Sunday, October 25, 2009

“We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself”

Like all the most effective political soundbites, this one from FDR (who lifted it from Francis Bacon) is memorable, inspiring, and untrue.

The quote comes to mind because this is Halloween week. The holiday is an old one with pan-European roots, but the symbols from Ireland and Scotland are the ones that have stuck. Yet, it was in the United States – at least in modern times -- that the holiday really took off. Despite the kid-friendly aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated, the central feature, a blurring of life and death, has never been lost. We welcome vampires, ghosts, and ax murderers at our doors, and give them candy. The holiday turns the fear of death into something fun. The American way of celebrating the day is spreading, having become popular even in such a very un-Celtic place as Japan. The spread is not always welcome. This, from Reuters:

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow schools have been ordered to ban students from celebrating the cult of the dead, better known as Halloween, despite the widespread popularity of the imported festival to Russia.

“This is destructive for the minds and the spiritual and moral health of pupils,” said Gavrilov, saying the ban had been recommended by psychiatrists.

It is a mockery of death rather than a cult, but I understand the Russian concerns. I think they miss the point, but I understand them.

Some graveyard humor can be unsettling to onlookers, as when Bridget Marquardt (one of Hugh Hefner's former girlfriends) on an episode of The Girls Next Door posed on her back for a photo at the spot where the Black Dahlia's body was discovered. Slasher-films and other such holiday fare may seem sadistic to some. Perhaps they are, but they are also more.

Dexter, the popular fictional serial killer invented by author Jeff Lindsay (and adapted for SHO), often refers to his Dark Passenger, the part of him that revels in sanguineous pastimes. Everyone has a Dark Passenger; it is part of being human. It is not unhealthy (occasionally less than tasteful, but not unhealthy) to face this with humor. That doesn't mean we give the Passenger free use of the chain saw. It annoys me when other people pompously quote Nietzsche, but I'm going to do it anyway: "I laugh at those who think themselves good because they have no claws." To have claws, even to celebrate them, and yet choose not to maul with them is what is admirable. To borrow from another seasonally appropriate tale, Dr. Jekyll's mistake was in trying to excise Mr. Hyde; that just set the fellow loose. The Doctor should have let his Hyde side chuckle freely at macabre stories by Poe now and then, and he could have gone on being the decent person he was.

There are real monsters in the world, who don't have so much a Dark Passenger as a Dark Driver. They cause untold damage and grief. There is nothing funny about this, and the monsters themselves rarely show much of a sense of humor, at least of the self-mocking kind. The rest of us deal with them as we must with the seriousness the task requires. At least one day a year, though, we also can celebrate not being one of them by dressing up as their ilk, just as we celebrate being alive with jokes about death.

A man dies and his wife calls up the obituary column of the local newspaper.
Caller: I want to place the most inexpensive notice possible. Just say "Bernie is dead."
Obit Operator: You can have up to six words for the same price.
Caller: OK. Say, "Bernie is dead. Toyota for sale."