Friday, March 29, 2013

on Violence, Essay the 3rd

            Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.  Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.  But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.  For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, "Not one of His bones shall be broken."  And again another Scripture, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced."  (from the Passion according to St. John)

            For those who might not realize it, it is Good Friday today.  From the perspective of a Christian, this means that Christ is, in a very real sense, dead.
            There are many things that can be said about this reality for those of us who consider ourselves practicing Christians.  Many references to solemnity and repentance; and there are always The Reproaches, which inevitably lay me out when we get to the part about the Holocaust.
            But the more times I hear this story, the more I am struck by the necessity of the State to the crucifixion of Christ.  And this week, in Aristotle, I came across this passage from Politics:

            Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society. . . .

            The polis had to seem like an absolute miracle, and I get that.  The things human beings accomplished when they formed states — and no matter how small by our standards, Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, Troy, all were states —these achievements must have seemed incredible.  In fact, they still do.  I remember, while traveling once, meeting a guy who hadn't yet seen much of the world when he went to Dubai.  He couldn't stop telling me how gigantic the buildings were, how shiny, how beautiful, how much luxury.  I don't doubt him; I've heard the stories about Dubai.  The surprising thing to me is how easily we still fall for it.
            It's Good Friday.  So I don't want to say much more.  The crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ has taken place, at our own hands.  We prepared a cross for him, gave him vinegar to drink, scourged, mocked, and beat him.  We often speak of it as though the Roman empire and the Jewish religious leaders felt they had to crucify Jesus of Nazareth because his kingdom was too revolutionary, too different.  But for clarity's sake, I think it's worth remembering that the State itself needs to define itself against.  The State will find reasons to go to war, to execute.  It needs this shit.  Western history itself begins with a war between states in the Iliad:

            That was an appropriate beginning, for the Greek city-states, from their first appearance as organized communities until the loss of their political independence, were almost uninterruptedly at war with one another.  The Greek polis, the city-state, was a community surrounded by potential enemies, who could turn into actual belligerents at the first sign of aggression or weakness.  The permanence of war is a theme echoed in Greek literature form Homer to Plato.  We Achaeans, says Odysseus in the Iliad, are
                        "the men whom Zeus decrees, from youth to old age,
                        must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end
                        until we drop and die, down to the last man."               (Iliad, 14.105-7)
                                                     (from the Introduction to the Fagles translation, by Bernard Knox)

            We like to call Helen's "the face that launched a thousand ships."  It sounds romantic.  It sounds like two passionate men fighting over a woman they both adored and craved.  Like a bar fight gone a little too far.  Bullshit.  If Athens hadn't been fighting Troy at this particular moment, they'd have been fighting Thebes.  They already had fought Thebes.  They'd fought Sparta and almost every one of their neighbors because death is what states do.

            The nightmare of Good Friday is not that Jesus of Nazareth died.
            The nightmare is that the death has to continue, now, in Guantánamo Bay and in the air over the Korean peninsula.  In Yemen with children's brains getting blown out by drones, and in our very own Congress which belongs wholesale to corporate money.
            The nightmare is that Jesus of Nazareth is dead.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

on Violence, Essay the 2nd

            "In olden times, as I said before, men would sacrifice the fruits of the earth, but not the animals.  Indeed, they didn't even eat animals.  The story goes that during a public sacrifice celebrated in Athens, a certain Sopatrus, who wasn't originally from the area but was farming some land in Attica, had placed some bread and other cakes on the table to sacrifice them to the gods, when an ox on its way back from work came up to the table, ate part of the offering, and trod on the rest.  Seized by rage at what had happened, and seeing somebody nearby sharpening an ax, Sopatrus grabbed it and struck the ox.  When he had killed the animal, his rage subsided and he realized what he had done" (Calasso 309-319).  (Theophrastus, copied by Porphyry.)

