randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
As many of you will know, I just returned from a fifteen-day road trip in British Columbia and Alberta with an old girlfriend. I'm not going to use her real name here. If you know who it is, then you know; if you don't, you don't need to know -- and neither does Google. I'm going to call her Hortensia in this piece, because that's a pseudonym I used for her over twenty years ago in a fanzine covering difficult and intimate matters, as this piece also will. Please beware that some of this material is extremely personal and may be more than you want to know about me or her. Still, I will make every effort to be discreet about things that she wouldn't want me to talk about in a public forum, because it really isn't my place to tell her story.

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The view from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island


Suffice it to say that the trip didn't go well, or at least was fraught and difficult, with plenty of good stuff mixed in too. First of all, I don't think Hortensia was prepared for how beat down by the chemo I am right now, and she admitted as much at the end. She was frustrated by and impatient with my lack of spark and my inability to retain information such as directions. We spent much of our time together squabbling and bickering like an old married couple, sparring over my mental slowness and her incredulous putdowns of my failures of comprehension. To say that the romance had long since drained out of our relationship is an understatement. It was already gone by 2009, but the old married couple description is meant to indicate that we are still plenty close in a lot of ways. You have to be close to someone to really get on their nerves, right?

Worse than that, however, was the clash of what I'll call religious beliefs. Hortensia has in recent years developed a fascination for certain shamanic practices and what I think of as a New Age approach to life and health. She hadn't gone as far down that road in 2005, when I decided not to marry her after having agreed to in the first flush of our love affair in 2003, but the difference in religious/philosophical outlook was one of the reasons I came to believe (and she agreed at the time) that we weren't compatible. Now she's *really* into it, and from the moment we checked into the airport hotel where we had a more romantic stay in 2003, she started explaining it to me in great detail. Part of it was that she had just been to the Amazonian jungle in Peru and participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies there, and she was eager to share the powerful experience she'd just had.

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Hortensia had brought back Peruvian textiles depicting the ayahuasca plant and visions inspired by it


I've thought at times in the aftermath of this trip together that she was more interested in her healing process (she's trying to overcome trauma from her childhood) than in my health crisis, but I think it's more accurate to say that she rejects Western medicine and wants me to too. She believes that the shamanic practices she's following are superior to Western medicine, and she has in fact teased me that if Western medicine didn't cure my cancer, she'd drag me to the Peruvian jungle to try a different way. Well, by the end of the trip she was acknowledging that I would never let her do that. It spoke to the distance that had grown between us in the meantime.

I hesitate to get into an specifics about our disagreement, because I don't want to characterize her beliefs inaccurately or unfairly. To focus on the thing that probably set me off the worst, however, it seemed to me that she was saying that diseases such as cancer are caused by internal conflicts that we haven't been able to resolve. Thus curing the disease requires us to resolve those internal conflicts. To me this is blaming the victim. I mean, it's one thing to say that a smoker brings on their own lung cancer, but it's another thing to say that someone brings on their own breast or brain cancer. To me, it's even worse to say that it's up to the cancer victim to heal themselves by "resolving the conflict." I'll stop there, because there were other things Hortensia said that seemed outright bonkers to me, and I'm not ready to go there yet.

She told me that it was okay for me to dismiss her beliefs as "hippy bullshit," but it's my impression that I said things along those lines that really hurt her feelings. That's why religion, like politics, is such a dangerous topic to discuss. After all, she is pursuing these beliefs in order to deal with long-standing and devastating emotional pain that, among other things, she tried to self-medicate with heroin when she was in her 20s. By calling her beliefs into question -- by outright rejecting some of them as bonkers -- I was challenging the self-healing process that is bringing her so much relief right now. She is genuinely excited about the progress she's making, and I'm genuinely happy to see it, because I know how much she's been hurting all these years.

Which brings up another thing: Making up for lost time. She spent so many years lost to the world that she is trying to jam as much life and experience as possible into the time she has left. From my perspective it seems a bit manic, but I can also understand what's driving her. The agenda for this trip was largely focused on her connections and her needs, and in the past, when I've been less needy myself, this has been a recipe for grand adventures and new connections for me. It was still the case this time around.

