Sunday, December 4, 2016

"A flight of perplexed unstable minds"

Perplexity Quotes
My wife and I watched a 20/20 show last night about a Christian couple in Tennessee. They had 18 children. They wanted more. The wife was 44 and had been pregnant for every one of the past 22 years. The husband ran a tree-trimming business and claimed he made ends barely meet. They insisted they did not get any government aid outside of the tax deductions. They shopped at Goodwill, got loans off their oldest son who had his own business, same as his father, and they welcomed the Lord's will if He deemed fit to give them more children. The interviewer asked why they judged birth control a sin, but not fertility treatments. I did not catch their rationale, however.

Not my normal fare, but it got us talking. I reasoned that while I was wired for religion, I understood its good and bad qualities much more as I aged. I figured some of us are predisposed by genetics as well as culture to seek out spiritual paths, even if they were by nature irrational or futile before facts.

As she got older, my wife's felt disenchanted with any organized religion. She's tired of the bickering, money grubbing and score-settling that makes groups deigning to seek the will of the Almighty look so petty as they divide over doctrinal minutiae and territorial land grabs and denominational dispute. I share her discontent, as a few years ago, I found I could no longer tolerate the services we attended. The God-fearing and God-submitting pleas, no matter how explained by ancient precedent, appeared to our mindset relics of an Iron Age sky-god's petulant demands upon beleaguered desert herdsmen.

Sure, none of this is new since if not Spinoza than Voltaire. But the Age of Reason takes a long time coming to many corners of the world and into many souls and/or brains inquiring. Only recently have we reached a third of the American population daring to admit that they are not religious, even if some among these "nones" might lean towards spiritual exploration personally. I wonder how our ancestors felt free to even entertain such thoughts freed from sin and guilt? My wife thinks that our own generation might be (at least in our family cases) the first, and I'd certainly concur as to my side.

It makes me notice, too, a detour that I sense a few around me taking. If the evolutionary process has driven many of us towards monotheism under political and social pressures the past few millennia, the lingering traces of magic, astrology, rune casting, divination, sorcery, witchcraft, and sortilege may appeal to some bewildered by the current rush to destruction. If we are passing now the tipping point of global warming, and if capitalism is hell bent on turning what remains of our planet into a wasteland, we lack political solutions; we face surveillance invading our minds as it has our actions.

Certainly, the rational scoff at this retreat to discredited traditions. If those teachings in scriptures are discarded as remnants of pre-modern superstition, all the more those whom the jealous God rejected before His reign appear suspect. Yet, there may be bits of common sense in how a rejection of the Lord may reveal a less assertive, more modest embrace of the scraps scrabbled from the flakes of ink, the dust from the palimpsest, the air infused with the enthusiasms of the older yearnings in our DNA.

My skeptical outlook dominates. The British Humanist Society's quiz tagged me at 93%. I've been academically trained to sift evidence, and to study the urges in literary culture of the seeker soberly. So, I am predisposed towards objectivity. But underneath, deeper maybe than that altar boy I once was, there's a sympathy for the home team, the old gang, those who looked to Ogham or rivers and trees for direction. I am very far from them, but the centuries intervening still sustain my own quest.

I reckon I will leave this life remembering a phrase from one with whom I have no other inkling in common. Where my consciousness will go I have no idea. I am no wiser than ten billion humans who have lived and then passed on before me. My ashes will or will not be scattered where I love, under redwoods. I will return as all does to dust. Aleister Crowley's last words were "I am perplexed." As one whose first "major band" was a teenage admiration for Led Zeppelin, I can relate to that reaction.

[P.S. Long ago I enjoyed G.M. Young's A Portrait of an Age (1936). Above I use a great quote from it. This historian of the era preceding him would have been about 25 when Queen Victoria died.]

Friday, December 2, 2016

Clann-ish


A friend of Irish and Greek descent living in Germany told me today how "we need to rally together and be the keepers of all that knowledge, skills and wisdom that is needed." In a precarious economy, on a weakening planet, and within political change and cultural clashes, I look within for support. Parties fail us, "leaders" betray, and ideologies writhe. Consider the late Fidel. As his rule over Cuba consolidated as opponents were eliminated and dissent crushed, his citizens learned that saying his surname was judged disloyal. So, his first name was used, or instead, a sly gesture of stroking a chin.

So, the outpouring of grief among my leftist friends leaves me unmoved. Hearing stories of flight from that island by classmates and students, the recognition of the health and literacy reforms the Communists brought are tempered with the cruelty exercised against his foes, and innocent people such as gays, a factor little covered in the media now, as are the 500 executed by firing squad soon after the rebels became the rulers. Of course, justifications for these deeds, the broken eggs for the omelette recipe, emit as pro forma replies by the convinced and committed progressives. Fidelity.

This faithfulness joined Cubans despite their privations and losses of freedom against their foes, conjured or real. The strength of the tribe for and against what Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens calls "imagined fictions" enabled our ancestors to break out of their territorial and mental bonds. Then, by religion, trade, and money, ancient peoples formed nations and expanded their hold over others, too.

Imperialism has a bad name, sure. But Harari, balancing the accounts of humanity's gains and losses well in his book, warns us against too arrogant a reaction to our past. He shows the benefits of reason, while warning in his new Homo Deus against the rush to trans-human and algorithmic domination. The cost, he argues, of transferring our humanity into information systems rub by corporations caring only about data, and not consciousness, threatens to count out the irrational, the intangible, our ideas.

Reflecting on this, I opened an aging NYT Sunday Review. While the recent coverage of Facebook decries its "fake news" and its implicit blame that the election was lost for Her by His minions in Macedonia planting false sites and misleading memes, the reaction from way back last May by Frank Bruni betrays a deeper concern. In "How Facebook Warps Our Worlds" he begins: "But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves." While not a new phenomenon, this technology tracks us and reinforces our own prejudices and priorities.

After delineating the echo chamber and referring to how we distrust institutions and so retreat to our communities of the like-minded for security, risking their scorn and aligning ourselves with their trust, Bruni decries this self-perpetuating safe space. Therefore, he concludes: "It’s not about some sorcerer’s algorithm. It’s about a tribalism that has existed for as long as humankind has and is now rooted in the fertile soil of the Internet, which is coaxing it toward a full and insidious flower."

But the blooms from FB can brighten our outlook. Today I also found in my feed from five years ago this Salon essay from a Rutgers sociologist. Eviatar Zerubavel asks "Why Do We Care About Our Ancestors?" Like many pieces on Salon, it's lifted from a book so it does not read that well in part.

Still, he sums up useful perspectives that align with my own investigation of the yearning for the tribal in alternative religions claiming to remake or remodel native European spiritual traditions.

He wraps up his argument: "long before we even knew about organic evolution (or about genetics, for that matter), we were already envisioning our genealogical ties to our ancestors as well as relatives in terms of blood, thereby making them seem more natural. As a result, we also tend to regard the essentially genealogical communities that are based on them (families, ethnic groups) as natural, organically delineated communities." He notes how this "blood tie" is rooted in evolution itself.

He concludes: "Yet nature is only one component of our genealogical landscape. Culture, too, plays a critical role in the way we theorize as well as measure genealogical relatedness. Not only is the unmistakably social logic of reckoning such relatedness quite distinct from the biological reality it supposedly reflects, it oft en overrides it, as when certain ancestors obviously count more than others in the way we determine kinship and ethnicity. Relatedness, therefore, is not a biological given but a social construct. Not only are genealogies more than mere reflections of nature, they are also more than mere records of history. Rather than simply passively documenting who our ancestors were, they are the narratives we construct to actually make them our ancestors." This ties to the yearning for us to find a famous forebear (for me, all the way back to Conchobar mac Nessa in the Táin) at the expense of the less-heralded. But for me, that ends in 1797, as no Irish records survive before then.

This search for origins I find comforting in this chaotic world reducing us to data-mined digital data. I realize it's a romanticized quest, but not all of us find satisfaction in being reduced to Caucasian-this or white-that. Ever since I used to half-jest in school "I'm not an Anglo, I'm Irish!" I suppose I stood for this impulse. In Irish, there's more than one word for family. Tomás De Bhaldraithe (whose name shows how the Normans with Germanic nomenclature turned Gaelic in their own monikers after they invaded the island and supposedly turned more Irish than...) in his English-Irish dictionary defines:

family, s. 1 (Members of household) Líon m tí, teaghlach m. Family life, saol (an)teaghlaigh. 2 (Parents, children, relations) Muintir f. 3 (Children) Clann f. She is in the family way, tá sí ag iompar clainne. How is your family? cén chaoi bhfuil do chúram? What family have they? cé mhéad duine clainne atá orthu? A family man, fear tí agus urláir. 4 (Descendants) Sliocht m (g. sleachta), síol m. Family tree, craobha fpl ginealaigh. 5 (Race) Cine m, treibh f. 6 Aicme f (rudaí); Biol: fine f. 7 Mth: Number families, uimhirfhinte fpl. Family of sets, cnuasach m tacar.

