Dream City Home

Welcome to day 31 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They are all listed here.
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To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of, I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room. … Am I alien? Alien from what exactly? Perhaps my home is my dream city, more real than my waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life…  — William S. Burroughs

Dream city as home. This idea works for me. My dreamspace, which feels like a place where I live even more vividly, more sensually, than usual, is often architectural in form and setting, with past houses (which obviously do have a relationship to waking life) — especially this one …

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Maine house, Feb. 2001
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partial kitchen, Maine house, 1994
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Thanksgiving in Maine house, 1995
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fireplace and living space, Maine house, 1994
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stairs and warming oven, Maine house, 1994
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Christmas 1996 (with Cactus) in Maine house

… and apartments, hotels, restaurants, frequently other people’s houses, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, bathrooms, meeting rooms, buildings and built spaces that I don’t think I have ever been in except in dreams (and there they are typically recurring settings) — all common in my dreams. Of course, dreams have to be set somewhere, like plays, but what interests me is the transformation of knowledge and memory of the building, and the exploration of it in the dream, and how often dreams are set in places I don’t recognise except perhaps from previous dreams. (This dream, e.g., about my dad a year or so after he died, takes place in several buildings I’ve never been in in waking life.)

My “dream city” feels like a multiplicity of places — some real, some not real as far as I know (or at least not remembered by me in real life) — that are significant for various reasons: because of my emotional and aesthetic memories of a real place; because of the feeling evoked by its architecture or layout; because of some association with it through other people’s stories (what my imagination conjures — from novels, from what friends have described, from song lyrics or lines of poetry, from what I’ve heard on the radio — or what my eyes have actually glimpsed, momentarily, in paintings, on TV or in movies, riding past, etc.); or who knows what reason.

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Yemassee SC Dec. 2013
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Rocky Mount MC Dec. 2013
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somewhere in Rhode Island, Feb. 2008
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somewhere in Connecticut, Feb. 2008

Why do buildings and other places resonate and spark imagination? Why do they “make us” feel a certain way, evoke moods and sensations (e.g., “haunted houses”)? Is it because they contain us, hold us, bring us together or split us apart, both exclude and include us? Do they somehow form an external correspondence to our interior spaces?

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More to Burroughs’ point, my sense of homelessness, placelessness, alienates me from real life sometimes. My family moved often — due to my dad’s corporate life promotions and transfers — so when asked, e.g. as a security question on a financial site, “what is your hometown?,” I have no idea. I have no hometown, and my home is pretty much where I am at the moment, so in one sense I feel “at home” almost anywhere. But coming home after being away feels jarring — home is familiar, a place I know well and am comfortable, but re-entry to normal life after being away feels oppressive, constrictive; I feel restless, like I’ve lost something. I think it’s partly that on the road (hotels, motels, trains), there is much less stuff and therefore less emotional tiredness brought on by the emotional and physical demands of stuff.  But I think it’s more than that, perhaps something to do with the way, as I’ve mentioned previously, that travel disrupts, questions, and subverts conventional thought and behaviour. Coming home, I feel the demands (that word again) reinstated, the sense of what I am expected to be and do limited by the circumference of “home.”

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Unlike Burroughs’ experience (“I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room”), I have in my life almost always had a base, a room, apartment, or house to come home to day after day — and yet these places have always felt transitional to me. (I’ve written about this before, 5 years ago, in Oct. 2012). I can’t help but notice that all our lives and all our places are transitional, ephemeral, not made to last. In the short run, someone will dig up my garden or terrace it, a storm or fire may take out trees and destroy homes and towns, objects and materials constantly wear out, living things die (some exceedingly quickly, others at a slower rate) and everyone I know, including me, including friends’ children and their children, including all the animals now alive on earth, will die soon. In the long run, all bodies, all buildings and things, all governments, all human constructions will disappear and wild nature will take over, as it is wont to do now when given half a chance.

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seaweed growing on rock, Kennebunk ME, Dec. 2014
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fern growing out of rock, brick, in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA, Dec. 2015
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trees growing out of rock ledge, Northern Rail Trail, NH, April 2015
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watermelon plant growing on beach, Jekyll Island, GA, Sept. 2013

And in the longer run, land, sea, and all mortal beings, all species of flora and fauna, will disappear.

Which is why perhaps a heterotopia appeals to me so deeply … the placeless place, neither here nor there: a ship between shores on which an ad hoc society exists only as long as a cruise or passage; a tourist town, which shutters up and closes down after a few months; a public garden, where antiquity meets modernity (and as Louis Marin says, “the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek”); a museum (hard on the back and wearying though they are), where the past is reinterpreted by the present (“Foucault’s museum is not a funereal storehouse of objects from different times, but an experience of the gap between things and the conceptual and cultural orders in which they are interpreted”- from Beth Lord); a cemetery, where past and present collide and almost all of us have a relationship with it. A place, in other words, where here-there-everywhere and now-then come together in some ambiguous, disturbing, provocative way. A place that deviates from conventional norms, a constant reminder that ‘normal’ is always and everywhere just a temporary construct. These heterotopic places are where I feel I belong, if one can be said to belong to such a place, because they match my sense of what’s real.

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my mom, Evergreen Cemetery, Roanoke, VA, 13 Dec. 2014
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Dad’s ashes, scattered in Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area, Virginia, June 2013

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We each exist in a place now, places that seem real, solid, geographically tangible. At the same time, or in another time that runs alongside the chronology we obey, we are placeless, standing at a threshold, that liminal space, waiting, one foot here and one foot there, waiting, inhabiting multiple realities, multiple places and times in one moment, in one space. That’s how it feels to me, and I guess it’s why hotels, motels, lodging, and the movement of travelling resonate for me, reminders of the non-linear world beyond and inside and overlapping this other world we are inexplicably placed in. They remind me that we’re here for the moment, we’re in this spot in each moment as we move toward another spot in each moment, places we’ve never been, or have visited in dreams and in memory.

We live out of suitcases, uncertain in the middle of the night how to find the bathroom and the lights; we wake up disoriented, aware of strangers coughing, flushing, moving about next door; we check ourselves in the mirror before opening the door and stepping through.

MollysinkmirrorConservatoryLongwoodGardens13Oct2017

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Thanks for traveling with me on this part of my journey.

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The Lorraine

Welcome to day 14 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my 2006 train trip through New Orleans, Memphis, and Minneapolis. Today, 53 years after Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize on 14 Oct. 1964 for his work combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance, I want to focus on one motel in Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot and killed in April 1968.

But first, a few things King said in the 1950s and 60s that are just as relevant today as then.

“It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.” — 17 November 1957, “Loving Your Enemies,” sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL

 “There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. … For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does.” — 17 November 1957, “Loving Your Enemies,” sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL

“For nonviolence not only calls upon its adherents to avoid external physical violence, but it calls upon them to avoid internal violence of spirit. It calls on them to engage in that something called love. And I know it is difficult sometimes. When I say ‘love’ at this point, I’m not talking about an affectionate emotion. It’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper. I’m talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” — speech at the Great March on Detroit, 23 June 1963, Detroit, MI

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” — “Beyond Vietnam,” 4 April 1967, New York, N.Y.

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The Lorraine Motel from a block away, Nov. 2006

In 1945, Walter and Loree Bailey bought the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis (before that, it was operated since the 1920s as the Windsor Hotel and the Marquette Hotel) and transformed it from a whites-only establishment to an upscale motel welcoming both blacks and whites in the Jim Crow era. Among guests were Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole.

King himself visited numerous times, including the spring of 1968, when he and Dr. Ralph Abernathy were in town to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and poor working conditions (timeline of strike). Jesse Jackson was also with the group.

King gave a speech on 3 April at the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the Mason Temple, in which he told them,

“I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.” 

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bookstore for the Church of God in Christ, a few blocks from the Lorraine Motel (Nov. 2006)

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The next day, 4 April, King was shot in the neck walking back into his motel room (room 306) from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he had asked a saxophonist to play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the rally that night.

The motel’s co-owner, Loree Bailey, operating the motel switchboard, “suffered a stroke when she heard the shot fired. She died on April 9th, the same day as King’s funeral.”

Walter Bailey continued to run the motel after King’s death but instead of renting out room 306 again, he turned it into a memorial, until 1982, when he “declared bankruptcy and stood by helplessly as his high-end establishment became a brothel. The Lorraine would have been sold at auction, but the Save the Lorraine organization bought it and decided to transform it into a museum.” After the final tenant, “Jacqueline Smith, who had resided there as a housekeeper since 1973, refused to leave and was forcibly evicted,” the motel closed in March 1988 and the National Civil Rights Museum was dedicated in the summer of 1991.

