Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Lure of Magic in Popeye's Spinach

I remember, when I was eight or nine, watching Popeye cartoons on TV and being utterly captivated by Popeye’s relationship to spinach. Every time he got into a fight with the brutish and bullying Bluto, and was getting the shit kicked out of him, he would produce a can of already opened spinach, gulp it down, and in seconds acquire preternatural power and thrash Bluto into submission. The spinach clearly possessed magical powers. But the spinach my mother put on my plate did not have the same effect. There seemed to be a crucial difference between cartoon spinach and actual spinach. I did get the idea: spinach is good for you. But I didn’t like spinach, it tasted quite awful, and it didn’t affect me the way it affected Popeye.

Popeye’s spinach taught me some valuable lessons. One was that life as it is imagined is far better than life as it is actually lived. You achieve your desires in cartoons and fantasy. The good guys always win in cartoons and fantasy. You do not achieve your desires in real life, at least not always, and not without a great deal of effort, shrewd strategy, persistence, and sometimes a little cunning, if not downright dishonesty, and the good guys do not always win. Nevertheless, I never stopped searching for the real life equivalent of Popeye’s spinach. The whole idea of fantasy is to goad you into a quest for higher understanding and redeem life’s shortcomings with illuminations of what might be a higher reality.

Popeye’s spinach wasn’t food. Not really. We all know what happens when we eat food. Very little. We satisfy our hunger, which is nice, it’s a form of immediate gratification and immediate gratification is wonderful, I’m all for it, but we don’t burst into powerhouses of illimitable force and preternatural ability. We converse, daub our mouths with napkins, have another sip of wine, pay the check, do the dishes, resume a normal life. Until, a few hours later, we get hungry again.

We also satisfy nutritional needs, which is boring, which is like getting socks for Christmas, but that’s why we eat. That’s the whole general point of putting food into your mouth and chewing it. It turns into glucose and protein and fuels your normal functioning. In other words, it’s what keeps us alive. But that’s not why some of us prefer hamburgers to broccoli, or Perigord truffles to potato chips. Nutritional rewards are not on my mind when I sit down to a bowl of ice cream.

Popeye’s spinach, it occurred to me when I got a bit older and began experimenting with drugs, was more like a drug than a food. The whole division between what constitutes a food and what constitutes a drug remains a little hazy to me. This fuss over doping in the Tour de France, for instance, confuses me. What’s wrong with enhancing your athletic ability with anabolic steroids, Tetrahydrogestrinone or Modafinil?

According to Gary Wenk, a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, “In truth, anything you take into your body should be considered a drug, whether it’s obviously nutritious or not. As you will see, even molecules that are clearly nutritious (such as essential amino acids like lysine and tryptophan—available in bulk at your nearest grocery store) exhibit properties that many of us would attribute to a drug.”

Imagine, then, if a Tour de France bicyclist were busted for eating a steak the night before hitting the pedals on the next stage of the competition, or if yogurt or broccoli were considered a form of doping, not to mention Popeye's preternatural spinach.

Ingesting anything into your body with the anticipation of a happily empowering event smacks of magic. One thinks of manna, love potions, magical elixirs.

Magical elixirs function as a form of divine intervention, transforming a feeble mortal being into a being of tremendous power and godlike ability. One of the more renowned is The Philospher’s Stone of medieval alchemy. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

The stone, also referred to as the "tincture," or the "powder" (Greek xerion, which passed through Latin into Arabic as elixir), was allied to an elixir of life, believed by alchemists to be a liquid derived from it. Inasmuch as alchemy was concerned not only with the search for a method of upgrading less valuable metals but also of perfecting the human soul, the philosopher's stone was thought to cure illnesses, prolong life, and bring about spiritual revitalization. The philosopher's stone, described variously, was sometimes said to be a common substance, found everywhere but unrecognized and unappreciated.

The magical elixir I’ve been experimenting with lately is called Iskiate, and is a concoction of chia seeds and fruit juice popular among the Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico. Chia seeds are presumed to enhance running endurance. If they do, the effect isn’t working on me. I took some today and they did nothing to enhance my performance, which was miserable. I was unable to complete three miles. They seemed to help when I first began taking them, several weeks ago, but that, I believe, was the placebo effect. I believed they were helping, and so they helped. I continued to believe they were helping today, too, but they didn’t. The placebo bubble has burst.

