Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fates of Our Fathers

Ciara Ní Tuama, my friend, concludes her "Poem to St. Patrick":

Oh Patrick/ I know your secret/ I know the violence of your past/ We all want comfort in our/ old age/ We all want our names/ to ring throughout history//

And you, converting your/ brothers, sisters, comrades/ in spirit,/ entreating them to betray/ the very lifebreath/ of their beliefs.//

Tell me, Patrick, /what heaven/ is really like.

I thought of her words when writing the past couple of days voluminously on Christopher Hitchens' fascinating farrago "god Is Not Great," especially as it's at her Irish house where I first saw it published-- perhaps in advance of its American appearance-- last summer. Hitchens for all his own prolixity, which may come with being so dauntingly educated and so habitual a journalist, managed to produce a work that encourages dialogue, invites response, and rewards reflection. The connection with the poem arises when I return for the third time in nearly as many days to mull over the problem that I find Freud's "The Future of an Illusion" tackles full on.

While Hitchens twice makes an aside to this 1927 work, he does not incorporate its findings as thoroughly as I judge he should have. He wants us to overcome our tendency to seek signs in wonders we attribute wrongly to the divine. Yet, if we as a species have tended to look up for answers rather than around us, how can such a groove be gotten out of? How climb out of a rut thousands of years trudged by our ancestors-- and most of us today despite our advanced technological knowledge? I noticed on AOL the other day that in a poll about evolution, while 71% or so were convinced, another 21% denied it and 7% weren't sure.

Even if science triumphed, we'd still need ministrating angels to soothe us, although perhaps we'd call them shrinks. The clerisy could vanish, but perhaps we'd escape into Huxley (whose forebear Thomas coined the term "agnosticism") for a daily dose of soma to cope. Still, we'd suffer pain and death and despair, and in a godless world, how could we learn to cope? After Hitchens' devoutly-to-be-wished Secular Enlightenment should emerge, say in sudden collapse of solid doctrine as unexpected as that of the quick implosion of the Iron Curtain)-- what would we turn to for solace? The late Arthur C. Clarke mused (a snarl that sounds like Hitchens): "if in a thousand years from now someone insists on a personal God, he'd be locked up in an asylum."

The whole question of "what then," as the radical faction in (recently reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) Hani Kunzru's "My Revolutions" also wonder, and can barely conceive of, if their overthrow of The Man would transpire, moves me to cogitate further. Comrade Anna in that novel shrugs and confides that whatever the New Society would look like, it'd have no place for her, and that its transformed lineaments would be wholly at the service of The People. She's barely able to escape abstraction, so fixated is she on destruction and contempt at her British early 1970s consumer wasteland.

Likewise, Hitchens leaves us encouraged by his stance for liberty but still with no real direction on where to seek it. I know he's more the agitator than the guide, the one who rouses up the troops over the trench rather than the field-marshal who keeps them from panicking once the enemy's blasts come to earth around the recruits. Certainly there'd be carpet bombing-- the terrorists often hoist icons and brandish verses taped to their weapons. How can a substantial yet still underwhelming minority of seculars advance when the forces of-- in Hitchens' opinion-- ignorance at worst and sloth at best-- constitute billions easily assembled into mobs by mad ministers or mullahs? Controlling tenure or the café won't win over the rest of the huddled masses. Given the culture wars of the past fifty years, the détente may have fitfully arrived in parts of Europe and North America, but elsewhere-- for both humanitarian and nefarious aims-- the control of power remains with organized religion allied more often with capitalism and superpowers than not (and the not as in Tibet's not heartening in the showdown of Most Favored Nation trade status vs. human rights and cultural genocide).

Like his fellow atheist Sam Harris, Hitchens remains confident that commonsense and facts will inevitably trump wishes and omens. Yet, what of those of us who remain skeptics of the assurances of confident nonbelievers as well as complacent believers? I'm not agreeing with Pascal; I share Hitchens' disdain for such casuistic hypocrisy, such hedging of eternal bets. Not to mention the many of us who waver depending on the day. A student asked me in class a few months ago if I believed in God, and my answer was exactly that.

And my definition of an apophatic divine presence, one more expressed as negation of what we know that One we can understand, one emanating as easily from the feminine Shekinah and the still small voice as from the thunder and the fire: Hitchens appears to have no patience for such flagging spirits or wavering souls as mine. His subtitle's "How Religion Poisons Everything," and this brooks no contradictions. God's not Anselm's Being greater than which we cannot conceive, for can we not imagine dragons? Our power of conjuration mentally does not produce from our sleep of reason such monsters--to paraphrase Goya.

