Monday, November 17, 2014

William Gibson and the Creation of Worlds

I'm rereading Neuromancer and am moved to comment on what makes the superior writer of what's called science fiction such a boon to those who love to read.

All know William Gibson as the creator of cyberpunk, the man who named cyberspace, the matrix, who coined so many words and phrases now in common use when the Internet as we know it did not yet exist.  But reading this early work I'm struck by the imposing realness of the world he creates in this novel, and detailed in the subsequent novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  As far as I'm concerned, our Internet is far less interesting than the artificial reality he described as accessed by his computer cowboys, though it is not (yet?) here in our world.  But the world in which his cowboys lived and, sometimes, thrived, bears considerable resemblance to the one in which we live.

Consider the ubiquity of drugs use in that world, the omnipresence of new and interesting technologies, the significance of money, the grittiness of the urban landscapes in which people live and die, deals are made and information obtained and traded, the twisting of medicine and genetics to doing service in making money and pursuing and exercising power though the enhancement of physical and mental abilities.  The latter may not be here yet, but one feels that it will come; that it must come.

For some reason, when I try to visualize the world that Gibson shows us in these novels, the landscapes we see in the movie Blade Runner always comes to my mind.  That's what I see when the Sprawl or Chiba City are mentioned.  I'm surprised that a movie hasn't been made of Neuromancer.  I would prefer such a movie to the sword and sorcery epics we're being dubiously treated to instead in the form of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and their imitations.  Odd that we obsess over faux castles and kingdoms, swords and magic; there's something adolescent about it.

Which is not to criticize either Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, both of them being superb creators of worlds themselves.  Other such creators are (or were) Frank Herbert who made the Dune universe, and Philip Jose Farmer for his Riverworld.  C.J. Cherryh has made more than one interesting world, as has Dan Simmons, the maker of Hyperion and the Shrike.  Orson Scott Card, when he is not busy moralizing, has also manufactured fascinating alternate realities.

It is unsurprising that it is in science fiction and fantasy that the worlds are created and live and are experienced.  Nowhere else is the imagination given such free reign; nowhere else is it the case that new and different realities are expected.  But it is the gift of Gibson and others to make these realities simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  Outlandish worlds somehow turn out to be uninteresting.  It's impossible to picture oneself in worlds that are entirely unreal, and one must picture oneself somewhere in order for it to hold one's interest and attention; in order for it to be worth the effort of reading or thinking, or dreaming. 

Science fiction is a curious genre, though.  Great science fiction can fascinate in a good way, but science fiction that is not great can fascinate in a bad way.  The many versions of Star Trek and Star Wars are examples of science fiction that is not great.  They are not bad, really, but they are silly.  This may come of the need evidently felt to come up with aliens who always seem to be far too much like human beings, but human beings who are comical or irritating or mystical in one sense or another and used as expositive devices.  We see the results of the fascination with science fiction that is not great in conventions and cosplay, in a devotion to the Klingon language or to The Force, in dreaming one is a Jedi Knight or superhero. 

The worlds of great science fiction are disturbingly real; those of science fiction that is not great are cartoonish.  It's regrettable that the science fiction we see translated into visual media these days is that science fiction which generates cartoon realities, primarily those of the superhero.  This suggests we desire to escape our own world, which is understandable.  But to escape into cartoons is only to escape reality, not to reimagine it and think of it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

No Balm in Gilead?

It's interesting that we expect others to understand, or at least recognize, phrases or stories taken from the Bible.  The Old and New Testaments have permeated Western imagination and thought, at least to the extent they supply ready grist for a variety of mills, reference points, expressions, thought-images.  The West has other common reference points as well, of course.  Most of us know instantly what is intended when the Trojan Horse is mentioned, for example, or when reference is made to Caesar crossing the Rubicon.  These are commonalities of the Western mind, foundations on which may be placed all manner of constructs and comparisons.  Analogy can instantly prompt understanding in certain cases.

Here I refer to the sickness which characterizes our Great Republic, and the question whether we have become a hopeless case; thus, no balm in Gilead.  Jeremiah 8:22 according helpful Google.  Not quite as common a reference as would be one to the Walls of Jericho, or Daniel in the lion's den, I know, but you see this healing balm referred to by Poe in his poem The Raven, and elsewhere.