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Hortensia (wearing, it should be noted, my Oregon hoodie), Will, and Lorna on Gabriola Island


We spent the first week driving around Vancouver Island in a rented mini-RV visiting old friends Hortensia had made when she was living there while her mom died of breast cancer in 2009. We spent a night with her mom's friends Alan and Carol, which was a bit difficult because Alan is now as deaf as a post and Carol is starting to lose her short term memory. Then it was off to visit Lorna and Will on Gabriola Island in the Georgia Strait, which was a complete blast, because both of them are total sweethearts and were very responsive to my situation. Will invited me to come back and sail with him on his trimaran whenever I want. Lorna was very maternal and pampered me to the max. Unfortunately this was also where my emotional reaction to Hortensia really spun out of control, and I got so angry that I couldn't sleep one night. As I sat in back of the RV spinning through my 3AM despair, I considered returning to Seattle. However, the whole desperate flight-impulse made me flash back to 1980 when I first visited Hortensia in Vancouver, had sex for the first time in my life, panicked, and fled back to Oregon, leaving her feeling abandoned and distraught. I swore that I wouldn't do that to her a second time, come what may.

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Hortensia repairs the sweat lodge


Fortunately this resolution calmed me down for our next stop, which was on the Cowichan reservation in Duncan. We stayed on the property of a medicine man who goes by the English name Fred. At Hortensia's request on my behalf, Fred had invited us to participate in a sweat lodge. I had never done one before, and here's what I wrote about the experience on Facebook:

'Did half a sweat lodge yesterday, lasting two rounds out of four. It was my first sweat lodge, and I had no idea what to expect, although I wasn't encouraged by Hortensia's reply to my question about what to wear: "Well, you're basically being boiled." [NB: After she read my post, she protested that she hadn't actually said that.] So it was incredibly hot and smoky, and it was so dark you couldn't see anything but the glowing rocks. I closed my eyes and felt claustrophobic and tried not to panic. Fred sat me by the door in case I needed to bail out early. The cool thing about that is that because I was one of the last people going in, Fred gave me the job of using cedar boughs to brush off the "grandfathers" -- the hot rocks -- before they were sent into the lodge. So even though my anxious state of mind meant I felt a little outside the ceremony, I still felt like I played my part. I enjoyed listening to the chanting and Fred's various incantations and speeches, and maybe I would have got more into it if I'd joined in the chanting. Afterward I chatted with a few of the participants, particularly the French-Canadian guy (Sylvain?) who had tended the fire, and that was a lot of fun, listening to the jokes and laughter and stories. He told me that one of the women who had participated was a former national Member of Parliament representing a district on the island. So it was an interesting experience, but I think I prefer to take my religious ecstasy served in the great outdoors of the rain forest, the reef, or the ocean beach.'

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The sporty red car


After we left Fred's place, we left Vancouver Island, traded in the mini-RV for a sporty subcompact, and headed for Alberta, where I'd never been before despite the fact that my father was born there. This stage of the trip was all about visiting Hortensia's family. (She grew up in Edmonton after ten years in Melbourne, where she was born.) In fact, when she contacted me after my GBM diagnosis, she told me she'd already been thinking of visiting Canada this year to see Aunt Helen, because Helen's husband, Roland, had just died. We stayed at Helen's log house in the Canadian Rockies near Mount Robson, and it was gorgeous and peaceful up there, as it had been at Lorna's place on Gabriola Island. I'd met Helen (and Roland) at Hortensia's mom's memorial in 2009. Helen was another very maternal person who pampered me shamelessly, although she also put us to work staining spindles for a balcony that had rotted and needed to be reconstructed. After that, we headed to Edmonton, where I finally met Hortensia's big brother, Lyall, who was great. Wonderful sense of humor and sense of centeredness. He's married to a Thai woman and is a Buddhist. We also visited Hortensia's niece, Elizabeth, who had just moved back from Toronto with her four year old son, Dash. I'd met Elizabeth before, but not Dash, and Hortensia hadn't met Dash either. Hortensia and Lyall had dinner that evening with their cousin Wendy (Helen's daughter), but by that time I was completely wiped out physically and emotionally, and I begged off.

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Helen and Hortensia

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The spindles we stained

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Elizabeth, Dash, and Hortensia


Hortensia was intent on pulling the family together. Elizabeth hadn't visited Lyall, Helen, or Wendy yet (only having moved back from Toronto a couple of months ago), and Hortensia exhorted her to introduce Dash to all of them. The family connections have obviously become more important to her, and the deaths of her mom and uncle, not to mention my cancer, have only impressed on her that the living connections can disappear before you know it. As with the shamanic healing practices for her PTSD, the focus on family connections are all about making up for lost time -- specifically that period when her drug addiction meant she lost contact with her family as well.