John Allen Paulos in his own addition to the atheist canon recently employed the ontological proof and simply substituted nature for God; scientists know suppose what medieval canons never could have imagined, that the universe may expand and contract forever. Each immeasurable Big Bang, each eon an eruption, as with the Buddhist rebirth of a life, may cancel all memory of the previous incarnation. Even in the presence of a pre-existing cosmos, ineradicable background radiation and tiny particles may spin about endlessly and without cause or origin, contradicting the empirical basis that earlier people understandably--in the days before Heisenberg, Einstein, and Hubble-- insisted had to exist first.

Such is the nature of progress in that Enlightenment tradition which Hitchens extends. But, Hitchens leaves too little room for doubt, for agnostics, and for shades of grey. Science opens itself to its own disproof in a manner that faith cannot, true. But, can we find hope in such cold certainties or elegantly expressed theorems? The universe of minus -212 Kelvin's a chilly place to find our own purpose, that of supernovas and silent death seen above from millions of light-years ago in the glimpse of a distant flash. In our warming bubble within absolute zero and background radiation, can we weaker humans endure without everlasting dreams coming true? This is why Hitchens leaves me hesitant. Yet, as Freud's invention of a Socratic critic against his own psychoanalytic argument shows, the need for people to cling to a comforting figure, an explanation for death, and an inspiration that escapes the mundane--figuratively and literally-- persists within us.

Our higher understanding agrees with Freud's illusion: God as Father-figure whom we look to as we cringe and grovel, wag our tail and beg for favors. "The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them." (pg. 19) This does make me wish Freud's wearily reductive model had room for the maternal, but I suppose that's beyond this post.

Yet, his self-included critic wonders what never occurs to Hitchens. What of the cultural enrichment of religious ideas, the splendor of so much of its culture, the healing powers emanating from its ethical precepts, the wisdom from its mystical prayers, or the inspiration of its example? Scanning the various scriptures, the chaff burdens the occasional glint of wheat. Hitchens substitutes all of these religious treasures with a simple philosophical slice of Occam's Razor. The cut may go deep and feel deadly, but the healing inoculation will make us thank the doctor we briefly may curse.

Now, as one who a while back put this Razor-sharp second medieval concept as its own blog key term, I admire this venerable tool of inquiry. Yet, not all of us want to shear off our locks, despite the expense, care, or inutility of our hair (or for me graying beard to boot). We admit the hassle, but we like the look. Same perhaps with the trappings of religion, as belief for many, and as more than relics for many more, even many secular folks.

I think of Europe's soaring yet echoing cathedrals ossifying into attractions to which we charge admission for their upkeep. No longer do but a few worshippers fill the nave of York Minster, which costs seven pounds now to enter. Yes, such magnificent monuments demand our attention as our cultural patrimony. But, taking the conclusions of Hitchens and continuing with them, it's as if they're on the same level as the Tate. Meanwhile, mosques burst to full throughout Western Europe, and megachurches turn into uneasy combinations of the moneychangers and the Temple throughout America. The pace of secularization's unsteady: advancing in Hitchens' homeland among post-Christians abandoning as he did the state Church, but certainly opposed by a harsher regimen imposed by those who'd place shariah within a special status legally in France, Turkey, or Britain.

Also, what of needy children? What do I teach my sons about their three-thousand year old patrimony? Jewish versions proverbially multiply as many as Jews themselves about how to act as one of their maternal tribe. Meanwhile, on my side, we have the trick of giving them a pride in their Irish heritage without the usual concomitant baggage or main course, depending on your metaphor, of heavy Catholicism.

And this leads me back in typically Celtic recursive spin and spiralling shape, to Ciara's lines. For, I recalled when musing about Hitchens my own early realization that I sympathized with the displaced gods and goddesses, and the upended beliefs of the ancient Irish, more than the Christian missionaries who replaced or distorted or conflated their customary sacred rivers or local lore into their rigid apostolic successions and papal strictures. This led gradually to an undermining of my own faith, as I understood-- and felt at a distance within my soul-- the displacement of ancestral bonds, the pain of exile, and the anguish of doubt.

I still have not shaken off such emotions, and at this stage in my life may never will. They encouraged within me what cautious Freud understands perhaps more than eager Hitchens: the faith of our fathers lodges in our bones, and is as ineradicable from our learning to walk, for many of us less confident of our stance than Hitchens. While a few can throw off their training wheels and learn to run quickly, many of us more hobbled by our upbringing hesitate no matter how tall we grow. And this search for meaning leads many good people still to faith. It draws others in the same sincerity away from certain belief.