I know--you tire as I do of doomsayers.  There are so many of them and they are so insistent and noisy.  This is especially the case, as it always is, with those who have much to lose and are fearful of losing it, and with the old.  What was the case will not be the case, more than likely, and change, though the darling of nature as it was called by Marcus Aurelius, has always evoked fear among those who cannot abide change.  The content are satisfied with what they are and what they have and care next to nothing about anything but remaining content.  When there is a chance that something will happen which would endanger their satisfaction, however, they are rabid in their defense of the status quo. 

"Radical conservatism" has a nice ring to it, but I hesitate to call "conservative" what passes for the Right Wing these days in our Glorious Union.  "Radical" seems an appropriate enough word, however, though "reactionary" may be more appropriate.  Intelligent conservatism doesn't deny that change will occur or maintain that change is in all cases something bad, something to be avoided at all costs.  If that was the case then J.S. Mill's remark that most stupid people are conservatives would be true, as stupidity is required if one is to object to all change, any change.

A true conservative may be cautious in making changes, and leery of social experiments when engaged in by the government, but isn't ipso facto against all change and an unswerving supporter of tradition.  Conservatives once thought, and may even have thought truly, that they were more reasonable than their Liberal counterparts.  But it is necessary to employ reason in order to be reasonable, and reason seems to be something those who style themselves as conservatives now conspicuously lack.

Today's conservatism is in fact anti-reason, anti-science, anti-education.  It scoffs at evidence of climate change.  It would be more reasonable to acknowledge the evidence and do something about it rather than yammering over whether or not it is in whole or in part or not at all related to the conduct of our rapidly multiplying and exceedingly selfish species.  It seeks to require than creationism be taught in school; that homosexual relationships be at best ignored if not criminalized, but in any case recognized as qualitatively different from heterosexual relationships and accorded no status in the law; that our nation involve itself militarily in disputes all over the planet; that drug use be criminalized; media regulated; religion (Christian, that is) not merely tolerated but encouraged and granted special benefits by the law, and seeks to make what was intended to be a secular state assuring religious freedom into a state actively fostering religion of a particular kind.

I don't mean to claim that conservatism is the disease we suffer from, first because conservatism has been jettisoned but also because what may be a fatal disease is one that runs deeper, and has its basis in the abandonment of reason as a guide to conduct.  This has many consequences, but among them is a tendency to tribalism and thoughtless adherence to what is familiar.

What conservatism has lost sight of is its roots in classical liberalism, which emphasized individual rights and civil liberties.  Today's conservatives want people to act in specified ways and to think, if at all, in a particular manner.  They do not want people to have the freedom to live as people themselves think best; they want people to live as they do.  Today's conservatives seek to create their own version of a nanny state, they've merely chosen a different kind of nanny interested in pursuing other goals.  Their nanny is God-fearing, traditional, close-minded, distrustful, insular and unreasonable.

There may in fact be balm in Gilead, though, but if so it is not a balm which need be applied.  Death may be the ultimate medicine for our nation's illness.  Death and globalization. Soon, those who call themselves conservatives will die off, and it is not at all clear that there will be others to take the place.  Unfortunately, it's not likely that this will result from the fact that younger generations will be better educated and more reasonable than their hidebound elders.  It will more likely result from the fact that the traditions to which their elders adhere will dissipate as we all come to be more familiar with different customs, different traditions.

What conservatives should be doing is assuring that reason and science are given prominent places in education and that the young grow used to employing critical thinking in decision making.  This would be the best way to assure that actions are taken only after intelligent consideration.  But critical thinking is not respectful of tradition and generally not indulged in by those who want nothing more than to have things just as they are or were.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Raiders of the Lost God

I'm reading a book called The Death of the Mythic God: The Rise of Evolutionary Spirituality by Jim Marion.

Let's pause for a moment (humor me) and consider the use of "Jim" instead of "James" by the author.  Such things prey upon my mind.  Is the use of "Jim" an effort at self-effacement, or perhaps intended to to give the impression that the author, though we don't know him, is our buddy, our pal?  A swell guy?  I grow suspicious when encountering these diminutives in a name.  I think of Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and other narcissists who have indulged in this ploy.  If one is going to do such a thing and scorn the formality of "James" why not go all the way?  "Jimbo Marion"; why not?  "Slim Jim Marion", or "Sweet Jimmy Marion"?  But to the book.

