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-sympathizing (but very suspicious of any political machine's machinations) 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'm unable to shake. Even when I think I have a poker face, I don't, according to chagrined colleagues who chuckle, chiding me too late.
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.
(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.