Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

October Links Roundup: Mx. Personality

October…my favorite season. The days turn cold and dark, the leaves change color, and Mr. Tech Support and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I am filled with an unusual sense of wellbeing because I sold three copies of my story collection at a Straw Dog Writers Guild reading last night and now have enough money to buy a new trans boi shirt from Androgynous Fox. (Speaking of which, this Dapper Boi button-down is the best. Make more colors!)

My forced exposure to psychological tests a decade ago convinced me that “personality” is a contestable concept. (A belief which, needless to say, did not improve my score.) The self is situational, changing over time, and wearing different personae depending on the norms and trust level in a given social setting. Attempting to quantify it as a fixed trait, like eye color, can erase the impact of interpersonal stressors and make the subject feel powerless to change.

Such caveats are thoroughly considered in “Who’s Got Personality?”, Deborah Chasman’s Boston Review interview with Merve Emre about her new book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (Penguin Random House). Their dialogue explores reasons for the continued popularity of these unscientific metrics, the test creators’ struggles with women’s changing roles in the mid-20th century, and the gender and class hierarchies that the test perpetuates:

If you look at the statistics around the [thinking vs. feeling] indicator, it is true that women tend have a stronger preference for feeling than men. But what I think is so dangerous about MBTI is that it claims that those personality traits are innate; it naturalizes the feeling-work that women do when really it is often a function of much larger structural dynamics. That women were often tasked with doing the affective labor of social reproduction has very little to do with biology and everything to do with the way that the household has been set up and theorized as a private space—where feelings are managed—as opposed to the public space of material labor and of work…

…Not everybody gets the privilege of thinking of oneself as a unique individual, somebody who has a rich inner life or even a highly differentiated set of preferences that are worth talking about and classifying. Even before you get to typing people using the indicator, a type system has already sorted them—there are those who get to have access to personalities and those who don’t.

Today, still, by the logic of this particular indicator, people who are white and wealthy and powerful and male get to think of themselves as personalities. The indicator really works to perpetuate that. When I went to the reeducation program, one participant was this wonderful man, a college counselor from a small, Midwestern school, who was telling us that 70 percent of his students were first-generation immigrants, they were the first people in their families to go to college, they were overwhelmingly from lower-income households, many of them were women and students of color. He was telling the talent coach that for many of these students the questions on the test are simply inscrutable—they ask you to imagine these scenarios where, say, you are planning a vacation and you have to figure out whether you plan everything ahead of time or you just go spontaneously. Or at work, you have this huge project and your boss is a thinker and you are a feeler, so how do you go about making decisions. His students found the minds of those decision-makers impenetrably bourgeois. He asked the talent coach what he should tell them when they say they have never gone on vacation, never been able to afford to go on vacation, or that in their workplaces people don’t cooperate—they are just told what to do and to punch in and out. Her response was striking: well, this is the pool of success, and if they want to swim in it they just have to learn, they just have to acclimate themselves to this language, to these ideas. MBTI continues to be classed and raced and biased in all sorts of implicit ways. It was explicit in the ’40s. It is more implicit now.

For a more contrarian take on self-help, life coach Pace Smith recently blogged about a dangerous omission in spiritual talk about the virtue of love. In “Why I Hate Compassion”, she writes:

If you hang out with spiritual people (and you do), you’ll hear a lot of talk about compassion. Supposedly, it’s pretty awesome. If we can just practice infinite compassion for all beings at all times, we’ll reach enlightenment and all dance around as joyful radiant beings of light.

Take this Dalai Lama quote, for example:

“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.”

Does that make you feel peaceful? If so, you can stop reading now, and pass this article along to a friend who suffers from Infinite Compassion Syndrome.

If the quote makes you feel anxious, and makes you question whether you’re truly doing as much as you can, then I’m talking to you.

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” – Sri Chinmoy

Sounds great in theory, right?

But would you give this advice to a woman in an abusive relationship?

Would you tell her to forgive, to let go of judgment, and to love no matter what?

Yes, I know, I post a lot of links on this topic… If I have any consistent “personality”, it’s this: I can’t avoid probing for the weak spot, the thing that is left out, in any belief system. Is deconstruction a wounded trauma response? Was the neo-conservative phase of my teens and 20s an attempt to shore up fragments of absolutism against the inevitable ruins of whatever I trusted?

Back in those days, I was pro-life–largely because it scared me to think that my mother, or any mother, should have the power to decide whether I was a “person” or not. (Heck, she was never convinced of that after I was born.) But when I realized I didn’t trust the religious conservatives who shared my views, nor agreed with them on anything else, it caused me to question my position. Gabrielle Blair, who blogs at Design Mom, recently posted this Twitter thread (unrolled on her blog) with a convincing argument that the most ethical way to reduce unwanted pregnancies is to hold men responsible, commensurate with their real biological role in the problem. Excerpts:

Did you know that a man CAN’T get a woman pregnant without having an orgasm? Which means that we can conclude getting a woman pregnant is a pleasurable act for men.

But did you further know that men CAN get a woman pregnant without HER feeling any pleasure at all? In fact, it’s totally possible for a man to impregnate a woman even while causing her excruciating pain, trauma or horror.