So, related by blood and members of household appear to overlap, if distinguishable. Children occupy a third category, moving the clan forward in time. Descendants down the line have their own niche, and that of the race, a term we don't carry over as neatly into English, another. The term mórtas cine or pride-in-heritage expresses this well, a reminder of the positive associations in Irish kinfolk.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Masters of Puppets


I mentioned in my previous entry the fear of impermanence among those whose livelihood and identity face diminishing returns. I found today Chris Hedges' "Defying the Politics of Fear," a speech to Greens the weekend before this election. "We cannot betray the ideal of a popular democracy by pretending this contrived political theater is free or fair or democratic. We cannot play their game. We cannot play by their rules. Our job is not to accommodate the corporate state. Our job is to destroy it. 'We think we are the doctors,' Alexander Herzen told anarchists of another era. 'We are the disease.”'

A typically brutal rhetorical passage from this Presbyterian minister turned radical firebrand. Hedges' style alienates many. His books and essays tend towards repetition, but he is one of the few who call out the party politics and the charade they've become. Although in retrospect already three weeks later, his embrace of the Greens under Jill Stein appears idealistic, he argues in his essay as elsewhere that there's no use in what my friends would call out as a 'false equivalence' equating the relatively minor flaws of Her with the massive liabilities of Him. But as at the dinner table Thanksgiving I mentioned in the last post, I respond that they both represent corruption and perpetuate power plays.

These plays, to go back to Hedges' "contrived political theater," betray an illusion. Our supposedly representative democracy has been proven a farce. Those we are assigned to elect, for the parties control this process and not ourselves, for nearly nobody can afford to run on their own and get anywhere unless indeed they're a zillionaire, show themselves the masters of we, the puppet voters.

Now even the Stein campaign is financing, mysteriously for such a shoestring operation, a purportedly crowd-funded effort to recount. But in the three states where her rival lost narrowly, rather than the other three where the Greens did, as everywhere else, enormously. I'd ask, as one who's voted for this party since they qualified in my state in '94, where this has gotten us, truly?

Despite the large profile given her and Gary Johnson's Libertarian ticket this time around, compared to previous tallies, the Greens and the Libertarians did not increase their share of the vote by much at all. I am sure third-party backers will battle as in '00 the blame doled out by the imperious Democrats. What's less certain is if the faction that claims to have the interests of all citizens in mind truly cares a damn about the "deplorables" tossed aside, those of not only the "white" category to tick off who remain ticked off about candidates who only pretend to call and plead for attention every four years. Who ever hears from their "representative" any other time? Living in a county where the results were 72% for Her, 22% Him, 2.2% for Jill and 2.6% Gary, what competition exists at all here?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mindful of what?


"Please don't let your suffering make you an idiot." So the moderator of the small sitting group I join monthly advised us to regard this month's reactions to the election and its many discontents. He originally felt this in a harsher way, as in: "Why do you let your suffering make you an idiot?" But on reflection, always advisable, he revised his reaction. I think this is wise advice for us right now.

In an essay I failed to find online after reading the print version in the paper (increasingly the case) in last week's NYT Sunday Review, the writer counseled a balance between the two responses she saw to the results of the popular vote vs. the Electoral College. Some panicked. (I count my wife and it seems all of her friends among them.) Some took a deep breath. (Me, but it nearly nobody else at least on my FB feed, the echo chamber I reside. Work-talk on this topic, at my conservative-tilting institution where many vets of all backgrounds tend to tilt that way, perhaps counter our stereotype that the "non-white" immigrants and their offspring do lean in towards Her and her Beltway ilk. Vets or not, many whom I teach suspect Dems and their patronizing air.) 

Ruth Whippman, in a NYT entry today, suggests not to be in the moment, for once, as one panacea. Mindfulness gets preached as the cure-all by those able, as I see it, to take therapy at Esalen taught by fellow therapists. Most of us find our time and money constrained for such offerings. I confess my own bafflement after having received a catalogue of courses at that Big Sur bastion of the counterculture, intended for my tattooed and lithe neighbor, nearly half my age. It read like a parody.

Anyway, Whippman notes that this touted mindfulness "is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. Those for whom a given moment is more likely to be 'sun-dappled yoga pose' than 'hour 11 manning the deep-fat fryer.' My first job, for $2.35 an hour in cash, was the latter, and I recall the smell of the batter and the burns from the grease when I bicycled home from Pioneer Chicken nightly.

There's a quick backlash in the New York Times type of media against any sympathy for "my" white working class, or as in the students I teach, the 30% of Latinos or Asians who nationally voted for Him. Yes, part of the left's rage directed at those who chose Him over Her may be fueled, as my wife and all of her friends insist, by bigotry. But it's driven too by fear of impermanence, to use the Buddhist critique. When a piddling contract gig gets counted by the White House among the touted total, it does not equate with the blue-collar employment formerly secured by my family's own experience, with benefits, decent if not great wages, and maybe even a pension. Instead, we're told to rent our spare rooms, drive for Uber, deliver for Smartcart, and for whatever medical care we need, to scrounge for scraps from an increasingly fraught Obamacare exchange with high premiums and low options. Immigration is urged as the remedy for an aging population, as if housing, traffic, hospitals and schools will all bounce back and respond to demographic and class-based pressures handsomely.

I differ as I did at the Thanksgiving table. My friends and family insisted that this is "not the time" for any challenge to Her Party, and that as before, "we" had to join Her and her colleagues in opposing Him. I think of Fidel Castro's savvy manipulation. When speaking, he pretended to affirm direct democracy. But he knew what he wanted to push over on the pueblo before he took the stand for a few hours of propaganda. He, however, acted as if he bowed to the will of the people, who by the end of his harangues, pressed on their Beloved Leader the very actions he himself had vowed to implement. Increasingly, my mistrust in leaders and parties and representatives grows. The system itself has been exposed as rotten, yet again, all around me, my friends and family press for only Her.

So, I join some who veer between retreating from the petulant fray and immersing myself in the fret. The distance afforded by reminders of the long haul, the danger of putting all of our trust or fury in those appointed not by us but by the deep state or shadow government, and the need for self-control rather than lashing out and spewing hurt is essential. Add to that a sober acceptance, as my friend from Derry and his Liverpool Irish Labour-socialist partner reminded us at Thanksgiving, of loss.

We Americans are not as used to defeat as our restive Irish/British counterparts. Inward criticism may not rest well with the many who seethe. But marches and demands even before the "leader" enters office appear to press prematurely the expectations of those on the defeated side. The 47% were mocked in the previous campaign, and now the 53% are. A few of us, additionally, who refused to vote for either "major candidate" (as always) are also indicted as irresponsible for our lack of pragmatism over principle. Unhappy as I am with our political capitulation and its concomitant economic cronyism, I do regard my right to "mind" my conscience, which as before is at peace, at least, amidst the frantic coverage of manufactured consent, group-think, and the quarrels it sparks.

Now, I know that meditation may feel a cop-out, when there's so much to do. When has there not been? Christ's rejoinder to Martha as she hurried about to serve him while he chatted with her sister Mary, sounds unfair to me. Few can afford the luxury of the contemplative pursuit as opposed to the active demands life commands. Yet, without time out, we wither, and we like the fig tree may die out.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Bernard du Boucheron's "The Voyage of the Short Serpent"

The Voyage of the Short Serpent
Yes, that title is symbolic. This short novel can be read in a sitting. It takes a mock-medieval style to report, from alternating and eventually contrasting narrative voices, what happened on an episcopal mission commanded by the Pope to reclaim the Norse lapsed into heathenry in faraway Greenland.

It's more of a conceit than a full-fledged work. Hester Velmans' translation may capture the starched, satirical, and savage qualities of the original French, but the effort feels fussy and overly stylized in English. So does the effort to which the author strains to capture the tone of a chronicle or correspondence, given the friction of the attempt to counter the wiles of the Inuit, here titled "publicans," who lure the dwindling Norse into their seal-hunting, sexually suspect and sinful mores.

