Thursday, July 30, 2015

Prometheus’ Footware

With synchronicity of which Wilson (and Jung) would approve, were either still alive, Amazon recommended to me the Illuminatus! trilogy the day after I referenced Robert Anton Wilson in a recent blog. I’m pretty sure Amazon’s ‘bots don’t scan my blogs, so an algorithm used some mix of my purchases and views on the company’s own site to pick the title. I read Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! along with the Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy a decade before Amazon existed. Both trilogies are intelligent but “out there” science fiction steeped in a counterculture ethic. Wilson’s play Wilhelm Reich in Hell, something I also purchased before Amazon, is worth a read too. While the recommendation came a bit late, it reminded me that I had read little of Wilson’s copious nonfiction: not much beyond the introductions he appended to his fiction and a neurological analysis of the Patty Hearst case that he co-wrote with Timothy Leary (yes, that Timothy Leary); the article about Hearst originally appeared in Oui of all places. His perspective was too metaphysical for my taste so I hadn’t bothered with anything heftier – until now. From his nonfiction offerings, I picked out Prometheus Rising, first published in 1983 but revised in 1997. It is, as we used to say, a trip.

Prometheus Rising is about the evolution, achievement, and prospect of higher states of consciousness within individuals and among humans as a species. First of all, let me give Wilson his due. The man is tremendously erudite, and in a fairly short book manages to find intelligent things to say about subjects as scattered as Beethoven, Gödel’s Theorem, James Joyce, brainwashing, Voltaire, Bell’s Theorem, Aleister Crowley, neurochemicals, and Jim Jones, and interrelates them in a coherent way. Wilson uses Leary’s Eight Circuit model of consciousness as a basis for discussion, while acknowledging from the start that this is an arbitrary division that could be consolidated into fewer circuits or carved into more. The first three circuits are well-founded in biology and brain structure – biological needs, emotions, and reason – while the others (higher levels of awareness) get ever more transcendental. Their biological bases get more debatable at each higher level, though he does make arguments for them that are not altogether flaky. I probably haven’t taken enough LSD in my life to grok all Wilson tries to convey. That’s not a flippant remark: Wilson is a fan of LSD though he views it as useful rather than necessary. I stretched myself as much as I could without benefit of acid, isolation tanks, or yoga. That said, even after reading the book I must admit to remaining stuck mostly in circuits I-III with some slop-over into IV. I have my doubts about the reality of much above circuit V (and even parts of V), but if this book teaches anything it is to keep an open mind, though not an undisciplined one.

One point to which Wilson keeps coming back is that we all live in constrained reality tunnels, i.e. ways of comprehending the universe. Furthermore, we get quite defensive about our tunnels and our simplified models: “The Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.” We find “proof” for whatever we are inclined to think. Nearly always, what we are inclined to think is determined by the accidents of our genealogy and of our personal experiences. We can choose to alter our reality tunnels, however, and learning to do so is a step toward those higher circuits and higher consciousness. At the end of each chapter, Wilson gives a list of exercises to help reshape your tunnel and expand your mind. These are most definitely useful – perhaps even inspired. A random sample:

1.      If you are a Liberal, subscribe to National Review, the country’s most intelligent (and witty) conservative magazine, for a year. Each month try to enter their reality tunnel for a few hours while reading their articles... If you are a Conservative, subscribe to The New York Review of Books and try to get into their headspace for a few hours a month.
2.      If you are a Rationalist subscribe to Fate magazine for a year. If you are an occultist, join the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and read their journal The Skeptical Inquirer, for a year.
3.      Buy a copy of Scientific American and read any article in it. Ask the following questions: Why do they sound so sure? Does the data support dogmatism at this point, or is dogma a primate habit (defending headspace)? Will these theories be believed in 2593?
4.      Spend all Sunday watching animal shows on TV (getting stoned on weed, if this is permissible to you). Then go into the office the next day and observe the primate behavior carefully, like a scientist.
5.      Try to change your sexual imprint. See if you can reach orgasm by some method that has been taboo or unthinkable to you before.
6.      Consider the reality tunnel of an educated reader 1200 years ago. How much of that tunnel still seems “Real”?...Consider the reality tunnel of an educated reader 1200 years from now. How much of our reality tunnel will still seem “Real”?
7.      Refute this whole book. Demonstrate that everyone else has been brainwashed but you, and your mother (father) has the one, real objective view of the universe.