In contrast, a woman can have non-stop orgasms with or without a partner and never once get herself pregnant. A woman’s orgasm has literally nothing to do with pregnancy or fertility — her clitoris exists not for creating new babies, but simply for pleasure.

No matter how many orgasms she has, they won’t make her pregnant. Pregnancies can only happen when men have an orgasm. Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.

What this means is a women can be the sluttliest slut in the entire world who loves having orgasms all day long and all night long and she will never find herself with an unwanted pregnancy unless a man shows up and ejaculates irresponsibly.

Women enjoying sex does not equal unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Men enjoying sex and having irresponsible ejaculations is what causes unwanted pregnancies and abortion…

…Stop protesting at clinics. Stop shaming women. Stop trying to overturn abortion laws. If you actually care about reducing or eliminating the number of abortions in our country, simply HOLD MEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.

What would that look like? What if there was a real and immediate consequence for men who cause an unwanted pregnancy? What kind of consequence would make sense? Should it be as harsh, painful, nauseating, scarring, expensive, risky, and life-altering…

… as forcing a woman to go through a 9-month unwanted pregnancy?

In my experience, men really like their testicles. If irresponsible ejaculations were putting their balls at risk, they would stop being irresponsible. Does castration seem like a cruel and unusual punishment? Definitely.

But is it worse than forcing 500,000 women a year to puke daily for months, gain 40 pounds, and then rip their bodies apart in childbirth? Is a handful of castrations worse than women dying during forced pregnancy & childbirth?

Put a castration law on the books, implement the law, let the media tell the story, and in 3 months or less, tada! abortions will have virtually disappeared. Can you picture it? No more abortions in less than 3 months, without ever trying to outlaw them. Amazing.

For those of you who consider abortion to be murder, wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?

And if not, is that because you actually care more about policing women’s bodies, morality, and sexuality, than you do about reducing or eliminating abortions? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

At the cultural webzine Popula, Sarah Miller reflects on the dangers of going along to get along, in “The Movie Assassin: How ‘The English Patient’ almost ruined my life”. As a young film critic at a Philadelphia newspaper, Miller thought the much-hyped movie was pretentious and dull (I agree), but her mentors insisted that any smart person should love it, and leaned on her to write a positive review. She did, and moved on to a successful freelance career writing things she didn’t really care about, until one day the money dried up and she had an epiphany:

I thought a lot about my lying review of that racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie. I thought about how at the time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to make shit up because I was afraid to disagree with someone I wanted to impress, and also afraid of not making money. That one decision had led to a lot of other similar ones and had eventually ended up as an agreement with myself to spend over 10 years of my life being a different person than the one I had planned on being and feeling smug about being good at writing crap and then even actually starting to think the crap was good because of the money I was given to produce it. I look at all the people in tech who are convinced they are saving the world, that what they do matters. When the money goes, and it will, that feeling will go with it.

If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person…

…It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit. Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means. If you happen to gain from side effects (see fusion cuisine, above) you might want to notice what everyone else, including you, is losing. But try saying that at a dinner party. Everyone would just feel sorry for you.

I just can’t stop thinking of—hmmm—The English Patient. This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?

Becoming poor was such a small price to pay to stop being so fucking dumb. I used to hear the saying “Politics is the art of the possible” as benignly self-evident. Now I know it is chastising, smug, and cruel. It’s not about cooperation. It is about agreeing that some people’s lives don’t matter. If you hear anything else in that saying, you’ve never wished you could just die because you couldn’t figure out how to make money.

Want to discover two great poets who understand why writing matters? Check out this conversation betwen Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith in Granta. At the time, both were shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Forward Prize, which Smith won. Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) is a lyrical meditation on recovery from alcoholism, in dialogue with the Persian mystical tradition of his ancestors. Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a fierce and tender book on being black and HIV+ in America, combines the energetic rhythms of performance poetry with the complexity of literature on the page. As the editor of Divedapper, Akbar is also an extremely generous promoter of other contemporary poets. Follow him on Twitter to find your next favorite poem. In the Granta piece, I especially loved Smith’s discussion of the challenges of writing a joyful book (his forthcoming collection Homie):

I turned to my favorite writers of joy: Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angel Nafis, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison. I turned to Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and all the folks I dance and sing too. I learned two things I think. One was to allow some more grief into the poems, not to sully the joy, but for the grief to be comforted. I think in my two previous collections grief led while joy attempted to triumph. I think that is surely a fine way to write joy. We all love an anthem and anthems require a little blood. With this collection, I think joy is the center and grief seeks out joy as a place of respite. Some of the drafts at some point felt a little cheesy, so I had to dig a little deeper into that brightness I distrusted and find what was being confessed. I think poems confess something. The second thing I learned was to surrender to ecstasy.

May we all write in such a way that our grief can be comforted.

Revealing Self: Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel’s Multimedia Memoir

Visual artist Tom Taylor, a/k/a The Poet Spiel, is a creator of varied personae, with a 66-year career spanning genres from graphic design to mixed-media collage and installation art, poetry, and now memoir. His new book, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, is an impressionistic retrospective of his personal journey and the dramatic shifts in his style and materials over the decades.