So the second week was physically trying because of the long drives involved. By the final day of the trip I was basically numb from exhaustion. It was also, perhaps pathetically, emotionally trying because it was all about Hortensia and not about me. I've really wrestled with this, because I would like to think I'm not such a complete narcissist. On the one hand, I think it was a good reminder that it's not all about me and that other people are dealing with serious problems too. I was also happy to see Hortensia becoming so family-minded, which I think is a very good thing. And again, the fact that she is feeling so much relief from her long-abiding trauma is incredibly good news. It was probably good for me to have the attention shifted elsewhere for a couple of weeks, just to break me out of whatever emotional ruts I may have fallen into. However, it's hard to deny that my immediate reaction to the stresses and strains of the trip, including not always being the center of attention, was to become a cranky, petulant, emotionally volatile pain in the ass. I was definitely on my worst behavior, which only added to my feeling that the whole trip had been a failure and a mistake.

With a few days to recover and gain some perspective through venting to friends and family, I'd have to say that a lot of this is an overreaction. However, the estrangement between me and Hortensia seems real, and maybe it was about fricking time. There's another side to all this that leaves me feeling horribly ashamed and pathetic: My need to cling to my old girlfriends so that I can feel that I haven't been a complete loser at the game of love. Well, I can only imagine Hortensia laughing her ass off at that. The reality is, my emotional neediness aside, whatever distance has grown between us doesn't amount to a hill of beans when you consider the strong connection we've established over the years. As she assured me at the Vancouver International Airport just before we parted, I will always be a major part of her life, and despite whatever grievances I now have, she will always be my first lover and the woman I came closest to marrying many years later. But I suppose we're both feeling more relieved than ever that we avoided the marriage trap. Who knows how much we'd be getting on each other's nerves if we really *were* an old married couple.

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Old friends


ADDENDUM: I showed this to Hortensia before I published it, to make sure I hadn't crossed any lines. Here are a few of her comments, which I offer as a counterpoint to my complaints:

I certainly come off as inconsiderate and self absorbed. I'm sorry that is your biggest impression. I guess that after Lorna's I was pretty unsure how to relate to you and went a bit into action mode. My coping mechanism.

Actually, I was expecting it to be worse. I'm sorry you felt I didn't really connect to your situation. I didn't know how to connect when you reacted so negatively to me.

I'm sorry if you felt I put you down for not remembering stuff. I didn't mean to, and I need to look at that behaviour.

You didn't mention the bear and the elk, and, remember, the long driving in the Rockies was so you could see them. Alone, I would have flown to Edmonton and rented a car there to go to Helen's!


Many thanks to Hortensia for her graciousness in the face of my grievances.

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The view of the Canadian Rockies from Aunt Helen's
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Had a wonderful weekend in Portland with the family. Lots of great conversation, and if this one sticks with me, it's probably because it was the last one. As things were winding down after Mother's Day dinner, Mom started reminiscing about life with some of the less pleasant factions of the Mennonite church. In particular she talked about the church in Sheridan, Oregon that she and my dad belonged to when they had a farm in the area. This was before I was born. I'm sure I've heard these stories before, but they struck with particular force this time.

She said that church elders came by one evening when my dad was away playing basketball and criticized him to her for leaving his wife alone with two children. Mom said she didn't have any problem with his going off to have fun without her, but I actually found it interesting that the church was so concerned about the father sticking with his family. As intrusive and annoying as it was, I can actually see the reasoning behind that kind of attempt at social engineering. Keep the father connected to the family; don't put all the child-rearing on the mother.

She also told a story about how two church elders stopped by the house one time to criticize my dad for wearing ties. The Mennonites are against ornamentation and ostentation, which they believe is an exhibition of worldly pride. The more conservative of them join the Amish and certain varieties of Quaker in wearing what are called "plain clothes," which is, as the name suggests, a style of clothing that supposedly looks plain, because it avoids bright colors and ornamental features such as collars. Mom said that Dad replied to these busy bodies, "I'll tell you what. I'll wear the brightest red tie I can find, and you wear plain clothes. We'll walk down the street, and we'll see which one of us gets stared at." Which is to say that plain clothes are extremely ostentatious in their difference from "worldly" clothing. They draw attention to themselves by looking so different. I guess I inherited from my dad the feeling that plain clothes are a form of spiritual pride themselves.