It occurs to me that I am misconstruing the message of the Popeye cartoons concerning spinach. Popeye ingests it, to be sure, pouring the leafage into his gullet with robust cartoon glee. But the essence of the spinach is its distaste.

There is a cartoon in which Olive Oyl takes Popeye’s four nephews to Popeye’s restaurant - specializing exclusively in spinach, of course - where Popeye works as chef, clucking cheerfully at his grill behind a counter as his nephews, all identical in age and size, plunk their little bodies down on four stools. Popeye prepares to make them some spinach, and they vigorously object. They loudly demonstrate their preference for Wimpy’s Hamburger Haven, across the street. They want nothing to do with spinach. Popeye regales them with two stories in which he triumphed over Bluto thanks to the magical properties of spinach. The four nephews, finally convinced that they will benefit from eating spinach, eat it up and burst into energy, overpowering Popeye and Olive Oyl and wrapping them up in an anchor and running across the street to enjoy hamburgers.

The magic property of the spinach is due, in part, to overcoming one’s dislike of its flavor and ingesting it for its virtue. The implication is clear: one must master one’s superficial pleasure seeking in order to arrive at the true beneficial property nature has craftily hidden in uninviting vegetables such as spinach.

But why does Popeye have such anatomically strange arms? That puzzled me, too, as a kid. Those skinny little biceps culminating in enormous forearms.

Or the ever-present pipe. That can’t be healthy.

Pipe and forearms aside, Popeye has a had a long and illustrious career, appearing in comic books, television cartoons, arcade and video games, hundreds of advertisements, coffee mugs, action figures, and boxer shorts, and will enter the public domain in 2025.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Teotwawki Blues

Last week I discovered a new word: teotwawki. It’s an acroynym, reputedly coined by Mike Medintz, that stands for “The End Of The World As We Know It.”

It’s a creepy word. Pronounced “Tee-ought-walk-ee,” it sounds like the name of some horrific night-walking monster, a gooey humanoid that eats old ladies and babies.

I stumbled upon this word in, of all places, an article published in the July, 2012 issue of Le Monde diplomatique titled “Les casaniers de l’apocalypse,” by Denis Duclos. “Casanier” translates into “homebody.” That would definitely be me. Except for my running, which is the one thing to motivate me to get outside for longer than an hour or two, I’m an inveterate, unapologetic homebody. Call me a sissy, call me a slacker, call me a couch potato, but the one thing I truly enjoy in life is lying on the couch reading a book of high aesthetic intent, say Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the novel about the eccentric, reclusive aesthete Jean Des Esseintes, a man with highly refined tastes and a loathing of the newly industrialized mess of late nineteenth-century Europe that became the infinitely more industrialized mess of today. Here’s a guy I totally relate to, a guy who loves nothing more than to lay about amid sumptuous folds of Florentine damask, exotic perfumes, pitchpine parquet and ebony bookcases reading texts such as Baudelaire’s prose poem “Anywhere Out Of This World.”

But this is not what is meant by “casanier” within the foreboding context of teotwawki. The term here refers to a group of diehard Christian citizens here in the good old U.S. of A. intent on surviving the end of the world by means of their own resourcefulness, stubbornness, and willingness to do just about anything to stay alive. They call themselves “preppers,”” after “preparedness,” and their numbers have grown to include followers in other parts of the world as well. Not all may be Christian, and Christianity may not be a requisite condition for a level of preparedness of this magnitude, but it seems to be a part of the culture, a major flavoring agent if not a vital ingredient. The “stay-at-home” aspect refers to their profound distrust of any government agency coming forward during a time of crisis to help and support their communities. And, after what was witnessed in New Orleans following Katrina, who can blame them?

There is a whole slew of publications available in print and online, but one of the more popular venues is a website called, which abounds in helpful advice and information about what to do when civilization comes to an end and money don’t mean squat. When breakfast means having to go out, as did our remote ancestors, and hunt something down, or gather something up, or fish something out of the local waterhole.

Did you know, for example, that if you put out a salt lick, you can attract game from miles around? Elk, deer, caribou, whatever quadrupeds might still be living and grazing on the barren hills of our post-apocalyptic world. Turns out these animals go bonkers for salt links and will travel hundreds of miles for a lick or two. Such a strategy would cut down on one's hunting time considerably.

