Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sic Transit Gloria Equi

What’s wrong with six figures? Nothing at all if we’re talking about a salary offer or an IRA savings account. Something when we’re talking about an odometer. There are six figures on the odometer of my Jeep Cherokee, a vehicle which has served me long and well. Out of the 10 cars and trucks I have owned in my life, it is probably second only to my 1979 Ford F150 (which I shouldn’t have sold, but did, a few years ago) as my favorite. However, the time is rapidly approaching when it needs to retire, or at least be relegated to second car status. New cars are so ridiculously expensive, of course, that car ads hardly ever tell the actual price for fear of scaring customers away; they speak only of monthly payments (with some big initial downpayment in small print). I’m not looking forward to the outlay.

Whatever I end up buying will be nothing extraordinary. I’ve never been a gearhead, lusting after Porches and building hot rods in the garage. I have every respect for those who are – whatever fires your cylinders and all that – but I’m not one of them. Reliable transport for myself, the occasional passenger or two, and some cargo always has been more than enough to satisfy me. To be sure I enjoy the open road. Some of my fondest memories (long before $4 gasoline) are of motoring to the west coast of the US by the southern route and returning the northern, with jigs and jags in between. So too the more modest jaunts since then. But these were in a Ford Maverick and later equivalents, not a Mercedes SLK 350 Roadster. True, I really can’t afford one of those anyway, but, if I could, it still wouldn’t be on my Top Ten list of luxuries to buy.

Given my druthers, I’d pass on a car altogether. In my opinion, the highest form of transport is the horse. It took surprisingly long for humans to learn to ride horses. At first ancient peoples seem to have domesticated horses only for the purpose of putting them on menu. They were hitched to wagons sometime around 2300 BC and to war chariots around 1600 BC. Yet, we don’t see evidence of horseback riding per se until more than 500 years later when bits and tack start to show up in the archeological record. Cavalry – not horse-drawn chariots but mounted cavalry – made its appearance in the steppes of Russia around 1000 BC, but wasn’t employed by established empires, such as Assyria, until the 800s BC. This is strange, since, unlike wheeled vehicles which require at least some rudimentary unobstructed road or an open plain, a horse can go anywhere a human can, roads be damned. Nevertheless, once people mounted up, they stayed in their saddles for the next 2900 years.

As long as it took for people to adopt the horse, it took them scarcely any time at all to abandon the animal. In 1900 the horse was the basic personal transport; by 1910 the automobile had replaced it. (In 1900 there was one horse for every three Americans; today there is one per 40, and 90% of the horses are recreational.) Though there was a period of overlap, the automobile also made the roads unsafe for horses. So, for this reason and for more practical ones, my Jeep will be replaced with something that has four wheels, not four hooves. Still, there are times when I’d like to awaken in 1900 with the resources to duplicate my post-college auto trip around the US, but this time on horseback. It would take a year or two instead of a month, but that’s OK too.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Aleister Crowley in 2012

Yes, he’s British. Oh yeah, and he’s dead. Nevertheless, the many voters unhappy with the current roster of major party candidates should be advised that there is a campaign to elect Aleister Crowley as a write-in candidate for President of the United States in 2012. Who knows? Perhaps the old occult master has some tricks up his ectoplasmic sleeve and can pull it off. Or perhaps not.

Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) is one of those characters who keeps cropping up in odd places. Somerset Maugham (a friend of one of Crowley’s mistresses) based his novel The Magician on him. Ian Fleming had him in mind while inventing the character Le Chiffre for the Bond novel Casino Royale; while with British intelligence, Ian had worked up some wartime disinformation schemes with Aleister. He is present in Sir Geoffrey Cyon, a character in Gene Roddenberry’s movie Spectre. He inspired Ozzy Osbourne to record his song Mr. Crowley. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin purchased Boleskine House, Crowley’s old home on the shore of Loch Ness. Crowley appears in the PlayStation game Nightmare Creatures. He never quite goes away.

My first introduction to him was in 1967 when my sister with a smile pointed out his picture on the cover of the Sgt Pepper album by The Beatles. “Who?” I asked. In answer, she gave me the only mildly ironic book The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: an Autohagiography. While I was not then (and am not now) won over to Crowley’s mystical world view, I did enjoy reading his account of his role in the lively social climate at the turn of the century.