The author describes what he considers to be the death, or pending death, of God considered as the source of absolute commandments, proscribing all conduct and thought, accepting (sometimes) petition and prayers, intervening in creation, speaking through ancient books and prophets.  In other words, the death of the God of the Abrahamic religions if not others.  The knowledge of this death inevitably works on most of us, through the Kubler-Ross stages of denial, anger, etc. (I don't think the author explains why these stages apply or are appropriate).  Some of us linger in our worship of this Sky-God, some of us (those who are mystics, it seems) do not.  The Sky-God, or rather our worship of Him, has had various negative results.

This Mythic God was preceded by other, even more primitive, gods as we humans grew in sophistication and knowledge.  The Mythic God has been, for all practical purposes, interred by the growth of the rational view, exemplified it would seem by science, which to borrow Laplace's supposed remark to Napoleon rendered Him an unnecessary hypothesis.

This rational view has triumphed, but in its turn has wrecked havoc on the world, for the most part through the acceptance of a thoroughly materialistic conception of the universe which has caused us to rape the environment and each other when deemed appropriate.  Now is the time to evolve to a yet higher level of spirituality.

These levels of spirituality, or consciousness, have been categorized for reference by colors by some psychologists, and Marion makes use of these categories.  It seems the highest level is turquoise, which is indeed a nice enough color. 

The God of this higher level seems to be an immanent one, but I'm not entirely certain of this.  Marion's God may be both immanent and transcendent.  Marion (or should I say "Jim"?) is unclear in this, and in much else regarding this presumably real God.  He seems in some fashion to associate him with Jesus, who he says rejected the Mythic God, but whether Jesus is God is not directly stated.  He speaks of Jesus as discovering divinity in himself, but also indicates that we may, and should, do the same by "looking within" or seeking God in ourselves.  Perhaps we're all God, or God is everything, human beings included.  Perhaps Jesus is God in a sense, or a path to God, as are other great religious figures such as Buddha.  Marion's God seems to be one that has been realized and accepted by Christian and non-Christian mystics.

Marion evidently rejects materialism, and in addressing its limitations refers, as it seems many do, to physics or more particularly quantum mechanics.  This is something of a red flag, though, as physicists generally (not just Alan Sokal) have written despairingly of the misuse and misunderstanding of the theories of physics by those unfamiliar with them, and the efforts made to assert that they establish the existence of God, or an afterlife, or some inexplicable relation between everything in the universe and portals to other universes or dimensions.  If materialism is rejected it seems we may have problems with immanence.

Perhaps Marion's interpretation of physics is correct; perhaps it is not.  As I incline towards a Stoic point of view, I have a sympathy for the proposition that God is immanent in all things, and that we therefore partake in God.  However, I don't pretend that this view has the support of science of any kind or that it can be established by application of the scientific method or reason.

Marion also may be correct that the great religious mystics have encountered the divine, and that we can all do so.   We don't know whether they did or not, although it would seem to me that they felt in good faith they had experienced the divine.  I'm unconvinced that if we do this, or perhaps regardless of whether we do or not, we therefore become divine or are divine in a way we're unable to understand until we become divine.

One thing we can be sure of, though, is that those who have experienced the divinity cannot describe with any specificity what that experience was or how or why it took place.  Mystical encounters of this kind cannot be put into words, it seems, or if put into words are largely incomprehensible.  This may mean they are phantasms, or that we lack the ability or tools to describe them.

What seems clear enough, however, is that certain people have experiences which may be called mystical, and which may or may not serve as evidence of something beyond the universe we normally encounter.  While I'm not generally a follower of William James, I'm inclined to think with him that such experiences should be the subject of scientific inquiry, or at least may be the subject of inquiry (in other words, they are phenomena which can be studied intelligently).

What is also clear, for good or ill, is that we seem compelled to search for whatever it is we call God, or a higher or different reality which we may experience now or after we die.  Perhaps that's a part of being mortal.  Many of us are not willing to seek him in old books or in church, but seek him we will, and we'll write books about our search.  Most of us seem to want God or at least to seek God, despite the fact that we've lost one or more in the course of our evolution.  Lose one god and we will find another.  Good old Jim Marion may have found him.  If not, he and others will keep on trying until they can't try no more.  God is wanted, dead or alive!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Homage to Edgar Poe

I don't name him Edgar Allan Poe for what I consider to be good reason.  The "Allan" is taken from his stepfather (and stepmother too, I suppose), and Poe despised the man, who in turn thought Poe a degenerate gambler and all around wastrel; which I suppose he was by the standards of the time.  In paying homage, it's right I should avoid the name he is said to have hated.