Mom told the story of a preacher in the church pointing out a man in the congregation who was wearing a watch. He accused him of pride and told him the watch offended him. "Take off that watch, because it offends me." This story really chilled me, because it is essentially a form of thought policing and public humiliation. It feels authoritarian to me.

There are family stories along these lines that are told for humor, too. My mom had a cousin who was more than a bit of a black sheep, and one Sunday a bishop of the church spotted him working in the field. He walked out to him and said, "Ron, don't you know this is the Lord's day?"

"Ain't they all?" Ron replied.

Dad's rebelliousness was a sign of concern to the church. After my parents lost the Sheridan farm because the state took the land for a highway, they moved to Grants Pass. Then Dad went to college, albeit a Mennonite college, which was another sign of dangerous thinking. When they moved to Salem after he got his degree, the Grants Pass church refused to give the Salem church a letter of recommendation, which was their way of saying they doubted Dad's faith. The Salem church accepted their profession of faith, but clearly they were on warning. Rightfully so, as it turned out, because they would leave the church entirely just a few years later, while we were living on Yap.

Mom asked me what I remembered about going to church, and I said, "Very little." I have vague memories of being on the grounds of the Salem church. On Yap we sometimes attended the generic Protestant church, and then when we got back to Salem four years later we went to a Methodist church for a year or two. I never got a serious indoctrination into any of it. The Salem church was on the liberal edge of the Mennonites, so if they had stuck with it I probably wouldn't have gotten the more egregious thought policing that my parents experienced when they were younger. To hear these stories is a bracing reminder of the nastier side of the Mennonites that I avoided thanks to my parents' alienation from the creed. It does make me wonder what I'd have been like if I'd been subjected to that social engineering, but I'm glad I never had to find out and proud of my parents for questioning what they were taught.
randy_byers: (Default)
Transmigration of Timothy ArcherI've read this book once before, probably not that long after it came out in 1982, although I don't remember for sure. I also didn't remember much about it other than the fact that it featured a lot of philosophical talking and a character named Bill who was incapable of abstract thought and who was completely focused on the material and the tangible, especially cars. Funny what makes a lasting impression!

On a second read, I still found Bill a fascinating character, but I found all the characters fascinating. It's a novel of ideas, but it's also very much a novel of character. The first person narrator, Angel Archer (did any of Dick's other novels feature a female protagonist?), is a skeptical, compassionate, conflicted, practical woman -- well-educated and eternally full of self-doubt and the ability to talk herself out of doing what she knows is right. Her best friend, Kirsten, is an older feminist who is acerbic, funny, self-loathing, temperamental, materialistic, and addicted to downers. Timothy Archer, Bishop of California for the Episcopalian Church, is a brilliant, logorrheic, charismatic, patronising, absent-minded intellectual and political activist who is searching for spiritual revelation. He is a heretic who is the head of a church. Kirsten's brother, Bill, is a mentally unstable man with an encyclopedic knowledge of cars and a complete inability to fend for himself. He can see right through Tim Archer's self-serving intellectual bullshit, but only because he's completely unable to follow symbolic logic. The one major character who is a bit of a cipher is Jeff Archer, Tim's son and Angel's husband. He is mostly characterized by his need for his powerful father's approval, but he's another character, like Angel and Tim and to a lesser extent Kirsten, seeking intellectual answers for what are really emotional or spiritual problems.

I had long been under the misapprehension that this was the third volume in the so-called VALIS Trilogy, but it isn't, in fact, a VALIS novel at all. However, reading it right on the heels of three books that were VALIS novels, it's easy to see that it shares the same preoccupation with religious ideas about theophany, revelation, and salvation. The religious ideas discussed in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are less gnostic than Dick's other religious novels, but they are still often heretical. Early on we learn that Bishop Archer has come to believe that the Holy Spirit does not exist, and in the course of the novel he is tried (but not convicted) of heresy. The other heretical element of the novel is the discovery of scroll fragments that predate the birth of Jesus and contain Christ's wisdom sayings. This seems to prove that Jesus was not Christ. Unlike the lack of evidence for the Holy Spirit, this revelation throws Bishop Archer into a spiritual crisis, although it also ends up giving him hope that he has discovered the pathway to true theophany -- a way to experience the direct Presence of God.