We often forget just how lively a milieu it was. True enough, ultra-conservative Victorian values prevailed among the general population, but the intellectual circle was different. There were advocates of Free Love (they liked the capitals back then) such as Victoria Woodhull, visionaries such as HG Wells, Fabian socialists such as GB Shaw, pagan revivalists such as poet WB Yeats (who sparred with Crowley for control of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), bon vivant wits such as Oscar Wilde, theoretical scientists such as Albert Einstein, and anarchists such as Emma Goldman. Mountaineering, poetic, bisexual, philosophic Aleister Crowley was in the middle of it.

Rejecting Christianity and other prevalent religions but dissatisfied with secular skepticism, he was drawn to neo-paganism. While in Egypt in 1904, he and his wife (of the time) Rose performed a magick ritual (he added the “k” to distinguish “magick” from the parlor tricks of entertainers) and received a revelation from Aiwass, a messenger of the god Horus. He wrote down everything Aiwass told him and named the result Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law). This book was the beginning of his philosophy of Thelema, which he expanded over the years with other revelations and numerous other books. “Thelema” is Greek for “will,” with a connotation of appetitive will.

The core of the belief system is,
1- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law;
2- Love is the law, Love under will;
3- Every man and every woman is a star.

Crowley founded the occult order A.’. A.’. (Argenteum  Astrum, or Siver Star). He and his initiates became notorious for ritualistic drug use and sex magick. Echoing Freud, he said that part of his mission was to “cure the world from sexual repression.” He caught the attention of Theodor Reuss, head of the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orienti); Reuss initiated him into the O.T.O. and made Crowley a Grand Master.

Aleister died in 1947, but Thelema continued to spread; the philosophy also has influenced occultists who took the principles in new directions. Crowley in the last months of his life initiated Gerald Gardner into the O.T.O. Gardner then founded Wicca, a modern interpretation of ancient pagan practices. Gardnerian Wicca, still the dominant denomination, is not identical to Thelema, but borrows liberally from Thelemic principles; no one seems to know how many adherents of Wicca there are, but even the low-end estimates (100,000+ in the US alone – high end estimates are several times that) indicate they are more numerous than members of some religious sects that are considered “mainstream.” Crowley also indirectly influenced Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard by way of occultist and prominent rocket scientist Jack Parsons.

I’m not a mystic of any kind, whether traditional or neo-anything. Therefore, I once passed on a very tempting offer by a young woman to join a Wiccan coven (as the only male with a dozen ladies) because she was entirely serious about it and it didn’t seem right for me to fake being so. That probably was a foolish decision. Nevertheless, as a statement of political principles, the Thelemic platform is something I can get behind. If Aleister appears on the ballot, he’ll get my vote. In fact, if he appears on the ballot, I’ll reconsider my views on magick.

Aleister Crowley:

Governments too often exhibit the most deplorable stupidity, however enlightened may be the men who compose and constitute them, or the people whose destinies they direct. It is therefore incumbent on every man and woman to take the proper steps to cause the revisions of all existing statutes on the basis of the Law of Thelema. This Law being a Law of Liberty, the aim of the legislature must be to secure the amplest freedom for each individual in the state, eschewing the presumptuous assumption that any given positive ideal is worthy to be obtained.”

Aleister Crowley in 2012


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Keeping Up with the Joneses

While speaking on the phone, a friend of mine asked me last week if Bob Dylan had any upcoming dates in the area. I was in front of my computer, so I ran a quick check. So far in 2012 the scheduled tour dates are in South America. That’s a bit far for either of us to go for a concert. Another link showed that on May 28 there is a “tribute to Bob Dylan” at BB King’s in New York for Bob’s 71st birthday, but there is no indication that Bob will be there for it. Nevertheless, I passed along the info, hung up the phone, and then reflected on what I just had said. 71st birthday?

There is no shortage of septuagenarian rockers from my youth who are still performing: Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Aretha Franklin (as of March 25), Eric Burden, and many others. Still, Dylan is different. In his book New Rules, Bill Maher includes the following rule:  “Bob Dylan must stop denying he was the voice of a generation. Bob, that’s not something you get to decide. It’s fate and you were it. If your generation could actually choose a voice, don’t you think they’d have picked one better than yours?” That’s why he’s different, and why it is unsettling to see the number 71.