Boldly colored reproductions of his artwork are interspersed with vignettes, aphorisms, dreamlike or nightmarish memories, and previously published poems reformatted as prose paragraphs. These written sections are set off in quotation marks, like tantalizing snippets of an overheard conversation, and formatted in a multi-hued script that creates the impression of an artist’s journal. (This font was admittedly a challenge to read in large amounts, but the necessity of slowing down may have helped me absorb more of the meaning.) Instead of traditional narrative transitions, third-person summaries of the action, in a more businesslike sans-serif font, serve as occasional signposts to situate the samples of his creative work within the chronology of his life and travels.

And what a life: Born in 1941, Spiel was a maverick from the start. He grew up on a Colorado farm on the Great Plains, a repressive environment for a gay artistic boy with migraines and manic-depressive tendencies. The early pages of his book speak candidly, in intense and hallucinatory flashbacks seared with humor, about the burden of his mother’s mental illness and her violation of his intimate boundaries. His bond with animals and nature kept his soul alive, a connection he would later channel into successful commercial posters and landscape paintings of wildlife, inspired by his travels in Zambia. In the 1990s his work took a surreal and expressionist turn, protesting social conformity and war. His life as a gay man in America has given him an outsider perspective on the hypocrisy of conventional mores, and a rage against the stifling of his authentic life force. These themes show up in his raw, satirical, unpretentious poems. Revealing Self invites the reader to experience Rimbaud’s maxim that “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.”

Spiel has kindly permitted me to reprint this poem, first published in his chapbook Human (Pudding House Press, 2003).

July Bonus Links: Open Borders Edition

Hello again, fans. The fascist nightmare engulfing our country merited its own links post, so here you go. At the risk of putting myself on a government watchlist, I must say, never have I felt less enthusiastic about the patriotic celebrations of July 4th. I believe in what America ought to be, but am realizing that–structurally, intentionally–that is not what America is. (White person discovers the obvious, Episode N+1.)

My readers probably don’t know that “Jendi” was not my legal name–until last month, when the Hampshire County Court made my 40-year-long dream a reality. (Long story, of course having to do with my mother, not the point.) Now I am in the middle of the arduous process of changing all my official documents, which must be done at various far-flung government offices in a particular order and sometimes at ridiculous expense. Folks, I am shitting bricks till my expedited passport comes back from the State Department. Not because I plan to go anywhere, but because it’s suddenly occurred to me how creepy it is, that we are all technically imprisoned within the borders of the nation-state where we happen to be born.

George Mason University economics professor Alex Tabarrok makes “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders–Completely” in a 2015 article in The Atlantic. After citing statistics that immigration raises GDP, Tabarrok adds:

Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Economic data is easy to massage to fit one’s political views, certainly, but it’s worth questioning why conventional wisdom and government policy currently encourage the free movement of capital but not the free movement of workers.

At the leftist political journal Jacobin, Domenic Powell lays out a program for the Democrats to implement meaningful immigration reform in his article “How to Abolish ICE”. The piece suggests strategies we can try at the local level, such as pressuring our law enforcement agencies to stop sharing data with ICE and to end agreements whereby ICE rents space to detain immigrants in our jails. The article also recommends that Congress set up an immigration court system that is independent of the Justice Department, to stop treating all undocumented people as presumptive criminals.

If you’re in Massachusetts, call your state representatives and Governor Charlie Baker to pass the Safe Communities Act, which cleared the Senate in May. Also see this article from Colorlines about “How You Can Support Detained Immigrant Families”. From protesting to donating to making phone calls, there’s something for nearly everyone to do. I’m hosting a birthday fundraiser through Facebook for the National Immigration Law Center.

Meanwhile, white evangelical Trump supporters are doing their best to destroy what’s left of Christianity’s reputation. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified tearing immigrant children from their parents by citing Romans 13, saying that everyone must obey the laws because “God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clark, a/k/a Slacktivist, deconstructs this interpretation in “Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address”:

[N]ote the full enormity of what Sessions is doing there. He’s not just invoking the Bible to justify this one policy, but to justify — as beyond question and beyond criticism — any and every policy. Yes, specifically he’s claiming the divine right to put children in cages, but more than that he’s claiming to be an agent of God and therefore that whatever he does is divine, and that we mere mortals have no choice but to submit and obey…

…The idea of “the government” that Sessions is asserting — and attempting to sanction with scripture — is not compatible with the idea stated by our greatest Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Slacktivist remarks that most Christian political philosophy, be it liberal or conservative, makes the mistake of treating “the government” as an entity separate from “the people”, something that was true in St. Paul’s time but not in our modern democracies. (As humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote at the end of his political satire Parliament of Whores, “In a democracy, the whores are us.”)

We don’t have a king or a Caesar, we have usWe are, in this time and place and in this system — however imperfectly realized — the authorities appointed as servants of God to do good.

We must not irresponsibly reject that appointment by reading Romans 13 as though we were first-century subjects of an all-powerful emperor. We shouldn’t be reading that passage for wisdom about our accountability to government, but for wisdom about our accountability as government.

Otherwise we’re conceding the argument to Jeff Sessions and other would-be rulers claiming a divine right to demand our submission. That will make us accountable to him to obey whatever he tells us about children in cages. We need to turn that around. We need to demand that he be accountable to us, and that if what he does is wrong he should fear us, for we have authority and we do not bear it in vain.