A few good lines show the potential. Early on, frostbite claims victims on the bishop's ship. Having been forbidden to eat their own rotting flesh to survive, one shipmate rebels. "One of them replied that the season was not Lent, and proceeded to devour his own toes." I admit I liked some of the dour and deadpan recitals of increasing woe, as the rescue attempt to scare and shame the Norse back to Christian fidelity, compared to the odd temptations of dissolute abandon among the natives, lure the Catholic contingent into their compromises, to survive in New Thule increasingly hostile threats. (Amazon US 11/25/16)


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Ice Age Columbus"



in this documentary film ice age columbus zia the chieftain
It never occurred to me that during the last Ice Age, European hunters might have been blown off course on the massive sub-polar pack ice covering the North Atlantic, towards North America. This thesis, contrasting with the conventional Bering Strait land bridge model of indigenous settlement, has been advanced by Bruce Bradley and Dennis Stanford. Predictably, there's been massive denial from the "Clovis" contingent defending the standard model of Siberian migration. Still, it's intriguing.

Discovery Channel in 2004 made a documentary you can see here under the clever title Ice Age Columbus. This dramatizes, with re-enactments (did the actors speak Basque?), computer analyses, and interviews, the "Solutrean hypothesis." Before Clovis spear points were found in today's New Mexico, ca. 500 years after the "Beringian" bridge was crossed, there may have been earlier survivors on the other coast who'd emigrated from today's South of France, with distinctive shaped spear tools.

One point, flaked to this standard, has been dredged along with a mastodon, from the waters off Virginia. This artifact is called the Cinmar biface, and if the dating with the wooly beast's remains is correct, dates to 22,000 years ago. The problem is that the shorelines back then, as in the Great Banks off Newfoundland which were probably the "Plymouth Rock" or "Vinland" for the cavemen and women made chilly, floating refugees, have been submerged by the waters after the glacial melting.

The Wikipedia entry linked to the hypothesis tends to argue against the hypothesis. But one link to a 2012 article in the Independent mentions a finding that appears key, despite detractors. The film for all its merits has to compress a lot in a little time. The seals drawn in a cave Bradley shows seem to suggest the natives knew how to hunt them, but the jump from this is too rapid; likewise why the Cinmar biface is not examined more in detail as to its origins invites speculation. So, the Indie piece may cheer on the few proponents of the alternative theory. Other tools from 26,000-19,000 y.a. have been tested, all from the American East Coast. Summing up Bradley and Stanford, it reports that "chemical analysis carried out last year on a European-style stone knife found in Virginia back in 1971 revealed that it was made of French-originating flint." How do the opponents respond to this?

The DNA data appear to be used by both sides. Haplotype X has been asserted as the genetic link between the two continents. It may be that more research has to be done, in a very contested debate.

The docu-drama has a memorable scene imagining millennia later the meeting of the eastward-bound natives with the descendants of the Iberians. That changes this prequel for Thanksgiving, doesn't it?

Monday, November 21, 2016

"A Clann Díbeartha"


To follow-up my previous entry on the Irish in Montana, here's a link to the Indiegogo crowdfunding project. This is to help generate income for three documentary films proposed by the local historians. This is a worthy endeavor to document the contributions to Irish culture from its Western heartland, part of Big Sky dynamism.

Information about the three films is here. There's one on Thomas Francis Meagher, the Fenian felon turned famed escapee, then Civil War veteran, and finally two-time Territorial Governor. There's another on Marcus Daly, who rose from poverty in Co. Cavan as the Anaconda mining magnate and one of America's richest men. Finally, there's a tribute to two founders of the Gaelic League in Butte, Seán Ó Súilleabháin and Séamus Ó Muircheartaigh, who inspired today's transmitters there of a renewal for an teanga beo. The Friends of the Irish West sustains this energy.

I encourage you to support this enterprise. I saw in Missoula at last month's ACIS-West conference the RTÉ documentary by Breandán Feiritéar, Scéal ar Butte, a bilingual presentation of three brothers in the copper mines, and their fates. The same director plans to make these films in Gaeilge + Béarla.

The blog entry title today is "her exiled children." This phrase resonates for the diaspora, as these words are taken from the 1916 Proclamation of Irish independence. They remind us that the call for freedom spanned the seas, and that many, as this exhibit displays, responded to that cause from here.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Her Exiled Children": The Irish in Montana



A month ago, I attended this gathering of scholars and supporters in Missoula. The American Conference of Irish Studies-West regional meeting coincided with the exhibit "Her Exiled Children". In turn, to my surprise, these events dovetailed with a visit to Big Sky Country from the Irish Ambassador to the U.S., and the Governor of the state. The locals were out to welcome us delegates.

Professor David M. Emmons, Irish West expert and retired historian at the U. of Montana, guided our bus tour. We rode past the Clark Fork named after the explorer, and then the back way on Highway 1 to skirt more riparian valleys. The weather forecast was for rain, so I dressed the part, but I did not need to, as the climate was brisk but clear. Recent snowfalls speckled peaks. Far away from 90· L.A.

We stopped after an hour and a half in Anaconda, a copper mining town that stood out not only for its stack (my seatmate compared it to Sauron's tower) but its hardscrabble endurance as an Irish-managed production hub for that mineral much of the past century. It was a bustling region where the bosses were Catholic, as well as the workingmen and women. Little cabins attested to the life of the miners and their families, who walked out to the mines and back, by the railroad, self-contained.

The steadfast Corkonian, Dr. Traolach Ó Riordáin, told me that the children of Seámus Moriarty only spoke Irish at home back then, but that such fidelity to Gaeilge was the exception. But I never heard such an amount of an teanga beo in America before, for he and others chatted away in it, naturally. My two halting attempts failed to rouse responses. When I complimented his young son on his tweed hat, or when I warned him to be careful as he lugged a concrete block in the cemetery, both attempts at conversation were ignored by him. Will nobody ever understand my bleats, as exiled Gaeilgeoir?

You can see me in this snapshot at the AOH breakfast hosted for us at the Anaconda branch, one of the few west of the Mississippi, and one still, I am happy to report, thriving today after decades on. I never expected such a reception and it testified to unapologetic pride I felt during my too-brief visit. This mortás cine is perpetuated by the Friends of Irish Studies in the West, which I've happily joined.

Butte dramatically perches on the side of a massive pit. So much so that neighborhoods of Italians and Eastern Europeans were dug into, for the resources beneath outweighed the value of those on the top. The memorial to hundreds who died in one of many accidents is moving, with flags of many nations around to commemorate the losses of those from around the world driven to that far corner.

I heard the daughter of the famed poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill exclaim "there's Turkey!": land of her father, as we all entered the marker area. Sure enough, the lists of the dead were diverse, although mainly Irish. Back then, almost 100,000 lived there. Now as in Anaconda, far fewer: a third of that.

Montana boasts even today at 27% the highest percentage of Irish-identified U.S. residents. That cheered me. I knew historically there'd been many miners, but I did not realize how many stayed.

Vowing to return, to the Mining Museum, the town excited me. The downtown again struggles, but its buildings preserved from that boom era could entice the bold and brave today, to restore and care for them a mile high. Up by Walkerville, dwellings stretched out in precarious, attenuated, thinning lines, presumably to avoid the subsidence that would swallow them up from those voracious excavations.

The archives there attracted me. I wanted to scrabble in them, especially for Fr. Michael Hannan's diary where he lamented his stay among the squabbling clergy and all those non-recalcitrants from Hibernia not sharing his belief in a particular brand of Fenian payback. Professor Emmons showed me the scrawl of photocopies of the priest's diary: not easy to decipher. But he published his findings in The American Journal of Irish Studies (2012 issue; abstract only, alas, online for we the curious).

The cemetery walk in Butte also alerted me to the many graves from the Spanish American War, next to a Mass Rock memorial. I wondered why the amount. The number seemed disproportionate for the city. I suppose to me, any death toll is more than it should be, going to fight in such dubious battles. A lesson for all who labor to resurrect the names and deeds of those rallied to a cause, and with arms.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Demographics + DNA


Éamon de Valera, President of the Irish Republic, made an honorary chief of the Ojibwe-Chippewa people, 1919
The Jarnsaxa Scale  was devised by a heathen practitioner who goes by Jarnsaxa Thorskona, a while back. She explains at the link that she devised this to differentiate between 1-6 a rough continuum or division between those who affiliated with Ásatrú. As I've been exploring the claims and contexts of this and other native European as well as Celtic Reconstructionist movements, I am posting the link to bring back the scale, which its creator admits she tried to erase during a time of separation from her spiritual path, and since more than one search engine's results, I found, attested to the dead content a seeker might encounter now.

"Rags" at this blog under "Divisions, Intensified" notes that the scale is not perfect, of course. For "many people (including the scale's creator) find that they fit somewhere in between numbers on the scale, showing further how complex the issue really is. However, in general the scale is a fairly balanced way of gauging where a person fits in the endless discussion of ancestry." You can scan too a summation of the folkish-universalist/adoptivist debate there, for FAQ reference.