I had an advantage growing up when it came to the music of the 60s. The advantage was my sister Sharon who was 2.5 years older than I (she always specified 2.5, never rounding up to 3), and who was always perfectly in step with the times. She made every cultural transition in her life – from beat to hippie to disco to yuppie – at precisely the appropriate moment. I typically was (as today) stumbling behind the times, but thanks to her, at least cutting edge music always was in the house, very much including early Bob Dylan. I can’t say I instantly heard something special in his material – it took me until 1965. If that sounds a bit late, considering that his voice had been heard in my house for the previous 3 years, I still was only 12, so cut me some slack. In that year “Ballad of a Thin Man” from the Highway 61 Revisited album caught my ear, so I sat down by the stereo for a serious listen. Perhaps I gave it a more serious listen than the song really deserves, but, once again, I was 12, which is the time for doing that – as it continues to be for the next decade. The song contains much counterculture smugness – in essence, “you guys just don’t get it” – but also contains a kernel of truth. So very many Mr. Joneses really didn’t (and still don’t) get it. So, I became a Bob Dylan fan, just late enough not to care about the whole “going electric” controversy.

Age is something that creeps up on us, perhaps because we willfully ignore the passage of time. Somehow, finding oneself at some numerically significant birthday is always a surprise. So is the realization at a certain point that the road ahead is shorter than behind. Bob has achieved a sort of immortality in his music, of course, but he might be able to empathize with the remark of Woody Allen (76), “I don’t want to live on in my work. I want to live on in my apartment.” In his 1997 song “Not Dark Yet” on the Time Out of Mind album, time seems very much to have been on Bob’s mind: “It's not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

It’s still not dark for either of us, I’m pleased to say. While I also make a point of listening to contemporary fare by artists young enough to date Bob or Woody, I’ll keep an eye on Bob’s tour schedule. I’ll catch him when he swings reasonably close by again. I’m sure it will make me feel like the kid that, of course, I still am.

Ballad of a Thin Man


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dexterous Defiance

I recently finished Double Dexter, the sixth and latest in Jeff Lindsay’s well-written and darkly funny series of novels about the charming Dexter Morgan, by day a blood-spatter expert with the Miami PD and by night a serial killer with a code of conduct – not ethics, mind you, but a code taught to him by Harry, his policeman father.

Those who are familiar only with the popular Showtime TV adaptation know a kinder gentler Dexter; Showtime Dexter is an avenger who politely kills his victims before slicing and dicing them. Although he insists he is emotionally limited, he behaves as a warm and caring family man. Like Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey of the Death Wish movies or Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry films, Showtime Dexter might be unacceptable in a civilized society of laws, but his vigilante justice is nevertheless recognizable as a form of justice. The Dexter of the books is something else. He is a cold-blooded monster with a dryly wicked sense of humor; he keeps his victims alive until the last possible moment as he dismembers them, because their pain is his fun. While Harry Morgan had some vigilante motives in devising a code of conduct for his obviously psychopathic young son (the gist: kill only those who deserve it), adult Dexter continues to follow it only because he recognizes it as the best way to avoid capture. So, while for practical reasons he aims to kill only the most villainous of villains, he has no qualms per se about torturing and killing an innocent person; in fact, by acting on faulty information, he does this at one point – oops. Oh well.

The attraction of Dexter, whether on page or on screen, to such a huge audience is usually attributed to our satisfaction at seeing villains who have escaped conventional retribution get their comeuppance. Tad Friend in his New Yorker review of the TV show, for example, remarks, “If you like rough justice, he’s the best cop on the force.” While this is certainly part of it, I think there is more to it. Freud contended that unhappiness is the cost of civilized society (see Civilization and Its Discontents). A precondition for civilization is the countering of our primal desires by individual conscience and by law (force). This repression necessarily causes unhappiness, though on balance it is a price worth paying. Mark Twain anticipated this same idea a few decades earlier in his short story The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut. In this first-person tale, Mark (OK, Sam) accidentally conjures up the physical embodiment of his own conscience, and manages to kill him; he then freely and joyfully embarks on the eponymous carnival of crime.

Consider also the film Hesher which appeared in theaters in 2011. The anarchic Hesher moves uninvited into the garage of the house of a boy, TJ, who unintentionally had disrupted his previous (illegal) living arrangements. While not murderous, Hesher does pretty much whatever comes to mind, including starting fires, setting off explosives, saying unimaginably inappropriate things, and trashing a stranger’s swimming pool. Why? Just for the hell of it, really. This is not someone you want in your garage. Yet there is no denying that there is something primitively appealing and refreshing about his total lack of concern for conventional standards and propriety. His kindnesses are as innocent and unforced as his felonies, and his eulogy at a funeral is something one needs to hear to believe. The film was a success at Sundance and delighted more critics than it offended.