It’s been a disappointing year for progressives at the Supreme Court. I’m especially worried about how the Court has been chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, because the Republicans have been trying for decades to rig the system by disenfranchising poor and nonwhite voters. In the Husted case, decided last month, the Court narrowly upheld Ohio’s shady plan to purge voters from the rolls based on their lack of response to an easy-to-miss mass mailing. Over at Slate, commentator Mark Joseph Stern describes the battling jurisprudential philosophies of Justices Sotomayor and Alito in “Sam vs. Sonia”. He thinks the conservatives are winning:

In the legal battles between state officials and Americans who believe their suffrage is under siege, whose voices matter most? Those of lawmakers complaining about the difficulty of performing their duties, or those of minorities who feel their most fundamental right has been suppressed? Which side deserves the Supreme Court’s empathy? Through Alito, this court has clearly picked a side, elevating the voices of state officials who insist that their purges and gerrymanders do not block equal access to the ballot. Its favoritism will have dire consequences for decades to come.

Poor judicial decision-making comes as no surprise to the folks at the socialist journal Current Affairs, such as writers Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni, who explore the quirky and arbitrary power of individual bench-sitters in their article “Judging the Judges”:

Knowledge of the individual personalities of judges is such an important feature of the legal system that it operates as a skill in a lawyer’s toolkit, one that can be paid for. Supreme Court clerks who choose to go to big law firms after clerking on the court receive massive bonuses, often hundreds of thousands of dollars. The main asset they bring to their new firms is their firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of a particular Supreme Court justice’s mind. Large firms understand the strategic value of knowing a judge personally—what they like, what they dislike, what considerations will make them most likely to agree with you.

With judges wielding such concentrated and individualized power over cases, courtrooms quickly become stages for bizarre legal farces. Lawyers make arguments they don’t believe, that the judges know the lawyers don’t believe, but everyone has to play along. Only the judge has the power to decide when the game will end, and how. Let’s say, for example, that your client lost a case because they didn’t show up for a previous hearing. They likely missed that hearing for some reason that a normal person would find totally understandable: They didn’t have a lawyer at the time, they don’t speak English that well and didn’t understand what the hearing was for, they couldn’t get time off work, the bus got stuck in traffic on the way to the courthouse. But under the applicable statute, it’s likely that none of these perfectly rational and comprehensible explanations are admissible. In this situation, you know, and the judge knows, the real reasons the client missed the hearing. But you’ll have to try to make an argument about something totally different, something that this particular judge might choose to accept, even though they know that your argument has little to nothing to do with the reality of the situation.

At times, this peculiar trade in niche arguments feels thoroughly demented. If the judge wanted a bribe, that would at least feel normal. Everyone wants money. But what judges want is some strange intellectual product. Maybe they want you to cleverly contort the facts into some tiny legal box. Maybe they want to be convinced that doing whatever you’re asking them to do will quickly vanish the case from their docket and free the judge up to go to lunch. Or maybe the judge made up their mind about the case the second they glanced down at the paperwork, and is now simply idly watching you dance.

The fact that legal arguments are usually completely divorced from reality is partially a function of the law itself, and not solely the judges. That said, nothing prevents judges from acting like rational, normal people instead of playing games with people’s lives and making lawyers jump through hoops.

What, then, is the answer? Not “impartiality”, which the authors believe is an impossible ideal. They argue that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum should put less faith in the judiciary to drive social change:

If we aspire to a form of democracy where there is an actual connection between the organizing efforts of the general public and the subsequent behavior of our elected officials, pushing for reforms to make our elected government more responsive to popular concerns is a better route than relying on distant elites to undo the mistakes of other elites. When you put power in the hands of unaccountable elites, you never know what they will do with it.

While it’s not a cure-all, it would also help to reform and diversify legal education, so that judges are not so out of touch with the real lives of the ordinary people before them:

Part of the problem, of course, is that judges are separated from poor litigants by class and, often, race. If we want more judges to exercise discretion in an empathetic direction, it seems crucial to diversify the pool of judges, perhaps directly through quotas, or indirectly by reducing social and financial barriers to entry in the legal profession. Also important is changing the dominant ethos of legal education, which overwhelmingly privileges the pet concerns of legal academics and corporate clients over the kinds of issues that affect the vast majority of the people caught up in our courts.

I second that remark about legal education. Personally, my journey from young libertarian to armchair radical began 21 years ago when I started a clerkship with a New York State appeals judge. He happened to be a progressive, which made my transformation smoother, but what really opened my eyes was the case summaries themselves. Our staff attorneys would write summaries of the legal briefs and the trial record, so we could quickly handle the cases that didn’t present any important legal issue and focus on the knottier ones. For the first time, I was reading true stories of what it was like to live in dangerous public housing, or be sentenced to 5-10 years for selling $10 worth of crack. Relative to my peers in elite schools, I’d felt underprivileged; now I saw how privileged I was compared to other people in my neighborhood, let alone the city. We never read those kinds of stories in law school. That’s outrageous. I do think we brought about some positive changes and did justice in our limited way during my 3-year tenure. The courts alone won’t save us, but wherever you are, do what you can.