Suffice to say I've set this down as notes of my own reflective study lately. This folkish controversy--if inevitably you want to label it as such in a year where "whiteness" sparks campaign clickbait--makes me wonder how applicable its adherents see it in Celtic cultures. For as the Paganachd CR site's authors explain, the construct of Celt is that of linguistics and not bloodlines. This to my admittedly general understanding differs from the importance on pedigree that tribal membership, whether among Native Americans or Ásatrúar, looms as fundamentally crucial to who gets to stay and who has to go, when ceremonies and rituals begin.

I think back to my visit to Taos Pueblo. Parts of the settlement were blocked off with signs and sawhorses for sacred purposes. I doubt any of us visiting felt excluded or discriminated against as a result. Their Blue Lake origins demand protection, after a century-plus battle to preserve a sanctuary. Sarah Merfeld explains: "Due to the persistence of the Pueblo and all who assisted in their campaign, the native people are now able to enjoy their sanctuary in privacy. The area is currently accessible only to the Taos Pueblo and outsiders are not allowed entrance. This secrecy and stick ban of any non-Pueblo members is certainly a reaction to the abusive treatment the Pueblo have received."

Therefore, I understand the analogy. Folkish rituals celebrate and commemorate ties to the ancestral roots of one's kin. They can also put up a protective barrier, a palisade, against the intruder or gawker. It's not popular now to extend this right of tribal inclusion to those of European descent, but as Stephen McNallen asks in a 2014 interview, why is one group alone not allowed to assert this claim?

And, logically although I have yet to find anyone arguing this at length at least on the net, that may be why the CR band opens up admission to all fellow-travelers called to that path, opposed to McNallen's AFA  indicating in its declaration their cautious approach, higher on that Jarnsaxa Scale. The proto-Celts formed a looser conglomeration; the Nordics a tighter troop committed to the core? Certainly the local stress on "where are your family from" connects, say, Iceland and Ireland. I regard these indigenous ideas as fascinating. In a nation where "demographics" stirs us into a tossed salad, it's wise to resist the "we're all mutts" resignation cutting us off from our inherited wisdom tradition. Yet I can contemplate this counter-reaction, to invite others to share our legacy, if they're sincere in it.

The argument folkish folks make is that in us, we gravitate towards our accustomed ways of affinity. The monotheistic elimination of such ties being very recent, compared to millennia among one's own. A few feel the urge to connect, as re-ligio or re-binding denotes, with this attenuated or severed flow. It may be inexplicable, and to me as intellectually uncertain as AFA's "metagenetics" claim that I doubt any biologist would accept any more than he or she would the Jungian archetype, but that tug back to recover what has been demolished persists in me, too. I recall cheering on the Druids, not St. Patrick, as I read the chronicles of my native land, and its surrounding islands, struggling for identity.

We all face forces of assimilation. Capitulated, my pre-Catholic family, and many more, 1600 years ago. What happens when the language is lost is more recent, just a century past, for my mother's father's household on the East Mayo border. Scars can be inside one's soul; trauma passed down to us to nurse. Recognizing the losses of a common tongue, a shared outlook, a cherished mindset need not expose us to charges of romanticizing a harsh existence under feudal lords and rapacious clergy. Deeply rooted, as when we hear the pipes or taste a whiskey, there persists a moment of recognition.

Yes, that does complicate it, too. If Ásatrúar argue for common bonds of the Northern peoples, this is more ancient than the Celtic-Roman-Norman-Viking-Saxon-Pict mishmash that divided up the North Atlantic Archipelago during the ages of invasion and destruction of the old heathen ways. Celts, too, I suggest, might have been more open to a less restrictive idea of unity, given the mythic nine waves of invaders, Fir Bolg and Tuatha De Danaan, Formorians and Milesians and All That. Who gets accepted as Irish simply means who lives there after a while. And a roll call of rebels and Fenians lists surnames de Valera, Pearse, Kent, Gonne, Plunkett, Tone, and Colbert, no O/Mc clans these.

Judaism is not a missionary faith, but converts after screening and preparation can prove their bona fides. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, forbids conversion and risks dying out among the Parsees in India, let alone its persecuted homeland of Iran. DNA as I have mused before suggests intriguing results. My 93% score indicates a definite "Celtic"(sic) haplotype marking me as Irish as Paddy's pig.

But it's that 6% Central Asian, perhaps going back to 25,000 years ago and more, and maybe with bits of Neanderthal and Denisovan strains, that also makes me wonder. And that 1% East Asian tint. In shamans and in divination, in spirit-searches and transmigrations of all kinds, my family tree stretches back to ice and fur, incantations and inspirations I strain to glimpse, part of my own quest.

(Photo: Éamon de Valera, President of the Irish Republic, made an honorary chief of the Ojibwe-Chippewa people, 1919. Find out how and why at: "The Irish Revolution and Native America")

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Michael Andrews, painter


A common name, like mine, so he did not stand out among those of his peers at the Getty in its final day of London Calling, an exhibit of modern English painters. R.B. Kitaj's maladjusted collages, Lucien Freud's lumbering nudes, Francis Bacon's melting portraits, Frank Auerbach's layered coatings and Leon Kossoff's similarly sinuous patterns comprised a less realistic, more disturbed sense. I wondered, as four of the six were of Jewish descent, how that colored their reactions to life. Surely monographs have been written on this.

Michael Andrews took a softer, less angular or fractured view. I like the figurative attempts more. Like my favorite artists the previous generation from that post-WWII time and place, Stanley Spencer and Eric Gill, Andrews captured a rounded, if distorted gracefully or surprisingly, attitude in his figures. One falls, and laughs.

This link shows most of the works on loan to the Getty from the Tate, although not the one I liked best. That one incorporated sand and ash. Painted near the artist's death, it integrated the earth and the elements, a stoic evocation of men. The Estuary, Mouth of the Thames at Essex's Canvey Island (1994-5) testifies to the dissolving of us all back into the primordial, after our brave, lonely shore stand. Like the figures here, we face the gap we came from, upright and gill-less, yet remembering the call of the ocean: air that invigorates, the tides that pound, the worms wriggling, the gulls aloft. That amniotic fluid, that salt smell, that ionic pulse we answer.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

"An appropriate response"


This was the answer a Zen master gave to one who asked him to define enlightenment. I attend a more-or-less monthly sitting with a few people. Over the years, we've gotten used to the routine. Our moderator gathers us, we practice what's loosely called "recollective awareness." It's based on using the Buddhist insights to look into what happens, when we meditate, whatever it is, and then report it.

While I am the shyer type, the fact I knew the moderator, trained in this, long before I knew he'd been in fact doing this on his quiet retreats he'd go away on and never talk about, at least with my wife and her workmates where at the time he joined them, convinced me I could trust him and then the setting.

Today, the five of us (there are up to seven of us total, but often one of us, me included, has to work) reflected, unavoidably on the news of the past few days. Last month, the anxiety some attendees exuded was palpable. While I reacted, it seems, with more equanimity and calm, along with surprise, than nearly all around me who'd invested their hopes in Her, the aftermath, of course, is one we're all feeling. So, the reminder of the parable of a poisoned arrow was the subject of the day's recollection.

The point (!) of this is simple. The Buddha urged us to act as if we were on fire, fleeing a burning house, to seek the way out of endless repetition, the same-old same-old, the illusion it's all permanent. With examination, one found nothing arose on its own, and all things depend on other things, and all things must pass. The clinging to these notions of stability, to a self, to a soul, creates pain or unease.

Related to this central teaching, those who became distracted by the causes of the effects of "dukkha" (like I get distracted) were foolish. Metaphysical analyses were fruitless. Pierced by a poisoned tip, one plucks it out. One does not speculate on the color of the arrow, the feathers of the shaft, or even the nature of the concoction threatening to flow into one's veins. Instead, one plucks out the arrow.

Our moderator related this familiar tale to the current news. Why do we wallow in self-pity? I might add, comparing last Tuesday to 9/11, or throwing rocks through windows? Are marches premature? (N.B. After I put this piece up, I found this in my FB feed: Buddhist teachers respond to T's win.)

The new president has 75 or so days before taking office. Perhaps reasoned discourse might be given a chance? If we are deeply divided, I remarked, we are also united by various forms of suffering. The pain felt by the electorate came out partially before and partially after Election Day. The "protests" feared by the blue states now loom large in headlines, whereas if the red states had lost, their "riots" would have been disdained and ridiculed as the tantrums of spoiled losers, just sour grapes squashed.

Political activism is necessary. Complacency all around has lured us, by our gadgets and distractions, away from social change. But channeling that in careful ways will result in gains that knee-jerk name-calling will not. Not sure how wearing a giant safety pin to assure those tearing out hair and gnashing teeth if that'll get across "you're safe with me" amidst the presumed unleashing of the Beast.