            Is it the first act of violence?
            Consciousness.  Self-consciousness.  That I can eat something and wonder about what I'm eating.  That I can feel guilt over what I'm eating.  In the Pacific Northwest, it's easy to forget that most of the world is religious, and in the religious world, food is restricted.  There's the whole Kosher thing for Jews, restrictions for Mormons and Muslims in terms of stimulants and depressants, vegetarianism for Hindus and many Buddhists, variants on vegetarianism for stricter yogis, something about Fridays for Roman Catholics, and on, and on.
            Eating.  Eating and eating and eating, and not eating this, and not eating that on this or that day, and to what animal ancestor can we trace our desire to shape our eating habits?  To none.  No animals avoid eating particular foods out of religious devotion or in solidarity with community practice.  No animals appear to consciously reflect on what they are eating, or on eating at all.
            It is somewhat dumbfounding to me that humans are even capable of looking at a piece of food, eating it, and then reflecting, "It was here.  And now it is no longer."
            And then, of course, out comes the poop, and maybe this is where guilt truly lives.  It is instinctual — an instinct towards health and away from death — for us to avoid feces.  It is the very definition of filth, rivaled only perhaps by pus or human blood once it leaves the veins.  And this is what our bodies transform food into.  From a crisp pear, from the faint-inducing smell of pork cooking (I am a vegetarian, and even I swoon for the smell of pork), from a soothing, belly-filling a pile of shit.
            Sort of an embarrassing transformation we perform, then.
            Is it violence?  Again, I'm a vegetarian, so of course I do think that eating meat is always an act of violence.  Which means the majority of the world's population kills constantly, every day.  Factory-farming may remove the stench from our own communities, but fear not:  the cow is bleeding and twitching to death for you.
            But this is not a polemic against meat-eating, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I do consume dairy.  And while I (faithful liberal Seattleite) do bend over backwards to purchase dairy that is not factory-farmed from animals who would probably prefer to be killed than kept alive to make my milk and eggs, of course I can't pretend to myself.  I eat in restaurants all the time, I loathe the taste of soy milk, and so certainly my money goes to torment animals.
            Then of course we have vegans.  I have many vegan friends, and I appreciate their effort, but then of course if I'm a really faithful liberal Seattleite, I have to ask if the fuel in their vehicles didn't come from a country whose children we're bombing so we can have their petroleum products, if they never purchase anything made in a Chinese or Bangladeshi sweatshop, and if they also strictly forgo honey and silk.
            I'll stop going down that path now, but not because I think that the path starts looking so silly that I feel just fine about eating the aforementioned cow, who has thankfully stopped twitching and just died already.  I do not feel fine about the cow.  I don't feel fine about the laying hens, or the Chinese and Bangladeshi and Pakistani and Brazilian kids working twelve hour shifts for my cute shoes.  As far as I'm concerned, this is the whole point of Lent:  not one damn person gets off the hook.
            Guilt exhausts; this former Calvinist knows.  It won't go away when the Messiah rises from the grave in two weeks, and this is perhaps my biggest ethical problem with even referring to myself as a Christian:  it really doesn't go away.  Everyone keeps bleeding and killing every sorry living thing for their own gain.

            So the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry?  And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.  And its desire is toward you, but you should rule over it."
            Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
            Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?"
            He said, "I do not know.  Am I my brother's keeper?"
            And He said, "What have you done?  The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground.  So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from the ground.  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.  A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth" (Genesis 4:6-12).

            If the earth won't yield its strength to Cain, that leaves animals to be killed for food.  And so the punishment for killing is to go on killing, over and over and over again, for a lifetime the Lord ensures will be a long one.
            Guilt isn't just a feeling; feelings change.  Guilt is a resident within us and our lives.
            It is in the steaming pile of poop.  It is in the milk I put in my coffee at the coffee shop, and in the neatly wrapped packages that arrive from Apple and Amazon and J. Crew.

Calasso, Roberto.  The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.  New York:  Vintage International, 1993.  Print.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Another Hirshfield Poem

by Jane Hirshfield

There are times I feel myself cow stripped of her leather.

The hide going on without me,
flensed, vat-dipped, beaten to pliable smoothness.

What remains — awkward, vaguely aware
that something is missing, but what? — continues
its looking outward, evenly breathes.

Sunlight, wind, the black, inquiring noses of others:
sharp now as the knife.

Muscled unjacketed egg.
Impossible butcher's diagram walking.  Beginning to graze.

Friday, March 8, 2013

on Violence, Essay the 1st

            I would never have guessed that Gulliver's Travels would have led to Lenten musings.  But then, Lent is a fascinating time of year for Christians.  All this talk of guilt.  And now we have the more modern psychologizing of sin, which I am not necessarily opposed to; I only know that I have seen and felt evil cut to my heart, and describing it as the result of depression or mom-and-dad-issues doesn't seem to speak for the reality.  At peregrinations with st. chad, Dale Caldwell posted some thoughts on nostalgia in religious practice which I found very convicting — I suppose you can probably even see my little comment at the end of his post — and, well, murder is in the air.
            It's probably always in the air, but of course we now have the Newtown massacre, the still-hasn't-dawned-upon-America realization that we are actually owned by the likes of the NRA, and our supposedly liberal president's wanton use of drones to kill whoever conveniently places themselves in their path.  Financed by us.