Hitchens simply asks that he be freed to find his own unbound gait, and not be led by obscurantists. He may not know it all, but he'd reckon that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man's king. He also asks us to allow the same freedom for all we know. Others can put on their reins even though we may show them they can trot faster without them; others may need such guidance. And, some learn to love their crutch. I don't think even Hitchens remains so bold as to take away the lash with which many goad themselves by disciplines physical and spiritual. All he expects is that rational people can tell the their version of the facts.

As the doubting clerical poet R.S. Thomas suggested: "This is my truth; now tell me yours." And we may wait another millennium at least for the revelation, from the cancer cell or our strands of DNA. As Freud's critic hinted, it may be far longer than even Clarke's ten centuries hence for many of our progeny to learn how to stand on their own two tottering feet beneath a cosmic sky. Recall Dylan Thomas: "starless and bible-black."

Tate Gallery Search Image: Henry Moore, 1966-68:
"Crowd Looking at a Tied-up Object."

Colin Renfrew's "Archeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins" Book Review

This book argues for an Anatolian "Urheimat" (original homeland) for a core group speaking what would spread out laterally across Europe and Central Asia into the Indo-European languages. He rejects much of the competing theory of Marija Gimbutas for a "Kurgan" culture from the steppes; he also dismisses identification of Indo-Europeans with massive invasions of horse-drawn charioteers who swept across the plains east and west spreading their warlike language. Instead, combining patterns of a branched family tree with a "wave" model of concentric circles of expansion by language families, Renfrew constructs an direction that shows how IE could, starting about 6000 BCE, have spread according to the laws of linguistic evolution at steady rates morphologically and phonetically, have become the familiar tongues we speak today.

I found this study rather stodgy. The Anatolian discussion takes up far less of the book than you might expect from the reviews on Amazon before mine. Renfrew's wide ranging, and the whole IE search for origins occupies only a part of a larger effort to take his fellow archeologists to task for ignoring or misinterpreting linguistic evolution within the artifacts they excavate.

The pace of the book's slow, if the facts stay abundant; the style of the methodological marshalling of so much archeological, linguistic, and comparative cultural data turned often leaden. Any work written for a non-specialist that addresses recondite debates and learned contentions may run the risk of such arcane discourse. But, Renfrew, while no natural tale-teller, remains convinced of his iconoclastic assertions, and if you are committed to understanding this subject, this and J.P. Mallory's near-concurrent "In Search of the Indo-Europeans" represent crucial texts on the origins of IE. While I'd been meaning to read Renfrew for a long time, what impelled me to finish it was the appearance in 2007 of David W. Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language," which proposes a Pontic steppe origin in Russia and southern Ukraine for the riders who took Proto-Indo-European across the plateaus as an "elite" language of poetry about a male sky-god and began to leave its traces with other peoples who then began cultivating PIE.

As Renfrew wrote nearly two decades before Anthony, I was curious to see if I could find anticipations of Anthony's theory in Renfrew. I prepared to understand Anthony's OIE elaborations by first learning from how Renfrew built his foundation. He discourages the findings of linguistic paleology. He warns in matching cognates of Sanskrit "ratha" with Latin "rota" that it's "a far cry from saying that some hypothetical Proto-Indo-Europeans used chariots with wheels (or indeed carts with wheels) in their original homeland." (86) Also, he discourages Gimbutas' far-reaching establishment of a PIE Russian-Ukraine "Urheimat" to better assert his competing claim-- based on analysis of early Greek-- for Anatolia.

The liveliest part of the work remains for me the incorporation of Christopher Hawkes' "Cumulative Celticity" theory that Renfrew adapts to his wave-family tree (stammbaum) plotting for PIE. He denies that the La Téne artistic style presents a hub in Central Europe for the migration of Celts, shows how that noun can be defined eight ways, and favors Myles Dillon's reasoning that fundamental language changes began "in situ" in the places we find Celtic languages developing historically, rahter than emanating from a Continental center through massive migration or war. Therefore, the Iberian (Hispano-Celtic) or Goidelic (Q-Celt) branches of ancient Celtic languages stayed far enough on the Atlantic fringes that they did not alter with subsequent innovations that warped other Celtic varietals into insular Brythonic (P-Celt) or Western European Gaulish forms attested to in the historical record.

