on power and privilege. I would not encourage the identification and analysis of the newborn -- even if we can figure out where they are, which is most often ghettoes -- but I think we need to put a lot more effort into understanding power and privilege. It is not at all what it was back in the days of the first walled villages guarding bins of grain from other tribes and learning to decipher records and contracts, so as to protect investments from each other.
Nor is it really what power and privilege were in the hunter/gatherer days when a tribal chieftain could take a son up to the top of a mountain to kill him at the command of an unseen God. In fact, that notion of God is supposed to have died and I certainly hope the news spreads.
The story I like better is about an old woman who lived on top of a peak in the Olympic mountains, the place that echoes with elk bugles in the fall. Daily this old woman made soup out of whatever she could find. You didn’t want to leave your moccasins lying around and best keep your dog by your side. It was opportunistic soup, meant for immediate survival rather than the long haul. It was NOT “stone soup,” that nice liberal idea of everyone throwing into the pot. This old woman was all by herself.
If you’ve lived around there, you’ll know that the sky is low. In those days you could actually touch it. One day the old woman needed something more for her soup, reached up, hacked off a chunk of cloud as though it were an old rag, and threw it into the soup. The sky, shocked, withdrew. We cannot touch it anymore. In fact, since we have been so careless about throwing our middens of molecules into the sky, there are places where we cannot breathe it anymore. All we care about is our own soup -- without considering consequences to the Holy Atmosphere of the planet.
More than a few people have made a religion of environmentalism, which offers so many gorgeous and holy icons to contemplate, and others have seen a marketing opportunity, offering canned soup with low sodium so easy to heat and serve in a busy world. Neither “religion” has had much to offer the wretched of the planet except their old stretched-out t-shirts with the names of the best universities imprinted on the front. Or maybe acid hard rock band logos. Or skulls.
One of the basic facts about the planet is its variability, both as regions and as an entire solar system phenomenon. Every time the earth tips on its axis or the sun flares out radiation, some things are lost and some things are created. We cannot keep these things from happening, but there are many things we can address and ARE addressing. Small things, like flashlights that work by cranking them. Large things like arrays of elliptical mirrors in the desert to capture solar energy.
But what really counts as sources of energy are the stories we hear. Right now there are many stories about insanity, men in power who want more and more guns, innocent children killed in a bloody and sudden way as contrasted with the many children around the planet who die slow deaths caused by budget cuts -- as compared with the self-destruction of older children who can find no place in the world except as prey. So many strategies, so many lives lost, so much damage to land and sky.
Protect the babies from the tyrants, but do not fail to watch for stars and wise men. Stop eating the sky -- call it back. We need new stories.
Monday, December 24, 2012
Once a friend asked me why I always do hard things. I was circuit-riding for the Unitarian Universalists in Montana at the time -- living in a van. That was not the hardest thing I’d ever done. Pouring bronze, addressing animal problems, riding in a buffalo roundup, teaching Blackfeet. Without thinking I said, “Hard things are more fun.”
Clare Sheridan agreed with me, though the hardest things she’d done was cope with the deaths of her son and her husbands. THAT was not fun. “Fun” is something one does for it’s own sake, despite risk, not anything that would cause damage to others -- in fact, a thing useful rather than idle. A thing far from easy was visiting Moscow in 1920, just after the Russian Revolution. Her diary of this ordeal is free online as well as published in the past. Online it’s scanned rather than transcribed, so a little hard to read, but not impossible. It is “fun” to read, partly because of the skeptical but accepting point of view and partly because of the inherent irony (rather ridiculous) of this aristocratic woman from England visiting the grim, relentless leaders of the revolution in order to make their portraits. (A bit of sentimental hero-worship in the point of view of some -- portrait busts of revolutionaries !!?)
Working in cold rooms with little light, Clare struggled with a mass of water-based clay to get likenesses. At one point her subject was so absorbed in papers on his desk that he bent over in a way that prevented her from finding any vantage point that would reveal his face. Finally she ended up on the other side of the desk with her chin right down on the papers. When he glanced up enough to realize he was staring into her face, he didn’t break his gaze or react, but she began to laugh in spite of herself, and then the mood changed enough that he would accommodate her.