I couldn’t help think of Chris McCandless, whose efforts to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness turned tragic. I remember the gut-wrenching scene in the movie about him where he stands on a small gravel island in the middle of a river with his puny 22 caliber hunting rifle and shouts at the top of his voice “where are all the animals at? I’m fucking hungry! I’m fucking hungry!” If he’d put out a salt lick nearby, he would have had herds to pick and choose from. But this was not the point of the movie. We know at the outset that McCandless does not survive his adventure. The undercurrent of the movie was an object lesson in the arrogance of ignorance. McCandless refused to do the necessary research. He went off half-cocked in his quixotic search for independence. His ambitions were noble and wonderfully transcendent, and he was a good kid, the kind of guy I would have enjoyed being around, his affability and kindness were well demonstrated in the movie, as was a certain precocious wisdom, he was sage-like and uncanny when it came to insights into humanity and leading a meaningful, joyful life, but his approach to living in the wild was sloppy and tragically naïve. One can easily imagine the preppers shaking their heads with knowing sadness while watching this movie.

The preppers do not have a specific date in mind for the end of the world. They just know it’s coming. And, frankly, I’m with them on that. I can’t escape the feeling I’ve had for at least the last decade that the world is ending. When you factor in climate change (or “climate weirding,” as one prepper terms it), the exhaustion of resources, the collapse of the global banking system and the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust, to name just a few potential agents of destruction, you can’t help reach the conclusion that we’re pretty much fucked. A mere trip to the bank or grocery store reveals a population in distress. The rudeness, the deadness in people’s eyes, the weird pagan fetishes with tattoos and body art, the epic statistics of drug abuse and child prostitution, the naked brutality of the militarized police forces everywhere in the world, the breathtaking cruelty of greedy tyrants such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or the baffling denial among liberals over the open criminality of the Obama administration, potholes in city streets big as lunar craters, bridges on the verge of collapse, children’s imaginations numbed and killed with testing for technocratic corporate cubicles à la Dilbert, I could go on and on. One might conclude that it’s already here. The world has ended.

Except that it hasn’t. Every morning I want to say a prayer of gratitude to the powers that be that I still enjoy the luxuries of a flush toilet, running water, and electricity. Food in the refrigerator. Food that I don’t have to kill. Food that I don’t have to grow. Food that I don’t have to spend hours processing so that I don’t die of a bacterial flesh-eating disease. Gratitude for drinking water that is clean enough to drink without boiling it first or dissolving iodine tablets in it. Good clean sparkling water that doesn’t puts me at risk for dysentery or cholera or worms crawling out of my eyes. It all seems like some fabulous miracle. How is it possible that the same population of people among whom I see so much discourtesy and hostility and despair are able to work together with sufficient competency as to produce electricity or maintain a degree of potable water? Albeit, this is not entirely the case in places such as West Virginia or Pennsylvania where flames come out of the tap instead of water because of the local frakking.

Honesty compels me to include my computer in this amalgam of tribute, and I do confess that I am not a little grateful for this device which allows me to dispense this information and numerate my anxieties and griefs, grateful for the oceanic abundance and access it provides to information and contacts and connections on a global scale, but I must also add this gratitude is qualified by more than a little ambivalence. Computers require resources that put a heavy demand on our fragile ecology and provide a vehicle for unscrupulous bankers and investors to undermine what is left of a teetering economy with a frenzy of algorithmic trading. Algorithms that will one day swallow the world.

But fraudulent trading and technocratic complexities aside, this is not what troubles Duclos.

What worries Duclos in his article is the tendency toward isolationism among preppers, their polarizing attitude toward the prepared and the unprepared, and the assumption that they will have to take up arms to defend themselves against malefactors rabid with hunger. The “us” against “them” attitude. Infidel versus faithful. Pious versus impious. Prepared against unprepared. There is the implicit idea that those of Christian faith will be morally superior and thus in a better position to survive. It is a vision of darkness and brutality such as was dramatized in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. McCarthy did not, however, include any religious views in his book. He does suggest that the hero, who is nameless, has been able to retain his humanity, and that this is not lost on his son.

The fear of others is, according to Duclos, a theme common among preppers. It is a bunker mentality. Their post-apocalyptic vision is dark and simple: hunker down with your rifle and protect your family and cache of food. One is immediately reminded of those Cowboy and Indian movies of the 50s in which the pioneer family struggled constantly against the threat of savage Indians. Perceived from the point of view of Crazy Horse, however, it was the civilized way of the plains tribes that were decimated by the aggressions and greed of the white pioneers and miners of the Black Hills, and who appeared so mentally unstable and diseased in the eyes of the plains tribes as to be unworthy of battle.