Finally, well before the genetic applications suggested by DNA comparisons with language from Stephen Oppenheimer ("Origins of the British," 2006), Renfrew predicts in passing that in Britain prior to the withdrawal of the Romans already many people may have spoken a Germanic language (137). However, Renfrew discourages in this pre-Genome Project breakthrough in genogeography a trust in such efforts as pioneered Luigi Cavalli-Sforza: "I think experience has shown that genetic arguments in relation to language and culture quite readily lend themselves to misleading interpretations." Still, the "wave of advance maps" such earlier scholars charted with their mapping of "various blood groups in Europe, suggesting genetic affinities," Renfrew finds may "await further assessment," which two decades later appears to be occuring with scholars such as Cavalli-Sforza, Oppenheimer, and Bryan Sykes, to name only three of those addressing their findings for a wider audience.

(Posted to Amazon US today. I reviewed Oppenheimer at length in the on-line Celtic Studies journal Epona-- "Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt" -- as well as a shorter review on Amazon, where I also reviewed Sykes' "Seven Daughters of Eve" & "Saxons, Vikings & Celts." Try also for a broader worldview "Genes, Peoples & Languages" by Cavalli-Sforza.)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great": Book Review

Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great": Book Review

This will be a daunting book to summarize; placed in necessarily reduced and redacted form March 31st on Amazon, my review will open me up to the usual array of cranks ready to rate me as "unhelpful" not for the contents I respond to so much as the fact I differ from their own perceptions. However, much more than Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" or Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" (both earlier reviewed by me on Amazon; I still haven't read Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," but it's next), Hitchens brings vast literary, political, and historical erudition to the "oldest argument in the history of mankind." Obviously, from his ironic riposte that serves as his title, not to mention the added barb of the hectoring subtitle ("How Religion Poisons Everything"), he joins the recent resurgence in prominent publicists for the cause of the renewed, atheistic, secular Enlightenment.

He quotes (lapsed Jew) Heinrich Heine, from nearly two centuries ago, in an attack on religious obscurantism: "In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides." (43) The eloquence Heine displays has been mirrored in Hitchens; both acknowledge the efficacy of past guidance by religion, but they insist upon its present obsolescence. The core of his argument, although to me it remains often buried under willfully gleeful rhetorical attacks on if not straw men, then rows of scarecrows against the fears of oblivion and the specters of liberty, is that humanism can fend for itself free of any obligation to theology.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Niemoller stood up to the Nazis, they did so less out of an obligation to their mute religious superiors than a humane, rational opposition against tyranny. These clerics put their fellow men and women before demands of idolatry to a totalitarian state; the claims that fascism or communist regimes prove the dangers of atheism shrivel when the very nature of these brutal systems imitate those of theocracies. Countering Chesterton's observation that rejection of God leads one to believe not in nothing but in anything, Hitchens asserts that religion itself paves the dangerous path that directs people towards credulity.

This for me became the heart of his argument, but it is left until the end of the seventeenth out of nineteen chapters before Hitchens engages fully in the humanist apologetics that take on the familiar charge that in the absence of God, everything's morally permitted. Hitchens trusts us enough that we can act ethically. Better to let religion pursue its wheedling approach in the competitive global marketplace, he suggests, and to contrast its present humbler hucksterism with its past imperious dominance over any who dared to oppose its dictates in myriad, competing, and equally damning manifestations. Hitchens appears to assume that repressing religious expression, intriguingly, will be as dangerous as encouraging it, given the failures of Stalinism to do so, and the mimicry that death cults of purportedly atheistic despots have fallen into in their rule by absolute terror.

The extremes of Albanian or North Korean cults of worship, he warns, demonstrate that "the religious impulse-- the need to worship-- can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not necessarily be a compliment to our worshipping tendency." (247) As a former Trotskyite, he also tells of his own encounters with the dangerous secular sects of prophets, deterministic texts, mad purges, and endless squabbles for transcendent truth. He knows the seduction of a "total solution," and admits this impels religion "even at its meekest" as it depends on "faith which must be to some extent blind, and in which all aspects of the private and public life must be submitted to a permanent higher supervision."

Critics charge Hitchens as wielding too blunt a club, too awkward a blunderbuss. But, here his nuanced sentence shows what elsewhere his argument may have trampled in his haste to overcome the multifaceted theological enemy. Even the more liberal practitioner, if he or she's truly a believer, must bow before the eye in the sky as a pre-requisite for one's adherence to the spirit and the letter of the divine law one chooses to accept in its fine print. Hitchens masterfully exposes how many monotheistic magistrates manage to keep their charges in a state of perpetual uncertainty, as the (man-made accretion of) laws contend and contradict one another, and there's always more rules to obey beyond those one already does. The impossibility of meeting such higher standards given our weak natures made by the same Creator wrenches humans, according to Hitchens, into dispiriting contortions.