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The sign for the motel, Nov. 2006: Wounded in America: Stories of Gun Violence
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How the Lorraine Motel (National Civil Rights Museum) looked in Nov. 2006; it later underwent renovations (2012 to 2014). The two cars are a white 1959 Dodge Royal with lime green fins and a white 1968 Cadillac.

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James Earl Ray was arrested, pleaded guilty, and was convicted of killing King; Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison, and died in prison in 1998 from hepatitis.

In 1999, the King family brought a wrongful death case against Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim’s Grill, a restaurant near the Lorraine, and “other unknown co-conspirators” for King’s murder. After four weeks of testimony, with more than 70 witnesses, a Memphis jury unanimously found for the family, i.e., “that Jowers was part of a conspiracy to kill King, and that the assassination plot also involved ‘others, including governmental agencies.'” Coretta Scott King named some of those others as “the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department (under Janet Reno) had ordered a new investigation in August 1998 and its findings in June 2000 refuted allegations that there was any conspiracy to assassinate King, “including the findings of the Memphis civil court jury.”

Only a little more than 6 years after King was shot, his mother, Alberta Williams King, “was shot and killed as she sat at the organ in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta” one Sunday (30 June 1974), by Marcus Wayne Chenault, a 23-year-old black man from Ohio who said he shot her because “all Christians are my enemies.” 

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I noticed a woman protesting the museum when I was there. That woman is Jacqueline Smith, the same housekeeper who was evicted in March 1988; she has been there protesting ever since (at least until 20 Aug. 2016, the last mention I found online), because she feels that the National Civil Rights Museum “worships” King’s death rather than celebrating his life. She also opposes the way that “King’s legacy in Memphis is tangled up with gentrification. She points out that many blacks can’t afford to live around the Lorraine Motel.” And she objects to the commercialisation of King’s life and death; one of her slogans says “Dr. King came to Memphis to support the poor, needy and oppressed; not to buy worthless junk.”

You can see one of her signs below, in my photo (Nov. 2006).

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I didn’t know about this controversy ahead of time and was confused when I saw Smith protesting the museum. I thought that she and her protest were the main attractions, and though I knew King had been shot there, which is why I was visiting the motel, I didn’t realise there was a museum on the site.  I wish I had and that I had looked through the plexiglass into the room where King was staying. That will have to wait for another trip to Memphis.

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“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’ … We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” — “Beyond Vietnam,” 4 April 1967, New York, N.Y.

 

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A bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed

Welcome to day 6 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
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A friend — Jack, a college acquaintance, now friends on Facebook — asked me yesterday why I’m interested in heterotopias. He asked, I saw the question, then I went out with a few friends for a goodbye lunch for one of us (not me), where those friends asked me, What exactly is a heterotopia?

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I gave my short spiel, then walked to the hair stylist, who, while she cut my hair, asked, What is that first word, that “h” word, heterotopia, what does it mean? I said I would send her the little piece I wrote, Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces. But meanwhile, Jack’s question stirred my mind: Why?

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I had been looking earlier at an interesting and beautiful-in-its-way Tumblr page called Motel Register. The page’s writers seem to have a nightmarish view of motels; many of the images are dystopian, creepy, ominous, grim. Some are sort of bleakly glamourous, like this one:

CapriMotelMotelRegisterbleakglamourour(Above, not my photo)

A recent entry that caught my attention was the one on Crossroads, i.e., motels with that name, as well as the idea that motels are a crossroads, which is heterotopian:

“Crossroads. This is the ur motel marker. Traced back to its German roots, this two-letter prefix means ‘out of’ and ‘original’ all at once, just like a motel room promises adventure and solitude in the figure of the frontier. America in a nutshell.

“To be in a motel is to be at the crossroads — of adventure, the workaday grind, criminality, and life in general. Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.

“Everything is overdetermined on the road. You cower under the sheets of your adventurous spirit. The company of strangers is the only home you care to know.
If the ultimate promise of travel is self-discovery, the lonely night beside the highway might be the most authentic moment of your life.”

What this no-place place, this crossroads between real and unreal reveals is disillusionment: we are lonely and exist as solitudes, we seek adventure but we are cowards, we are people in pain seeking to escape pain.

There’s this lovely thought, a sort of mockery of nostalgia, about motel phones, on a night when the air conditioner, with its “hum like an airplane’s engines … wheez[es] out a bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed” and after you come back from a trip to the foreign bathroom, a crack in the curtain [which is why I always carry large safety pins] casts a spectral light spotlighting the obligatory telephone:

“Age finds you in an instant.  Frozen like a deer, your mind starts silently punching in your first phone number, still so easy to remember some 30 years later. 481-9371. And like that, you’re at home and so far away all at once.

Motels: They stand in for home, and in doing so remind us, in their bleak emptiness, that we are not home, not at all. Or perhaps they remind us that home, wherever that is, is not any better than this shabby and friendless motel, that “the company of strangers” is the only company — the only family, the only community — that exists anywhere for us.

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So I go to lunch with friends (friends I had never met 8 years ago), go to get my hair cut, walk the mile or so home (taking a detour to photograph some butterflies in flowers at a farm stand but end up in love with these grasses in this light),

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flip on NPR and listen to more discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, with the Nobel committee’s comments about his writing: Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Others (NYT, mainly) write that “[h]is dual identity has made him alert to life’s dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.” (Shades of the mood at the Tumblr site, Motel Register.) They say, “he writes about what you’ve had to forget to survive in the first place, as an individual and as a society.” (From Never Let Me Go: “All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”) Prospect magazine calls him “the master of the quietly unsettling.”

Dislocations; the experience of being caught between worlds; that sharp and inescapable realisation of the abyss that lies black and gaping beneath our abiding hope that we’re connected, that we are solid, permanent, that we are who we think we are, who we appear, known and loved by those we believe we know and love; the necessity of forgetfulness about who we are and what’s been done to us, or what we have done, that enables us to function, and then the remembering, sometimes, that disquiets, quietly unsettles, calls into question everything.

What, I wonder, in our culture reinforces the illusions, tells us the lies that are needed so that we can function as it prefers us to function, helps us forget what we hold inside, distracts us from what’s true, asserts unacknowledged power over our options, our desires, our relationships with each other, with other species, with the earth?  Is it really an illusion, that we are connected to each other, or is the truth that we actually are and don’t see it, don’t feel it, and if so, why not? Why do so many people feel they “don’t belong”? Why are so many resources spent on making houses into homes, far beyond what’s needed in terms of shelter and comfort — the many home box stores, the TV stations, hundreds of magazines, newspaper sections devoted to home decor and desires, decorators, stagers, massive industries and hours of time devoted to the project of creating and recreating the home, over and over?

birdsnestinSwidaRacemosaGreyDogwoodbBattellWoodsTAMMiddleburyVT31Oct2015

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Today, again on NPR, I heard this interview with a reporter who wrote in the Atlantic magazine about ongoing and deadly fraternity hazings and about the “profound moral unease” that frat members may feel as they cross the line into criminality, certainly into cruelty and obscene carelessness, or they may cover up this sense of unease at the time, may express unconcern and callousness, only to have it seep out later, who knows when, why, and how. Because “there’s this sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says, ‘You endure, you shut up, you keep the secrets’ and that’s how you go forward and become a man in this context.” A man doesn’t call for help. A man covers up, hides the significance of what he’s done and how he feels about it from himself, and moves on: “And … they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives, and realize what they’ve been part of ….”

Hiding aspects of who we are from ourselves and everyone else. Profound moral unease.

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Because of the new Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, Vietnam is bubbling in our collective consciousness again. I haven’t seen any of the series, though I was privy to a small discussion about it among people who have seen it, and I’ve listened to some news stories on it (this Maine Calling program on the documentary is particularly affecting); one thing that seems clear is that, like fraternity hazing, it was another circumstance — and a compulsory one for most, unlike fraternities — where young men (primarily) were put in a situation of doing terrible things and then having to bear the psychic consequences of their actions.

Profound moral unease. What do we do with it, as people, as a culture?

Then the news this morning of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons — as the Nobel committee says, “the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more” — and I thought of the existential unease many of us experience, some consciously, some subliminally (that is, below the threshold of sensation, consciousness; affecting our mind without our being aware of it, so that we may deny it).