There are scores of these exercises in the book. You see the common thread here. The idea is not just to examine another viewpoint in order to find things to ridicule, as so many partisans defensively do, but to exceed those limitations and actually try to see things the other person’s way. Even if you end up returning to your original philosophy, experiencing an alternate perspective is edifying on any number of levels.

Whether or not you get up into those higher circuits, and despite the counterculture guru aspects of all this, there is some age-old advice at the bottom of it all: even if only within your own headspace, walk a mile in my shoes.

Walk a Mile In My Shoes (1971) Joe South

Friday, July 24, 2015

Another Reason to Drive Defensively

My first crash experience in the back seat at age 4 .
My response was not the same as Ballard's.

Nowadays we are surprised when a particular movie is not available for download, rent, or purchase in a contemporary format, but this is the case for more than a few – at least from legal providers. Sometimes we can guess the reason why. Some obscure B movies might have no market. In the case of Song of the South (1946), there is a market but we nonetheless understand why Disney execs in 2015 are reluctant to re-release it. For other films, e.g. Wolodarsky’s wickedly funny Coldblooded (1995), the reason is a mystery.

For well or ill, however, an “unavailable” status is not always permanent. For example, Elaine May long had refused to allow her wonderful 1971 dark comedy A New Leaf onto DVD because she disapproved of the cut, but finally relented a few years ago after the restoration of one scene. Just a few weeks ago, quite by accident, I discovered that David Cronenberg’s previously unavailable Crash (1996) – not to be confused with the 2004 Paul Haggis film of the same title – is now on DVD in the Criterion Collection. Whether the news is good or bad in this instance is open to debate, but it quickly went into my online shopping cart.

Crash is based on a novel by JG Ballard. Ballard is most widely known for his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which was made into a hit movie by Steven Spielberg, but the bulk of his work is science fiction of a sort. His 1960s novels and short stories don’t really need the “of a sort” qualifier, but beginning in the 1970s Ballard shifted to a peculiar brand of scifi set in the contemporary or near contemporary world. He developed a view that modern humans live in an artificial world so alien to the savanna on which our species evolved that, from the viewpoint of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our world is post-apocalyptic: I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television - that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.”

Ballard’s characters develop behavioral disorders, just as animals do in enclosures too different from their natural environments. Above all, modern civilization causes their natural savagery to re-emerge in bizarre ways; a Freudian death instinct urges people to destructiveness and violence. In his novel High-Rise, civilized behavior breaks down completely, ala Lord of the Flies but with adults. In Running Wild, the children in a gated community kill their parents. In Super-Cannes upper-crust professionals form roving criminal gangs. In Millennium People, middle class folks take up terrorism and burn their own neighborhoods. Yet, we love our technology even as it makes us crazy. In the novel Crash the characters find psychic release and erotic satisfaction in auto wrecks, combining technology with our most primitive instincts. In a Ballard novel there typically is at least one nihilistic intellectual philosopher to explain things. Vaughan, the philosopher of Crash, does more than just opine. He recreates famous crashes, such as those of James Dean and Jayne Mansfield, as performance art. Ultimately he intends to die in a suitably artistic crash.