            Before reading Gulliver's Travels, I had never heard anyone mention Lemuel Gulliver's voyage to Brobdingnag.  Brobdingnag, for those Northwesterners who didn't know it, is actually a large peninsular region extending westward from what we know as "Washington," and going as far north as maybe the southern quarter of "British Columbia."  The people of Brobdingnag are giants in comparison with our typical height, and their trees, horses, pigs, birds, rats, etc., are respectively enormous.  While in Brobdingnag, Gulliver works dilligently to curry favor with the King and the land's other inhabitants, to a great degree of success.  One day, however, he has an audience with the King where he perhaps goes too far.  I realize this section is fairly long, but I think it would be harder (not to mention less entertaining) for me to summarize Swift's tone:

            In hopes to ingratiate myself farther into his Majesty's favour, I told him of an invention discovered between three and four hundred years ago, to make a certain powder, into an heap of which the smallest spark of fire falling, would kindle the whole in a moment, althoug it were as big as a mountain, and make it all fly up in the air together, with a noise and agitation greater than thunder.  That a proper quantity of this powder rammed into an hollow tube of brass or iron, according to its bigness, would drive a ball of iron or lead with such violence and speed, as nothing was able to sustain its force.  That the largest balls thus discharged, would not only destroy whole ranks of an army at once, but batter the strongest walls to the ground, sink down ships, with a thousand men in each, to the bottom of the sea; and, when linked together by a chain, would cut through masts and rigging, divide hundreds of bodies in the middle, and lay all waste before them.  That we often put this powder into large hollow balls of iron, and discharged them by an engine into some city we were besieging, which would rip up the pavements, tear the house to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every sides, dashing out the brains of all who came near.  That I know the ingredients very well, which were cheap, and common; I understood the manner of compounding them, and could direct his workmen how to make those tubes of a size proportionable to all other things in his Majesty's kingdom, and the largest need not be above an hundred foot long, twenty or thirty of which tubes, charged with the proper quanity of powder and balls, would batter down the walls of the strongest town in his dominions in a few hours, or destroy the whole metropolis, if ever it should pretend to dispute his absolute commands.  This I humbly offered to his Majesty, as a small tribute of acknowledgement in return of so many marks that I had received of his royal favour and protection.
            The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made.  He was amazed how so impotent and grovelling an insect as I (these were his expressions) would entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation, which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines, whereof he said some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver.  As for himself, he protested that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom than be privy to such a secret, which he commanded me, as I valued my life, never to mention any more.
            A stronge effect of narrow principles and short views! that a prince possessed of every quality which procures veneration, love, and esteem; of strong parts, great wisdom, and profound learning, endued with admirable talents for government, and almost adored by his subjects, should from a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception, let slip an opportunity put into his hands, that would have made him absolute master of the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of his people (Swift 120-121).

            At first glance, this section struck me as just another instance of Swift satirizing his own fellow humans' penchant for mass murder.  And it is that, of course.  In this passage Swift so successfully conveys horror to the reader that we must fall in line with him.  He makes it easy for us to see, yes, we do this, and yes, it is wrong.  The reader must, with the King, conclude that the inventor of gunpowder was an "enemy to mankind."
            All well and good.  But on second thought, there seemed to me something disingenuous about the King's response.  For, after all, the Brobdingnagians have military capabilities.  Their army is based on the old peerage system of England — landowners conscripted their tenants to fight when the King demanded an army — and as such is far from being a standing army or even a professional one, as the soldiers are clearly not paid.  (Killing for money clearly bothers Swift more than killing because your homeowner will kick you out of your home if you don't.)  While they are not a technical standing army, however, the men are regularly compelled to perform military drills and exercises.
            So if they have military capabilites, but the King is uncomfortable with gunpowder, presumably they have other weapons:  swords, maces, spears, bows and arrows, etc.
            Now I am more than permissive when it comes to little boys and girls fighting.  I wouldn't quite say that I encourage it, but I certainly don't stop them.  And while I let them go at it with all the imaginary swords and gadas they can conjure, I do let it be known that none of the real gods or heroes would ever sink to such cowardly depths as to use a gun.  The kids' own little bodies must strike the blows, and I want them to see the look of pain on their victims' faces.  Also, I want the assailant close enough that they run the risk of getting hit back; none of this Distinguished Warfare Medal bullshit.  So I get that the King of Brobdingnag sees a difference — an immense difference — between explosive weapons and weapons which rely on non-chemical mechanics for their force and velocity.
            And if we start talking about the differences between types of weapons and warfare, we can easily get into the subject of how many more people we can kill with explosive weapons, and isn't that really so much worse?  At least the old broadsword kept the number of dead much lower; it simply wasn't efficient enough.
            But as soon as the word "efficiency" comes up, I remember an argument in favor of the atomic bombs used on Japan:  that, yes, all those poor Japanese people died, and isn't it tragic that their children were dealing with the nuclear fallout for years to come, but if we hadn't used the bombs, then the war would have dragged on so much longer and then, actually, in all truth, experts are quite sure more people would have ended up dying.  So we were saving Japanese people by killing Japanese people.
            Ah.  I see.
            My point is, our violence knows no bounds, and we will find ways to justify our violence.  I am probably revealing my age a bit when I say I have never believed that world peace was possible; I was sort of shocked when I found out the creators of the UN had that as their goal.  Striving for world peace strikes me as similar to trying to wipe out human beings altogether.  I have never hoped or prayed or wished for it because, I confess, I think humans are very inventive apes, and apes show little inclination towards pacifism, the oversexed Bonobo notwithstanding.  We like war.  I am of the opinion that men like it slightly more than women do, but a mother who has lost her child to the other side can become an agent of vengeance in a heartbeat.
            The King of Brobdingnag deceives himself if he thinks that he does not "entertain such inhuman ideas," and isn't himself an enemy of mankind.  While I don't think this is where Swift meant us to go — his description of the old peer-based system of warfare is too nostalgic — it is where my thoughts have gone.  And I offer no resolution.  It is, after all, Lent.  And therefore a good time to confront the blower-upper of men, women, children, animals, and whatever else we feel like, within.

