September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.
Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.
By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.
In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:
“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”
The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.
The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.
We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.
Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.
We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.
This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.
To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books
October 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
We have a friend who stays with us intermittently between foreign travels, hiking trips, and constant moves. He enjoys shedding life belongings to experience the freedom of living out of a few packs. In between hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and moving to Washington DC, he left a couple of bags of stuff here and a few cameras. One bag had been sitting in the corner for a week, so yesterday I finally pulled it out. Underneath a nondescript pair of grey sweatpants, I found his most abhorrent belonging – a bottle of mezcal with a dead viper biting onto a scorpion inside.
I am a big fan of mezcal, but not of the dead things people put in it. Dead animals completely nauseate me. I used to cover for my husband at the old building we managed, and picking up dead rats off the street made random heroin needles and used condoms seem like a breeze to clean up. Trying to shake off the blood, guts and gore; the weight of a two-pound dead animal in my garbage bag after placing it there with gloves and paper towels – it was enough to ruin my day.
The bottle of mezcal was bothersome. First off, I wondered about the process of killing the animals inside. Does it occur before or after they’re bottled? Who handles the deadly creatures before they’re dead? Having dead animals in the house was nauseating (curiously, my preserved butterfly art piece has never given me this feeling). On top of that, the bottle seemed like a sick form of hoodoo that I didn’t want around.
Dizzying things kept happening throughout the rest of the day. My husband started moaning from the bathtub, asking me to pull a piece of glass out of a cut in his foot. I refused to dig into the gash, but obliged in holding up a flashlight for him to see more clearly. Then after that, he vomited up his lunch – he has an incredible reflex for removing any tainted food from his body. I made a delicious roast chicken with herbs, but afterwards, I couldn’t digest properly because Michael was so stressed over the non-responsive Internet.
It all came to a head as we were watching ‘The Strain’ – which includes more nauseating things like preserved organs in formaldehyde, and zombie creatures that suck blood with their enormous lurching tongues. It seemed like my day had been steamrolled by the bottle of dead things. I thought longingly of my beautiful time spent editing, out in the square in the sunshine, when everything felt right and wonderful and full of Umbrian chocolate squares next to Americano’s.
“That’s it!” I said, getting up in the middle of the show. “I’m getting rid of that bottle. I don’t even want it on our balcony or in our storage unit or anywhere. I feel bad, but it needs to go. I don’t like people leaving things here when I don’t even know what’s in my own home.”
With that, I grabbed the bottle which Michael had put outside in a grocery bag, and stormed down to the first floor, through the long garage, out to the street, where I gently tossed it into the trash bin with the garbage man idling behind the bar next door. My mezcal hand buzzed with wacky energy. It wouldn’t stop for ten minutes. Then after a half an hour, all was well with the world. Michael was amazed by my sudden bout of sensitivity.
“Okay,” I admitted, “so I had a moment there where I became my mom. So what.”
“A weird superstitious moment. Though that thing really was disgusting.”
Beyond the dead viper instilling an extreme ick factor in me, it was the intention behind it that bothered me – whatever that was. I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in intentions – if people believe something strongly enough, they are bound to make it true for themselves and affect the people around them too. I couldn’t trust what the intentions were behind the bottle (though it was most likely just a novelty item). The sight of it was enough to make me not want to dig that deep – a leftover instinct from my superstitious upbringing.
As a young Christian, I really thought that all of that stuff I was told was real. The devil was always in the bushes, waiting for my weak moment so that he could claim me. God was always judging everything that I did, though I barely ever actually heard his voice – the voice in my head that told me I would escape doom and destruction. The end times were coming, and the mark of the beast was on everything.
There are such things as hexes and energy vampires and wigged out people in cults. Yet still, after all that I’ve seen and experienced – the miracles, the covens, the energy sucking, the Santeria space cadets in white, the voodoo packets left in people’s houses, the full moon rituals – I still find that now I no longer believe in good and evil. To a great extent, there is quite a lot of fakery that goes on. This leads to belief, which spreads intention. The mind begins tripping on itself, and tripping others up in its wake. Fear plays a major role in all of this. Buying into extremes of good and evil can drive people crazy, and has caused more wars and deaths than we can count.
The idea of “good” is just as faulty as the idea of “evil.” What is good for one person is horrible for the next person. There is no one size fits all in goodness. Even one person’s form of love can be humiliating and suffocating to the next person. “Goodness” is often a cultural badge of customs and traditions, and a way of seeing outsiders as evil. Goodness comes from the Middle English word godness.