The Poet Spiel: “queers for dinner”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, is a writer and painter whose work is passionate, countercultural, and sardonic about the absurdities and hypocrisies of American life. I was corresponding with him this week about subscriber news for Winning Writers (read his latest prizewinning poem here) and mentioned that I still laugh when I remember this poem from his book Barely Breathing. He’s kindly allowed me to reprint it below.

queers for dinner

seemed like my uptown art dealer’d never
invite me and paul to check out the hi-falutin new
six thousand square foot pad he was bragging
he’d just built on top a hill with a 360º view
of anything anybody’d ever wish to see

but then he was a republican and us being just
a couple of lowly dudes maybe he didn’t want
our queer tootsies on his marble floors and i’d
pissed him off one time when i told him
he looked cute in cowboy boots
so anyway i finally asked aren’t you gonna
ask us over to see yer hotshit pad?
odd, how he acted like it’d never occurred to him
well he finally phoned and wanted to know
if we had any food preferences cuz he &
his old lady’d decided to try out their flashy
new stainless-steel kitchen on us
cook up something special and said we’d be
a kind of test run for when they had
real dinner guests

well yeah, i said, if yer doin something special
we do have preferences:
we don’t eat skunk & we don’t eat pussy

Spiel (R) and Paul, his partner of 33 years.

Murder Ballad Monday: Hurray for the Riff Raff

In the category of problematic faves, murder ballads shine an ambiguous light on intimate partner violence. The best songs honestly mirror this reality more than they glorify it, but the artist can never control how the listener receives the message. Is Johnny Cash repentant or bragging in “Delia’s Gone”? What is the nature of my enjoyment of the stone-cold amorality of Lyle Lovett’s “Lights of L.A. County”? I can participate in the man’s revenge fantasy, and somehow at the same time feel relief, from a female perspective, that the artist has acknowledged the constant danger under which we live. The song does not force me to choose.

Modern country-western divas have started talking back to the genre by writing murder ballads about battered women’s revenge. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” are the comedy and tragedy masks hanging over this theater. However, flipping the gender of songs like “Banks of the Ohio” is an individual solution to a collective problem. Male-on-female murder ballads take place in the context of men’s violent entitlement to women’s bodies and attention. It’ll take more than a girl with a gun to even things out.

This week at the entertainment website A Beautiful Perspective, Noah Berlatsky, one of my favorite pop-culture columnists, profiled singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her innovative songs draw on on her Puerto Rican roots and the populist political tradition of folk music. In 2014’s “The Body Electric”, Segarra responds directly to “Delia” and “Banks of the Ohio”, not with a revenge fantasy of her own, but with a new narrative of female solidarity and survival. The gorgeous video shows a woman of color resurrected from the drowning river like Botticelli’s Venus, and a time-reversed sequence of a shower of bullets being gathered up and transformed into a baby in her arms.

Decolonizing With My Polish Jewish Ancestors

In my post “Problems of Lineage and Magic” earlier this month, I began to explore the concept of ancestor work through the “decolonization” framework that’s developing in the politically progessive witchy community. I’ve begun taking this four-week online course from White Awake called “Before We Were White: Ceremony and Recovery for Anti-Racist Action”. Organizers Eleanor Hancock and Darcy Ottey describe it as a class for “white-identified people seeking greater emotional resilience in their work against racism and for a sustainable future. Together we will explore how ceremonial practice and a strong ancestral identity help us challenge white supremacy as whole people.”

So, despite my loud-and-proud estrangement from my biological family, I’m cautiously investigating the shadow side of my rootlessness. Maybe there’s a level of unburdening from ancestral trauma that can’t happen until I go towards the ancestors and find out what they need me to resolve. Maybe, also, I should look at the role of my mother’s ethnic and class anxiety–dare I say, internalized anti-Semitism–in my past distaste for the parochialism of Judaism and my flight towards the seemingly universal cosmopolitan individualism of Christianity. In theory the post-tribal freedom and egalitarianism of the Jesus movement and the Enlightenment still appeal to me; in practice Western Christianity and Western rationality have frequently given cover to a new tribalism of cisgender white men.

All right, then, if we’re celebrating particularity, which lineage or geographical place is the framework for my ancestral recovery? Ethnically, on both sides, I’m an Eastern European Jew. My mother’s family emigrated to America in the early 20th century (good move, guys!!) from Poland, though I believe they came from Lithuania before that.

This is where it gets tricky. Polish indigenous magic and folk traditions come from the land where my ancestors lived, but do they come from my people? Are the Poles and Slavs ethnically distinct from the diaspora Jews? Are the Jews a race? (Certain people in Poland infamously thought we were…) I’m not sure whether the Slavic pagan deities are allies of Polish Jews, or of the goyim who threw us out.

Judaism, meanwhile, defined itself from the beginning as opposing all forms of folk magic or worship of local spirits. Tearing down pagan altars was a full-time job for the Hebrew prophets. I feel a stronger connection to Jewish material culture and traditions–folk tales, family rituals, recipes, Yiddish songs, immigrant narratives–than to anything Polish. This the actual heritage of my biological relatives. To the extent that I have any experience of inter-generational oral tradition, this is it. However, the religion is inherently contrary to the witchy project into which I would pour these memories.