Unease. Disquiet. Dark thoughts of mortality, morality (acting in a way unaligned with our deepest values), alienation from self and others.

Welcome to the Crossroads Motel!

CrossroadsMotelMotelRegisterTumblr(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)

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So, these are all things that interest me — I assume they interest most people in this culture? — and that are the essence of what heterotopian spaces evoke, I think.

When I am in a motel (as in a cemetery, garden, hospital, museum, on a ship in the middle of the ocean), in that “borrowed bed,” the knowledge that life is a way-station, an unlikely moment between nothingness and nothingness, perhaps, is as pervasive as the peeling wallpaper and the stark, unflinching lights over the bathroom sink.  I am travelling, not only here as a guest in this motel but also, at the speed of light, between birth and death.

cemeteryandtreesSalemMA8Feb2014

And there is that dual sense of possibility, of being anyone, doing anything next, because time is floating and place is layered and who I am is unclear, fragmented, divided. As Motel Register reminds us, “Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.”

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A heterotopia works on us by mixing up layers of life, layers of meaning, layers of time like yesterday, “when I’m old,” my 8th birthday. Normally, I may wake up at 6 or 8 a.m. and do this, then do that, then do this other thing, and then it’s time for dinner, and life goes on in this linear way, though the activities vary, from one moment to the next, and it might make sense to me at times, it holds me together and sets out boundaries. Time and space are defined by known boundaries.

But heterotopias disorder time, they subvert our sense of expectation and of what’s next, and often, by means of their temporal and spacial misalignment with our normal world, they contest, question, or subvert our usual sense of what’s important. Heterotopias stir up unknowing, throw established meaning into question, both our personal perspectives and ways of making meaning and also the significance and meanings assigned to things, events, people, places by others, by the society at large.

If you have been in a space of crisis (serious illness or injury, someone dying, natural disaster, war, abuse, etc.)  you may have felt the way an hour can last 10 hours, or vice versa. The experience of time in such a place, during such an event, intensifies, distorts, feels circular or exponential. And in this disrupted, out-of-the-ordinary place and time, our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, sense of self can suddenly feel provisional, less definite.

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More, on a level above the personal, the relationships we observe among our society’s spaces — whose definitions and meanings derive from the prevailing cultural power structure; and in which we may participate willingly or not — can be called into question in heterotopic spaces. Michel Foucault’s (rather grand) claim was that heterotopias are critical to the functioning of the human imaginary (i.e., the deep-seated mode of understanding, the creative and symbolic dimension, through which we create the ways we live together collectively), and that without heterotopias societies will inevitably collapse into authoritarianism. In Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena [i.e., from the power structure of the society]. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony.” Yet it is meant to question, challenge, and subvert it, from within. (Much more on this at The Heterotopic Art Institutionat Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)

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Fiona Tomkinson, writing about Ishiguro’s novels in her article “Ishiguro and Heidegger: The Worlds of Art” (in Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, 2015), asks “How do the protagonists survive the loss of their illusions and of their world? What is left when a world, floating or otherwise, vanishes ….?”

What may be left, going back to the Tumblr “Motel Register” site, is an authentic moment, perhaps a lonely, disconnected one, perhaps a moment when we come face to face with our cowardice, selfishness, lack of faith, pettiness, terror of the abyss, homesickness, heartache, helplessness, exhaustion. Perhaps a moment when we question what we know, what we believe, what we’ve been taught in our culture and by those who love us. Perhaps a moment when we don’t know anymore who’s bad and who’s good, who to exclude and who to include, who belongs and who doesn’t. Perhaps just a moment when we don’t know and don’t have to know, or one when we don’t rush to unravel a ball of tangled feelings … as we listen to the clanging air conditioner, feel the light from outside the motel room even through closed eyelids, and lie there on our borrowed bed, disillusioned with the promise of the motel room.

CadillacMotelRoomsforaNightoraLifetimeManchesterNH14Jan2017

 

René Girard has Died

ReneGirard

“We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.”

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The “Immortel” founder of mimetic theory, René Girard, has died today, less than two months before his 92nd birthday. He has had probably the biggest influence on my life of anyone, from the time I first read The Girard Reader (1996, ed. James G. Williams) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), in 2003 or 2004, after learning about him through Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

I’ve often wondered how much of his influence on me is due to his presenting a new idea that changed ever after how I thought, and how much due to his ideas resonating with what I already felt. I think it’s both: Girard’s ideas resonated because I already felt the truth of them in my life, but until I read his work, and that of other Girardians, I didn’t have a hermeneutic, a method for reading and interpreting both printed texts and situations in life, that was consistent and clear to me; I was trying to fit my observations and insights into other theologies, philosophies, anthropologies, sociologies and psychologies, and finding a mismatch.

If you too feel this way — that the way you read the motivations and consequences of situations in your own life, characters in a novel, history, politics, etc., seems uncorroborated by the media, philosophers, theologians, historians, those around you — then you might read some of his work and see what you find.

*

“The true threat to the world today comes from the mad ambitions of states and capitalists bent on destroying non-modern cultures. It is the so-called developed countries that plunder the planet’s resources without showing the least concern for consequences they are incapable of foreseeing.”

*

Online References

Eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91 by Cynthia Haven, Stanford News, 5 Nov. 2015

In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death  by Adam Ericksen at The Raven Foundation, today.

History is a test. Mankind is failing it: René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse , by Cynthia Haven in Stanford Magazine (2012?). Good introduction to the man and his work.

Contemplation in a world of violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle, by James Alison, Nov. 2001. Reflections on 9/11. Excellent.

What Is Mimetic Theory? by Sherwood Belangia on his blog, Shared Ignorance: Toward A Defective Reading of Plato. Quite a good introduction to the key ideas.

In theory: Mimetic desire: Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world, in The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2010. Focus on mimesis in literature.

We didn’t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight by James Alison (2013/2014), a sort of introduction to this aspect of Girard’s thought

Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the underside by James Alison, Jan. 2006.

The Apocalypse of Modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau, in The Brussels Journal, 18 June 2012, on two of Girard’s books, Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End.

Intersubjectivity: René Girard’s Vision of Mimetic Desire and Economic Dynamics, Centre for International Governance Innovation, 18 April 2013. A fascinating video that starts with mention of Bill Buckner, the scapegoat supreme in New England.

Rene Girard and the Death Penalty by Charles Bellinger, 23 Feb. 2008.

Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory & The Scapegoat, at 180 Rule: Examining Psychopathy Through the Lens of Girardian Theory, 31 March 2012.

Mimetic Theory and American Exceptionalism (17 Sept 2013) by Suzanne Ross and Adam Ericksen, Raven Foundation.

My own notes on Girardian thought.

Books

By Girard
The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. (1982 in French as Le Bouc émissaire)
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1987. (1978 in French as Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde)
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001. (1999 in French as  Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair)
Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origin of Culture, with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. Bloomsbury Books, London, 2007.
Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010. Published originally as Achever Clausewitz, Editions Carnets Nord, 2007. Review at SF Gate.
When These Things Begin:Conversations with Michel Treguer. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

By James Alison
The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998. Excerpt.
Raising Abel, The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.
Faith Beyond Resentment, Fragments Catholic and Gay, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2001
On Being Liked, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004.
Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

By Mark Heim
Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.

By Wolfgang Palaver
René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013.

By James G. Williams
The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.

 

Being Mortal

I recently read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Boston. He writes here about aging, balancing autonomy and security, assisted living and nursing homes, palliative care, dying, necessary conversations about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death.

These topics interest me, and Gawande’s writing — which he claims comes slowly and doesn’t flow easily — is clear and compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which I found dry, though pertinent.  He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of hopes and fears, and how voicing these hopes and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make the best choices from among confusing medical options, especially when all of the options carry major and perhaps unknown risks and downsides.

The PBS Frontline show with Gawande on this topic is excellent. So is Diane Rehm’s conversation with Gawande about the book in Oct 2014.

I had one major quibble with Gawande (and others) philosophically, which I go into at some length at the end of this posting.

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Some ideas that seemed especially critical or revelatory to me (all bolding within quotes is mine for emphasis; italics within quotes are his):

Old Age

For most of history, humans died before they reached old age; for all but the last couple hundred years, the average lifespan was 30 years or less. “Indeed, for most of history, death was a risk at every age of life and had no obvious connection with aging, at all.” A little mind-blowing!

And this was reassuring, given my longevity genes: Genetics have very little to do with longevity: Only 3% of how long a person will live compared with the average lifespan is explained by parents’ longevity, even though some of our other physical limits and features are almost completely tied to genetics, such as height (which is 90% determined by parents’ height).