Cronenberg, a Toronto native, set the movie version of Crash in Ontario instead of the UK, which changes the tone slightly but not the substance. The central character is named James Ballard (yes, really) and is played by James Spader. James barely survives a head-on crash that kills the other driver; he encounters and becomes erotically involved with the other driver’s wife, played by Holly Hunter, who also was injured in the crash. They fall in with fetishists who tap into their primal eroticism – and into their death wishes – through car crashes. This group is led by the philosopher-artist Vaughan (Elias Kotias). James’ wife Catherine becomes involved in all this, too; the relationship of James and Catherine is mutually nonexclusive in a number of senses. Rosanna Arquette brings a special weirdness to her fetishist character. James remarks at one point that traffic has gotten heavier since his crash. In the book it is spelled out that traffic is heavier because other drivers are strangely attracted to the scene, which suggests that they too are just one step away from being fetishists, but in the film just the implication is presented to the viewer.

Was Ballard onto something? Are there any signs of this kind of psychopathy emerging in the real world? There certainly is no shortage of violence by individuals unmotivated by any material gain. The news is full of it, and the perpetrators are often relatively affluent people. It is not so clear that they are engaged in some atavistic revolt against civilization however. They usually offer more pedestrian ideological or personal justifications for their actions, but perhaps at bottom these are just excuses, whether they themselves understand it or not. Perhaps it really is just the violence itself that appeals to them. As for drivers, I certainly don’t want any like the ones in Crash on the roads around me, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

Rated NC-17, Crash is creepy, violent, sexually graphic, and likely to evoke the response “What the hell?” from anyone unfamiliar with Ballard’s themes. Crash is not for the squeamish, prudish, or the easily offended. But, in its own warped way, it has something interesting to say. Thumbs up, but be VERY selective about the audience with whom you share it. Many people will truly hate it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

It Isn’t Paranoia If They’re Really Out To Get You

Trilateral Commission Symbol

Everyone is a conspiracy theorist. Differences are just matters of degree. Some people at the most skeptical end of the spectrum acknowledge only the most open conspiracies such as organized political parties, lobbies, and proselytizing cults. On the other end of the spectrum are those who carry on about the Illuminati, black helicopters, or even transdimensional aliens (see David Icke, The Reptilian Conspiracy). There is a broad range between the extremes, and it includes folks who worry about the influence of exclusive clubs such as the Bildeberg group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission, to all of which membership is by invitation only. We’ll leave aside conspiracy theories about specific incidents, since a particular person may get a bug about, say, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, or the World Trade Center while being more generally skeptical.

Mainstream historians overwhelmingly are on the skeptical end of the spectrum. Most are strongly dismissive of the significance of covert conspiracies except for the rare (in their estimation) occasions when they succeed, as did the Bolsheviks. My own Bachelor’s degree is in history and I’ve generally sided with the mainstream in this matter; historical events by this view are much more often characterized by the lack of forethought than by successful planning, secretive or otherwise. Nonetheless, I want to be open to alternative viewpoints. When trying to see things another way, it is best to avoid the temptation to look at only the most bizarre opposing interpretations, as easy a path to self-affirmation as this may be. Picking only the writings of extremists whom one comfortably can regard from the outset as flakes is a prescription for not seeing things another way.

There are serious-minded and unflaky folks who believe that the Western World is dominated by a conspiracy of a “power elite” that is disdainful of democracy and of ordinary individuals whom the elite regard as incapable of perceiving and pursuing their own best interests. This very small cadre, they believe, dominates the West via governments, financial institutions, and corporate governance. Members meet and discuss goals in organizations like (and including) the Bildeberg group. Those goals are globalist and broadly collectivist, albeit not in a way that would diminish the elite’s own stature. Books such as The Open Conspiracy and The New World Order by HG Wells explain and defend these goals and plans. It is important to the conspirators not to let common people interfere, so they mollify the hoi polloi by allowing them the illusion of democracy; in other words, they distract the common folks by letting them argue with each other and vote on unimportant matters while the conspirators continue to run things. “Social issues” and other common sources of political dissension mean nothing to the elite since the upper 1%  much less the .001%  never has troubled itself with bourgeois morality or paid attention to laws about it. (This is a theme of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, by the way, along with the commentary on marriage.) The fortunes of mainstream political parties are unimportant also. Members of the ruling group find hostility between ordinary supporters of major parties laughable because, regardless of who wins an election, the fundamental power remains in their own hands. The Western power elite are not alone; other parts of the world have parallel elites. The conspiracy theorists note, for example, that, with allowances for a change in generations, by and large the same folks run the former communist countries as ran them before. But the non-Western elites are not fundamentally different in philosophy or goals from the Western; they are just rival clubs that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete with the West.