Meanwhile a FB pity party: the frantic posting of toxic social media memes: the status updates as all-black, the lamentations and jeremiads of apocalyptic doom. A Play-Doh and coloring book safe space for the bereft U. of Michigan Law School students. Giddy news snippets exaggerating the slightest slight someone receives as if Kristallnacht has returned, or if the Antichrist is knocking on a post-Halloween door. The frisson of leaving a horror movie, cuddling with sobbing pals against the orange bogeyman, is fun. But as Stephen Greenblatt told us a week ago about Richard III, Something inside of us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power." Yet, I ask if that esteemed Shakespearean critic at Harvard might be trapped in his own echo-chamber, for his analogy to the election leaves out any other figures from any other plays. Surely She could be held as liable to the fatal flaw as Him?

A final note is to ask how much we invest in a human, fallible position as president. Why do we invest so much emotion, and billions of dollars in influencing our fellow citizens to vote as we do? Is it wise to place so many elevated expectations in He or She? Examining our own complicity, our internal delusions, might be recommended before pointing the finger and tossing the brick at those we mock as the Other. The fear of the ignorant (a contingent to which I was assigned by a trans-activist who'd surely not stereotype any other group outside the white working class from which I was raised, for better or worse) remains even within the liberal, educated, progressive crowd, it seems. One way to counter this relegation of millions to a despised status is to spread healing, and to listen to each other more, and condemn or preach to each other less. We all bear slings and arrows.

When I left the all-day session, the sun was setting over the distant Pacific, a sliver of it barely visible fifteen miles west. The clouds ran reddish pink in the blue sky, tinged with white. I took it as a sign.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Calexit?

CALEXIT??? please do! in THEE RANT Forum

Why were the pollsters wrong? Did, as a conference attendee predicted in Montana three weeks ago, a "Brexit effect" come true? If so, she was the only one I'd talked to who predicted this. I was caught off-guard by the results, as the rest of at least the chattering classes on the coasts (or near enough to them, alas--I wish I had a sea breeze given the sultry, unseasonably muggy weather in L.A. lately...)

People posted black boxes as status updates. Memes about a "Calexit" of the Golden State (and maybe its two northerly cousins) float about. The Canadian website for immigration crashed. Marchers thronged, among them my older son and his girlfriend, college grads scrabbling for part-time work in their new home of Chicago. They'd moved there last summer, part for adventure, part out of realization they'd never afford my hometown where foreign capital drives up housing and politicians collude with developers for high-rises and lofts, ever-denser apartments catering to the scions of the post-recession (sic). Last night, a friend of my wife came over and they both commiserated. I mused how at least the pot legalization would get many through the next few years.

I told my friends on FB, amid self-indulgent hand-wringing and self-revealing contempt for the heartland that filled my feed, that my students often favored Him over Her, if veterans, no matter the box they checked on a census form. The Second Amendment looms large over flyover country, too.

I've been debating with Her supporters. They insist nobody in that feared red- quarantine zone would vote for a "socialist Jew." But he won 15 states in the primary that She lost in this week's election.

A scholar of the classics and a fifth-generation farmer near Fresno, Victor Davis Hanson is likely to be read by very few of those supporters or my neighbors who are caught in the same traffic as I was in the heavily Latino section of northeast L.A. where a protest march is to commence near me, down Broadway. But Hanson's essay in the 11/10/16 L.A. Times is worth contemplation by us all. Not many reasoned voices beyond the predictable enter my hometown paper, even before taken over by a Chicago conglomerate, TRONC, wretched website and thinning pages reminding me of, say, the Santa Cruz Sentinel rather than a once-formidable Fourth Estate compendium of pulp, pride, power.

Here's Hanson on the surprises, which some of my students might second. He'd predicted two months ago there were a lot of discontents in his center of California who might resist our submerged blue state. Where I live, Dems run unopposed unless by one of their own. I reckon it's 90%+ party loyalty.

After I wrote this, I got caught in traffic. The area around me is 90% Latino. A protest was planned for Broadway. I wondered if those alongside me were happy about the diversion that filled the intersections with cars so their neighbors (I guess) could vent their constitutional right of assembly.
Hanson asks: "was it so hard to imagine that a third-generation Mexican American might fear — more so than the gated residents of Malibu and Santa Monica — the impact of illegal immigration on his neighborhood school or community? Or that an out of work lathe operator was not a big fan of globalization? Or that a sizable minority of African Americans thought the blunt and straight-talking Trump was more genuine than a female Romney? 
Every hyphenated group now triumphs in their tribal affiliations while deriding “white privilege.” Is it surprising that the white working classes without privilege should follow suit and embrace ethnic solidarity? 
Clinton in the last weeks talked of the electorate as if it was a faceless hyphenated Borg — Latinos this, African Americans that, the gay vote, women voters — without any realization that she was referring to millions of Americans by their appearance rather than their essence as unique individuals. In normal times, all that pandering would have been seen as illiberal."
It'll be interesting times, as the cliché goes, when I return to the classroom. By then, the shock will have worn down to resignation and resentment as the inauguration looms. While I doubt that awe will replace the PTSD that those all around me claim now as another protected status, those whom I work with who suffer the real symptoms, after our foolish wars, may pause and wonder, if as outliers muse, we dodged a bullet that Her wish to prove herself in Syria might have generated, and deaths again.

But I fear the resurgence of the military-industrial complex and the security state's Leviathan. Under either administration, we'd have faced this concerted eagerness to assert national superiority unwisely. Those who raised, as Hanson says elsewhere in his article today, over a billion for Her (three times His amount) did not expect their "donations" to go unrewarded. Similarly, the lobbyists He promised to eradicate, I doubt, will flee as if driven by another Him from their temple stalls on Wall Street or along the Beltway. And Hanson as funded by a right-wing Stanford think tank will have no gripe about capitalism. It's left to the populists, courted now and then, before being derided.

And they are split. The Bernie contingent of "we told you so" to the minions of the DNC will find it challenging at best to find common ground with the remnants of Tea Partiers (do they still exist?) or those fearing off-shore this and out-source that will do in millions of us not driving for Uber all day.

I leave this with a cautious outlook. I mistrust leaders. Even though I favored B, it was with a full realization of the unlikelihood of many of his dreams becoming policy, and I more and more lean towards direct action, even if I suspect many of my fellow 'Muricans as too misled by mobs and demagogues, social media fear-mongering and calculated clickbait replacing reasoned discourse.

As the labor needed to find what I read in print on the Orwellian Mini-Truth website where I cannot match the page to the site, frustratingly, documents the media blitz engineered by the storm troopers of some Evil Empire of conformity and surveillance and data "management" of us all, so I conclude. The sheer effort needed to find dissent, the chances of it surviving amidst the pressure to conform, speak poorly the catchphrase "to power," if the pundits and handlers and lobbyists dismiss our plaints. And I doubt the coming years will benefit those of us on the fringes, trying to keep sane and sober.

Chicanos popularized when I was in college the notion of "internal exile." They surely feel that today, but some Mexican-Americans, as Hanson and a few of my students may counter, question the open border as status-quo, the fait accompli the GOP likes for its exploitation and its rivals for its "demographics" and voting blocs. Without competition, where I reside, I question if a polity can work. My friends and family welcome the blue-state perpetuation, but maybe other colors will bloom.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post-Election Day 2016

Cartoon

George Packer warned, on Halloween, in the New Yorker of the folly of the Whole Foods cadre who looked down on their Wal-Mart neighbors, likely distant ones, as the great unwashed. I teach many who live, for facile ease of reference, in the latter contingent. They aspire to the Costco level, and are reaching it, often having had served in the military. A few far surpass my own niche on the tax bracket, in lucrative cybersecurity and forensics. Others spend shifts at fast-food jobs or the TSA or Homeland Security or Social Security tasks part of the bureaucracy and the post-9/11 State. Some have lost their jobs in real estate and the meltdown of banking and loans in 2008. And still more are the "single moms" and dads, who try to raise kids, hold down a paycheck, and attend night classes.

The popular vote went to Her, but the electoral college to Him. Many in my FB feed from the NPR echo chamber now call for the elimination of that apparatus, although I suppose if the vox populi sounded out for the reactionaries and the rednecks, the majority of my "friends" would have happily urged the constitutional fidelity to the wise protections of our Founding Fathers against all tyrants. I received the news calmly, although my wife is in shock, as also seemed every talking head as MSM. My older son and his girlfriend, marched in their new home, Chicago, and told me they were on Fox. My younger son texted from his ultra-liberal college in upstate New York that classes were cancelled.