We Wear Out: Like other complex systems, we don’t just shut down, we wear out. Simple devices “function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant.” But complex systems, as we are, are designed with redundancy:

“We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth. Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore. “

Also reassuring for many of us, since we can improve our balance and muscle strength: Falls: The risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than 4 prescription medications, and muscle weakness. “Elderly people without these risk factors have a 12% chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a 100% chance.”

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Autonomy

Nursing homes and other care facilities — designed to appeal to residents’ children, not the residents themselves, and looking to avoid lawsuits — favour safety over autonomy. Most of us “want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love.” But then of course, “those we love” want autonomy.

“[O]ur most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer.”

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Health care

Quality of life:

The job of any doctor, [geriatrician Juergen] Bludau later told me, is to support quality of  life, by which he meant two things: as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible and the retention of enough function for active engagement in the world.”

My mom died in early December, from complications of Alzheimer’s, after being in a memory care unit and then a 24-hour-nursing room at the same facility for a couple of years. Her life and death remind me that “active engagement in the world” is a relative term; for much of her adult life, she seemed content to sit on her sofa and watch TV most of the day. She could still do this, and seemed to be content doing it, until her last days. I visited her three weeks before she died and she was still engaged by the TV, by me, by the staff, and by the stuffed animals she liked to touch. It concerns me that some people — family, friends, medical professionals — might apply a different interpretation of “active engagement” than is relevant to the experience of the patient.

Well-being:

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

This set of questions actually applies to life outside of medical treatment, too. I could ask these questions about my garden: What is my understanding of the current situation — the soil, the climate, the slope and aspect, the available water, etc. — and the potential outcomes? What pests, diseases, outcomes do I fear and for what growth, beauty, biodiversity do I hope? How much work am I willing to do? What actions should I take that align with my responses?

A medical system that actively inflicts harm: Gawande cites a 2010 study at Massachusetts General Hospital of patients with advanced cancer that showed that “those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”

The main two models of doctor-patient relationships are paternalistic — I know best and you should confidently do what I tell you — and informative — here is all the information, data, statistics; now you make a good decision. But “neither type is quite what people desire. We want information and control, but we also want guidance.” Enter the interpretative type of doctor-patient relationship, where the doctor’s role is to help the patient determine what s/he wants. They ask questions, listen to you, and based on your answers, they suggest actions.

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The Difficulty of Medical Decision-Making

“People die only once. They have no experience to draw on.”

We don’t have control and we are not helpless:

“I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities.”

Facts don’t go far enough to help us make decisions; they didn’t for Gawande’s dad or for his patients:

“In theory, a person should make decisions about life and death matters analytically, on the basis of the facts. But the facts were shot through with holes and uncertainties. [My father’s] tumor was rare. No clear predictions could be made. Making choices required somehow filling the gaps, and what my father filled them with was fear. He feared the tumor and what it would do to him, and he also feared the solution being proposed.”

*

“The options overwhelmed her. They all sounded terrifying. She didn’t know what to do. I realized, with shame, that I’d reverted to being Dr. Informative—here are the facts and figures; what do you want to do? So I stepped back and asked the questions I’d asked my father: What were her biggest fears and concerns? What goals were most important to her? What tradeoffs was she willing to make, and what ones was she not?”

When my dad was diagnosed at age 73 with bladder cancer, he was blindsided, but soon he seemed to make really good decisions about his treatment and his life generally. I don’t think he told me all the details, but I gather that he was told from the outset that his cancer was likely to be fatal sooner than later. He opted for surgery and an urostomy bag. He was living in Florida then and requested visits from my sisters and me, who lived hundreds of miles away.

I spent a week with him between diagnosis and surgery, during which he asked me, as we wandered one afternoon among the citrus trees near his house, if I had any questions for him, anything I needed or wanted to talk with him about. As I’ve written elsewhere, our relationship as adults had been such that I really didn’t have anything pressing to discuss; we had covered those topics (including death and dying) over the years, on walks, hikes, at meals, in ordinary moments.

He also planned the hikes and trips he wanted to take, to places he had hiked dozens of times and knew intimately, and to Ireland, where he had never hiked but had long wanted to.

Eventually, perhaps when the cancer metastasied to his lungs, he made a few visits to Duke University Medical Center and took some oral chemotherapy for a while. Then he stopped that, requested my sister and me to visit again, fine-tuned his obituary (which he had written years earlier at my request), made cremation arrangements, and within about six weeks, died peacefully, three years after his diagnosis.

There were a few bumps in the road, but generally, his actions seemed focused on the questions Gawande suggests; he acted as much as possible, as much at it was in his control, in accord with his own hopes, fears, and goals, his awareness of what he wanted to avoid and what he wanted to do, how he wanted to live during in his remaining time, however long that might be. I appreciate the modelling.

The Peak End Rule and how it affects decision-making: Patients’ rankings of pain during a procedure are based on the average of just two moments: the single worst moment and the very end of the experience. The duration is not important in our memory, though it is in our actual experience:

The “experiencing self … endures every moment equally and a remembering self … gives almost all the weight of judgement afterward to two single points in time. … If the remembering self and the experiencing self can come to radically different opinions about the same experience, then the difficult question is which one to listen to. … In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. … Unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment— your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole.  … Yet, we also recognize that the experiencing self should not be ignored. The peak and the ending are not the only things that count. In favoring the moment of intense joy over steady happiness, the remembering self is hardly always wise. … When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. The peaks are important, and so is the ending.”

Probably the most common evidence of this phenomenon — specifically, of a pleasurable ending transforming suffering to make it, in retrospect, seem to have been negligible and worthwhile — is in women who have more than one childbirth.

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This peak-end rule was an interesting finding for me, and also one of the hardest to wrap my head around as applied to dying. Similarly Gawande’s comments earlier in the book about what makes life (and therefore death) meaningful, which, as he makes clear, are not original or unique to him:

“The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not. Loyalty, said Royce, ‘solves the paradox of our ordinary existence by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.'”

I recognise that this is the common idea, that a sense of purpose outside oneself gives life meaning. Yet it’s not a concept I fully understand.

First, “family” doesn’t seem like a higher purpose to me but rather an evolutionary and biological means of promulgating one’s own genetic material (and to a lesser and more unreliable extent, one’s values), and therefore very much focused on the self, and perhaps even a sort of denial of mortality, a belief that one lives on after death, biologically and otherwise, in the lives of others.

I understand better the idea of purpose involving the larger community or society, but I just don’t accept it either as a solution to “the paradox of our ordinary existence,” because I don’t feel there is a paradox to be solved — mortal beings are born, flourish (maybe), and die — or as an action or philosophy that gives life meaning, because living gives life meaning for me. Experiencing love, intimacy, fear, a tree, beauty, revelation, sunlight on a pond, fatigue, hope, compassion, enlightenment, disappointment, wonder, bewilderment, loneliness, the taste of an artichoke, the scent of the ocean, the feel of a cool breeze on a hot day, and so on, and expressing and sharing these experiences in many ways, seems like enough to me.

For me, the experiencing self is the one that seems reliable. It’s the one that lives in the only place we can really live, which is here, and now. The remembering self wants to distort the experience to make a satisfying story about it, complete with cognitive biases, and I distrust these biases and its sense of removal and distance from the experience.

Gawande says that “unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment— your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole;” and yet, when I am dead, does it really matter how I view my story? Or anything?

It seems that Gawande is focusing on the weeks, days, hours before the final unconsciousness as the most critical, a kind of assessing of one’s legacy, and perhaps in a book on dying, that’s appropriate, and in fact these studies that Gawande cites are clear that it’s the ending of the story that matters most to most people; and yet in some ways it seems pointless to me to consider the arc and ending of a story whose protagonist, who is also the narrator, is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, handing off the telling of their only story (their many stories) to friends and next of kin.

Speaking of handing the story off: It would annoy me (though hopefully I will be beyond annoyance) if, should I die after a long illness, the story of my death is immediately written in a way that would be anathema to me: “She fought a good fight. She lost her battle with X illness.” Or worse. I don’t want my death to be seen as a fight I lost, battling some imaginary enemy, when I see death as a natural progression; and I don’t want the ending, however if unfolds, whether I seem heroic or a whining misery, to colour all that came before. But how my perceived story will be told by others doesn’t concern me much — since, let’s face it, the storytellers will get it wrong, and anyway, they also will die, and soon in geological time.