Duclos also faults the preppers for not giving any hope or discussion to the possibility of doing something now to survive after capitalism goes bust. Why not discuss other forms of exchange or barter with a view toward maintaining some of the benefits we may continue to enjoy? The preppers are not averse to commerce. Not by a long shot. They’re not at all in the same camp as Thoreau, trying to figure out how to live simply because it is beautiful and lovely and philosophical to live simply, because leisure is where it’s at, leisure for thought, and dreaming, and loafing, the way God intended, and not go crazy with products, and industry, and working ourselves silly. Working ourselves until our eyes go dead with routine and our hands grow stiff and gnarled with arthritis and our neglected children hate us and at night when we go to bed we can’t think of a single good reason to get up in the morning other than the mindless imperative of getting up in the morning. What’s the point of that? Isn’t that mindless need to get more and more and more what led to our demise in the first place?

Duclos points out that the mania for survival products is, not surprisingly, a growth industry. Available for purchase are all sorts of survival gear and de rigueur: camouflage field jackets, ammunition clip pouches, knives, gloves, stoves, water purification tablets, portable defibrillators, pressure canners, meat grinders, and a broad assortment of guns. Basically, the kind of stuff you’d be delighted to find under the Christmas tree just before the world-as-you-know-it-ends.

As for me, I’m a cross-the-bridge-when-you-come-to-it kind of guy. Meaning, I’m one of the unprepared. But hey, who knows? Maybe the prepared will want to hear some poetry at night around the crackle of the fire when all the children have been put to bed and there is little else to do but exchange stories and gaze at the stars.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hieronymus Bosch and the Facebook Cop

I printed two addresses for two books I took to the post office to mail several days ago, which left me with a nearly full sheet of paper that I had folded to put into the breast pocket of my shirt. I didn’t want to just toss it so I decided to write everything I did within the course of one day, limiting myself to that one sheet of paper. I jotted down an event or detail in as few words as possible, then embellished a little when I recomposed it on the computer.

6:05 a.m. Get up. Make coffee. Eat four Fig Newtons. Feed the cat.

6:15 a.m.. I pour some coffee into my favorite Beatles mug and sit down at the computer. Toby gets on my lap and purrs and slobbers. I start downloading La Pensée et le Mouvant: Introduction à la Métaphysique by Henri Bergson from the Littérature Audio site. Meanwhile, I read two sections from Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, which is in actual book form, but using the online Larousse dictionnaire because it has an audio feature whereby I can hear not just the pronunciation of the individual word but a number of sample sentences in which it is used. It is things like this that make me less of a Luddite.

A video to the right of the screen catches my eye. A woman is lying in bed and some prank is about to be played on her. My curiosity gets the better of me and I turn it on. A young man has rigged a small bag of water to some plastic tubing which he pulls through the zipper of his pants. He stands by the bed and squirts water onto the face of his girlfriend who is sleeping in the bed. She awakes and sees what is happening and is furious. She goes into a rage. He removes the tubing from his pants to show her it was just a prank. She calms down and tells him she was going to cut his dick off. I don’t think this relationship has much of a future.

7:30 a.m. I make breakfast, which consists of a slice of bread with a neat hole in it which I place in a frying pan with some melted butter. I break an egg and pour the contents into the hole in the bread. It’s something I learned from the movie V for Vendetta. There is a scene in which V (Hugo Weaving) cooks Evey (Natalie Portman) this breakfast in his underground lair, flipping the egg with his burned, gloveless hand, and another in which Dietrich (Stephen Fry) makes Evey the same breakfast in his luxury apartment. I discovered how to make this breakfast, which is embarrassingly easy, on the Internet. It’s amazingly good.

I watch Le Journal de TV5 Monde while eating my breakfast. There is a story about the announcement by Switzerland’s Institute of Radiation Physics of elevated traces of a radioactive agent, polonium-210, on the clothing and personal items belonging to Yassir Arafat before his death in November, 2004, at a French military hospital, Lance Armstrong’s doping charges, the hactivist group Anonymous going after pedophiles, and a stage act by some guy who crawls around on the walls of a small box-like room, whose one side is open to view, creating the impression of antigravity.