I am not sure why She dismissed her throngs rather than concede, and I reckoned the popular votes in narrowly contested states would take days to settle and then appeals for recounts would weigh down the courts, as neither candidate reached 270. But suddenly, the concession call came, earlier than expected, and we turned off the news. I had been reading Jung's Man and His Symbols and learned only that my frequent dreams of flying, or slight elevation above my students, superiors, and whomever filled my imagination were but portents of hubris, and foreshadowed a fall I'd better heed.

Maybe that's a warning the nation can also take to heart. Many are shattered, but this mass retreat to safe spaces, where the lashing out against the forces of fascism, the Cross, and the Standard (if not of Gold, that he who gets the gold makes the rules) appears indulgent. There's no room in Canada for a latte-drinking creative-class mob too uptight to accept a notion of a heartland that differs with "us."

My wife told me I lacked empathy and that while my circumstances would not change, her business depended on foreign customers more and more, and that many around me in our majority-minority city would suffer the wrath of an Administration bent on overturning abortion, gay rights, and fun. I responded that I felt the memes equating now to post-Weimar times were facile, and that hyperbole did not match the reality that many of all backgrounds had shifted since the Reagan Revolution towards socially liberal positions a Court could not upend without repeating the failures of Prohibition. Neither of us slept very well, however, and while I resist the siren call of CNN that has captivated her for the past year and a half, I do insist as does she that if we'd have had Bernie, well...

Monday, November 7, 2016

Rule book or blank pages?


The Hedge School 

Five hoot-calls of an owl awoke me this dawn. Regarding this long in my life as my "totem" despite my recent Apache student's warning that this in her culture reads as a death message, I took this as a pre-Election Day harbinger. Sure, the entrails drawn and stars scryed read victory for Her, but our motley He-men loom, "useful idiots" manipulated for those, the shadow government who pulls our nation down.

Such rhetoric may be hyperbole, but the prophecies emitted over this "long national nightmare," to lift a phrase from the recent past which formed my coming-of-age, meant for me, as I've written before here, a skeptical bent towards the claims of power. Originally I looked to "put not my trust in princes, in man in whom there's no salvation/On the day he departs, his spirit returns to dust/On that day his plans die," to summon up a song from my youth taken from the Psalms. I suppose I toss that world-negating cast within my own prognostications, as I've always been drawn to those abnegating Mr. Dryasdust's norm or the stultifying Laputan, from my Confirmation patron St. Francis to the Irish republicans whose "blood" flows in me from a great-grandfather I discovered less than a decade ago was "drowned in mysterious circumstances" on a Land League 1898 delegation from Co. Roscommon to the city on the Thames.

The past few years, since Occupy, have found me delving into left-libertarian and anarchist thought. I did not know the typological niche in poli-sci where my non-state-socialist leanings led me, for while some I respect chose Marx, I wanted a simpler, more egalitarian, transformating energy with room for misfits, seekers, and introverts. Even the milennarian schemes of the democratic left, for me, left not enough space for ambiguity, for a quest into the earthy, the numinous, the intellectual, the intuitive all. I suspect authority and recall the first grade meeting with my mom and my teacher, when she castigated me for the look on my face when criticized or disagreeing, a quirk I have been unable to shake. Even when I think I have a poker face, I don't, according to chagrined colleagues who chuckle.

But I also mistrust the common herd. They're misled, and voting and democracy while ingrained in me betray the machinations of Her against Bernie, the evasion of ethics, the will to power consuming our people and our planet. Too many capitulate. I'm from the once-lauded, now despised "working class," oddly, the "scholarship boy" defined by Richard Hoggart and then popularized by Richard Rodriguez when I was in college on Pell and Cal Grants. But mortás cine, the pride I felt in Montana among those committed to passing on the ways of the heritage in a climate shunted aside for its lack of shade, is lacking in the city where I was born, far from the centers of the community the diaspora tries to grasp. No less than the bien-pensant elites with whom my more modest wife and my college-educated sons associate with, I suppose my own humble liberal arts pursuit churns me out into a chilly milieu, where nothing the DNC ever does can be equated with Him and His, and where flyover countryfolk are mocked and memed, in ways that these elites would never dare due to those of any other category or identification. Where surnames are summed up and approved lineages calculated and promoted. We're charted, boxes to check for Uncle Sam, and inevitably "identity politics" is used to generate gains for some and losses for others, in a society where nobody's the majority anymore.

Getting students to think about this tires them out. I've tried to integrate subversion, different points of view from an ideological range against the norms, but my students and colleagues are career-driven. As my institution symbolizes, one attends not to ask Big Questions, but to get tidy answers. Few then, want to undermine the paradigms by which they secure careers. The humanities attracts the discontents, but even there, most of those studying them today choose their own conformity of non-conformity, where every standard must be overturn. Instead of reading Shakespeare or Milton to appreciate or attack them, it's expedient to abandon them, and analyze Lady Gaga or the Simpsons. I show the five-minute tale of terror that's Hamlet for Bart, but I also include the play itself, first...

We're all able to enter the liberal arts. But now we're told it frees none; it's for the dead, tainted by a certain complexion or class, that it reeks of privilege. Yet out of it, sullied as it is, emerged those all around the world who wrestled with its tensions, and out of them, responded with their own informed creations. On my native island, some in my family tree might have learned Virgil in a hedge school.

As Daniel Mendelsohn asked in Harper's of his own realization of his same-sex attractions as a teen, a man almost exactly my own age: "Do you identify with what separates you from others, rather than what links you to them?" I paraphrase, but this ranking is one by melanin and genitalia on us, that delegates to the front of the line or relegates to the back, the first last, the last first, on Judgment Day.

Othala

(O: Ancestral property.) Inherited property or possessions, a house, a home. What is truly important to one. Group order, group prosperity. Land of birth, spiritual heritage, experience and fundamental values. Aid in spiritual and physical journeys. Source of safety, increase and abundance. Othala Reversed or Merkstave: Lack of customary order, totalitarianism, slavery, poverty, homelessness. Bad karma, prejudice, clannishness, provincialism. What a man is bound to.


This précis brings me round to the past few months. This blog's found me in hiatus. I've continued to archive new entries as book reviews, but I had to beg off after the end of February, vowing to rearrange my stored-up posts in my spare moments. These proved elusive due to heavier teaching loads, tendonitis, longer commutes, and audio books putting me to sleep after drives, rather than in print. I had also piled up as is my wont a lot of titles to review, and these turned into book reports of sorts, one always waiting due to remind me of my academic production line, and my need to please.

One project, which will be a chapter on the evolution of Irish folk-metal for a forthcoming anthology edited by my friend, Dr. Jenny Butler (now lecturing in Folklore at Univ. College Cork, to the delight of many), kept reminding me of procrastination's Sword of Damocles dangling over my greying head. It also kept in the back of my mind her chapter on neo-Druidry. And my drift to the North, videlicet. 

Finishing that task Mid-Summer's Day, I faced then increased teaching online in two courses of about three-dozen students each the past two terms to consume me, along with onsite courses. These online assignments are heavy, and take up a considerable amount of attention. The failure of my work PC (twice now) led to further tsurris, compounded by slow routers at home and the evasion of storing up much on an older laptop resurrected in a pinch (twice now). And I confess, for pleasure and profit in teaching, that FB has taken me onto its engineered conveyor line (no two times the same, thanks to its design, as we pursue likes, seeing our name over and over, and beckoned to share more "moments").

With my talk on anarchist reactions to the Rising timed for the ACIS-West conference in Missoula, I rushed to finish grading as the rush of finals grew during the gathering. Meanwhile the failure of my PC taken with me to Sea-Tac Airport found me reduced to pecking my Kindle for all things electronic. But I was not as despairing as before, for I'd backed up nothing again on the perfidious, aging PC replacement work issued me, all our laptops, it seems, going down around me in the other cubicles from my fellow toilers. Again, a portent of readiness: a call to hunker in, to stay alert now.

For a few friends I trust, from FB and some crossing over from there or to there from "real life" the past decade of change (what else?) in my quest, have all counseled me separately and lately. Prepare for what is to come. Remember my "warrior" side, shown not in battle (for I who was in the first cohort to sign up for Selective Service, who at 17 wrote to put myself on the record as a C.O. opposed to any state-induced induction, who remains committed to rejecting the order to kill even as I teach those who will never hear of my late-teen choice, my classes of 30-70% veterans, who in turn often must go to the nearby VA, to treat their wounds of body or mind.) but in commitment to justice, to a search for meaning, to a suspicion of cant and an intolerance for imposition of algorithms.

