Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ashes to Ashes

A Happy Ash Wednesday to all!

Well, it comes after carnival, so it seems appropriate that a post about Ash Wednesday would follow one about carnival.  It seems inappropriate, though, to wish anyone a Happy Ash Wednesday.  That would be to take the "Ash" out of Ash Wednesday, would it not?  No, not happy.

For several years--many, I suppose--I duly submitted my forehead to be smudged with ashes once a year, as did, and do, many others.  It seems I can't claim that this was or is a peculiarly Catholic tradition.  Certain Protestant churches "celebrate" Ash Wednesday as well.  The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has no monopoly on the ritual of misery.

"Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."  The Latin is: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”  This is (or was?) the cheerful reminder dispensed along with ashes by priests on this insistently mournful day.  From Genesis 3:19.  We're reminded we're mortal.  So, supposedly, were those in ancient Rome granted a triumph--memento mori they were told as they rode their chariot along the Sacred Way; remember you are mortal.  It's a reminder that seemingly was ignored then, as it no doubt is ignored now, to the extent possible.  Who wants to be reminded of their upcoming death?

Nobody, I would think.  But it is apparently the function if not the delight of certain religions and certain of the religious to remind us of it nonetheless.  One could say that this reminder is made only in the course of reminding us as well that our salvation, and eternal life, is nonetheless guaranteed to us by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, if only we believe in him.  And so we celebrate Easter.  If we don't believe in him, though, then we'll be among the dust burning in hell, if dust does indeed burn.  Or so some would say, in any event.  Thus, one could also say that the reminder serves as a warning of the horrible fate which awaits us when we die, unless...we repent, and change our evil ways, and believe.  Then, death will have no sting.  It will come, yes, but only as to the body.

It strikes me as strange, given the body-soul distinction made in Christianity, that relics of saints came to be given such importance, and were ascribed miraculous powers.  Some saint or martyr's bone is revered, and causes the blind to see and the lame to walk.  But why, if the soul has left the body?  Was the saint in question so very holy that holiness seeped into his/her body?

I think the Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico is far less dreadful (literally) than such "reminders" of death as Ash Wednesday.  Unsurprisingly, this event derives from a custom in place before the arrival of the Spanish.  The dead are remembered and cherished.  Those who participate are reminded of death, certainly, but also of life as lived.  Those gone live again, or at least are treated as living; remembered as they were, and invited to participate in a family feast or celebration.

Even more significant is the fact that those living continue to live, and live with the dead and the knowledge of death.  Death is a part of living, and so loses its sting in a far more real sense than it does when its sting is thought to dissipate from the promise of some existence after death, one that can only be imagined.  The wise among the ancients, like the Stoics, thought death had no sting as well, and didn't fear it. 

Fear of it is inspired when it's viewed not merely as an end, but also a beginning--of suffering.  Death is a threat of sorts, now; the threat of hell and punishment if you don't do what you should do, think what you should think, in the craven system of morality that's been fostered here and elsewhere by those who think right and wrong are determined by divine command.  If they are, though, there is no right or wrong, really.  There is just the command.

"Our life is what our thoughts make it."  So says Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.  So is our death.

Monday, February 5, 2018

(Don't?) Stop the Carnival

It being February, it seems appropriate to address the ritual, or celebration, of carnival in the West.  It's a time of feasting, parading, drinking, role-reversal and excess.  Reveling, I suppose it could be called; silliness, joyous stupidity, on glorious display.

It seems we can't attribute carnival to the ancient Romans, or for that matter blame them for it, as we can certain other celebrations.  The only festival of ancient Rome I'm aware of taking place in what we call February was that of the Lupercalia.  That festival was in the nature of a purification ritual, a cleansing of he city before spring.  A kind of spring cleaning?  In any case, it seems it involved the sacrifice of a male goat or goats and a dog, after which members of its priesthood would run naked around the Palatine Hill, striking onlookers with strips of the sacrificed animals.  This was apparently a cause of laughter.  Still, it hardly seems like carnival as we know it today.