Food was a constant problem -- the only thing Clare found digestible was caviar, which luckily was available in abundance. Always the excellent tea was steaming, a boon for an Englishwoman, but hot water for bathing was weekly at best, on principle, and more infrequently than that because of mechanical failures. As the year rolled deep into fall, her cloth coat was nowhere near adequate so that she had to go about with her “rug” wrapped around her, until her distress was so evident that officials took her to a shadowy warehouse where an entire floor was devoted to the storage of fur coats taken from aristocrats. After hours of trying on sable and silver fox (she was actually rather a connoisseur of furs), she settled on a ponyskin with squirrel fur lining -- heavy but windproof and warm. The revolutionaries were not like the English Puritans -- they did not destroy the luxuries, merely stored them. They respected finely made objects and art.
Hints at spying did not take hold enough to endanger her in Russia, but hints at approval of Communism and even collaboration -- to say nothing of a sexually libertine bent -- swept European media when she left for home with two huge crates (she called them “coffins”) of her work. In the Western world any kind of violence or danger is arousing. For some inscrutable reason the Russians had said they would “nationalize” all women and to the yellow press this meant all women would be available for you-know-what. But they also nationalized all the children, which meant free housing, food, health care and education for them. If this had not been done, it’s probable that few would have survived in a world where standing in line for bread took six to eight hours a day -- EVERY day and only enough bread to last a day.
Clare had protectors, often Russian men, both of high status and low. She knew how to appeal to them and was straightforward. Always her priority was her work, which gave them reason to trust her and help her, but also quiet care came from old servants of the aristocracy who knew she appreciated their small skillful kindnesses and graces and from men like her plaster-caster, highly skillful and dependable. At the end, only hours from embarking for home, she gave away all her warm clothes -- including that coat and her galoshes. Such things were impossible for the people themselves to get.
Clare doesn’t go into the politics of it all to any great extent, but she -- like so many other artists and intellectuals -- was very much attracted to the idea of rational economics that provided equity for all people. H.G. Wells showed up while she was there and she differed with him as much as any Russians. What fascinated her more than theory was always the character of individuals, especially as demonstrated in their heads and faces. She kept wanting to portray a “typical” soldier but had trouble conveying to the others what that might be. When she tried to capture a full-figure of a sentry in his heavy clothing -- a collar almost a hood -- he was so warm indoors, even though the clay was almost too cold to be malleable, that the poor boy nearly cooked.
In the end what she comes away with was the impassive stoic acceptance on the part of the people everywhere, which could almost be seen as a kind of stupidity or callousness. At least fatalism. She couldn’t fathom whether this was a long-standing Russian character trait or whether it was a way of survival that had been brought on by the deep hardships of the revolution. Even more surprising, once perceived, was their mystical side -- not exactly religious since it wasn’t dependent on institutions or dogma -- but a capacity for direct experience of a spiritual inexpressibility. Somehow the two sides connected, even enabled each other.
Coming away from Russia was as traumatic as entering such an unknown place. Back in Europe the sensational emotions, the cascade of luxuries, the feverish determination of people to know everything, were overwhelming. Though she mentions her children again and again while in Russia (she had left them with her own mother) where she could make no contact whatsoever through letters or phone, once she’s back out, she barely mentions them. One wonders how much such an account is objectively accurate, how much her reports of her feelings should be trusted. The biographical account by Anita Leslie, who was close to Clare’s daughter, sheds rather a different light. But it is clear that Clare was one of those extraordinary women -- like Isadora Duncan or Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney or Anna Hyatt Huntington or Malvina Hoffman or Alexandra David-Neal -- who were artistic, inspired, driven, and achieving. They did hard things, quite without being nationalized.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Five thousand years ago there were no readers. That’s because there was no writing. It hadn’t been invented yet. Five thousand years is not really enough time for everyone to evolve the skill. Anyway, no one knows how reading/writing are done in terms of the brain because each person does it in his own way. The constant seems to be a little patch of the cerebrum originally meant for recognizing the shapes of prey while hunting. This is not an act of fear, running away from a predator, this is BEING a predator. Having enough food depends upon it. (No wild animal wants to fuck humans, though humans fantasize about it. Some try it with domestic animals, who rarely mind much, though other humans object to the idea. It’s a snub, isn’t it?) The ability to read and write is the child of the hunter/gatherer aeon in the evolution of human beings.