Why I am so comprised, due to nature or nurture, the fates or some genealogical resurgence, I'm stumped by my luck or lack in the DNA lottery. I woke up a few summer months ago with a firm resolve in my mind to pull down the copy of Halldór Laxness' Independent People from my shelf. Maybe as an inbred reaction to counter a hundred-degree heatwave here, but I rapidly decided, after enjoying the first few pages, to halt it to find out more about the Icelandic context. That led me to his biography, and his novel The Atom Station, and then Wayward Heroes, newly translated and reviewed. I like that take-down a lot, of the medieval Christian ethos and of group-think, penned as an adaptation of two sagas during the height of the Cold War, written in the last years of Stalin by a committed Communist who had begun to waver in his own faith substituted for his early Catholic conversion, but who remained, cranky, driven to yearn for rebellion in his fiction, and in his career.

A suitable figure to accompany me, Laxness' other fiction will continue to beckon me. I've also been listening to Saga Thing, a nicely punned podcast devoted to great length of the Icelandic corpus. Think of NPR's "Car Talk" but with discussions of the mechanics of kennings and the breakdowns of order rather than transmissions a thousand-plus years ago, related by skalds of their doughty forebears. I also followed along with Njál and Egil in their titular adventures, getting a sense of the guiding forces propelling their compatriots along. While Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders proved a let-down, at least I finally ended that, as I'd hoped to get insight into the failure of that Norse lot. She also stumbled when updating the Decameron into Ten Days In the Hills, so I guess despite her useful summation of the Middle Ages as great for the creative spark as they combine imagination with rigor, Smiley lacks the knack of vivid depiction of this era. Laxness similarly contended four years against depression in the creation of Wayward Heroes, and its appearance in 1952 was during dark Red hues.

Swinging into the long stretch, I've been musing how Norse ideals and a Northern mythos can or cannot align with a cantankerous mindset of mine unwilling to submit to divine creeds or to entertain the notion of deities revealed to us anymore than they are published by DC Comics or churned out as Marvel blockbusters. My students flock to manga and FPS and cosplay more and more, and I tell them that the gods do live on around us, even as churches dwindle and "nones" increase among them.

My exposure to the North gets me curious. My mother's surname although an Co. Mayo-originating clan--able if in legend to track itself back to not only the brother of Niall of the Nine Hostages but the root of their allies as the Northern Uí Neill, Conchobor Mac Nessa from the Táin itself-- I learned a few days ago may betray a Scandinavian tinge, confusingly. For "fionn" connotes a fair or bright one, conjectured by one antiquarian to derive from the lighter appearance of the "Viking" blow-ins. Not sure how this aligns with the definitely indigenous strain that's 93% of my DNA test, but that 6% Central Asian tinge lingers with a distant confirmation of the shamans and the steppes before the Ice Age receded and Doggerland became drained enough to separate the isles from the Continent. And that 1% East Asian may playfully explain my scholarly and personal curiosity about Buddhism, too.

All this circles round to the past few weeks. I'd naturally gravitated in my reading to see, before this surname find, if the revival of Ásatrú I knew of from Michael Strimska's chapter in Modern Paganism (where Jenny B has her valuable observer-participant account of Irish neo-paganism) might be worth a revisit. I reviewed the book a few years ago, and it struck me that only stregheria, the sorcery line in Italy, had arguably survived the Christian crackdown, despite the earnest claims of many that their so-and-so had sustained the Craft in the so-called Burning Times with the romantic or rhetorical excesses that accompany that epoch in New Age tellings. My medievalist training may mean I'm inoculated against rose-tints. I found Strimska's subsequent disavowal of the American folkish contingents of "the native European spirituality" advocated as Ásatrú instructive. As my next document, Stephen McNallen's eponymous primer and survey, confessed if between the carefully phrased lines, the end of the last century found those seeking this controversial path divided between those encouraging all, the universalists, and those folk restricting entry to those descended from the Germanic, Scandinavian, or a bit strangely to me, the Celtic peoples. As the Celts have never been a "racial" (sic) but a linguistically related congeries, the argument of "bloodline" gives me pause. My review elaborates on this and related issues. McNallen's Ásatru Folk Assembly stands for this stance.

I've been mulling this over, as is common for me, the intellectual and the personal quest entangling. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens reminds us of the power of "invisible fictions," the concepts sparking links beyond the forager that make our modern realm possible. His subsequent Homo Deus warns of a post-modernism too eager to make us into immortal gods, a reification of the aura that entices heathens towards a hallowed promotion into a deathless realm. Harari suggests the appeal of polytheism for the ancients lay in its corporate loyalties and branding opportunities for the Assyrians, say, or Egyptians, a clever concept. I suppose pantheism, for their own ancestors, felt too diffuse, too localized. The imperial implications of the warrior cult, the Indo-European migrations, appear to complicate the ur-path of the pagans. An anarcho-primitivist critique ends with a boost for the animists. The short-lived Circle Ansuz attempted to take down McNallen from an Antifa angle.

Where I stand on this is under construction, as the sign says. I oppose open borders and approve population reduction for ecological and moral reasons. This puts me at odds with the left. I recognize multicultural realities and encourage exploration of knowledge by whomever wishes to learn. This may distinguish me from the right. But as Harari gently admits, the discredited "evolutionary humanism" of the past century, no less than the "socialist" version attacked, merits consideration, alongside the dominant paradigm of the Whole Foods crowd, liberal humanism. While I took a quiz to find I'm "93%" humanist, as my friend, a fervent atheist if of the Irish Catholic strain also got the same score. So even he mused what might lurk within him, as with me, to tug me towards the mystic.

I understand the consequences of assimilation into our current tossed salad (and this non-meat eater hates lettuce), where even if a European flavor's evident, it's swallowed up in spice and rice, so to say! Monocultures loom, as we're schooled to embrace the Other and we're getting used to portrayals of blends of families and couples never seen aired a few years ago. My students and my neighbors reflect this process. If I teach a story by Joyce or the myth of Plato's Cave, I'm not expecting those only who share my genome or continental origins to be enlightened by their revelations. In fact, I'm increasingly the only one "not of color" in my working environment. Still, I feel the legacy weaken.

That is, for whomever wants to find it, I sense an abandonment of this storehouse of folly and wisdom. Listening to David Hyde Pierce's masterful reading of Gulliver's Travels, the raw disgust and sly satire cutting back any pastel tints of its "children's book" set-up, I reflected I'd read it in high school. I couldn't imagine my current college crowd handling this, even with generous footnotes.

The capacity for comprehension of this, of Huck Finn, of 1984, of Mary Wollstonecraft and Zora Neale Hurston for that matter, seemed distant. If I was teaching where my sons earned their degrees, it'd be different, but even there, reading dwindles. The haunting scene of Marcel Theroux's Far North comes to mind. The heroine, representing the last of our progeny in this era, begins to forget the few constellations she can dimly discern. Civilization collapsed, she faces her fate in the ignorant dark.

So, who gets first dibs on admission to the word-hoard, the barrow-treasure, the sea-chest? For my choice, anyone who wants it, for we all pay homage to that enrichment. So, is that any different for following a way attributed, or more realistically to me, reconstructed from the shattered remnants of what's known to "our extended kin," as a welcome companion--on the bus ride through Irish traces evident still in Montana, to my inbred surprise and inner spark--phrased our common vision-quest?

As a long-suffering adult learner of Irish, one who tries from a great distance to recover my own meaning in part from my island's lore, I recognize the isolation of the seeker. Nobody around me shares my longing, nor communes with my invocations. A few out there advise and commiserate, mostly from the homeland, and two of them have in fact emigrated there from here, for that decision.

My family around me's from another upbringing, and one I accept and value as do my wife and sons. But mine's a different variegation. Its tendrils wind around me alone. I've been called silly for my search, as if for some 'red-haired colleen,' and chided for my inattention to my Los Angeles reality. But I'd never have been here if not born here. As dodgy "metagenetics" as McNallen phrases it, if in fealty more to Jung than science, does resonate despite reason. That Montana encounter endures as what the Swiss magus might label a "meaningful coincidence," of what calls within the lost soul beneath the pessimistic, analytical, and scrutinizing mind. Within, I also shelter an "anima," after all.

My internal jury's out debating this. (I can hear the strident tones of the likely ruler of a nation I increasingly feel disenchanted from, coming down from the t.v. above me. The promise of a midnight rally with Lady Gaga emanates. After sixteen months, there's eight years to go. Twitter tweets and fat-shaming, blaming and railing, comedy appearances and SNL gigs constitute what Lincoln and Douglas debated in their high-falutin' tones, albeit schooled in the classics.) I sit here and type away, in thought. I also recognize the othala, the inheritance rune I've seen in net searches popping up for a reconstituted clan, the "vikelt." While my post-Catholic affinities cause me not to adapt its Scandinavian design as a cross-flag, I recognize the green-and-gold colors that remind me of a land only once-removed from me. It's a construct I've not been able to trace, but it signals some echoes.