9:30 a.m. I walk down the hill to Café Vita to meet James, a friend I've known for about twenty years who writes poetry. I have invited him to read poetry with me at the Seattle Center on July 30th at 3:00 p.m. as part of the Jackstraw Pocket Concerts/Unexpected Arts series, where poets and musicians appear at different places on the fairgounds to present their work. I went to meet him last Monday, but I confused the name of Café Vita with another local coffeehouse called Café Ladro, which is where I misled James. I notice one of the customers from that Monday, a squat, full-bodied man with a completely bald head. He is a dead ringer for La Boule, the man on the French game show Fort Boyard who bangs the gong to indicate the start and end of time and locks the contestants in cages when they fail to get out of the rooms in which they attempt some feat, such as slide handcuffs over and around a maze of pipes and valves in order to get a key which will be used to open the door to the Treasure Room later in the program. The challenge is timed by a blue fluid in an hourglass, or clepsydra, as they refer to it on the show.

James and I have a nice visit. I get back home at about 11:30 and decide to go for a run a little earlier than usual. It’s really nice outside and I figure that if I do my run early, I can take the lamp in for repair while Robert goes for a run when she gets home from work. I pour a tablespoon of chia seeds into a glass and pour some orange juice over them and wait for the mixture to turn gelatinous. The chia sees help give strength and stamina for a run. The concoction , called Iskiate, was discovered by the long distance runners of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico, who are capable of running phenomenal distances in the rugged canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental, wearing sandals of woven leather called huaraches, and white wizard capes. I learned about all this in Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run.

I kill time on Facebook while waiting for the chia seeds to gelatinize. I listen to a video posted by Noah Eli Gordon. Jacque Derrida explains what he calls the American attitude behind questions goading him to embellish a point or answer a difficult question on the spot. He identifies this tendency as utilitarian and manipulative, as if people, experts especially, were some form of vending machine. I watch another disturbing video posted by Vernon Frazer of a Rhode Island police officer, Edward Krawetz, who was caught on video kicking Donna Levesque in the head after she had been handcuffed and was sitting on the curb barefoot. He claimed it was done in self-defense because she kicked him. I saw her leg fling out at him, but I didn’t see her foot make contact. And if it did, so what? The woman was barefoot. Krawetz received a ten-year suspension. I signed a petition requesting he never work as a cop again. And, as always, I feel foolish. These online petitions never seem to make any difference.

I go for my run. I wonder about the decorative arches of aluminum tubing some construction crew is putting over the parking lot of the old Queen Anne High School gymnasium. I vividly remember climbing a rope at age 14 in that building. I also see a woman spray painting a birdbath. I hear that klunkety klunkety metallic sound those cans make and look across the street to see a squat, elderly woman with gray hair spraying the birdbath, which appears to be stone. My legs are really sore after the five mile run I did the day before with Roberta through Myrtle Edwards Park by Puget Sound. I only do three miles.

I get home and take a shower, during which Roberta comes home. I tell her about my plans to take the lamp in for repair. She decides to come with me. The lamp is a Tiffany lamp we bought from Harold’s Lamps and Shades for a couple hundred bucks. There are two pull-chains for turning one of two bulbs on or off. Last night, just before I bed, as I pulled the chain to turn out the lamp, the chain stuck. I remove the Tiffany shade, unplug the lamp, wrap the cord around the base and put it in the backseat of the car. We encounter a brief gridlock on Mercer (surprising for this early in the day), and park across the street from Harold’s Lamps and Shades. I carry the lamp in and hand it to a young man who takes it in the back. We ponder a lamp that consists of little glass bubbles. The man returns. The lamp is fixed. He cautions us about screwing the light bulb in too firmly, as it abuts the pull mechanism or something. We bring it back to the car and head home. We get stuck in traffic again. It’s hot. A wasp flies into the car through my window, then out through the window on Roberta’s side. The city is doing some minor roadwork near the entrance to Aurora on 45th Street, channeling two lanes into one, at an exceptionally busy intersection. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes for a Seattle traffic light to change. You can raise a family and earn a Ph.D before it turns green. Then it takes another full five minutes for the color green to penetrate the brain cells of the driver in front of you, and another five minutes for that driver to remember what the color green indicates: go.

On the Aurora bridge, we get stuck behind a Brinks armored car putting out a thick black stinking stream of smoke from its exhaust. I’m surprised people aren’t passing out from the fumes they’re so strong. As soon as there’s an opening, I pass the armored car to the right.