Not everyone can learn to read, maybe because that little patch of neurons is missing or damaged. Maybe because the person never cared enough to try to read, since it’s not a pressing need for everyone on the planet. But those who COULD learn to read and write were quick to make an advantage of it. It was one of the forces that changed humans when they settled in cities to eat and hoard grain, domesticate animals, form named families instead of tribes, and organize religion. All of which meant building structures for barns, bins, homes and temples. It all happened under climate change pressure about ten thousand years ago in most places. One of those structures might have been a library, but maybe the temple doubled since it was already a place for Holy Scrolls. Because the religious people and the bean-counters were both quick to see the potential power and authority of something written down. In fact, they sort of blur together. That’s why we write down our laws and our histories of what “really” happened, so that some troubadour doesn’t come along and change the course of the Trojan War because he thinks Helen of Troy was just another dame. We might lose track of who owes what to whom.
So writing and reading become “property” and therefore slaves and lesser beings (women, blacks) are prevented by law from learning the skill, but they learn it anyway. For every person who can’t learn reading/writing, there is another who just naturally sees how it works and then can do it. Fewer want to do it.
I can remember watching my mother settle at the dining room table with her stationary and special green fountain pen. I’d go sit there myself with a crayon, scribbling loops and caps in the same dimensions as hers -- she had big handwriting. What she was really doing was trying to comfort her own mother who was dying of cancer. She probably didn’t mail the letters directly to her mother because my grandfather tried to prevent my mother’s marriage and then refused to speak to her. (Very parallel to him refusing to admit the daughter killed in a car crash was actually dead -- trying to force his will on everything, even reality.) But maybe even he didn’t dare interfere with the mail. I felt that the emotional aura at that table was daring and potent. Now that my writing is more intelligible (if I use a keyboard) the aura has not left it. I don’t give a damn about publication.
My grandfather finally came around and loaned my mother enough money to finish her teaching degree so she could put me through college. Nothing is as persuasive as economics. The first year I taught at Browning High School, I wrote a little Christmas skit in which a princess (Kate Grissom) taught a peasant girl (Connie Meinecke) to read, using the big chained-to-the-pulpit Bible in the supposed cathedral. In those days women were forbidden to read. Teenagers love forbidden stuff.
Yes, too much sitting at a keyboard will make you fat and give you heart attacks. Doctors are always badgering to make sitters get up and move around. Fine. Good idea. You do it. This is my choice. I’ve waited all my life to sit here and write with the cats snoring alongside and the sun pouring down on the snow-pintoed yard out my window. The doves that live in my blue spruce are out there rustling something in the grass. I don’t stop my kind of pecking. I’m going someplace with this whether or not it’s a book.
They say that thinking of a particular kind makes the brain develop new neurons and allot more space for them. So now it’s not a little patch of my cerebrum that handles reading and writing -- it’s an expanding amoeba that finally begins to understand some things that have always been mysteries, stuff about rhetoric and structural grammar, but also about weaving stories and images, whether or not they are metaphorical -- just that constant shuttling of words. It goes on in my sleep, while I walk to the post office, while I sit here. Always has. It must be a sort of virus I caught long ago, but a virus is just a section of genetic code and it can be either good or bad or maybe even neutral. Or lethal or life-giving.