John Moriarty, whose voluminous and verbose texts ranged across the stories of cultures all over the world, nevertheless attempted in his Ireland in his last years to establish 'a Christian monastic hedge school' in his native Kerry. I imagine given his formidable eclectic mysticism it'd have defied that classification. His final attempt at convincing his countrymen and women, Invoking Ireland, sought to recover that fragile, thin voice as one like mystic him must have heard, not only at Samhain. My one generation is all that's here and the rest, for hundreds of such spans, rested and roamed in other lands and over another island, even before maybe it was an island. Drawn backwards to that dreamtime, one the scholar turned gardener Moriarty penetrated diligently if densely, I think of what's deemed The Hidden Lives of Trees and I imagine them as "fossils of time" even if a sensible FB pal sneers at my Robert Graves-like position. When lemon orchards fell in my childhood landscape, and tract homes and a freeway replaced where I'd played, I felt a loss as if a parent died. That gap in my youth may gash me in dreams tonight. Overcoming divisions of geography, class, and "race," do I gravitate back for grounding in the nature-nourished? What can an egg-head like me recover there?

As the definition demonstrates above, that Othala rune carries in it both affirmations and inversions. Germanic peoples know the cost of the latter towards the twisting of concepts for evil. Our ancestors likely labored as thralls, or slaves, some sent from Ireland to Iceland. Kings and heroes fill the chronicles, but as Laxness characterizes, stupidity and superstition accompanied voyages and accumulated plunder snatched from the suffering, our probable true bloodline, those defiant against power and then made, as the Odin Brotherhood purportedly commemorates, a persecuted and murdered line of "pagans" refusing the crozier's domination or the crown's domain. This may be a clever conceit for those too elevated to open Dan Brown (myself included).  Given how I resent order not chosen: can one be happy in a pre-modern regimen one undertakes to carry on? Can I--who reckon deities as emanations of our common yearnings, and our inbred projections for making sense out of the confusing, the depressing, and the perplexing-- find fulfillment in alliance with kinfolk?

Last night, before beginning my return, this time on audio, to a attenuated and sinister evocation of secret societies in David Mitchell's ambitious tale The Bone Clocks (I anticipate from the start it'll improve in the hearing as I found the reading of it engaging but enervating), I listened to Méti investigator Mark Wolf's interview about his 2013 follow-up to Mark Mirabello (see above link) on the Brotherhood. It rambled, but Wolf's acknowledgement of the blank pages opened for an adept in heathen paths as opposed to the monotheistic "rule book" conjured a useful metaphor. Increasingly, as with left-libertarian or Buddhist, anarchist or conventional ideologies, I seek the dim light between their cracks, the marginalia, the empty spaces. That may hearken a more solitary quest for me ahead.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alan Moore's "Jerusalem": Book Review

Renowned for his graphic narratives, Alan Moore creates this massive work of prose fiction, rivaling War and Peace in length and Ulysses in ambition. While not his first novel, it continues themes begun two decades ago in Voice of the Fire. In twelve deft chapters, Fire dramatized the evolution, in dazzling linguistic and intricate historical terms, of Moore's native Northampton. Jerusalem inflates this setting even as it narrows it down to a few blocks of the once-bustling Boroughs, which exist in a "simultaneous eternity" as developers build and then tear down this English city's core. Its working class dwellers find not an afterlife so much as a recurring existence, within a "trans-temporal chess game."

Defying the span of a brief review or facile summation, Alan Moore's evocation of his hometown sustains the meticulous composition of his graphic excursions. Lacking the brevity of a speech bubble or the compact limits of a comic-book format, Jerusalem challenges any reader's attention. Heady passages unfurl, as many of those taken up into the elevated realm of Mansoul, towering over the Boroughs (yet less apparent to those below still living) enter under the influence of Bedlam Jennies or Puck's Hats, fungal concoctions inviting comparisons to "eating fairies," amid a paranormal panorama of undines, Salamanders, and an Ultraduct. Those in this vortex may travel, in one case surpassing H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, to witness beyond "the death of day." Moore's inventive powers accelerate here, but they might bewilder, especially in the middle sections of this triple-decker tale which is a Victorian trope renewed. Rather than faltering, pressing on unveils to one’s mind many wonders.

Facing this other-world, two intermarried families comprise the central characters which Mansoul invites or repels. The Warrens arrive first. Siblings artist Alma and laborer Mick introduce us, via the largely omniscient narrator's voice, to their scrappy surroundings, after demolition of its imperial-era landmarks. Jerusalem then ambles back a century and a half, when Ern worked on London's St. Paul's. Mick, Alma and Ern receive eerie revelations from angels and Builders. Moore gradually reveals the reason for these ancient architects, and he populates the story-line with more Warrens and Vernells, who also have their own close encounters with those who hover about Mansoul. Named after John Bunyan's {Pilgrim's Progress}, "it was the very seat of war." Here, clashes summon demons.

Mansoul, made of "congealed dreams and memories," stands for Moore's version of space-time itself. "Think of your life as being like a book, a solid thing where the last line's already written while you're starting the first page. Your consciousness progresses through the narrative from its beginning to its end, and you become caught up in the illusion of events unfolding and time going by as these things are experienced by the characters within the drama." This scene's shifty teller boasts a lineage back to the apocryphal Book of Tobit. He tells Mick, swept up on a memorable "Sam O'Day ride" through the dark and the light as "an astral toddler," how "life and death" work, with admirable if surprising clarity. 

Sam continues: "In reality, however, all the words that shape the tale are fixed upon the page, the pages bound in their unvarying order." In the mind of their reader, progress occurs, but this remains an illusion. Instead, the book of life can be read over and over. So, every day "and every deed's eternal." Sam urges on his transported charge a motto Moore shares: "Live them in such a way that you can bear to live with them eternally."  Jerusalem, for Moore, represents more than his fantastic plot. It stands for a credo, one that in our world refusing conventional belief may survive past piety or doubt.

For, as an eighth-century monk learns, when he tries to center Northampton at the exact crossroads of England, hauling a stone from the real Jerusalem all the way to St. Gregory's Church, mysticism can tempt earthly calculations and thwart clerical confidences. The uncanny interactions the Warrens and the Vernells endure closer to the present (having taken ten years for Moore to write, most of this action stops in 2006) echo. A freed slave from America, the son of immigrants from post-war Sierra Leone, Ern's demented son, Buffalo Bill, Oliver Cromwell, the author of "Amazing Grace" and the members of the band Bauhaus fill the parade of figures who pass through or set up home as mortals in Northampton. What connects them, surmises Moore, is a gothic, altered, visionary sense. 

Their exchanges upend conventions. Moore favors his own detached telling more than the chronologically faithful linguistic ventriloquism of dialects and vocabularies that kindled Voice of the Fire, but some chapters in this one-volume trilogy adapt their own styles. Notably, a play starring Bunyan, the mad poet of nature John Clare, James Joyce's daughter and psychiatric patient Lucia, her friend Samuel Beckett, St. Thomas Becket, a "half-caste woman" elsewhere appearing as Marla Stiles and a married couple stirring up the Warren-Vernell mix demonstrates Moore's knack. He creates a Beckettian drama even as he satirizes its content, improving on its form as he links it to local history. 

And, as with the analogy that other Sam shows, characters repeat and return throughout this unvarying book's order. It's not all gloom. Humor surfaces, whether poking fun at Alma's scarecrow appearance, the simply wrong name of Newlife granted a hideous corporate block, or an everyday night down the pub. Hapless Ben Parritt "looked round appraisingly at the establishment's half-dozen other clients, motionless upon their stools like ugly novelty-set chessmen, sidelined and morose."

Moore varies approaches, when he lets one character late on burst into rhyme, or earlier when Lucia's monologue descends into a verbal morass of Finnegans Wake, fifty daunting pages mirroring the opening of Fire, when Moore reduced the consciousness of a Neolithic boy to 4000 stunted words. Here, Moore opens up rather than contracts his expressions; that contrast will weary some while exciting many. A reader may wish to pause, and let this epic find its rhythms within oneself. 

Moore never seems to flag in this telling. One part begins with Bob Goldman's gumshoe parody before settling into a more Moore-ish pace. But this may be an inevitable capitulation to the weight of the imaginative universe built here that threatens to crush any single inhabitant's utterances or ego. 

In this gigantic production, Moore avoids cliché, he regales us with a local chronicle demanding immersion into its erudition and he plays fairly with expectations. How this new Jerusalem ends will be discovered by the dogged, but the conclusion, circling back to the invitation offered Mick by Alma, satisfies and stuns. Having announced retirement from the graphic arena, in this printed spectacle, Moore dazzles. (Amazon US 9-13-16)