It was a pre-Christian celebration though, and one the early Church decided was so popular it had to be allowed to continue, though Christianized.  And so it marks the period before Lent.  Thus, we're allowed to wallow in our animal nature and indulge its seemingly endless capacity for depravity of some sort or another before we do harsh penance for being human until Easter, that time of the Resurrection and, oddly, bunnies and eggs, real or chocolate.

The title to this post is taken from a novel by Herman Wouk, Don't Stop the Carnival.  The novel involved the efforts of an American business man who decided to try to run a hotel on a fictional Caribbean island.  As might be expected, he found it difficult to do, mostly as a result of the fact that he, as an American, was incapable of understanding that the islanders were not nearly as concerned with, or impressed by, the needs of operating a business in the American way.  As also might be expected, it is a stereotypical portrayal of a clash of cultures, particularly that of the Caribbean, for comic effect.  Fans of the Caribbean (I am one) may find it enjoyable, even for other reasons.

There's another kind of carnival, though, that Americans are familiar with as traveling shows involving amusement rides, games of chance, freak shows, vendors of various kinds of unhealthy food, and operated by those known as Carnies or Carnys, who have the general reputation of con artists.

I begin to wonder whether our Glorious Republic has taken on the aspect of this latter kind of carnival.  Whether, in other words, it has become a vast, stationary show put on by con artists of one kind or another, who seek for selfish reasons to distract and amuse us while they fleece us like the dumb, gullible sheep we seem intent on being.

It's a show where freaks abound, and are on permanent and blatant display.  There are rides and games aplenty, shills, hawkers, barkers, con artists are everywhere.

It's a carnival of the irrational, even of the absurd.  Professional athletes praise God for their victories, and this is found admirable but should be viewed as blasphemous--what kind of God intervenes to decide the outcome of a football/basketball/baseball game?  A very small one, I would think.  At least Homer's gods intervened in the serious business of a war, though even a war on this tiny dot in the universe can only be of slight significance.

There are outcries over the fact that a character in a movie is not portrayed as being openly gay, because the author of the work decided to indulge an impulse, incomprehensible to me, to declare the character's sexual preferences.  If Dumbledore is gay, what's the sexuality of the other non-existent characters in those books or movies?  Does Hagrid practice bestiality?

Our politicians are too busy trying to win political points, accumulate cash, and browning their noses to engage in the nation's serious business.  Our artists, such as they are, thoughtless and mendacious.  Our statesmanship is short-sighted, our culture--well, perhaps Oscar Wilde was right about us.

Should the carnival that America has become stop, or continue?  Epictetus wisely said that life is a feast, and that we should sample what comes our way during the feasting that's to our liking, taking never too much or too little, without hurry.   We can't control the carnival; neither can we control the feast.  The show will go on, it's fruitless to protest or deplore the fact that it does and will.  What can we do but the best we can that's within our power?  Enjoy the carnival, if you can.  If you can't, ignore it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Pretensions of Art

Can a cat be an artist?  Is the work pictured above, produced by a cat, a work of art?  What is art?

The seemingly endless series of award shows we encounter each year, for films and film actors, TV shows and TV actors, plays and actors in plays, music and musicians, makes me wonder about art, or what we think is art, and about people in general.

As to people in general--people, clearly, like to win awards.  Some people, it seems, like to award other people for doing certain things and for how they do those things.  Some people also apparently enjoy watching some people give awards to other people.  Rather disconcertingly, to me, the awards are awarded by those who themselves compete for the awards and are sometimes given them; otherwise by those involved in the "industry" whose products are the subject matter of the awards, in one way or another.  There is, inevitably, a degree of self-congratulation, self-regard if not self-love, involved in award shows as a result; involved in the awards themselves, in fact, and the entire machinery by which awards are made.

As to what we think is art, an argument can be made that it is whatever we think it is.  This isn't a very helpful definition, but to an extent it's the only accurate one.  This isn't necessarily to say de gustibus non est disputandum.  It's merely a recognition that we say what art is and whether something is art, though we're often at a loss to say why "it" is art and not something else.  Philosophers, of course, have been busily telling us what art is for quite some time.  But it seems that few, if any, philosophers are art critics or connoisseurs.  At least, I know of none.