More to Gawande’s point, how I myself view my story in my final months or moments — its arc or ending, its meaning as a whole — doesn’t seem important, either. For one thing, we all have much the same story to this point — born, learned, tried, failed, succeeded, hoped, feared, acted brave and cowardly, acted selfishly and compassionately, felt and thought things, took risks and played it safe, believed, doubted, had faith, despaired, ate and drank, laughed and cried, loved and hated, practiced violence and peace — and in the final analysis, it ends the same way for everyone, so far as we know. For another, I’d rather put the paltry energy I have in my final days into just experiencing the moments (until the time comes that I’d rather not experience the moments, as Gawande’s father felt in his last hours) rather than trying to craft or tell a story that satisfies me and seems coherent.

We will all be gone in the blink of an eye, from this Earth, at least, and then who knows?, and that thought gives me great comfort when I think about dying. I have no hope in the idea of anyone living on after me or of anyone remembering me; I take comfort in the knowledge that we will all die: our bodies, our ability to experience, our perceptions and memories of our experiences, our art and stories about these experiences. And all that will have been will be what we sense, what we feel, what we think, how we act, in the moments when we sense, feel, think, act.

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“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” ― Vladimir Nabokov

I’m mortal, I will die, I am dying. That happens in time. And while I live, I escape mortality in moments of timelessness … by being absorbed … in that sensation of oneness that can’t help but be an outpouring of gratitude … when brushed by eternity, by “ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

 

 

Noir Quotes

Just finished reading James Thompson’s Helsinki Blood (2013), in the Kari Vaara series, set in Finland. I couldn’t finish the previous book in the series, Helsinki White (2011), because it was too gruesome and the torture and violence too graphic for me at the time. This book is probably just as gruesome, but Kari is changing, becoming less morally depraved, as the effects of his brain tumour and the surgery to remove it dissipate.

That said, there is still a lot of killing, and his two companions are sociopaths. The humour is dark.

‘I cruised by Veikko Saukko’s mansion,’ Milo says. ‘Sure as shit, just like his calendar says, he was out behind the house, knocking golf balls into the sea. Kind of weird, isn’t it? I’m going to kill one man practicing golf and two men playing it on the same day. Generally, people don’t consider it a dangerous sport.’

and

‘Drove him [a corpse] out to the countryside, packed his mouth with Semtex to get rid of dental records, then duct-taped is hands to his face to blow off his fingers, the point of course being to destroy his prints. And then, well, you can imagine the result. I walked about ten kilometers through woods until I came to a road with a bus stop, so no one would recall me being in the vicinity.’

“With practice, we’ve become quite good criminals.

This is no consolation

I. Several years ago for a Tennebrae or perhaps a Good Friday service, I was asked to come up with contemporary songs to match the traditional seven words Jesus said on the cross as he was dying:

  1. “Forgive them, Father! They do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
  2. “I tell you this: Today you will be in Paradise with me.” (Luke 23:43)
  3. He said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ (John 19:26-27)
  4. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
  5. “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
  6. “It is finished.” ( John 19:30)
  7. “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)

skyreflectedinlake8Nov2011elongated

II. I can’t recall the songs I chose for any but the first, and it’s running through my mind and heart again this Lenten season. I chose the 10,000 Maniacs’ “Please Forgive Us:”

"Mercy, mercy," why didn't we hear it?
"Mercy, mercy," why did we read it 
buried on the last page of our morning papers?
The plan was drafted, drafted in secret.
Gunboats met the red tide, driven to the rum trade 
for the army that they created.
But the bullets were bought by us, it was dollars that paid them.

Please forgive us, we don't know what was done,
Please forgive us, we don't know what was done
in our name.

There'll be more trials like this in mercenary heydays.
When they're so apt to wrap themselves up
in the stripes and stars and find that they are able
to call themselves heroes
and to justify murder by their fighters For freedom.

Please forgive us, we don't know what was done.
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
Could you ever forgive us? I don't know how you could.

I know this is no consolation:
Please forgive us, we don't know what was done,
Please forgive us, we didn't know.

Could you ever believe that we didn't know?
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
I wouldn't blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
I wouldn't blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, and you never will.

skymountainshorelinereflected8Nov2011elongated

III. I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD BECAUSE I just finished taking a “History of U.S. Foreign Policy” class through the local college, where we learned or were reminded of the many covert operations the U.S. CIA has led to overthrow governments and assassinate those it considered enemies. From the formal creation of the CIA in 1947 (and the creation of the covert arm in 1948), there are many examples, in places like Vietnam, Hungary, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Greece, Bolivia, Cambodia, El Salvador, and the countries below:

>> The overthrow of the IRANian government (1953): Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA (featuring Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, and Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr.) and the UK worked to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran, led by Mohammad Mossadegh, “who had attempted to nationalize Iran’s petroleum industry, threatening the profits of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company” (now BP). The U.S. and UK imposed a boycott on the country and “conducted a massive covert propaganda campaign to create the environment necessary for the coup,” both in Iran and in the U.S. They portrayed it as a spontaneous popular uprising when it was anything but. They installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who formed a military government, ruled as an autocrat, and was heavily supported by the U.S. until he was overthrown in 1979. “Over the next 25 years, more than $20 billion in U.S. taxpayers’ money would pour into a decidedly undemocratic Iran, most of it military aid and subsidized weapons sales for the Shah’s armed forces and SAVAK, his secret police”(from The Oily American, referenced below).

>> GUATEMALA (1954): CIA overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán because the powerful U.S. company, United Fruit Company — with whom both Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and his brother, Allen, the CIA director, had financial, personal and legal ties — objected to Árbenz’s plan to reappropriate (with compensation based on tax statements) unused land that had been taken from the Guatemalan people. Or as Schlesinger (see citation below) puts it, “Washington feared Arbenz because he tried to institute agrarian reforms that would hand over fallow land to dispossessed peasants, thereby creating a middle class in a country where 2 percent of the population owned 72 percent of the land. Unfortunately for him, most of that territory belonged to the largest landowner and most powerful body in the state: the American-owned United Fruit Company.”

United Fruit Company staged a PR campaign in the U.S. to convince us that Guatemala was a communist threat to the U.S. and pushed Eisenhower (and the CIA) to get involved, or they would seem “soft on Communism.”

As Wikipedia says (see also Watch Out for the Top Banana by Larry Tye, Cabinet, Fall 2006): “In 1954, for his clients, the Eisenhower Administration and the United Fruit Company, the public relations expert [and nephew of Sigmund Freud] Edward Bernays engineered American popular consent for the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état to overthrow a capitalist democracy in Central America. The propaganda operation used the North American press to frighten the US public into believing that President Árbenz was a Communist and a political puppet of the USSR, and, therefore, that Guatemala had become a Soviet beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, the backyard of the United States.”

The CIA harrassed Árbenz, cut off aid and embargoed arms (while increasing arms shipments to neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua), planted Soviet-made weapons on the border to imply that Guatemala was getting arms from the Soviets. As noted in Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1993), “Such economic sabotage of Guatemala was secret, because economic warfare violated the Latin American non-intervention agreement to which the United States was a signatory party; public knowledge that the US was violating the non-intervention agreement would prompt other Latin American countries to aid Guatemala in surviving the American economic warfare.” The CIA also created a small mercenary army of about 500, which they trained in Nicaragua and Honduras. They hired pilots to drop propaganda about the army and they created a fake radio station to tout its supposed victories. Though this mercenary army was no threat to the Guatemalan army, the Guatemalan military feared that if they defeated the CIA invasion, the U.S. would intervene and occupy the country. Panicked Guatemalan officers sent Árbenz into exile. The CIA’s chosen man, Col. Castillo Armas, became the new president, massacring people and wiping out dissent until he was assassinated by his body guard in 1957, when Guatemala then went from military government to military government for the next 30 years, supported by the U.S.

As a review of Weiner’s book on the CIA (cited below) puts it: “Guatemala was made safe for United Fruit — talk about banana republics — but not for democracy. A series of military dictators followed the CIA coup, with death squads and repression in which perhaps 200,000 Guatemalans perished.”