It is, for good or ill, that time of the year where it's considered appropriate to think of Poe, or read or listen to some of his work at least.  Sometimes, alas, they're almost unrecognizable.  I listened to what was said to be a version of his The Tell-Tale Heart  broadcast by the Radio Classics channel while driving the other day and was amazed by its lack of resemblance to the story I recall reading.  Boris Karloff played one of the characters and someone else, whose name I can't recall, played the part of someone who it seems to be does not figure in the story at all; at least as a living, talking, acting agent.

But this is not unusual in the efforts which have been made to translate his work for radio, television or films.  There have been several of such efforts, for the most part involving actors like Karloff (Peter Loree and Vincent Price for example).  Very often, only the titles of these productions bear any relation to Poe's work, and often enough we're told that whatever it is we're watching or listening to is "from the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe!"  Or words to that effect.  That way, it was apparently believed, we'd spend our money to hear, see.  Poe is associated with what is now called horror.  I wonder if he would be pleased by that association.

Well, I suppose it may be said that we of the United States don't take a great deal of pride in our artists as a rule, and so feel no obligation to treat them with great respect.  But for my money (which I wouldn't spend except perhaps in acquiring his actual work, not what has so curiously come of it) Poe was the first great American writer.  For me, Hawthorne, Melville, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, Longfellow simply don't compare to Poe, who it seems had an analytic mind but was masterful in evoking emotions, and who was the first original artist in our history.  He was, I think, something entirely new.

I speak of his prose, not his poetry.  I don't much like his poetry.  I'm fond of The  Conqueror Worm because it is so odd, and have memorized most of The Raven for some reason, but it seems to me that it is in his poetry that Poe is most clearly a Romantic, and I don't like the Romantics.  I prefer Poe the literary critic and author of short stories.  Perhaps we Americans are best at writing shorter works; we tend to get carried away in our novels.  If so, it was Poe who first pioneered this region of literature with any success and rigor.

It seems Poe is considered Romantic, though.  This is somewhat odd, I think, as in his works involving the detective Dupin and his"science-fiction" work, as in his literary criticism, he demonstrated a real respect for analytic and critical thinking and used them to good effect.  But it would be inappropriate to think of him as a Realist, given the fundamental role of fantasy in so many of his stories.

He was above all a great storyteller, and his talent had an immense scope, from detective (or mystery) stories, to what would be called science-fiction stories, to horror, and adventure, even in comic writing, for which he is not known--he was remarkable in each.  He died at age 40, and we can only speculate about what he could have written had he lived longer.  It seems to me that given the extent and scope of his work, it is difficult to characterize him as lazy or undisciplined in his art if not in his life.

His life was sad, undoubtedly.  He might be a character in a Dickens novel given the tragedies with which he had to cope.  But there was no happy ending for Poe; no clear reason for his ending, either.   Much of that remains a mystery.  He was found incoherent, wearing clothes which were not his own, may have had cholera, or been poisoned by alcohol, may have been mugged.  A sad end for a man who wrote much of sadness.

We can only wonder what it was like to be a highly intelligent, sensitive and talented person in Poe's time in the U.S.  Death was more prevalent and more a part of life then, sickness, often deadly like tuberculosis common, communication slow and sporadic, cities filthy; premature burial was a real possibility, not just a product of a feverish imagination, little was known for certain, money was no easier to obtain, and may have been largely unobtainable to someone like Poe.

Because of the scope of his work, it's unfortunate he's remembered to any real degree only at this time of year.  But I may be being unfair.  He's certainly remembered and read by many, more so than many he criticized, like Longfellow, and probably always will be, due to our continuing fascination with death and the occult.  That fascination won't leave us until we stop dying.