Home again, Roberta goes for a run and I watch Le Journal de France 2, followed by a French “magazine d’investigation” called Cash Investigation about disease-mongering, how pharmaceutical companies collude with doctors to fabricate fictitious diseases in order to make more money, increase the number of patients and sell drugs the companies have developed. One poor woman suffers horribly from a medication called Fosamax, prescribed for osteoporosis, which causes a severe case of jaw necrosis, from which the woman eventually dies.

We watch Volcano, with Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche and Don Cheadle. This is, I think, the third time we’ve seen this movie. It’s not a great movie, but it’s fun to watch, and there are some good lines. There’s a scene that has eluded me before I found quite interesting this time around: some men are removing some paintings by Hieronymus Bosch from a nearby art museum while water boils at the Le Brea tar pits and lava bombs explode everywhere. God, this Hieronymus Bosch is heavy, says one of the men. Another man answers: that’s cause he deals with man’s inclination to do bad things, in defiance of God’s will.

After the movie, I finish reading Leslie Scalapino’s collection of essays How Phenomena Appear To Unfold while Roberta reads It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Work by Women Artists & Writers at her table in front of the living room window, where, a little later, she sees a blue balloon drift by.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Seattle's New Ferris Wheel

Roberta and I enjoyed some burgers and onion rings at Red Robin then walked a few yards over to Pier 57 to ride the new Ferris Wheel. I brought a book, figuring we’d be in line for a half hour at least, but surprisingly it took less than 15 minutes to buy our tickets and board one of 42 gondolas. We shared a gondola with a mother and her two daughters, aged eight and (I’m guessing) four. There was also a young man in his early 30s who appeared to be from India or Pakistan. The doors closed, and our gondola lifted from the ground. The ride is amazingly smooth. The gondola rocked easily, a little too easily. When you’re 200 feet above the dock and the doors are glass top to bottom giving the impression of nothing whatever being there to prevent you from falling if you lean too far, swaying can be a little unnerving. The mother asked the younger daughter to move still and not rock the gondola, and mentioned taking Dramamine. For the Ferris Wheel? I asked. No, we went sailing earlier in the day, she said. There’s nothing worse than sea sickness I said. Yes there is, said the eight year old. A broken arm is worse than sea sickness. You’re right, I said. It is. We went round a second time. The man from India (or Pakistan) was taking pictures with a little digital camera, moving it around the gondola as if it had a bottomless appetite for scenery and he was doing everything within his power to satiate its need. Cancer, the eight year old suddenly announced. Cancer is worse than a broken arm or broken leg. Either one. You can die from cancer. Yes, I said, you can. Cancer is pretty serious.

We got to go round five times altogether. We stayed at the very top a long time while they emptied the gondolas below. Don’t stand up, said the mother to the four year old. It’s against the law. I mean rule. Oh no. You’re going to be arrested when we get below said the older sister. The four year old held an imaginary cell phone to her head and phoned the chief of police. Don’t arrest me, she said, I’m sitting down.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Crimson and Clover

It’s 2:00 p.m. on a July afternoon. I wonder what John Keats would be doing if he were alive today. Would he still be couch surfing? Sitting in someone’s background composing great poetry? Why is there a single wool glove on the bureau in the bedroom? Where is its mate? The day begins to convulse with inquiry. Images of the external world crash among my ganglion, creating impressions of light and air. My inner world is a reflection of the outer world. I’m sorry if that disappoints you. I wish it could be different. But some things are not within my power. I have hired five expert divers to locate Prospero’s book. Nothing yet. I am reduced to posting silly little pleas for your attention on the computer. There is always the possibility of creating other worlds.  A little paint goes a long way. Just make sure to check you’ve still got your keys. Why are pillows so popular? This is not my concern. The world follows me everywhere. I can’t get rid of it. I’m being stalked by a planet. Maybe it’s time to visit the local bookstore. I want power. One way or another I ‘m going to seize power. I’m not going to do it like a politician and invite a bunch of pricks from Wall Street into the apartment. Here is what I will do. I will burst into magnificent octaves. I’ll go for a drive. I don’t know. I find it hard to make decisions. Meet Pete. My pet mosquito. What makes a hot air balloon rise? A sentence blowing a flame into a void. Four hundred tentacles juggling my heart. The employment of sticks and grommets. A dollop of umber augmenting the spirit of pink. There are numerous phenomena that elude analysis. That elude, even, the inquiring tip of a paring knife. My left pocket, for example, is haunted by the ghost of a dime. It feels acute, and gestural, like an attitude still in the embryonic stage, and so capable of assuming magnitudes of reckless assumption, and becoming something greater than a mere attitude, or mood, but an entire city, a quilt full of monkeys and stars. There is so much life in a rupture, in a sudden dizzying grasp of the subjunctive. And yet there is nothing like the radical present to remind us of our true instincts and power. Suddenly Zukofsky enters the language and I feel subversive. I feel the need to explore movement and character, to recite odes of bright principle, and drop from the sky in a chariot of fire. We delight in our senses, aside from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves, and most of all the sense of sight, which brings to light differences between things. Algebra and handstands. Bluebell and adjutant. Why is it wonderful that the moon is inevitable? I think I’ll go for a run. I love running. Pain alerts the brain that something is happening that may or may not be good for you and that my friend is the essence of love. Let the cows be my witness. And the sky explain its secrets in crimson and clover at the end of the day. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chris Hedges and the Dark Angels of Hedonism