They say that writing is governed to some degree by whom you write for, what that person you imagine reading might think. It’s true for me. The person I imagine is not one you might guess. Of course, that’s part of the point because writing is not always public, not always a form of boasting, but a secret transaction at one’s core. Many of the writing wives around here write “ranch romances” even though they are happily married and not many of the husbands look like the covers of their books. They do it for money. Ranches need money. (Of course, it’s fun.)
But I jumped in at the deep end, not so much about sex, which is only physical, but about something like identity, a deeper creation. Why else would I join a man twice my age who cast bronzes? He didn’t just make sculptures, he melted, poured and shaped bronze and I helped and we were fully aware that this was a pre-historic skill, pre-dating cities and writing, based on the ability to see the figures of living beings in the living world that feeds us. That’s the way I understand writing.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
In the summer of 1937 just as Europe teetered on the lip of what would become WWII and Wallis Simpson nabbed George VIII off the throne of England, Winston Churchill’s cousin, Clare Sheridan, left the docks of New York City to drive her Brit V-8 with right-hand steering cross-country to the Blackfeet Reservation. She made slow progress because of a radiator that constantly boiled over until a German-American mechanic simply replaced the radiator. Her goal was the Winold and Hans Reiss’ art school on the banks of St. Mary’s Lake. She was a sculptor noted for her bust portraits of famous people: Stalin, Gandhi, Trotsky, Churchill -- but not Mussolini, who turned out to be a cad.
Just up the hill from the art school was a cluster of cabins built by Browning merchants, including the TE Scriver family. Bob Scriver, who also became a sculptor, got his first wife pregnant just as school started in 1937 and took her to Cardston for a shotgun marriage that November about the time Clare left for England, this time driving to San Francisco and taking a ship through the Panama Canal for home. It was time for her to debrief. There is no evidence at all that Clare and Bob Scriver ever met, much less knew each other, and no hint at all that Clare was gathering evidence for the coming war, but I have no doubt of either.
Until a few weeks ago the only wisp of information I had about Clare was an account of someone in English society who wore a bright yellow coat with a human scalp pinned on each shoulder. The scalps were a gift from Blackfeet friends, and she chose yellow because of its association with artifacts here. Then recently Joyce Thomas, a Great Falls artist who was also a member of the Great Falls Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in the Eighties when I was their circuit-riding minister, sent me a book: “Cousin Clare, The Tempestuous Career of Clare Sheridan,” by Anita Leslie. Following the clues, I soon acquired “Redskin Interlude” by Clare Sheridan herself. You might remember that Churchill, through his mother, one of the famous Jerome sisters, had a bit of Algonquin blood.
These people, including Joyce who has just now come by her aunt’s estate and papers (Norma Smith taught in a one-room rez school on Two Medicine), were entwined with one another through kinship and friendship, art and literature. They all traveled and wrote about it, they were all keenly aware of world events, and never shirked from participation. Their lives were difficult, terrifying, sometimes tragic, always productive, and never dull. Sometimes they had money, but rarely enough. Clare herself was a nomad, though she had fixed points of rest in Ireland and French North Africa. More than a few, like Clare, sojourned on the Blackfeet reservation and wrote books about it.
Most of us here know about Winold Reiss’ portraits of Blackfeet and his sponsorship of young tribal artists who later became famous. The C.M. Russell Museum owns many works. Fewer realize that Winold’s brother Hans, who was a mountain climber and trekker as well as a sculptor, was the first brother here and created the big wooden Indian that usually stands at the entrance of the Big Hotel in East Glacier. He was the one who guided Clare to the school and taught her how to carve tree trunks. Because of the loss of a dear child, she tended to create religious sculptures, a tall Madonna for instance.
A Portrait of Hans Reiss by Winold Reiss
Most of the attention to the east slope of the Rockies is focussed south of Glacier Park or on the Park itself. The Blackfeet reservation and the area just north, which is patched with Canadian reservations, is less well-known. To the “over-classes” of Europe and the eastern US, this was as interesting as Africa. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II has owned ranches and fine horses in the area. In wartime, of course, it was the oil-bearing land here that was of major interest. It still is.