Part of his continuing appeal may be the fact that in his writing he was not didactic, unlike so many who wrote at that time.  For many years now, writers of literature have had little interest in teaching us anything.  But the purveyors of other art forms, particularly movies and television shows to the extent they can be considered art, seem increasingly intent on teaching, or perhaps preaching, so the moralists among us need not feel deprived.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Goldengrove Unleaving

I like autumn (which is at least in my part of this Great Republic so appropriately and simply called "Fall").  I love the color we see in the trees, especially in the angled sunlight which makes the world seem somehow more comfortable and accepting.  I like the way fallen leaves swirl in the wind and the not yet oppressive chill in the air.  Some of my most tangible memories of my increasingly distant youth include the smell of burning leaves.  We lived in Michigan then; I don't recall burning leaves anywhere else during my family's travels.  No doubt burning them is prohibited now, and has been for quite some time. 

The title of this post is of course taken from a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins (how wonderful it must have been to have "Manley" as a middle name).  A very inventive poet with a suggestively archaic, almost magical, way with words.  "Grieving over goldengrove unleaving" is quite good, I think, as is "Kingdom of Daylight's Dauphin; dapple, dawn-drawn falcon" (I quote from memory, and may be inaccurate).  "Goldengrove" seems particularly appropriate given the temporary golden-like color of the leaves as they slowly--die.  There's no other word for it.

But they return, as does so much else after winter, and the turn of the seasons in turn induced our ancestors to dream of gods who died and were reborn, and even more to dream of being reborn after they died, or at least to live again in some manner, in some place, and better than they had here.  We've had that dream for quite some time, and have it still.  Probably, we had it in Europe even before the Eleusinian Mysteries developed, in some way or another, and those mysteries may date from Minoan times or even before.  Ancient Egypt had such dreamers as well, though in its case death and rebirth was likely suggested by the rise and fall of the Nile.

The person ostensibly grieving in Hopkins' (I'm tempted to call him "Manley" but won't) poem is a child, and the poet implies that those older than a child are inclined to consider the unleaving more coldly, which I assume means less sadly in this context.  This seems odd.  Why would a child grieve over falling leaves at all, let alone more than those old?  One would think children would find little to grieve over in dying nature, and suspect Hopkins of a bit of sly posing.  But we forget that children had a tendency to die with some frequency not long ago if they survived the trauma of birth.  Perhaps the anti-vaccine zealots will see to it that the days of high child mortality will return.  In any case, children in Hopkins' time may have been far more aware of death than they are now, and so may have been more likely to grieve as does his Margaret.

Why does the idea of dying cause us to grieve?  For reasons primarily selfish, perhaps.  Life is all we know.  So, it contains all we can desire as well as all we can fear.  Unless we think we continue in some sense, there's nothing "in" death for us that would render it worth our while.  The idea of nothingness is daunting to those who have been something.  And death deprives us of friends, family, lovers.  Death causes us to suffer just as life does (according to those jolly antinatalists).

The ancients, if they felt life after death was a kind of shadowy, poor substitute for the life they knew (the Greek Hades, for example), apparently longed for everlasting glory, or at least everlasting notoriety.  The story of Herostratus who burned the great temple to Artemis to the ground so his name would be known forever is instructive.  We still know his name, or some of us do.  Human lifetime was shorter then, though we hear of some who lived into what is considered old age even now. Yet they struggled for immortality of a sort.

If we become nothing at all, though, what possible difference can it make to us that we're remembered, by many or a few?  Clearly, the emphasis then was on the world and not on the world to come, and to such an extent that our lack of participation in the world due to death was not a concern.  What was of concern was what was thought or known by the living.

Perhaps the ancients' feelings towards death were less selfish than ours are now.  We're largely concerned by what, if anything, will happen to us, or what will happen after death.  They were concerned by how they would influence what would happen to or be thought by others after they died.  Or is the desire to influence what takes place after our death, and the steps we take to insure we still have such influence, the ultimate in selfish conduct?

Some of us through wills or trusts impose conditions on the disposal of our property or money in an effort to limit or restrict what our heirs may do with it once theirs.  What better example is there of concerning ourselves with things not in our control than seeking to control what takes place after our death?

Should a Stoic be concerned with what happens after death?  Perhaps Marcus Aurelius didn't take any steps to prevent his lunatic son Commodus from assuming the purple because he felt that to do so would be to seek to control what was not in his control.  But the fellowship we have, according to the Stoics, due to our sharing of the Divine Reason may extend after life if we become one with it after death, and because of that fellowship we retain an interest in those we would leave behind and act for their good.