Jews also have, shall we say, a troubled history with ethnicity- or land-based identity! The decolonization mindset tells white folks, who have a bad wannabe-Indian habit, to “stay in our lane” and reconstruct the indigenous folkways of our own ethnicity instead. I respect that as a negative command: don’t make up a stereotypical, commodified version of tribal practices and pollute the cultural stream for actual Native people trying to preserve their heritage. But I’m not sure about the positive command to foreground your own ethnic background as a determinant of your spirituality. As Myke Johnson asks in her paper “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns Into Cultural Theft”, one of the resources for our White Awake class:

I believe that finding and sharing our own ancestral resources might be one step, but then what? If White people turn to our own ancestral traditions, how are we being different from racist segregationists? How do we recognize our interrelatedness with all peoples, as well as the brokenness between us?

Look at where a religion of sacred land and ethnicity has brought the Jews today. Atrocities are being committed by the hawkish Israelis who find Biblical mandate for taking back “their” homeland from the Palestinians. (I support a two-state solution.) The decolonization framework of Christian imperialists versus grassroots pagans breaks down when it comes to Jewish political history. We lost our roots in the homeland because we were colonized by pagan Romans and crusading Christians, but to reclaim those roots, we have become oppressive colonizers. Enlightenment individualism suddenly doesn’t look half bad.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see the literature address this question. Meanwhile, I’m off to Google “Jewish folk magic”. Tonight is a Super Blue Blood Full Moon, a good time to ask my ancestors for guidance.

Grandma Nettie and toddler Jendi playing the piano, c.1974. She passed away when I was 6, taking her kugel recipe to the grave. I think her default advice would be “Use more schmaltz!”

January Links Roundup: Truth Is the Cure

Welcome to 2018, friends! This year, I have resolved to be more trans, put a higher priority on my own writing, and go deeper into my eclectic spiritual journey. I’m asking myself why I don’t spend more time on the things that I think matter most to me. Am I deceiving myself about what I really want, or am I uncertain of my right or ability to follow my dreams?

I find that there’s always further to go in healing. More unconscious self-defeating messages to unearth and expose as false. More outworn shapes of life and relationships, now-rusting cage bars to notice and shove aside. More old fears that it’s selfish for me to attempt a more sustainable balance between self-care and availability to others.

A close friend of mine rightly says that “all abuse is a 10 out of 10 to the person who suffers it.” It’s not loving to minimize your experience with comparisons to someone else’s story. However, in the world of social services and self-help literature, non-physical violation is often shortchanged. There are precious few support groups for childhood trauma survivors as it is, and all the ones I’ve found locally are limited to women who were sexually abused.

Andrew Vachss is a successful thriller writer and child protection attorney. His books often deal with themes of child abuse and neglect. Vachss’ Twitter feed is a steady source of affirming messages for survivors of family estrangement and trauma. Originally published in Parade Magazine in 1994 and reprinted on his website, his article “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart” validates the struggles of emotional abuse survivors and offers good advice for healing. The guilt feelings he describes are the reason I sometimes get hooked into over-extending myself. Some excerpts:

…[O]f all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest–lasting of all.

Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self–concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection…

*

…When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain. “It wasn’t just the incest,” she said quietly. “It was that he didn’t love me. If he loved me, he couldn’t have done that to me.”

But emotional abuse is unique because it is designed to make the victim feel guilty…

*

…Another rarely understood form of emotional abuse makes victims responsible for their own abuse by demanding that they “understand” the perpetrator. Telling a 12–year–old girl that she was an —enabler— of her own incest is emotional abuse at its most repulsive.

A particularly pernicious myth is that “healing requires forgiveness” of the abuser. For the victim of emotional abuse, the most viable form of help is self–help—and a victim handicapped by the need to “forgive” the abuser is a handicapped helper indeed. The most damaging mistake an emotional–abuse victim can make is to invest in the “rehabilitation” of the abuser. Too often this becomes still another wish that didn’t come true—and emotionally abused children will conclude that they deserve no better result.

The costs of emotional abuse cannot be measured by visible scars, but each victim loses some percentage of capacity. And that capacity remains lost so long as the victim is stuck in the cycle of “understanding” and “forgiveness.” The abuser has no “right” to forgiveness—such blessings can only be earned. And although the damage was done with words, true forgiveness can only be earned with deeds.

For those with an idealized notion of “family,” the task of refusing to accept the blame for their own victimization is even more difficult. For such searchers, the key to freedom is always truth—the real truth, not the distorted, self–serving version served by the abuser.

At Womb of Light, Bethany Webster’s resource site about healing wounds from our relationships with our mothers, she analyzes the #MeToo movement in the piece “What’s Going On With Men? The Mother Wound as the Missing Link in Understanding Misogyny”. Patriarchy socializes boys to suppress their emotional vulnerability in order to be considered real men. Sexual desire and anger are the only acceptable feelings. Longing for reconnection with the “feminine” part of themselves, some men reach out to women in distorted and domineering ways, reenacting their ambivalence about the mother-love and powerlessness they felt as babies.