The Blackfeet -- in all their sub-categories and confederations -- have been fierce defenders of their territory and then, seeing the inevitable, became diplomats playing the long game of survival. Clare had some close relationships with tribal council members like Levi Bird, which locals may have interpreted as romantic but which I’m willing to bet had a lot to do with international high stakes political poker. These Blackfeet men went in and out of Washington, D.C., crossed the 49th parallel at will, and acquired networks of influence that stretched back to the earliest aristocrats who came up on the Missouri on steamships. Hudson’s Bay, after all, was an English company that ran the Canadian prairies.
Neither “Cousin Clare” nor “Redskin Interlude” explores all this, but instead gives a novelist’s view of a lady used to roughing it and gradually being drawn into a half-Irish household of tribal people. She gives the usual accounts of the Baker Massacre, of Medicine Pipe Bundles and Sun Dances, some Blackfeet vocabulary, the inconvenient gumbo mud roads, and distracts everyone with her pet bear, for whom she bought cases of canned plums and honey, even though the family she lived with -- like the other enrolled people -- were starving on government allotments of meat. But the family didn’t resent what the bear ate -- they were as fascinated as Clare was. In the end, of course, the bear had to be released in Banff, too cranky to be a pet anymore. She constantly gave gifts to her adopted family (often materials) and they, likewise, gave gifts back to her (usually things they made) until on major occasions they all decked themselves out from a sort of pooled inventory of fine things, unattributed to formal ownership.
Closer to Lone Wolf, James Willard Schultz’s son, than she was to the father, and closer yet to Hans Reiss, Clare was an intrepid amateur anthropologist, qualified by her ability to fall in love (ama-teur) as well as closely observe. She had a gift for friendship with people nothing like herself and had the Brit adventurers’ amused attitude towards hardship. Unlike McClintock, who was an earlier rez visitor, she didn’t return after that one summer, but her influence no doubt lingered on the prairie and back in Europe.
Other artists and writers have visited this “last best place” but most of them have had neither the grace nor the intelligence of Clare Sheridan, to say nothing of what may have been a secret portfolio in a war to save civilization.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Everything I know about gun law, I learned from dog law. Some people believe that laws can solve everything -- that it’s just a matter of writing the perfect set of requirements. Then everyone will comply -- of course they will. So in 1977-78 Multnomah County Animal Control, guided by an excellent and involved lawyer, organized a citizen committee to write the perfect animal control law. I was the AC education coordinator and researcher. What we discovered was some basic principles about writing laws, which I will now consider in terms of gun control.
Never try to write a law that cannot be enforced. If the people do not believe in the purpose of the law, they simply won’t obey it. This is the lesson of Prohibition, illegal drugs, and illegal immigration. If the underlying belief systems, ecological embeddedness, and economic gradients are not addressed, a law will only drive things underground. No amount of enforcers, no draconian penalties, no invasive inspections or exhaustive databases, no intermittent atrocities and massacres, no illusions that there are exceptions or places of safety will have any impact.
Guns are beautiful, valuable, emotionally powerful, symbols of safety (even to those who can’t operate them safely), historical, and investment opportunities. Everyone wants gun laws -- but only for the other guy. The fondness for ammo could probably be broken, especially the kinds that are armor-penetrating and so on. Still, when the local Connecticut jurisdiction where Sandy Hook School is located asked for tightened gun laws, they were vehemently rejected.
Our culture has an enormous fixation on explosions. When journalists looking for gun incidents asked to see the police complaint records for the last year, what they found instead was many, many complaints about explosions due to tannerite targets. These are rigged to explode when the target is hit. On YouTube are many vids of shooting these targets (it takes a high-powered rifle to set them off), directions for making them with cheap homemade ingredients the same as meth labs, and demonstrations of how much it takes to cause a really big explosion. The complaints stated that the explosions were close to houses, that they were accompanied by high-powered, semi-automatic gunfire, and that they happened often. Few culprits were caught.