Last Friday night Roberta and I went to hear Chris Hedges give a talk promoting the publication of his most recent book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Not a cheerful title, not a cheerful book. It is coauthored with cartoonist Joe Sacco and chronicles the depredations of the corporate juggernaut. The decimation of West Virginia by mountaintop removal coal mining, the death and decay of Camden, New Jersey, the extreme poverty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Sioux in the badlands of South Dakota and the enslavement of farm workers in Florida are some of the issues covered in this book. He ends with a chapter on the Occupy movement, which was ultimately dismantled by a brutal and militarized police force. The reason behind all this misery is painfully obvious : greed. Unbridled, predatory capitalism. The breakdown of the commons and a cruel, heavily cocooned oligarchical class vampirically sucking the blood out of the lower classes in order to keep their yachts afloat and their fluted crystal full of champagne.

The venue for Hedges’s talk couldn’t be more perfect : Seattle’s Town Hall, which used to be the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, up until 1998, when it was sold to the Town Hall committee. It’s a formidable structure built in the Roman-Revival style, galore with graceful symmetry, high windows and expansive arches. It boasts a stately large portico with six two-story Doric columns, a vaulted ceiling with central dome and an oculus (a circular window or “rain-hole”), Tiffany-style lighting fixtures and two huge stained glass windows at the northern and southern walls of the Great Hall.
I wondered why there were no icons or religious figures in the windows. Christian Scientists, apparently, eschew icons, sculptures, candles, incense and ecclesiastical figures because they distract the mind with spectacle. The Great Hall is furnished with enough pews to seat 900 people, and the pews are cushioned, thankfully, so there is the feeling of being in a church without the actual trappings and ascetic, hardwood seating usually found in a church. This made it all the easier for the venue to be given over to secular purposes, yet the residual ambience of religious piety was still evident.
This is perfect for Hedges, who has a degree in theology from Harvard, and whose father, with whom he was very close and greatly inspired, was a Presbyterian minister. Hedges is religious but his stance toward institutionalized religion is complex and highly nuanced. He is as critical of atheists as he is of the narrowness and intolerance of Christian fundamentalists. He appears in some ways to be a genuinely devout Christian, endorsing actual Christian values of self-sacrifice and showing compassion for the poor, while being openly critical of people who manipulate the Christian religion for personal empowerment and wealth. He is averse to dogma and champions vigorous, open inquiry. He is a fanatic for fact. He is no friend to superstition, or anti-intellectual emotionalism. He does not like spectacle. He encourages reading, deep inner reflection and solitude. 
I have immense respect for Chris Hedges. His analyses of the social and political scene in the U.S. are compelling and lucid and he has put his own body on the line, undergoing arrest in front of Goldman Sachs on a windy, November afternoon with other protestors from the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He is a dauntless and passionate advocate for workers and the voiceless and invisible population of homeless whose numbers and tent cities have been growing incrementally since the financial meltdown of 2007, largely the result of irresponsible and criminal acts of the financial investment sector. He has also battled fiercely against Obama’s onslaught of civil rights, bringing a lawsuit against Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for signing the National Authorization Defense Act which authorizes the military, for the first time in over 200 years, to carry out domestic policing. This includes detaining any U.S. citizen deemed to be a terrorist or an accessory to terrorism for an indefinite period of time and without due process. It is, in Hedge’s words, a catastrophic blow to civil liberties. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled, in a 68-page opinion, that Section 1021 of the NDAA, the part that authorizes military detention, was unconstitutional. This was a stunning and  monumental victory. “The ruling was a huge victory for the protection of free speech,” wrote Hedges for his Truthdig column of May 18, 2012. “Judge Forrest struck down language in the law that she said gave the government the ability to incarcerate people based on what they said or wrote. Maybe the ruling won’t last. Maybe it will be overturned. But we and other Americans are freer today than we were a week ago. And there is something in this.”