Hitchens chillingly evokes how he knows what it's like "to have to sing everlasting praises" after a visit to Kim Il Sung's Orwellian satrapy. Reasoning that "modern secular argument" avoids any "ban on religious observance," he nods to Freud's "The Future of an Illusion." Until we get rid of our fear of death and our need for wish-fulfillment, there's no escape from religious reflexes. Hitchens directs our gaze to what we can witness, and holds hope there for wonder. Yet, can we find comfort in contemplating the double helix? What about the cancer cell?

For Dennett-- whom Hitchens briefly considers-- this underaged tendency to find patterns in the ineffable may account for an evolutionary advantage in earlier societies, for this fear in the gods may have impelled people towards more altruistic, less selfish, more beneficial, and less harmful behaviors. For Hitchens, he sharpens Ockham's Razor. No explanations need be multiplied beyond necessity. So, why fall back on what illiterate herders or half-wit scribes invented to explain our world thousands of years ago? We can turn to science, and where religion ends, philosophy begins-- as with alchemy vs. chemistry, or astrology vs. astronomy. This sensible appeal to logic remains one of his strongest sections. He mulls over Spinoza, Pierre Bayle, Tom Paine, and Charles Darwin as pioneers in publicly-- if necessarily at times given the dangers of honest doubt or denial-- challenging the outmoded dogmas and fanciful doctrines. (He tends to muddle atheism with non-belief, and leaves out Thomas Huxley, who coined "agnosticism." Colonel Ingersoll's placed within the camp of naysayers rather than non-knowers by implication.) Hitchens also reveals the limits of what we can divulge from the hidden minds of past skeptics, for many necessarily must have kept their doubts entirely secret, for their survival.

While much of this book engages in spirited, if not always measured, assaults on familiar topics that atheists often explore in demolishing religious claims, the value that Hitchens adds may be in two areas. First, unlike my encounters with Dennett and Harris in print, Hitchens manages to entertain, to toss hundreds of examples from his vast knowledge your way. These may not always hit their target. But, in their variety, energy, and vivacity, they keep you reading. Each chapter's wide enough to reveal another perspective from which to view the battle, while short enough to contain his point-of-view more or less coherently among the fog of intellectual war with the revelations that have enraptured billions.

One small example of his rhetorical ammunition: Hitchens ponders the three monotheisms competing and overlapping claims vis-a-vis "the apparent tendency of the Almighty to reveal himself only to unlettered and quasi-historical individuals, in regions of Middle Eastern wasteland that were long the home of idol worship and superstition, and in many instances already littered with existing prophecies." (98) Against such contradictory and illogical calls for obedience from scraps of scrolls compiled long after the holy men they claim to quote as eyewitness and verbatim accounts, Hitchens rejects their claims for obesiance as inapplicable to us centuries later.

He also condemns, if in less rigorous fashion given his ad hominem insults to the present Dalai Lama, the Eastern alternatives to fulfillment. (I was surprised by Hitchens' omission of the Dalai Lama's claim that he'd abandon the words of the Buddha if they were found to contradict those of scientific inquiry, or that the Lama keeps on his desk a model of the human brain. Such admissions might have complicated Hitchens' consideration of the Lama.) The contempt of the intellect and the cultivation of passivity rouse his ire. People placed-- as with the Bhagwan charlatan-- in a preaching-tent at whose entrance enjoins: "Shoes and minds must be left at the gate" (196) leave Hitchens with no respect for such retrogressive directions away from mental progress, let alone absent social gains. He warns that if the Bible bores us, that knowledge will not enter by the way of dissolution of our own "critical faculties." Such innocents "may think that they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals."(204) While I still disagree with his sweeping rejection of the Dalai Lama, Hitchens does remain more or less coherent, in a considerably wandering chapter, in at least providing a few cautionary tales about what happens when non sequiturs and effusions emerge through irrational proclamations and solipsistic attitudes that replace truth and logic.