Likewise evil is an idiom for devil or Satan. Our language is built on Christian mythology. Evil is most often used as a label for cultures or people groups we don’t understand. The villains in stereotypical action movies all have vaguely Arabic names and features, or in ‘The Strain’ for example, the enemy is a Nazi German who gained immortality through the Master – a Satanesque creature. In film – the hero so often bears a square jaw, corn-fed muscles, and symmetrical features, while the villain bears a prominent nose and olive skin. Evil is an idea that is ingrained in us from the time we’re children – beginning with the propaganda of popular films.
In politics, when a country counters by arming in the same way that the U.S. continues to do, that country is looked on as “evil.” There is no thought involved in how all of our bombs must make people in other countries feel. Instead, it becomes a war of egos – any country with an ego as big as ours is a threat of mass destruction. Yet the truth is, the U.S. is responsible for more mass destruction internationally than any other country, and it’s not hard to see why we receive threats and attacks from Al-Qaeda and now Isis. Our attempts at “rescuing” other countries are something that Americans have seen as “good” while those who have lost their homes and families see as “evil.”
Religion causes these ideas of “good” and “evil” to be magnified into an international battle of spiritual warfare. In this mindset, we are not dealing on a human level, but in a demons against angels level. In other words – life doesn’t exist in reality, it exists in a blockbuster Marvel movie. Differences are magnified rather than what we commonly share. There is no seeing the issues from the opposite point of view.
It’s true that we’ve seen a great deal of dictators in the past and present that seem to be “evil.” They often got to their position of power through deep-seated psychological issues that became magnified as their position increased. The more power you have, the more you can get away with. The more people fear you, the more it becomes difficult to empathize from on high. Mega-church pastors are susceptible to the same course as they gain more and more power over their congregations. Watch how quickly they fall.
Good and evil are two categories that lack honesty and are rooted in myth. What I want to know is how did that person go from point A to point B and what caused their need for that trajectory and the actions that followed? There is a story behind everyone, which doesn’t make them less guilty of crimes, but explains the situation through critical analysis rather than through basic archetypes of heroes and villains. If we’re all honest with ourselves, we play both the hero and the villain on a daily basis.
When I was a Christian, deep superstitions were ingrained within me so deeply that I couldn’t see outsiders for what they really were – people just like me. Instead, I saw them as wicked creatures lurking to tempt me or take advantage of all my weakness. If you weren’t a Christian, you spent your life in a bar, abused your family, and ended up in prison. It’s amazing that I actually thought this. If I had looked around my own neighborhood for example, I could have seen that non-Christians were not slaves to vice, but hard working people just like my parents. However, I was only exposed to outsiders on a very limited basis. My Christian school, my church, my home – these were the places I lived. There was barely a window with a view.
On one hand, it’s embarrassing to think of my extreme reaction to the dead viper biting the scorpion in the bottle of mezcal. It reminds me of the way I thought under the myths of good and evil. When we hid in the basement on Halloween from the frightful creature people asking for candy; the dolls I couldn’t have because they might be possessed by demons; the way my mother cheered when she saw that a Psychic’s hut had burned down on the way to the Six Flags Amusement park.
The bottle also represents a culture I don’t understand – a sense of machismo in dead deadly things; a last laugh; a who is the victim now; a power trip against the dangers of nature. The bottle holds a reality that I am sheltered from in a northern city with only rats, fleas, and fruit flies.
Snakes are a shiver-inducing animal. The way they slither; the way they eat their prey whole; their sinister existence. Cold-blooded animals are foreign to us – the opposite of our species. Lacking in bonds and solitary in their daily aim to sleep and kill and be on the move. They are difficult to understand. And though I spent one summer fascinated by the garter snakes that swam in the backyard pond, I was sickened by my own obsession and had nightmares that the snakes were slithering all over me in a sea of grass.
Before I ever saw real snakes, I was obsessed that one would slither up through the toilet and bite me in the ass. For a long time after I was potty trained, I made a habit of washing my hands before flushing the toilet, so that I could run out the door and escape the snake if it should come up.
Maybe my issue with snakes comes from some Freudian issue surrounding toilet training. Who knows. I am as much fascinated by the way they move, as I am horrified. Nature is wide and varied. Our response to certain animals has a lot to do with self-protection. If you see a snake in the wild that is something beyond garter, it’s best to get away. A healthy dose of revolt is built into our DNA. Even snakes, though at times our enemies, are not evil. As much as I think living rats are cute, someone needs to eat them to keep the population down – snakes are very good at that – and there’s no flattened, bloody rat carcasses to clean up afterwards either – the beauty of eating your food whole.