It is as if the inner male child is unconsciously caught between his painful longing for the “lost source” represented by his mother and his cultural conditioning to hate her as a woman. Put another way, men are caught between a natural desire for their full humanity (the ability to be emotional, vulnerable and empathic) and their desire to remain privileged and in dominator mode. The thing is that one can’t have both. To hold on to dominator mode (patriarchy) is to increasingly lose access to your humanity. And to be fully human, one has to forsake the dominator mode, and all the insidious ways it can show up in oneself. No amount of privilege (wealth, power, fame, prestige) will ever compensate for the devastation, to whatever degree, that patriarchy has wrought on the little boy within him. No amount of power over others will ever make up for that lost part of himself. It can only be found through doing the inner work to reclaim it. 

A man can find this “lost source,” not in the form of physical women, but in the form of exploring what it means to reclaim what the mother or the feminine represents within him, such as the feeling function, the world of emotions, the experience of deep connection within himself and a sense of authentic belonging with others. However, in order to access these vital capacities that have been in shadow, men first have to engage with the child within who is angry that there has been little payoff for forsaking these vital aspects of himself. 
 
It’s easier to project rage onto a “mother substitute” or the “father substitute” out there in the world. Male privilege permits men a blindness to their mother and father wounds while the world burns. However, it takes courage to retract those projections and process the anger about the inner patriarch, the archetype of the cruel, unfeeling father, that granted him access to the world of men at the massive cost of disconnection from his true self, the innocent boy who came into this world capable of expressing empathy, emotionality, and vulnerability. The anger belongs with the patriarchal father (personal and/or collective), the “severer of the bond,” who betrayed the boy, who socialized him to give up a vital part of himself to be accepted in this world as a man. The anger also belongs with the mother who was unable to protect him from this patriarchal wound or who may have inflicted it herself. (See my article here about how patriarchy passes through the mother.) When men can direct their anger there, to where it truly belongs, things will really begin to shift.

Radical feminist playwright Carolyn Gage’s blog post “The Crimes Against Thérèse Blanchard” weighs in on a recent controversy about “Thérèse Dreaming”, a Balthus painting on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Balthus was a notable 20th-century painter whose paintings of children and tweens tended toward the disturbing and erotic. Ginia Bellafante at the New York Times provides context in her Dec. 8 article “We Need to Talk About Balthus“:

Several days ago two sisters, Anna Zuccaro, 26, and Mia Merrill, 30, began an online petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove, or at least reimagine the way that it presented, a painting, “Thérèse Dreaming,” of a young girl in languorous, erotic recline.

The artist, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, or Balthus, had used the model, Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of a neighboring Parisian restaurant worker, over the course of three years, making 10 paintings of her beginning in 1936, when she was 11. The image in question features her at 12 or 13, with her legs bent and slightly apart, her eyes closed, her thoughts seemingly lost to fantasy. Her skirt is hiked up to reveal a red lining and a pair of white cotton underwear. Writing about a Balthus exhibit at the Met, four years ago, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl remarked, “Looking at the paintings, I kept thinking of a line by Oscar Wilde: ‘A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence.’”

On the face of it the petition, which quickly gained more than 10,000 signatures, seems like a parody of millennial agitation over the need for cultural protections. “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend,” Ms. Merrill begins her call for support, “I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose.” That is an unlikely reaction for a former art history student at New York University who is involved in feminist causes. But the initial provocation gives way to an utterly reasonable demand, not for censorship or destruction or an idle trigger warning to shield the fragile from being discomfited, but rather for some provision of context, in the form of expanded text for instance, around a work of art that is rooted in the kind of sexualized power abuses we are now so aggressively trying to dismantle.

Those who take issue with the need for these sorts of descriptions argue that we would then be left annotating much of the history of Western art, a position that ignores the crucial distinction between art that imagines or documents exploitation and art that is actively engaged in producing it. Balthus, who died 16 years ago in his 90s, had a longstanding obsession with girls in the early years of their adolescence, whom he often featured nude, in repose, or asleep…

…The Met has said it would not take the painting down (and it shouldn’t) but neither will it agree, a spokesman for the museum said, to offer the viewer more detail about the artist’s orientation and approach, beyond what appears (which includes the model’s name and age). This response comes at a moment when the country is receiving a long and torturous education about the many miseries inflicted on women by celebrated creative men. Commenting in The Washington Post, the critic Philip Kennicott wrote that even an inscription as short and anodyne as one that alerted the viewer to the fact that some might find the painting offensive because Balthus had a long-held artistic infatuation with young girls would be “a concession too far.”

This contradicts the ethos of an age in which we have increasingly sought to understand the moral framework in which nearly everything we consume has been made. Coffee must be produced and labeled in accordance to the principles of free trade, wood flooring must come from sustainable lumber, chickens must be raised and killed humanely. Tech start-ups need origin stories steeped in virtue.

And yet when the product is art and the source material is an actual body, signaling of that kind is apparently dismissible.

I’m with Bellafante on this. Part of curation is providing context for work produced under ethically dubious conditions. When accompanied by a placard that challenges the viewer to think critically, the displayed work can deconstruct the very source from which its aesthetic potency springs–a better teaching moment than hiding the painting in the archives, especially for a famous work whose reproductions are widely available in textbooks and the Internet. Personally, when I was not much older than Therese and her ilk, I was fascinated with the menacing, prematurely aged children in Balthus’ paintings. He was portraying a shadow side of my social world that few others would acknowledge–the cruelty of children, and perhaps the hidden trauma from adults that created these stiff-limbed changelings.