The challenge, then, was to find a sober and respectable proponent of these views. This proved a negligible obstacle. When Bill Clinton (a member of the Trilateral Commission, some might note, as was Bush before him) accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 1992 he thanked by name his favorite history professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Carroll Quigley. Quigley was a respected historian who deviated from the mainstream only to the extent that he believed secret societies have played a larger role in historical events than is generally acknowledged. Better yet, while in his books he accepts some conspiratorial arguments, he isn’t a scaremonger about them. On the contrary he supports the general aims of the modern elite conspirators, and objects only to their secrecy: “But, agreeing with the Group on goals, I cannot agree with them on methods.” Quigley seemed to be just the fellow to read.

Much of Quigley’s work is on the evolution of civilizations from ancient times, but his works relevant to modern conspiracy theory are Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time and The Anglo-American Establishment: From Rhodes to Cliveden. They make pretty dry reading, but that is because he feels it necessary to reinforce his point time and again. The latter book in particular is not much more than a litany of names with brief descriptions of the persons’ roles in history and – more importantly – their interrelationships with each other. He traces back to Cecil Rhodes the origin of modern roundtables of major financial and political figures. The initial core of the group was in the UK and the Empire, but it expanded into the US and then other Western regions. He convincingly establishes that prominent figures in politics, banking, and business from the late 19th century onward – but especially since WW1 – knew each other and belonged to overlapping organizations. If newly ultra-rich entrepreneurs sometimes remained outsiders, their children typically did not. It isn’t a very big step to conclude that these figures not only socialized and did mutual business but colluded. Over time the group embedded itself in central banks, the IMF, and other nondemocratic institutions. The power of this group in government and business, while prevailing, was never complete; for example, it was wrong-footed badly in the ‘30s by the fascists, who, while appalling beyond measure, were genuine populists outside its control.

For me, the step to “collusion” is still a step too far, at least insofar as it implies a true strategy by a coherent cabal. That an elite exists with outsize influence is not in dispute, and I’m willing to credit that people who belong to those rarefied circles are likely to share a particular world view – just as union workers, shopkeepers, and foxhunters are likely to share views with others in their own group. But that is not quite the same as saying they constitute a functioning shadow government that directs the geopolitical and economic future of the Western World. I doubt the meetings of the CFR, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, and other overlapping quasi-clandestine groups are as productive as all that. Is the chaotic state of current affairs attributable to thoughtful planning? Nonetheless, alternative historians who do believe this are not saying something completely outlandish. It’s not quite fair to say, to steal a line from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.” Quigley and others deserve a respectful hearing.

For a more playful take on the subject, the best reading material in my experience is The Illuminatus! Trilogy by science fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson: conspiracy within conspiracy within conspiracy. For all the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the books, it is clear that Wilson isn’t entirely joking but instead subscribes to Gore Vidal’s dictum: “Anyone who isn’t paranoid isn’t in full possession of the facts.”

Robert Anton Wilson on the Illuminati

Sunday, July 12, 2015

More Sights and Sounds

Four pocket reviews:

In Your Eyes (2014)
Screenwriter Joss Whedon is best known these days for the action-packed Marvel Avengers movies, but those who remember his work on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer know he can be intensely sentimental. That is not always a bad thing. He shows his penchant for sentimentality again in his script for In Your Eyes.