This is a novel about desperate people struggling like mad to find the purpose and meaning of life. It's a story of madness, depression, addiction, spiritual crisis, self-doubt, and suicide. On that level it feels a lot like A Scanner Darkly and the novel VALIS. The emotional terrain is bleak, and Angel tells us right at the beginning, as she goes to a self-help seminar the day that John Lennon is killed, that she has watched everyone she loves die. We then go through this long exploration of religious ideas and relationship failures of various types to learn how Angel has reached the level of despair that introduces the book. In some ways this novel is the ultimate statement of Dick's perspective, and a self-critique as well. Bishop Archer's fantastic ability to endlessly spin ideas and theories about the higher realms and the world beyond is analogous to Dick's ability to tell fantastic tales full of grandiose ideas. Ultimately, the bishop's vast intellectual ability is shown to be a kind of fascinating and absorbing charade, and Angel's epiphany is that what's important in the end is not wisdom but compassion. That could be Dick's philosophy in a nutshell, but his fascination with ideas and knowledge is compulsive. Thus it's impossible for the survivors of this tale, Angel and Bill, to really disengage from Timothy Archer. Like Palmer Eldritch, he seems to have found a way way to invade their lives with his ideas and impractical agenda even after he has died.

This is not a science fiction novel, and it really isn't a novel of the fantastic at all. There are characters who believe that other characters have returned from the dead, but it's entirely possible that they are only imagining it. They may just be nuts, and in fact they probably are. Dick asks us to be compassionate with them. For him, people are always broken and in trouble and in need of help. The search for salvation may be delusional, but we're all looking for it in some form or another. With any luck we'll find a bodhisattva sympathetic to our cause, but in the meantime maybe you could be a bodhisattva too. It might even give you a reason to live.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Vintage VALISPeople who were keeping up with Dick as his books came out read VALIS before Radio Free Albemuth, even though they were written in the opposite order. I read them in composition order rather than publication order, and I have to say that VALIS suffered in the process. Both novels are attempts to fictionalize the "pink beam" event that Dick experienced in 1974, which he came to believe was a contact from some kind of divine alien entity that he called the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Radio Free Albemuth sets the experience in an alternate history where America has been taken over by a fascist dictator, and while Phil Dick himself is a character in the novel, the pink beam experience happens to another character named Nicholas Brady. VALIS seems to be set in the contemporary world, and the pink beam experience happens to a character named Horselover Fat who is gradually revealed to be a depressed, suicidal projection of Philip Dick. (Philip is a Greek word for "horse-lover", and Dick is German for "fat".)

I thought Radio Free Albemuth was a fascinating work of metafiction, but I really struggled with VALIS. To call it a novel is something of a misnomer, as for much of its length it feels more like an autobiography mashed together with extracts from the Exegesis that Dick wrote in an attempt to understand his religious epiphanies of 1974. We get lots of descriptions of Fat's struggles to understand why two women he loved died in horrible ways, his stint in a psychiatric ward after trying to kill himself, and then these completely bonkers bits of Gnostic speculation and assertions that the Roman Empire is still happening right now and three-eyed aliens live among us, the Immortal One is still amongst us and is about to return -- rinse, wash, repeat, rinse, wash, repeat. Then about halfway through Fat and three of his friends (including, by this point, Phil Dick, who has gradually dissociated himself from Fat into a separate personality) go to see a movie called VALIS, which appears to be set in the alternate history of Radio Free Albemuth. Things get more interesting at that point, as they go to meet the makers of the film and discover a cult dedicated to VALIS and the whole mad Gnostic secret history implicated therein. But are they really what they seem? Is anything whatsoever really what it seems?

A.E. van Vogt, in his early career, used a technique whereby he introduced a new idea into the story every 800 words. This famously produced narratives that swerved drunkenly from one damned thing to another, sense be damned. Dick was an acolyte of van Vogt (the debt Solar Lottery owes to the Null-A novels is pretty obvious, I think), and in VALIS it feels as though he's using that 800 word technique, with new explanations being thrown out one after another, each one seeming to finally reach the truth only to be tossed aside when the next explanation comes down the pike. One thing that makes VALIS feel so incoherent is that it keeps circling back to older explanations that have already been discarded, so that everything begins to feel true and false at the same time. As a evocation of madness, this may be completely accurate. The possibility that the contents of the book are crazy is something the character Dick is constantly weighing:

If Kevin were here he'd say, "Deedle-deedle queep," which is what he says to Fat when Fat reads aloud from his exegesis. Kevin has no use for the Profound. He's right. All I am doing is going, "Deedle-deedle queep" over and over again in my attempts to understand how Horselover Fat is going to heal -- save -- Horselover Fat. Because Fat cannot be saved. Healing Sherri was going to make up for losing Gloria; but Sherri died. The death of Gloria caused Fat to take forty-nine tablets of poison and now we are hoping that upon Sherri's death he will go forth, find the Savior (what Savior?) and be healed -- healed of a wound that prior to Sherri's death was virtually terminal for him. Now there is no Horselover Fat; only the wound remains.


Which is VALIS in a nutshell, except that for "deedle-deedle queep" Dick fills in page after page of incoherent (to me) Gnostic speculation. Not really my cup of tea, I must say. Aspects of it were fascinating, in a deranged way, but as a novel it suffers in comparison to the relatively lucid Radio Free Albemuth, which expresses many of the same ideas in a more focused (although equally slippery) way. On the other hand, VALIS ends with Horselover Fat in Micronesia, where the voice in his head (which he thinks is an AI) has sent him to seek further revelation, so I guess on a personal level I can relate, even if I'm skeptical that he'll find any healing there.

QOTD

Jan. 14th, 2011 10:21 am
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
'Of course, if you want to walk the whole Christian mile, you'd have to tell the congregation to love Jared Loughner too. Not even Barack Obama could pull that one off. With the families still grieving, I'd hate to see anyone try.'

-- Andrew Sprung, "A theological speech? Yes. A Christian one? Not exactly"

QOTD

Sep. 10th, 2010 09:12 am
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
'Maybe we could talk him down from burning a koran to just deleting one off a kindle.'

-- comment on Koran Burning Still Possible at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Saw this at the Guild 45th last night with Denys and [livejournal.com profile] holyoutlaw. It's a myth of the matyrdom of science and reason at the hands of religious fanaticism. It's very well done and moving (in a depressing sort of way), but I ultimately found it a bit silly as well. It's the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, a female mathematician who was a real historical figure, murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD. The movie does a good job of setting up the various conflicting religious, political, and social forces of the era, embodying them in characters who surround Hypatia. She is portrayed as the noble scientist who seeks to stay above the fray of irrational passions (including sexual ones). The one flaw she's given is her blind acceptance of slavery (she is a noble woman), but even there she is shown freeing one of her slaves when push comes to shove (or actually to a grope, in a very strange scene). While the Christians come off by far the worst, the film shows the pagans and Jews to be irrational and capable of savagery as well. Only the scientific Hypatia is free of bloodlust. What's really silly is how history is scrambled to fit the myth, although that's of course typical of myth. "A History of Violence: Agora, Hypatia and Enlightenment Mythology" describes some of the historical inaccuracies and also links to another rebuttal from a self-proclaimed atheist, which I haven't read yet. Even as I was watching the film, however, I was rolling my eyes at the depiction of Hypatia as a proto-Galileo and proto-Kepler.

It's a beautiful movie visually. The production design is terrific -- both the sets and the CGI. It made me wonder how much it cost, because it's only getting an art house release, so I doubt it will earn much money. And the story is well told. I hated the villains and sympathized with the heroine, and I was caught up in the sweep of event and emotion. But as Hypatia says to one of the Christians, “You don’t question what you believe; I must,” and I must question the mythology of this movie as well.

One thing that intrigues me is the title. An agora is a marketplace. At first I thought the film was depicting a marketplace of ideas, and that may well be the metaphor on offer. But what is it saying about how the marketplace of ideas works? That irrationality and savagery will always defeat reason? Perhaps that is, in fact, what it's suggesting, and I'm not sure it's wrong on that score. It's not the only way in which the movie seems to be less about Hypatia and the past and more about America in the Bush years -- the years of torture and creationism and a clash of fanatics.

But I actually think all of this is said much better in the review I linked to above.