It is healthy to acknowledge one’s own inner anarchist yearning to breath free. It doesn’t hurt to give him or her a hug with a Hesher movie or a Dexter board game (yes, there is one of those). Real sociopaths, however, are not people with whom it is advisable to engage. Even the nonviolent ones are vampires who drain the energy and resources of others while wreaking havoc in their lives. “Moderate” sociopaths often are quite successful – they are overrepresented in politics and the upper echelons of corporate hierarchies – but that doesn’t mean we should aspire to join their ranks. There is a cost to being civilized, true enough, but there is another kind of cost to being savage, and it is higher. All the same, there are days when, if the embodiment of my conscience were to show up at my door, his odds wouldn’t be much better than they were for the one at Sam Clemens’ house. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spectral Analysis

While channel surfing late at night I couldn’t help noticing a theme in much of the broadcasting: Ghost Hunters, Haunted History, Ghost Whisperer, The Haunted, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, and more.

I like a scary tale as much as the next person. Ghost stories aren’t normally my thing though. I rarely can “suspend disbelief” enough to feel any tingling of the spine, but clearly enough people can to draw the aim of programmers and advertisers. Some of the shows purport to be nonfiction; investigative teams seek out evidence (by their standards) for the real thing.

Out of curiosity, I put down the remote, sat down at the keyboard, and searched for data on belief in spirits and apparitions. I didn’t need to look far. There is a lot of research on the subject, and the upshot is that a majority of people don’t have to suspend disbelief. They believe. Nor does belief in ectoplasm decline as wealth and education rises; Westerners are as likely to see ghosts as anyone.

According to a recent CBS News poll 48% of Americans believe in ghosts while only 45% say they don’t; the rest are unsure. 22% say they personally have seen or felt the presence of a ghost. More women believe in them than men (56% to 41%) and women also are more likely to have seen them (29% to 14%). To believe in ghosts, one must believe in an afterlife, and 78% of Americans in the same poll say they believe in an afterlife; this optimism extends to 70% of those who don’t attend religious services. In a separate (2006) study by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward Jr. of the University of Central Oklahoma (reported in the Skeptical Inquirer and in LiveScience) education level was shown to be positively correlated with belief in the paranormal including ghosts. Yes, belief in ghosts rises with education. 23% of college freshman believe in the general gamut of the paranormal including astrology, clairvoyance, and ghosts (40% believe in haunted houses specifically, with 25% unsure), while 31% of seniors do, and 34% of graduate students. While conservatives are more likely than liberals to harbor unscientific views associated with traditional religion such as creationism, liberals are more likely than conservatives to believe in the paranormal.

As is probably evident, I’m with the skeptical 45% in that CBS poll. A ghost, which is to say a personality without the physical person, strikes me as akin to horsepower without the engine; you need the mechanism to get the effect. I find arguments to the contrary (or for “alternative” mechanisms) unconvincing, to put it gently. Nonetheless, I do understand how people can have experiences they interpret as paranormal. Here is my ghost story: three days after my sister Sharon died in 1995, the phone by my bed rang in the middle of the night. It was Sharon on the line. The call felt as vivid and real as the one I just received a few minutes ago from The Star-Ledger offering me a deal on weekday home delivery, and it continued to feel like a real memory the next day. I have no doubt that it was a vivid dream and that a camera would have shown me snoring away all night, but the point is that it seemed real. (Yes, I’ve had a couple other vivid dreams; I remember clearly getting up to let the cat out in the middle of the night on one occasion, for example, and yet found him asleep on the bed in the morning – no cat doors or open windows.) Someone with more of a predisposition toward the paranormal than I have might be inclined to interpret that phone call differently. So, too, the breezes, creaks, and shadows in all houses. My own home has an amazing repertoire of thumps and groans. I always tell guests not to worry. “It’s just the troll in the basement,” I tell them, “and he is chained securely.”

I think the reason for credulity in this matter can be found in the poll number saying 78% believe in an afterlife. It is also in the follow-up question: “Will science ever prove if an afterlife exists?” 87% say no. We all have a tendency to believe what we like to believe, at least to the extent we can bend the facts to fit our wishes. (Most of us have limits to our ability to bend them, and so we can change our minds, however reluctantly; a few people seem to have no limits, though.) Survival as a ghost may not be the finest prospect, but it is survival. So, however frightening, the presence of ghosts is also, in an odd way, comforting; their existence is something in which we would like to believe.

Well, maybe not always. After all, there is no troll in my basement, but I think most of my guests prefer that explanation to, “It’s my household ghost.” If CBS is right, 55% wouldn’t rule out that possibility. As it is, more than one grown man has admitted to unease going down there alone.

If Cary Grant and Constance Bennet Were in the Basement, I Wouldn’t Be Able to Keep Guests Out of It.