>> The Bay of Pigs (CUBA, 1961), the unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba and attempted overthrow of the revolutionary leftist government of President Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado by a counter-revolutionary military trained and funded by the CIA (still under Allen Dulles, with Richard M. Bissell, David Philips, Gerald Drecher and E. Howard Hunt), first authorized by Eisenhower and his National Security Council, and then continued under John F. Kennedy. It was defeated by the Cuban military, under Prime Minister Fidel Castro’s command, within three days. This victory for the Castro administration eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

>> The ‘secret war’ in LAOS (1961-1975): “As the Vietnam War raged, Washington noticed that communist forces had spilled over into Laos. In response, the Americans launched what was later called a secret war. At the time, Laos had been declared ‘neutral,’ but with a growing communist presence, the CIA saw it as the next front in the conflict. A handful of CIA agents were flown in to build on existing tensions between the Hmong and the Laotian government, led by the communist Pathet Lao” (Wikipedia).  The CIA helped train and arm more than 60,000 Hmong fighters, who were to disrupt communist supply lines while the Americans set up a major military airport in Northern Laos. The CIA gave the fighters their own airline, Xieng Kouang airlines, which aided the already bustling opium trade in the region. Even though the U.S. used the Hmong to fight — and was spending $2 million a day carpet bombing Laos — it finally admitted defeat before the stronger communist army and fled. The secret war lasted 15 years during which it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 Hmong died. There are apparently still Hmong people hiding in the jungles of Laos.

>> The overthrow/killing of Salvador Allende in CHILE (1970-1973). When Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile (Sept 1970), U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered that he “not be allowed to take office.” Nixon “pursued a vigorous campaign of covert resistance to Allende, first designed to convince the Chilean congress to confirm Jorge Alessandri as the winner of the election. … Once Allende took office, extensive covert efforts continued with U.S.-funded black propaganda, … strikes organized against Allende, and funding for Allende opponents. … Following an extended period of social, political, and economic unrest, General Augusto Pinochet assumed power in a violent coup d’état on September 11, 1973; among the dead was Allende” (Wikipedia). The CIA says he committed suicide; others say he was massacred.

>> AFGHANISTAN (1979-1989): When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. “President Jimmy Carter, concluding that the Soviet army was passing through Afghanistan to seize the Middle East oil fields, sounded a warning: ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’ Reagan replaced Carter as president in 1980, his administration got money from Congress (based on a faulty 1977 CIA report of faltering Soviet oil production) to arm Afghan insurgents and establish a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf, and “the CIA began one of its longest and most expensive covert operations, supplying billions of dollars in arms to a collection of Afghan guerrillas (including Osama bin Laden) fighting the Soviets. At the same time, the U.S. was secretly supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran after Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. The State Department removed Iraq from its list of countries supporting terrorism, so that they could buy weapons. At the same time, we were selling weapons to Iran in the Iran-contra scandal…

>> Iran-contra war against NICARAGUA (1981-1990): Attempts to destabalise and overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, whose democratically elected president was Daniel Ortega. The CIA created a group whose task was to “sabotage ports, refineries, boats and bridges, and try to make it look like the contras had done it.” That group is best known for mining Nicaraguan harbors, sinking several Nicaraguan boats and damaging at least five foreign vessels, which led to international condemnation of the U.S. in 1984. The contras, based in Honduras, were waging a guerrilla war to topple the government of Nicaragua. The U.S. financed, armed, trained, and advised them. And even though the Boland Amendment made it illegal under U.S. law to provide arms to the contra militants, the Reagan administration nonetheless armed and funded them, secretly selling weapons to Iran (also in violation of U.S. law) in exchange for cash that they used to supply arms to the contras.

As CIA Director Bill Casey (1981-1987) said: “It takes relatively few people and little support to disrupt the internal peace and economic stability of a small country.”

skyreflectedinlake8Nov2011elongated

IV. I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD BECAUSE of our ongoing drone strikes in other countries, killing civilians and combatants without any due process whatsoever. We have two drone programs running now, the covert drone strike program, run by the CIA, and the military drone program, run by the Pentagon. The Pentagon administers its drone program in war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and also in Yemen and Somalia, where it’s carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command. The CIA began its program in Yemen in 2002, expanding in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2004, and ramping up dramatically there and in Yemen and Somalia in 2011 under President Barack Obama. The CIA has never publicly acknowledged its covert drone program.

Estimates for the number of people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen vary widely — partly because the U.S. reportedly counts as a militant any military-age male killed in a drone strike — from about 2,500 to 4,800 — including militant/enemy deaths (2,300 to 3,900) and civilian deaths (170 to 900). Drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2012 are estimated to have injured another 1,300 people.

In May 2012, John Bellinger, former legal adviser for the National Security Council, said on the Diane Rehm show on NPR that the Obama administration “dramatically ramped up the program far more than the Bush administration, perhaps because they learned the lesson of what happened by capturing and detaining people. And we saw what happened with Guantanamo. So they’ve largely been focusing on killing them with several hundred drone strikes, killing thousands of people in several different countries … If the Bush administration had acknowledged a wide-ranging program to kill thousands of people in multiple countries around the world, including a number of civilians, the human rights groups and Europeans would have been outraged. I’m sure they would have accused the president of being a war criminal, grave breaches of international law. What we’ve seen up to this point, and even after this point, is at least European countries have just looked the other way.”

As Hina Shamsi of the ACLU said, on the same Diane Rehm show: “We believe [the drone strokes are] unlawful because the world is not a battle place and because people are being killed in places where the United States is not at war. … [T]he danger here is that the Obama administration, even though it has rightly turned its back on the nomenclature of a global war on terror, is essentially carrying forward the Bush administration’s claim of a worldwide battlefield.”

A detailed legal analysis — looking at legality of drone strikes in terms of Pakistan’s sovereignty, under international humanitarian law (which states, in part, that intentional lethal force is allowed “only when necessary to protect against a threat to life, and where there are ‘no other means, such as capture or non-lethal incapacitation, of preventing that threat to life'”), under U.S. domestic law (including in the context of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed one week after 9/11), and in terms of accountability and transparency — is available in the Stanford report (citation below).

skymountainshorelinereflected8Nov2011elongated

V. Perhaps in the past we didn’t all know about covert actions, “done in our name;” perhaps they were “on the last page of the morning paper,” hidden from all but the most diligent (and literate); but now we have no excuse. We do know what is done in our name, with our dollars, with our bullets.

Mercenary heydays.

Mercy. Mercy.

———————–

SOURCES

Drones

Added: “The Killing Machines” by Mark Bowden, in The Atlantic, 14 Aug 2013

“Number of drone strikes is rocketing, but who’s counting?” by Michael Evans, in The Australian, 12 March 2013

Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013, created by Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer, in The Long War Journal, last updated 10 March 2013

CIA’s covert drone program may shift further onto Pentagon, by Ken Dilanian, in the Los Angeles Times, 17 Feb 2013.

Drones And Their Use In Counterterrorism, The Diane Rehm show, 7 Feb 2013.

Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes by Cora Currier at ProPublica, 5 Feb 2013

The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2013, at New America Foundation.

Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2013, created by Bill Roggio and Bob Barry, in The Long War Journal, last updated 23 Jan. 2013.

Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (182-page PDF), a report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at
NYU School of Law, Sept. 2012. Summary here. Legal analysis here.

US Drone Strikes, The Diane Rehm show, 31 May 2012

Iran – overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh (1953)

The Oily Americans” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in Time, 13 May 2003.

Guatemala – overthrow of Árbenz (1954)

“Ghosts of Guatemala’s Past” by Stephen Schlesinger, in The New York Times, 3 June 2011.

“Watch Out for the Top Banana” by Larry Tye, Cabinet, Fall 2006.

1954 Guatemalan coup d’état at Wikipedia. (Much the same version that I heard in my class this winter, from a history professor with a specialty in Latin American history.)

Bay of Pigs (1961)

Bay of Pigs Release, Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 2 Aug 2011: 769 documents (thousands of pages) of material, including the CIA Inspector General’s Report on the CIA’s ill-fated April 1961 attempt to implement national policy by overthrowing the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba by means of a covert paramilitary operation, otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs, and a commentary on that report written by the Directorate of Plans. Also National Security Council briefings.

‘Secret war’ in Laos (1961-1975)

The CIA’s ‘Secret War’ by William Lloyd-George, in The Diplomat, 25 Feb 2011.

Chile – overthrow of Allende (1970-73)

CIA Activities in Chile, from Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 18 September 2000. Includes Overview of Covert Actions (Support for Coup in 1970, Awareness of Coup Plotting in 1973, Knowledge of Human Rights Violations, etc.), The ‘Assassination’ of President Salvador Allende; Accession of General Augusto Pinochet to the Presidency; Violations of Human Rights Committed by Officers or Covert Agents and Employees of the CIA.