There is just one area where Hedges loses me. This has to do with a statement he made in an earlier book, Death of the Liberal Class, in which he stated that it was the hedonism of the Beats that helped nourish the destructive forces of consumerism and the corporate juggernaut. When I first read this I thought maybe it was just an exceptionally smelly brain fart in an otherwise exceptionally well-written book. He did not go into much detail or bolster his argument with deeper thought and research. It is a small point and in the larger scheme of things, neither here nor there. Who really cares? But it bugs me. And during his talk last Friday, he mentioned it again.
Hedges’s misunderstanding of Beat culture is gigantic. I can let that go, because it’s clearly not a philosophy or literary style that he respects. I suspect it’s his Presbyterian background and sensibility that fuels such a severe outlook on the joie de vivre of Beat culture. But it’s way, way off the mark: one of the most defining characteristics of Beat culture is a fierce, indefatigable loathing and hostility toward consumerism. You see it in the work of all the Beats, but its most poignant examples are to be found in Kerouac’s On The Road in which the two main characters, Dean Moriarty and Salvatore “Sal” Paradise, who are the autobiographical names for Neal Cassady and Kerouac himself, forsake conformity to the usual expectations for young men in America of the 1940s in a quest for meaning and a full mad joyful liberation of all the human potential caged in utilitarian values and drab materialism. That’s right: materialism. Let me say that again: materialism. How could Hedges be so infernally wrong about this issue? Has he actually read any Beat literature?  If there was ever a group more vigorously and vociferously against consumerism, it was the Beats. The Hippies, who were the younger version of the Beats, sought an anti-intellectual innocence and tried to remain free of costly amusements, but where the Beats stayed right on course, fighting for ecological values à la Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, and working to liberate human consciousness from a system based on capitalistic aggression and toxic exploitations of human and earthly resources, the Hippies surrendered to capitalism and became people like Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson.
I could pursue this argument much more deeply, but what really goads my interest is the issue of hedonism. What exactly is hedonism? I know that it’s the pursuit of pleasure, but why is Hedges so antagonized by it? Is there truly a direct link between the pursuit of pleasure and consumerism, or is it more complex?
According to Aristotle, as he articulated these issues in his Nicomachean Ethics, pleasure is little else than a fleeting sensation. It has no permanence. It cannot be begun or completed like a house or a boat. People who seek pleasure as the ultimate good are fooling themselves, and become foolish. The highest virtue is to sacrifice one’s time and pleasures for the good of the community. This sounds pretty much like Hedges, who lauds the kind of self-sacrifice in figures such as Father Daniel Berrigan, who, at age 92, and despite numerous previous arrests, continues to protest against war and capitalist aggression.
I can’t help think Aristotle was right. True happiness is to be found in any activity aligned with the highest virtue, which Aristotle identifies as wisdom and contemplation. Contemplation requires the least in terms of possessions and allows the most self-reliance. Mere pleasure is the stuff of children. It is infantile. Only slaves and tyrants wallow in it. I’m not going to take on Aristotle in argument. But I continue to wonder why there has always been this profound distrust toward the pleasure principle in western culture. Isn’t it pleasure that gets us out of bed in the morning? The possibility of sex, romance, euphoria, drugs and alcohol, a delicious breakfast with big slabs of butter and rivers of maple syrup drooling over the edges of pancakes that motivates us to pull the covers back and put our feet on the floor and get dressed and go through the all the stifling routines that bring us these rewards?
I believe in virtue. But I also believe, à la Baudelaire, that you can get drunk on virtue.
In other words, virtue, even the most ascetic spiritual discipline, involves pleasure.
Hedonism is the dark angel of our magneto. It is what generates all those delicious alternating currents of selfishness and self-sacrifice. It is what spins us into contrasting hues of decadence and morality. It is what heats our desires and brings us to the cooler waters of contemplation.