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2010.  Print.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Next Big Thing Interview

            I'm very happy to say that I get to do something totally different than usual today.  My friend Graham Isaac just released his first grown-up book (with an ISBN and everything!) Filthy Jerry's Guide to Parking Lots with Babel/Salvage, and subsequently tagged me in the Next Big Thing interview, wherein I answer some questions about upcoming projects and subsequently tag other folks.
            And so, without further ado, I, interview myself, I guess.

            What is the working title of your next manuscript?

            Beltenebros, or the Beautiful Obscure.

            Where did the idea come from for the book?

            Some time in 2011 I started reading Don Quixote, by Cervantes.  And by reading, I mean inching through very slowly.  I was taking tons of notes, but I didn't have any plans to write anything in response.  It's a classic, it was on my "must read these classic novels before I die" list, so I just took my time and enjoyed getting pulled into Don Quixote and Sancho Panza's characters and interactions.  Somewhere along the line a little phrase came to me, and I jotted it in my journal; not a huge thing, since that happens all the time and I don't use 99% of the snippets.  But somehow I knew the snippet had to do with Quixote.  I wasn't sure how, and that snippet didn't make it to the final cut, but I started getting more and more poetic responses to the text and kept noting them down until I realized I had a project on my hands.

            What genre does your book fall under?

            I'm thinking of it as a small-book-length poem, but there are prose sections as well.  I guess there are three types of writing:  really abstract poetry; a couple lyric pieces; and several imaginary letters written between characters in the novel.

            What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?

            I'm ignoring the problem of time and saying Charlie Chaplin should be Don Q and Robin Williams should play Sancho Panza.  Or you could probably just reverse them.  You could make it super artsy and have them keep switching back and forth who was playing whom.  That is, if Sir Charlie hadn't been driven to an untimely death by the Patriot Act.  I mean, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

            What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

            While moving between heavily abstracted night scenes and imaginary battles, and more narrative sections of letters and lyric poetry, some of the themes of the novel Don Quixote are teased out:  dreaming, insanity, playing with gender, and the idealization of "the lady."  (That's an ugly sentence.  Why did I have to get it all into one?)

            How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

            That's hard to say.  I count the reading of the novel as part of the time, because I did start generating some of the material then.  So if I counted reading and writing, one year.  If just writing, about six months.

            Who or what inspired you to write this book?

            Signor Quixote.  Sancho Panza.  Dulcinea del Toboso.  And Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and Tobias Smollett, whose translation I used.  The piece is as much an homage to Smollett's translation as it is to the novel itself.  It's spectacularly funny, especially if you have any kind of a Shakespeare background.

            What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

            Well, my concerns tend to center around beauty, and whether such a thing is possible in the modern world; and knowing reality versus believing a dream/madness.  Also, again, the whole lady love thing.  I'm actually a huge fan of the idea of courtly and idealized love, probably because it's produced some damn good work.  But there are problems there, of course, especially since I'm a woman.  So probably people who are interested in those same issues would be interested in the book.

            Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

            My book will be published by none other than the aforementioned Babel/Salvage!

            My tagged writers are...

            John Opsand Sutherland and Evan J. Peterson.