The Church Report: Covert Action in Chile 1963-1973, from Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 18 Dec. 1975

Afghanistan (1979-1989):

The Oily Americans” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in Time, 13 May 2003.

General Info on CIA Covert Actions

Covert United States foreign regime change actions, Wikipedia. Well-documented article.

TO READ

Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, which summarizes fourteen government overthrows by the US during the past century and a half.

Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (2007) by Tim Weiner. Reviewed here.

U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, Secret Warfare, and the CIA, 1945-53 by Sarah-Jane Corke, 2008. Reviewed here.

Fascination with the Apocalypse Now

horseriders on Driftwood Beach, JI, 27 April 2012

THE QUESTION

Someone recently asked, at a sort of salon conversation gathering on 21 Dec. — the day that some believed the world was going to end (as implied by the Mayans’ calendar ending on that date) — why we humans are so fascinated by speculation about the END OF THE WORLD. It’s a good question.

After all, although the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world — their  ancient calendar simply rolled over, beginning a new 394-year century (baktun), which some believe may usher in a new and perhaps more peaceful age — lots of groups and people throughout history, since 2800 B.C.!, have predicted and prepared for Doomsday, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, the End.

THE HISTORY

Plenty of religious folk in particular — popes, cardinals, rabbis, prophets, nuns, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist forerunners the Second Adventists, the Nation of Islam, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Millerites in the 1840s, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God (in the 1930s, 40s and 70s), Billy Graham in 1950, Hal Lindsey in his bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth (my mom had a copy), Pat Robertson on the 700 Club — but also others, like 16th century seer and apothecary Nostradamus (who may have said that the world would end in July 1999), UFO cults, numerologists, pyramidologists, alien channelers, the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations, John Napier (the mathematician who discovered logarithms), scientists who expected comets and asteroids to wipe us out — have been predicting the end of the world practically since humans have existed on the planet.

Some contemporaries of Jesus interpreted his words as written in Matthew 16:28 (“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”) and in Matthew 24:33-34 (“So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”) as a prediction of the world’s imminent demise then, and religious people have been predicting specific dates ever since, despite Jesus’s assurance immediately following (Matthew 24:36) that ” of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Perhaps the “the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult” was founded around 156 AD and lasted for several centuries even though Jesus didn’t show up. Some thought the world would end 6000 years after it was created, or no later than 500 A.D.  There were “end dates” during the 800s, 900s, and every century thereafter, dozens and dozens of them. New England preacher and witch hunter Cotton Mather predicted it would end three times (1697, 1617, and 1736), Christian preacher Harold Camping has predicted “Judgment Day” on May 21, 2011, and again in 1994, and they’re not alone in their serial predictions.

Some people still interpret the books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Bible to be apocalyptic prediction, with a heavy focus on events in Israel seen as ushering in the end times.

(Lists of predictions are available online for those interested, via Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events and Chris Nelson’s rather more detailed A Brief History of the Apocalypse.)

THE FEARS and THEORIES

Many people, families and small groups now  (religious and not) are quietly planning for a cataclysmic end to life — either globally, nationally, or regionally — as we know it. There are so many ways we imagine we could go! To name just a few:

  • the consequences of climate change, ranging from scarcity of water, food and oil to a new ice age or extreme flooding caused by glaciers melting;
  • government attack on gun owners or on non-Christians, or conversely, an armed citizen insurrection against the government;
  • a terrorist act or series of them, involving nuclear or chemical warfare;
  • widespread natural disaster like an asteroid hitting, or a super volcano, or a massive earthquake or shift in tectonic plates;
  • widespread public health disaster such as antibiotic-resistant infection or highly contagious and lethal disease;
  • technological (or Congressional?) disaster that could freeze the flow of money and keep us from accessing bank accounts, causing worldwide panic;
  • the planet Nibiru could enter our solar system and become a second sun;
  • the magnetic poles could shift again

And the list goes on. The Telegraph, in its Dec. 2010 article, “Armageddon in 2012? The truth behind the doomsday theories,” listed and rated some of the most popular doomsday theories.

We recognise the dangers of being mortal and of living on Earth, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for threats. Even those of us who don’t do much to prepare may feel perennially anxious in the shadow of a cataclysmically disastrous future.

As a recent CNN article noted, there are a number of popular TV shows about preparing for the end, including Doomsday Preppers (a reality show, on National Geographic Channel), Falling Skies (fiction, TNT), Revolution (fiction, NBC), and The Walking Dead (AMC, fiction about the zombie apocalypse). The article also reminds us of the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are based on the dispensationalist idea of a rapture, or the Second Coming, and the years of tribulation on earth afterward. Post-apocalyptic fiction and tales of werewolves, zombies and vampires abound. Disaster movies have been popular for many decades, from the first apocalyptic film in 1916, The End of the World.

JUST AMERICANS?

Of course, some think it’s just Americans who are obsessed with doomsday prophecies. In July 2012, the BBC considered “America’s Fascination with the Apocalypse — “There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But … it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. … [A]ctivists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat” — and in Sept. 2012 at Fordham University in NYC a lecture was held with the title “Apocalypse Now: America’s Fascination with Doomsday and Why It Matters,” with Elaine Pagels, Jim Hoberman, and Andrew Delbanco speaking on the topic. In the BBC piece, author Matthew Barrett Gross (The Last Myth) calls it “an idea that unites all Americans” and says it has “played a central role in the American story since the very beginning.” Apparently there are 3 million “preppers” in America, preparing and stockpiling for an apocalyptic future.

EXPLANATIONS

Scientific American also covered the phenomenon this month in a collection of  articles, essays and blog posts (originally published from 2009-2012) on its website and devoted a print issue to it, with the headline “the end. or is it?,” in Sept. 2010, including Michael Moyer’s “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which suggests that “[t]he impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature … It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points.”

That CNN article I referred to earlier, and many other sites online, offer a number of other explanations for our obsession with the end of the world, despite the fact that “apocalyptic prophecy behavior is puzzling at first glance because people tend to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.” They boiled down to a few main ideas:

  • Apocalyptic tales give us a safe theatre to explore death and the unknown, as they “embed a tale of fantasy into reality.” This might be called counterphobia, “the idea that we pursue what we are most afraid of in an attempt and effort to control anxiety over it. I think at some level, the fascination with the end of the world – whether a book or in movie form – gives us a way to control the uncontrollable, to master anxiety over death which is inescapable. For that reason, it provides us with a degree of comfort,” says psychologist Lawrence Rubin, quoted in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson.  Richard Beck discourses on length and with great insight on this idea in his series of posts The Theology of Monsters, including “Monsters, Horror & Death.” More on this below.
  • Related to and deriving from the first but diverging slightly: Apocalyptic scenarios and predictions give us a sense of greater control, not just over death-anxiety but by offering an opportunity to reimagine and remake our world, to change our lives, to become more self-reliant, to feel we can control and co-create our future and mold it so that we feel we are not victims but survivors. In this last — seeing selves as survivors rather than victims — it’s still very similar to the first idea, that we can face (the possibility of) our own death and yet live. We can expect the end of the world and prepare ourselves so well for it that we survive it. And it’s similar to the last idea (below), that our lives feel humdrum, so we long to shake them up by imagining — with that delicious frisson of terror we experience when watching horror movies or telling ghost stories — the unimaginable. But there is also a New Year’s resolution feel about this explanation, a belief and feeling that we can co-create a new and improved world, that whatever comes may be better. In a way, that’s still a strategy for reducing death anxiety (like a belief in a happy afterlife), by means of imbuing us with a sense of renewal and even hope.
  • Another explanation is that these doomsday scenarios allow us to rise above our petty differences of gender, colour, race, creed, class, etc., and cooperate for the good of all against a powerful adversary. (Rubin, again, in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson). It’s a narrative that captures our sense of the heroism of humanity. We feel good about ourselves because we are in the struggle together, making communal and noble sacrifices against a common enemy.
  • Finally, for some, these stories may offer a way out of despair or simply the boredom of a humdrum, unsatisfying life: “[T]hose who hope the world will end [may] need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.  ‘There’s a lot of benefit that may come for some if the world ends, unfortunately, and some people look forward to that.'” (CNN) And along the same lines, we like to imagine the world ending on our watch (as people also did in ancient times and ever since) because it enhances or validates our sense of being a key part of something absolutely monumental: “We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet — with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. … Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.” Cracked magazine (go-to source for this sort of thing, right?) says it this way:

As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn’t appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things.