Modern romantic dramas and RomComs rarely succeed. For more than a decade audiences have been in a particularly sullen phase of the gender war, too cynical to allow credibility to the premise of these films, at least as far as ordinary people are concerned. There must be some outlandish explanation for romance before we will credit it: one or more of the lovers is a vampire (True Blood), both are kids (Moonrise Kingdom), they’re crazy (Silver Linings Playbook), or something. We need some radical reason to account for it. Whedon, accustomed to writing for not-quite-human characters, gives us one. Rebecca and Dylan have a paranormal mental connection. Though Rebecca is in New Hampshire and the Dylan is in New Mexico, they can see through each other’s eyes and feel what the other feels. Both have had glimpses of faraway scenes since they were kids, but each always dismissed them as some personal mental quirk. Then one day the connection suddenly strengthens and they grasp what is going on. OK, that might create a special bond.

Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is a good-looking ne’er-do-well on parole for robbery. Though a bad boy, he has a good heart. (Well, he would have to, wouldn’t he?) The doe-eyed actress Zoe Kazan portrays Rebecca, a shy, awkward, but likable character. It’s a kind of role in which she feels comfortable. Zoe wrote a similar character for herself in her own screenplay Ruby Sparks. Since their on-off connection often clicks on at inopportune moments and disorients them, Dylan and Rebecca develop reputations for being bonkers. Both of them have unenviable lives. Rebecca’s husband is well-to-do but he is a domineering hospital administrator who puts the ass in jackass, and who wants to commit Rebecca to a mental ward. Dylan meanwhile scrapes by in his trailer and is being pressured into another crime by his former accomplices. When the mental connection occurs in private, Dylan and Rebecca find welcome escape and solace in it. The duo’s feelings are not initially romantic, but they change over time. Will they overcome all obstacles, including the law, to be together? You probably can guess, but I’ll leave the answer unwritten.

This is a better movie than it sounds, thanks largely to the casting. Don’t expect anything grand here, but Thumbs Up anyway.

** **

These Final Hours (2015)
Yes it’s another apocalypse. A literally earthshattering asteroid has smacked into the North Atlantic and the folks in Perth Australia have only hours before the shock wave and the peeling crust overtake them and wipe them out. What do you do when the end is coming fast and there are no consequences tomorrow for what you do today? Apparently, facing the end with dignity, as Australians by and large did in On the Beach (1959), is no longer fashionable. Suicide, mayhem, and orgies are in.

The central character James (Nathan Phillips) plans to get it on with both his girlfriends (separately), go to a party, and ingest enough alcohol and drugs to dull the pain when the end comes. Yet, despite his own shallow intentions, he intervenes to rescue a tween girl (Angourie Rice) from perverts and then tries to get her to her family. He baffles himself by doing this, but slowly gets the idea that how one dies matters even if no one afterward will know.

Violent, graphic, and low-budget but not bad. I would recommend the similar but more low-key Canadian film Last Night (1998) over it, but not bad.

Mild Thumbs Up

** **

Mordecai (2015)
Why did I watch the whole 106 minutes of this? To see if it would get better, I think. It didn’t, despite starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Goldblum. The level of humor can be indicated just by mentioning that Mordecai’s personal assistant is named Jock Strapp.

Mordecai (Depp), a notoriously shady art dealer, owes 8 million pounds in back taxes but can escape his predicament by helping MI-5 recover a Goya painting that has a code on the back that reveals the location of Nazi gold. Whatever possibility for humor there may have been in this is squandered in failed attempts at silliness. I owe the producers of the uninspired sequel/reboot St. Trinian’s (2007), which I panned last year, an apology. By comparison, their movie, which also involves an art theft and shady dealers (including Russell Brand), is good.

Thumbs Down

** **

Halestorm: Into the Wild Life (2015)
When a band wins a loyal audience with its early recordings, a backlash commonly develops against some later album. The complaints always are one of the following: 1) the band sounds the same, or 2) the band sounds different. The backlash can be remarkably unrelated to the musical merits. Sometimes the album really is forgettable or worse, but other times it later is recognized as a classic. Rolling Stone actually panned Abbey Road: “Of course, the Beatles are still the Beatles, but it does tread a rather tenuous line between boredom, Beatledom, and bubblegum...Side two is a disaster.” The backlash against Into the Wild Life, more by fans than by professional critics, is of “the band sounds different” variety.