Explaining what art is, in abstract, doesn't seem of much help in assessing the quality of a work of art.  For example, except when used in an analogy or as a metaphor, "art" usually refers to what is involved in creating a painting, drawing, or other forms of visual expression, music or literature and the product created.  It doesn't follow that each painting, all music and all literature are works of art, however; do we call everything we hear or see or read of this nature a "work of art"?  It seems to me we don't.    Or perhaps all such things are art, in which case we may identify certain art as "bad" art and other art as "good" art.  "Bad" art then is art nonetheless.

But if a painting is art, isn't the pictured painting at the top of this post art, though made by a cat?  If not, it would seem to follow that art is necessarily something created by human beings, unless we maintain that certain animals in addition to humans can make art, but a cat may not.  According to the invaluable Internet, animals in addition to cats have produced paintings--various primates, a dolphin, a rabbit, an elephant and others.

It could be maintained that non-human animals don't really create art as humans do; painting animals capable of doing so physically have been trained to use brushes, for example.  But it's hardly unusual for a human artist to undergo training, isn't it?  It can't be training in itself that distinguishes art we make from paintings by other animals.  Can we make the good old instinct argument-animals do things unthinkingly, by instinct, while we do not?  It seems odd to speak of an instinct to paint, though.

There can be no question that we're more able than other animals to do certain things.  But we may not be quite as extraordinary as we've thought ourselves to be.  In making art we interact with our environment in certain ways, sometimes with a purpose in mind, sometimes without a specific, well-defined purpose but for a reason nonetheless.  So, we may do so as a way of expressing a certain feeling, or because we derive satisfaction from it.  Other animals interact with their environment as well.  We've begun to understand that other animals are capable of self-recognition, can use signs, even solve problems, seemingly.  Why shouldn't they be capable of art?

Pretension is something peculiarly human; and so we have award shows.  We've always indulged in it, and the belief that other animals exist merely for our use is as old at least as Genesis, and likely far older.  Perhaps there should be award shows for animal artists, actors.  But being without pretension, they wouldn't be inclined to watch, judge or participate in them.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mencken's Prescience

How the Sage of Baltimore would laugh; or is laughing if he found, to his surprise, that there is an afterlife.  I've criticized him in the past in this blog for his elitism.  His dark view of American democracy is a part of that elitism.  But who can doubt, now, that what he said would take place has indeed taken place?

But I don't write to bemoan the lurching, baffling and often deplorable presidency of the current dimwitted occupant of the White House who, if what is alleged be true, suffers from dementia as well as he does from ignorance and incoherence.  Well, not to any great extent, in any event.

What with Oprah expressing an interest in running for president, and other luminaries such as Kid Rock being spoken of as fit for elective office, I wonder if "the inner soul of the people" of our Glorious Republic is as fatuous as Mencken clearly thought it to be nearly a century ago.  Are we, the citizens of God's favorite country, intent on trusting the leadership of our nation to persons not necessarily morons by the usual definition, but clearly--to put it kindly--unready to accept such responsibility, merely because they appear before us on TV or some other medium and appeal to us in some way?

If so, we are the "downright morons" if not those we elect.  One would hope that the average citizen would as a matter of self-interest if nothing else be interested in seeing someone with some experience in government and knowledgeable of it be elected, but the most recent presidential election shows that isn't the case.

It may be that many of us have swallowed, hook, line and sinker that silliest of claims, that a business person would know what to do as a politician.  But what reason is there to believe this claim?  What we expect of government is not what we would expect from a for-profit business; we can't conceivably be considered shareholders in the government of the United States, and certainly not directors of it.  Besides, those like the current president have never even run a business that is accountable to shareholders, or for that matter to anyone else.  His business experience has been as master of a privately run business, subject to his every whim.  Thus, bankruptcy has been his recourse more than once when things go bad.

Is it possible that we've begun to confuse reality with reality shows, or more correctly with what we see and hear on TV, or movies, on what we download, on the video games we play?  Why not?  Aren't they becoming more and more a significant part of the world we experience?  Perhaps even the largest part; perhaps for some of us virtually (pun intended) the entire world we experience.