Voided

Nov. 15th, 2008 12:53 pm
randy_byers: (Default)
There's a Buddhist temple in our neighborhood called Nalanda West. I can't look at it without thinking delenda est, as in Carthago delenda est. Hm, I always thought it meant "Carthage has been destroyed," but Wikipedia tells me it actually means "Carthage must be destroyed." Even better! Because what I got to thinking as I passed by the temple today is whether something Zen might be gleaned from my free association. I always thought "delenda" must at root mean something like "deleted" or "erased" or "made void." I'm sure the conjugation is wrong, but could we imagine a Roman Buddhist temple named Ego Delenda Est?
randy_byers: (Default)
As my mom drove me to the airport on Sunday, we got to talking about death, as we seem to do more frequently these days. I mentioned the Death With Dignity initiative on the ballot in Washington this year, which would allow terminally-ill people to end their lives with the assistance of a physician. Oregon has had a similar law on the books for a few years, and I asked Mom how it was working. This discussion got us to talking about people who end their lives by stopping eating. Mom's mother did this at age 89 after she broke her hip and evidently decided that she'd had enough of getting old. But Mom reminded me that my father's mother did something similar, and she told me something else about Grandma Byers' decision that I don't think I'd ever heard before.

Grandma had gone through chemo for uterine cancer more than once. After the last chemo, she was on a medication that prevented a fluid build-up in her lungs that would be fatal if allowed to go unchecked. What I had heard before is that Grandma eventually decided to stop taking the drug, knowing what the result would be, and knowing that the drug would only keep her alive for a limited time anyway. Essentially she was voluntarily ending her life. What I hadn't heard before is that a year before she did that, she made a bargain with God in which she asked Him to let her live one more year so that she could work to resolve a conflict within her church. She was a devout Mennonite, and I did vaguely remember that her little church in McMinnville had splintered over the beliefs of some new members in "gifts of the spirit". When the problem within the church had been resolved, she told my mom about her bargain. Mom (who loved her mother-in-law fiercely) suggested that she renegotiate the deal, but Grandma said she'd made a promise to God and couldn't go back on it. A few months later, before her next birthday (she had turned 80 after making the bargain), she stopped taking her medication.

I have a hard time knowing what to think of this story. As a non-believer, it's tempting to psychologize the decision as not wanting to face a long battle with a physical ailment that was slowly killing her. When I asked Mom about that, she insisted that Grandma was in good shape and good cheer when she explained her bargain. Mom (who is also a non-believer, although raised a Mennonite) says she was simply honoring her commitment to God. "A class act," she said. Another thing I've always remembered is Mom telling me right after Grandma died that the last time she and Dad visited her, she was singing hymns and happily anticipating going to heaven. Quite a contrast with Mom's devoutly Mennonite mother, who a few years later seemed afraid in her own last days and angrily told Mom to turn off the tape of hymns she had brought to play for her on her deathbed and didn't want to hear anybody preaching either.

I can't say I understand what my grandmother was thinking, but it seems worth pondering. Was it wrong for her to make such a bargain, claiming to know God's will? Will I be able to face death with such equanimity when my own time comes?
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So this seemed like an incredibly productive three-day weekend, despite the usual amount of time spent drinking strong beer and staring at the blurry interior of my skull. Got some writing done, got some weeding done, got some editorial work done, got some convention work done (not actually unlike editorial work), got in a bit of socializing, took care of correspondence.

I also watched three Pre-Code movies. The Divorcee (1930) and Female (1933) were similar in being about women who fuck around in an explicit attempt to take the same liberties as men. In The Divorcee, Norma Shearer fucks around to get revenge on her philandering husband. In Female, Ruth Chatterton runs a large car company and doesn't have time for a relationship, so she just fucks her underlings and flings them aside. In both cases, the women ultimately submit themselves to men in the end. What was controversial about them at the time was that the women are not punished for their slutty behavior -- although some might consider the ultimate submission to men punishment enough!

The third Pre-Code movie I watched was Scarface, which was released in 1932 but was filmed in 1930 and then subjected to a battle with the censors and a lot of re-editing and re-shooting. This was the second time I've watched it. It really is a brutal movie, with lots of killings. It also has the remarkable incestuous implications of the relationship between the brutish Tony Camonte and his sister. It doesn't feel like a Howard Hawks movie. It's much darker than the others of his I've seen, with beautiful shadowy cinematography by the great Lee Garmes. Hawks had worked on the scenario for Josef von Sternberg's 1927 gangster movie, Underworld, and Scarface feels like an extension of that movie, at least visually. (Garmes had also worked with Sternberg.)