I liked the album. First of all it still sounds very much like Halestorm. But to the extent it doesn’t, good.  Basic hardcore rock’n’roll hasn’t dominated the charts for a long time, but it still has a lot of fans. Lzzy Hale’s formidable vocals backed by effectively harsh guitar, bass, and percussion (brother Arejay Hale on drums) have been giving them what they want since 2009. Several of the tracks on Into the Wild Life are very much in the same vein, including Apocalyptic, the single getting the most radio airplay. So, the fan base has not been abandoned. But in other tracks the band experimented, flirting with country and even pop. A flirt is not the same as a commitment, however, and a first-time listener still would categorize the result as rock, leaning to the hard side at that. True enough, in consequence the album as a whole does not sound exactly like the previous ones, but to my ears the expanded range enriches the sound, not corrupts it.

Thumbs Up

One for the base, Apocalyptic:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Life in the Upper Branches

One of the more annoying books released for the summer reading season is Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, a writer with a doctorate in anthropology. While her writing skills provide her with her own income, her ticket to the lifestyle of the upper 1% is via her marriage. After the arrival of her first child, she and her husband move from their townhouse in funkier downtown Manhattan to the culturally distinct uber-rich haunts of the Upper East Side because, she tells us, it is a better area for kids. There she faces culture shock and exclusion by the women who dominate the area’s social scene. While struggling to fit in (for the sake of the offspring, of course), she begins her research for what would become Primates of Park Avenue.

Complete with “field notes,” Martin describes her new Upper East Side tribe as though she were an anthropologist observing chimps or baboons. I called the book annoying, but not because Martin is rich. May she enjoy her fortune in good health. I did so because a lament about how hard it is to be and live among the rich is inherently sigh-inducing for the rest of us. Despite being irksome, the book has value – perhaps in some ways that were unintended – for its peek inside a tiny subset of society that has a cultural impact far beyond its numbers. The presentation of her memoir as a primate study is gimmicky but not entirely without merit. A pop culture reference she makes herself, however, is as apt in describing her experiences as anything in her field notes: Mean Girls.

She tells us about “going native” (always a risk for field anthropologists) and about the importance of displaying tribal tokens, such as a Birkin bag, which she felt she so needed in order to fit in. Wisely, she doesn’t mention the price, but a look online shows they sell for five-figures and six-figures. At the time there was a three year waiting list for a bag unless you had connections. At one point she does add up the basic cost of her personal maintenance including seasonal fashions – don’t ask. All this was necessary, we are told, to get her child in the right schools and to get playdates with the right people, especially since as a newcomer she was low in the hierarchy. She tells us that, for all their lavish expenditures, the women – who overwhelming rely on their husbands’ money or on parents’ money even if they have careers – nonetheless live in fear that it all could end with divorce or disinheritance. I believe this, but, I must add, this is not unique to Upper East Side females. Anyone anywhere with any property – even (maybe especially) a very modest amount – lives in fear of losing it, whether to divorce or other events; this is every bit as true of men as of women.

While much of her analysis is credible, when she encounters some unexpected kindnesses after a personal loss, she cites anthropologist James Rilling’s view that cooperation is the natural primate bias “that can only be overcome with effortful cognitive control.” Martin says, “In other words, caring is our first impulse; only our minds stand in the way of doing so every time.” This is an astonishing conclusion that, however pleasant and PC, is contradicted by her own tales of fierce mean-spirited hierarchical competition, much of it plainly from the heart more than the head, not only among Upper East Siders but among the chimps and baboons to which she compares them. If anything, exchanges of favors and cooperative grooming are more often calculated than is aggression. It is a false opposition, really. Social animals must do both: compete (with insiders and with outsiders, in different ways) yet cooperate enough to maintain the group. Sympathy and rivalry are both natural. Both are needed for survival. Either alone will doom a chimp or a human. The very last tale in Martin’s book helps underscore this: it is one of minor but satisfying social revenge.

Whatever its flaws, Primates of Park Avenue is worth a read.