While everyone is obsessing about gun ownership, the culture has moved on to far more extreme preoccupations. We are hooked on violence. People say it all the time. No law can break this connection. We are an IED nation. A Predator nation.
Let’s back off to guns again. First, there needs to be a clear edge between those obeying and those NOT obeying. Unless a law flatly states no gun of any kind, there is no dependable way to specify that one gun with a specific feature -- like big magazines or automatic firing -- is forbidden but another is not. The gun can be altered. It will not STAY inside the definition. But some guns are justified and necessary: law enforcement, hunting, valuable collections, heirlooms -- by the time the exceptions are specified, the category is lost.
It’s difficult-to-impossible to determine whether a person is carrying or not without personal searching or at least a metal detector. Commerce depends on efficient flow -- people need to move in and out of buildings quickly, the same as they need to get on and off airplanes quickly. Metal detectors means that plastic guns have been developed. It’s impossible to prevent the flow of guns in and out of jurisdictions. Forbidding them in one place simply creates a gradient of value that motivates the transport of them, as we recently saw with the Mexican border. Pistols are small (pocket-sized), cheap, easily transported, sexy as cigarettes.
The second amendment needs a good turning-out. Here’s the iconoclast Nassim Taleb speaking:
“I cannot possibly buy the argument that people need weapons in case the government fails them and democracy breaks down. If the narrative were true, someone over the past 5 years would have taken arms to express frustration with the banking establishment hijacking the political system for self-enrichment --one of the greatest iniquities ever, ever -- and other similar lobbyists, instead of using weapons against schoolchildren and college students. . . . Via Negativa: gun control is perhaps one of the very few things the government should do.”
But we don’t trust our government. I was in Browning, Montana, in the Sixties. Do you think that Indians who had been literal targets for the U.S. Cavalry less than a century earlier should trust the government? The same government that is now returning a fraction of the Indian money everyone admits they lost? But in that decade it was NOT the tribe that constantly worried about war. It was white people who were forming militias and burying semi-automatic rifles in case of the revolution. In those days even high-level politicians wore cufflinks indicating they belonged to the Minuteman organization. There was a lot of talk about the Posse Commitatus. The conviction was that the Russians would send missiles with nuclear bombs into the cities and then the city folks -- the people whom locals really feared and distrusted -- would storm the countryside, looking for places to hide and for food. Check out our dystopic movies.
And listen to the people who are beginning to say that the real division in America is not so much between rich and poor as it is between urban (where the ghettoes and the law-makers both live) and the rural. You could hear this in the local rhetoric about what the oil boom will do to us. In this little village of a few hundred people, I’m told that almost everyone has a gun permit.
We were told in the Sixties that the government had a list of all the guns registered which they would use to impound weapons house-to-house. Much easier now. Even if gun shows and private sales manage to evade background checks, the government can go online with the social site databases and probably list every gun owner -- at least any making online gun-related purchases -- in an hour. Lanza was deluded to think destroying his computer hard-drive would preserve his secrecy. He had not thought about the Cloud, the ISP records, the endless archives.
At Animal Control our single most valuable tool was a little room where several women kept all the dog licensing records -- not because we wanted to impound the dogs, but because they were proof of rabies vaccinations. These spared children from shots and spared dogs from having their heads cut off for autopsy. It was tedious work -- today I’m sure it’s on a computer. And a lot of dogs are microchipped. Guns are numbered, but that’s easy to file off. Are any of them microchipped? GPS? What if every semi-automatic “combat” rifle were GPS locate-able? They say the tires on new cars have computer broadcast capacity to 130 feet. (Normally they tell the main vehicle computer about inflation, but can have code added.)
We’re told group massacres of inoffensive people -- children, movie goers, church members, and the one that hurts me the most (oh, how offensive it is to even consider comparisons) the Amish girls who were lined up and shot -- are not predictable but statistically recurring at a steady rate. It’s not the guns -- it’s the culture. And the culture in the US is shifting towards terrorism. Already there, actually. Al Queda is just us in a fun-house mirror.