Not only do we feel part of something incredible, but imagining THE END — whether of our own life or of everyone’s life all at once — boosts our appreciation for what we have in the here and now.

ONE EXPLANATION TO RULE THEM ALL

I said before that these explanations boil down to a few main themes, but really I think there is only one underlying theme: Seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. And what we most can’t control, and what everything else we can’t control hints at, is our own death and the death of those we love. We want to be survivors, but history and medicine tell us that we won’t be, if surviving means that our hearts keep on beating. Most of us won’t even be remembered beyond a generation or two.

We want to be the heroes of our own stories — noble, good and strong — but in the end we will be bones, ashes, compost (if we’re not locked inside titanium vaults).

DEATH, DEATH, DEATH

In the past, and in less developed countries now, people have been more in touch with death, because it was ordinary. It happened in the home, it happened often, it happened accompanied by a lot of pain and undeniable suffering. People feared it but they were also conscious of it.

Now, in modern times and places, we still fear death and dying, even though we rarely see it first-hand, in our homes, in the streets, every day. Still, the absolute threat of death is just as prevalent as ever — we are all still going to die — but now we are much more able to repress the thought of death from our conscious minds. Most of us don’t smell its stench. We rarely see it and when we do, it’s often in antiseptic hospitals, or on a mediated screen.

Beck’s post on Monsters and Death, mentioned above, addresses this:

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era ‘the pornography of death.‘ That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

He sees the Industrial Revolution, which changed the way we got food from killing and processing it in our yards (“Farm children lived with death on a daily basis”) to buying nuggets that look nothing like a chicken (“Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression”) as one thing that distanced us from death, and the other is of course the modern hospital: “Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.” Now we have a funeral industry and we’ve moved corpses out of our back yards and into memorial gardens.

In short, “In modern America [and elsewhere], one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.”

DEATH REPRESSION

The ways most of us do come in contact with death are precisely through our imaginations (as humans have always done — including when we lived daily with actual, ubiquitous death — through “grimm” fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, doomsday books, art imagery, and so on) and now also through the media, which present us with stories, photos and videos of plane crashes, natural disasters, terrifying encounters with sharks and grizzlies, mass shootings, tragic highway deaths, acts of terrorism and war, etc. We also have extremely violent and popular video games where people kill and are killed over and over.

I think the glimpses of death we get through the media, even through those video games, only serve to keep death safely in the unconscious realm. We think if we rehearse it, if we acknowledge its existence in fantasy, in the lives of other people in other circumstances than ours, that we will somehow defeat it. But we don’t. And we won’t.

THE SACRED CENTRE

I said earlier that I think that apocalypse-speculation all boils down to one explanation, which is seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. I’ve explained how I think that motivation underlies our urge to explore death in a “safe” space (far away, in imagination, non-immediately) and our preparations and affirmations that lead us to believe we are survivors and not victims; and I think that the same explanation also underlies the satisfyingly noble feeling we have when we feel we’re cooperating together, rising above our differences, against a common enemy (aliens, comet, germs, NRA, government, terrorists, etc.) as well as how special we feel to be part of something extraordinary. Whether religious, atheistic, pagan or other, we humans seem to want a “sacred centre” to give our lives meaning, to give us a feeling of transcendence, goodness, unanimity in righteousness. To give us identity.

As always, I feel James Alison explored and expressed the psychology of the “sacred centre” and the unanimity, grief and fear attendant with it — all of which are important to us when speculating on all things ending — in his talk on contemplation in a world of violence, after 9/11. I’m quoting at length because I think his insights are complex, deep, and widely applicable:

I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by ‘satanic’ I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence.

“[I]mmediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.  … And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. …

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like ‘to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.’ …”And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.“What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic.  … A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.

“When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. … [W]e no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it.

I think speculation about the end of the world enables us to explore death from a safe vantage point, to prepare for it “if” it comes, and mostly, to feel better about our humdrum existence, to feel we are part of “something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.”

UNCOVERING and DE-SACRALIZING

Alison goes on in his remarks to offer another alternative:

We are given a very specific and very commanding example of the divine regard: it teaches us to look away, not to be ensnared, to de-sacralize. It is the very reverse of apocalyptic.” … We are tempted to imagine that suicide planes, collapsing buildings, increased security, the unanimity of the rich and powerful, and of course, bombs and more bombs and more bombs, are signs of power. Are creative of a new world order. … But what Jesus suggests is that all that power is a dangerous illusion. His talk is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things, weaning us off our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all englobing.

In short, Alison says that fascination with the sacred centre is “a distraction, dangerous to us, but of no consequence to God, a distraction from the real coming into being of an entirely gratuitous, peaceful, creative meaning, and one in which we are invited to be involved.”

For myself, I think the “apocalypse” is ongoing, every day. It’s, literally, the uncovering, the unveiling, the revelation of a world that we can be part of all the time, when we notice that the sacred centre and its attendant grief and drama is a lie; when we resist the temptation of feeling morally good and right, either because of what we do or what we believe, and instead let that go entirely so we can receive what’s freely given; when we look through the illusion of meaning, identity and security that’s gained through violence, unanimity, and sacrifice; when we stop locating evil in others, justifying our own violence, and making distinctions between good and bad violence. When we stop looking for the end of the world as we know it … and just live it.

As Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The Lives of the People

I read two essays yesterday that reminded me how differently we live our lives (as if Facebook weren’t reminder enough!). Of course, the variety of viable choices available to different people can differ wildly depending on when and where we’re born and how we’re raised; and while I don’t think we necessarily have as much choice about what actions we take and even what attitude to adopt as we sometimes think we do, yet I think that each person has some choice in these matters, and a life is shaped by these small and large choices.

* * * * * * * *

The first piece I read was an essay about “opting out of the national religion” of the U.S., i.e., shopping, which described a bit of Kathy Kelly’s life and accomplishments before offering her suggestion that Americans might stop our devotion to buying things for a bit and instead focus our undistracted energy and attention on the poor around the world, “especially those who are stuck in warzones.”

Kathy Kelly

is a three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and lives a fascinating life. She is an advocate of nonviolence on a global scale and has been arrested more than 60 times in the US and abroad for nonviolent protests. Kathy has traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq more than 26 times, remaining in dangerous combat zones during US led military strikes. She risked her life by going to Baghdad during the United State’s infamous ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign. … Just a few hours after our interview, Kathy flew to Kabul, Afghanistan, to meet with young Afghans about building peace in their country.

* * * * * * * *

Very soon after reading about Kelly, I read the obituary for the boxer, Héctor “Macho” Camacho, who was gunned down in a car in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at age 50. His friend Adrian Mojica Moreno was also killed. There were nine bags of cocaine in Moreno’s pockets, plus a 10th bag open in the car.

Camacho, a boxing champion in three weight classes, was flamboyant:

He was known for his hairdo, which featured a spit curl over his forehead; his clownish antics at news conferences; his brashness and wit, especially whenever a reporter with a pad or a microphone was around; and his dazzling outfits. He variously entered the ring in a diaper, a Roman gladiator’s outfit, a dress, an American Indian costume complete with headdress, a loincloth and a black fox fur robe with his nickname, Macho, stitched across the back in white mink.

He was also

a brawler, a serial shoplifter, an admitted drug user and a car thief …. He was arrested numerous times on charges including [car theft], domestic abuse, possession of a controlled substance, burglary and trying to take an M-16 rifle through customs. This year he turned himself in after a warrant charged him with beating one of his sons. A trial was pending at his death.

I notice a couple of similarities in the lives of Kelly and Camacho, even within these very cursory accounts: both were arrested over and over again, and both to some extent chose dangerous vocations, in the midst of violence.

I can’t help but think of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

More on Kelly and Camacho at Wikipedia.

From The Beginner’s Goodbye

Anne Tyler’s latest is The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012), a short novel set in Baltimore, as usual. It’s a story of grief, ghosts, family, and negotiating relationships.

Two bits I really liked:

That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

I can so imagine that.

And this one is just like me!:

I tried that number, and this time I reached an actual human being. ‘Hell-o,’ a man said, too loudly.

‘Bryan Brothers?’

‘Yep.’

‘Gil Bryan?’

‘Nope.’

‘But you have a Gil Bryan?’

‘Yep.’

‘Could I speak to him, please?’

‘He’s out.’

‘Could I leave a message?’

‘Let me give you his cell.’

I wrote the number down, but I didn’t try it right away. The conversation with the first guy had worn me out.