We are what we know and feel.  We know and feel more and more what is shown to us, what is provided to us by others.  Little or no effort on our part is required to know and feel what is fed to us.  There's no need to think anymore, not really.  The problems we encounter are manufactured, and the way to resolve them is more and more a matter of mere expression, played out before us by others who expound and emote as publicly as possible, whom we imitate.

Appearance is reality.  This has been a kind of foundation of marketing for many years now, and politics more than ever is marketing, and money.  But not only products are being sold, now.  Reality itself is what appears before us.  We live more and more in a fantasy world, but it's not our fantasy, which presumably would be pleasant for each of us.  Who do we want to see, hear?  Who do we want to be on TV, on our tablets and phones and laptops?  That's the world in which we live.

Mencken presumably didn't anticipate where our technology has taken us, but he was a journalist and a critic.  He knew people and politicians.  Even with the limited technology available in his time, he understood that thinking was in peril, and morons thrive on thoughtlessness.  Thoughtlessness will be an essential element of our future.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Alas, Alas Babylon!

One thing that can be said of the Bible is that it has provided titles to authors of books, particularly (and appropriately?) books of fiction.  The Bible is known to most of the West fairly well, as it was hammered into us by various and sundry adults we were exposed to as children.  It was the source of titles for William Faulkner,  John Steinbeck and Earnest Hemingway, and for Pat Frank who wrote a book entitled Alas, Babylon, which I read with considerable interest as a teenager.  I remember it fairly well, which is more than can be said of other books I read, whether under the compulsion of a teacher or freely.

The title of that book, and of this post, is taken from the cheery Book of Revelation, the favorite of so many of us Americans, who tend to associate Babylon, the great whore, with New York or perhaps Hollywood.  It seems likely the actual author (or authors) of the Book meant to refer to Rome, but Americans and others like to associate America or parts of it to ancient Rome or the Roman Empire, so maybe it makes no difference.

The book of Frank Pat or the Book of Revelation comes to mind as I observe the antics of our self-described stable genius and inadvertently amusing president and the ruler of North Korea as they revile one another, as Frank's novel was devoted to the describing of the results of a nuclear war on survivors in Florida.  They themselves bring to mind, to my mind at least, the Elvis Costello song Two Little Hitlers.  But comparing the president with Hitler, even to a little Hitler, is as tiresome as the president himself.

Sin and punishment of and for sin are of course the essence of the Book of Revelation and of the Bible itself.  They're also essential to any religion, and I think ethics, founded on the belief that right and wrong are determined by following or failing to follow divine commands.  Follow those commands and one acts rightly; fail to follow those commands and one acts wrongly.  As the commands are those of God, the failure to follow them must result in punishment of a particularly vicious  kind, and as what happens to wrongdoers in life is often thought to be insufficiently vicious, that punishment must come in the afterlife.  Naturally, if God decides to intervene in life, the punishment will be adequate, and in order to be adequate that punishment must be as mighty as possible, and nuclear punishment is as mighty as we can conceive at this point in our sad development.

An ethics or religion based on divine command strikes me as unsatisfactory, but I can understand the impulse to believe that our conduct presages some kind of disaster if it does not merit some kind of devastating punishment.  It's difficult not to think that bad things are bound to happen, and soon.  "Dangerous creeps are everywhere" as Warren Zevon and Hunter Thompson wrote.  We have cause to be afraid.

So it seems, in any case.  I take some comfort in the fact that it's possible we perceive ourselves to be in greater peril than in the past simply by virtue of the fact that information, good or bad, true or false, is so much more available to us than in the past, and instantaneously.  Perhaps we've always been this way and our nation and society has always been in this condition, but we were better able to cope with it, or at least ignore it, in the past merely because it wasn't there before us at all times, as it is now.

But an aspiring Stoic should be undisturbed by all of this, as it is beyond the power of our will.  Our business is to govern ourselves to do what is right, and treat what we cannot govern as indifferent.  A Stoic, and even an aspiring one, should be able to survive even our time without being disturbed.