Finally, I have to share this photo that my brother took in the cathedral in Mérida, the capitol of Yucatán state. I'm not sure why I find this photo so danged funny, but I do. You probably have to drill all the way down to the largest version to see it properly. This cathedral was built from Mayan temples destroyed by the Spanish for the purpose. My T-shirt -- a gift from Sharee -- reads in full, Dead Men Tell No Tales, but the truncation seems utterly appropriate to the venue.


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Okay, so when did "oceanic feeling" become a catchphrase for spirituality?
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Juan Cole has an interesting post on Sufism that builds off a story about the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Baghdad. Amongst the many things he talks about that I didn't know, 'Sufism was so successful as an organized movement from about the 1100s that it took over Islam, and there were very few Muslims who were not in some sense Sufis in the period 1200 through about 1850.' It seems rather strange that a mystic religion could be that widespread within a society, but I clearly don't understand much about Sufi mysticism. What's more interesting is that it was the Wahhabi and Salafi fundamentalists who attacked Sufism, beginning in the eighteenth century, which led to the decline of Sufism in the Muslim world. These fundamentalist strains reach into our era in the form of the Taliban and al Qaeda, amongst other groups. Cole also makes this fascinating comment, which echoes an earlier discussion I posted about in which bin Laden was described as trying to reform Islam: 'Modern Wahhabism (mostly a Saudi Arabian phenomenon) and Salafism (much more widespread) have a "Protestant" character to them, emphasizing puritanism and the casting down of all images (iconoclasm) and saints' shrines.' One is reminded too of the Taliban's bombing of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.
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There is an interesting exchange going on in Slate between Daniel Benjamin and Reza Aslan that centers on a new book called American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion by Paul M. Barrett. The discussion is more generally about American Muslims, global jihad, the War on Terra, etc. Here's a snippet from yesterday's entry by Benjamin:

I've often wondered if Bin Laden and his followers, with their grim determination to eliminate all "innovation" in the faith, aren't akin to some of the wild Protestants of the first half of the 16th century. With their Salafi emphasis on the direct experience of scripture and the believer's ability to understand the text, they remind me of Luther's notion of "every man a priest." One could even ask whether Bin Laden himself isn't something of a Martin Luther figure, though the head of al-Qaida has none of Luther's skill at theology.

(I once remarked this to a well-known Saudi prince, who instantly replied, "No, he is our Savonarola." That remark floored me and suggested my interlocutor had been thinking about the subject.)


Today's entry by Aslan focuses on how America's War on Terra is a mirror image of the global jihad (both of which perceive the struggle as one between good and evil) and replies to the above in an aside by comparing Bin Laden to Thomas Muentzer, whom I've never heard of but am about to go googling. The idea that Islam is currently undergoing a reformation (or two) is quite intriguing. The view offered of how Islam is mutating in the U.S. offers a lot of food for thought.

Oh, and I like the term "jihadism" ever so much better than "Islamofascism," which seems to be another attempt to tie the War on Terra to a past war that it really has nothing to do with and is nothing like.
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A couple of weeks ago, The Stranger published an interesting piece by Eli Sanders about Jews in Seattle. I'm not sure it really defines the problem in the title all that clearly, but it seems to have been written in response to the fandango about Christmas trees in SeaTac Airport and the rabbi who wanted menoras displayed with them, in which the Port of Seattle came out looking like complete idiots and the mouth-breathing "War on Christmas" anti-Semites came pouring out of the woodwork. What was most interesting about the article to me was the history of Jews in Seattle in contrast and comparison to other parts of the US. It was pretty much all new territory to me.

I guess the problem is defined as being one of a Jewish population so small that most Seattlites are ignorant of and thus potentially prejudiced against Jewish culture. In response to the anecdote Sanders tells about a hipster at a party who embarrassed him by loudly proclaiming that "the Jew has arrived," Christopher Frizzelle wrote a pretty pathetic post on the Slog wondering if he was the one who had done that. To my mind, at least, it comes perilously close to pleading the "some of my best friends are Jews" defense. Sanders has replied with a fascinating post about how his article has made many of his friends wonder if they were the guilty party. Unfortunately, this exchange has reminded me of a time at the Pacific Inn when I drunkenly (and loudly) "teased" a Welshman about being a leek-eater. Clever, eh? I'm lucky the guy didn't deck me.

All in all, a very enlightening discussion. I actually had no idea how small the Jewish population here was. You'd never know it by looking at science fiction fandom!

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