Gage would go further, and take down the painting, which she analogizes to an artifact wrongly seized from a colonized people. As is typical of radical feminists, she may be attributing too singular and fixed a meaning to a complex work of art. However, hers is an original and thought-provoking argument that at least supports the proposition to make the paintings a teaching moment about consent:

 I propose that childhood be recognized as a sovereign state, and that children be treated as the indigenous populations of a world colonized by adults.

Most folks don’t want to think of children that way, because most of us don’t want to consider how many children are living as captives, how the socialization of the child is really about her colonization. It’s easy for us not to think about children this way, because they do not have a voice, a movement, a lobby, a dime—and they never will.  Children do not have a language specific to their experience with which to frame a paradigm of their sovereignty. And that lack of language is one of the most priceless aspects of their culture. It is a culture of astounding plasticity, adaptability. It is a culture of magic, of naiveté, of gullibility, of heartbreaking innocence and spontaneity… and nearly endless opportunities for exploitation.

“Cultural restitution” is a term that refers to returning stolen works of art and artifacts and bones of indigenous cultures. When the Nazis raided the museums of Europe to enhance their own prestige, they were operating according to the laws of their own corrupt regime. These seizures are not recognized as legitimate by a world restored to sanity, and, after a slow start, the stolen works of art are being identified and returned. It is immaterial that they may have been sold to third and fourth parties unaware of their original status as Nazi contraband. The rights of the victims have been affirmed.

“Cultural restitution” also refers to art and artifacts taken from indigenous cultures to be housed in museums or historical collections. Skeletons and burial artifacts are being returned to the tribes from whom they were taken by archeologists. There is an acknowledgement that a sovereign people have a right to their history and their culture, and that it is a violation of the sovereignty for another people, even a conquering one, to appropriate the artifacts of that history or culture…

…Thérèse Blanchard is not alive today. She…cannot stake a claim to the documentation of her abuse. But in continuing to display works like this (and much of Balthus’ canon), we perpetuate the prurience of the perpetrators.

Children have a right to their lives, to their experience, to their privacy. And when a colonizing, predatory adult invades this world, exploiting and monetizing their vulnerability and raiding their innocence in the name of “art,” children should have the right of an indigenous people to claim the artifact that bears witness to their invasion and colonization. And if the child victims are no longer here to stake that claim, then we should make sure that these crime-scene artifacts, no matter how “tasteful” or “masterful” the execution, will never be revered as works of art.

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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Two Poems from Ellaraine Lockie’s “Tripping with the Top Down”

Prolific poet Ellaraine Lockie has a gift for revealing the spirit of a place with a perfectly chosen character sketch or a quirky interaction that invites us to think twice about how we move through the world. In her work, travel produces enlightening friction between an unfamiliar environment and the unnoticed edges of ourselves. Tripping with the Top Down (FootHills Publishing, 2017), her 13th chapbook, takes us along on her tour of the American West, from her Montana birthplace to her native California and points between. The two poems below, reprinted with permission, depict moments when the concerns of the mind intersect unexpectedly with those of the body.

Reading at the Little Joy

Daydreaming on a winter evening
in front of the host bar on Sunset Boulevard
I’m already lost in the drama
that waits with closed mouth
on the other side of the locked door

When two young men stop
and one asks How much
I say Oh, not much longer
Maybe ten minutes
He looks at his buddy whose eyebrows
squeeze together under glasses
I ask You guys wanna read

The head with glasses turns to the other
Well, what’aya think
But not before a long look at me
And through car light reflecting off his lenses
I see a woman in black wearing mini-skirt
lacey tights and cowboy boots
Weight on one hip with jaws working
a pack of Wrigley’s Polar Ice
and leaning against the Little Joy’s wall

And in one snap of gum I’m rabbit-aware
of bodily discharges that stain
the sidewalk and air
Music in the distance with the throb
of a slow leather whip
And an empty needle in the gutter

The first guy says Too whacky
And they continue to the next corner
Eight minutes left
before I return to my native language

****

In Bed with Edgar Allan
at the Sylvia Beach Hotel

What woman would think the ending
could be so exquisitely executed
in the arms of Edgar Allan Poe
That he could be more comforting
than all those support groups
books, herbs and hormones
This man who understood loss, mourning
and madness better than any of them

Across the blood-red and black room
a stuffed raven witnesses the war
between acceptance and never-ending longing
for when life still bloomed and seeds flowered
A battle Lenore didn’t live long enough to fight

My resolve swings as polemic
as the plastic pendulum with scythe above the bed
Insomnia sends me to Poe’s bookshelf
Where I find a tortured prisoner
who realizes there is no choice but death
before he is snatched from its immediacy

And I am rescued with him
Anxiety lifts with the moon which spotlights
the bricked-over passage painted on the wall
Not even the tip of Fortunato’s hat
squeezed from brick before his bibliophilic fate
keeps me from falling into the abyss of sleep

The circular vise of night
Hot and sweaty before the tidal wave of chills
An awakening in a pool so red and spread
that the maid will think abortion with coat hanger
Instead of a harbinger for barren
Or hell’s fire flooded one final time
Cramps, craziness, leaks and stench
being what the raven meant when it said Nevermore

—————————————-
Each room in the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport,
Oregon, honors a famous writer.