Ultimately, the Golden Rule needs no God. We can live up to its message without cringing for fear of annihilation or excommunication today. Restraints on our own tendencies towards cruelty and injustice must be encouraged by our own example. While past and many present examples show religious people implicated in horrific crimes, those who resisted such atrocities may or may not, he argues from the complicity of the Catholic Church in Rwandan massacres, have been "faith-based." Religions started due to fanatics, but charity and relief work "while they may appeal to tenderhearted believers, are the inheritors of modernism and the Enlightenment. Before that, religion was spread not by example but as an auxiliary to the more old-fashioned methods of holy war and imperialism." (192) I'm not sure if this applies to Buddhists, or Quakers, in the same way as to Islam or most forms of Christianity, however.

This also raises a weakness in Hitchens that makes conflicts like those in Ireland or Africa or the Balkans reifications of confessional disputes, when the reality is that denominations became linked to ownership of real estate and tribal power under the ruler, in turn paying fealty to multinational political empires entangled with religious fiefdoms. The scope of this relationship exceeds the grasp of any short work for a popular audience. Of course, the endless bickering between Caesar and Christ, the overshadowing of shariah with caliphate, or aligning Judaism within Zionism raises countless complications; Hitchens does take on many of these maelstroms, but within the rather ambitious and scattershot array of examples he raises and considers, the nuances of this vexed subject become obscured in the force of his argumentative assaults.

I found one error, speaking of the Middle East. In citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Hitchens claims that Jesus discusses a man who acted kindly without hearing of Christianity (obviously), "let alone having followed the pitiless teachings of the god of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all." (99-100) I leave the Mosaic content aside for experts to parse, but the Samaritans also followed the Pentateuch or the Five Books of the Torah; they did not follow the Prophets or later writings that comprised the Hebrew Scriptures. In his critique of the Dalai Lama Hitchens also misspells the surname of one of his "major donors," B-movie star Steven Seagal, on p. 200, less crucially.

In conclusion, Hitchens made me think. There's no easy solutions for the predicament that he argues has been placed in our path towards progress by religious unthinking. His call for a new Enlightenment based on the lack of justifications religions can summon up in our secular age for their relevance does appear inspiring, if quixotic. Yet, he is right: this liberation's finally open (at least in parts of the Post-Christian West and wherever in the privacy of one's mind readers elsewhere can seek intelligence from these pages) to all of us. Our ancestors had no choice but to submit, at least publicly. We, however, can seek literary, aesthetic, and scientific guidance towards individual liberty and self-realization openly.

Crucially-- although this point again's too often subsumed in the diverse and divergent realms explored here-- we can recover from our fear of the body. Hitchens typically if rather poignantly observes that one sin of the 9/11 bombers is that they died not only seeking virgins (unless that's a mistranslation as he suggests for as I paraphrase "crystal-clear white raisinettes") but as virgins. (What rewards female suicide bombers in a Muslim heaven?)

This twisting of tendencies towards religious impulses that are first naturally placed within us and then theocratically thwarted illustrates his thesis neatly. And he in his penultimate paragraph tells us that "the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. All this and more is, for the first time within our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone." (283)

Yet, there's the rub. Hitchens knows this will not be easy. Harris had mused that only if parents told the truth to their children, that reason would triumph over faith. But, how can the parents step outside of their own mindsets, their own patterns inlaid over perhaps thousands of years of worship? It's no simpler here. The goal's set forth, but the action's up to us, with few predecessors to show us the way out of the chapel or the cave. "We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures or subjection and abjection."

I kept waiting for his suggestions as to how to overcome our seemingly inbred (if Dennett's right) "religious impulse" that does bring us comfort and appears for many of us to evolve in childhood. But, we have to come up with our own way out of our self-constructed, rather than divinely-patrolled, mental and spiritual and historical prisons. Hitchens may agree silently with St. Paul in urging us now to put aside such childish things in our maturing grasp of scientific truth, philosophical inquiry, and civilized behavior. Not to mention the need for global peace in a time when so many millions in volatile deserts, suburbs, and cities remain convinced of eschatological predictions that hasten environmental destruction, nuclear tensions, or geo-political Armageddon.

(Posted today, needing your positive votes to counteract the negatives, on Amazon US; here in a six-paragraph version. It's + #745 or so in the reviewer queue; Dawkins has about 1445; I entered there years ago regarding Harris and Dennett. On to read Dawkins next.)

Image: Layne told me you can summon up artworks at the Tate Gallery Subject Search on-line by seeking qualities such as idea and emotion. Good example of Hitchens' exhortation of looking to the man-made for soul-pleasure. Here's a suitably sensual and secular example when I entered the key term "devotion." Dorothy Richards titled this drawing exactly that (1973-5), illustrating Rimbaud's "Les Illuminations." However, I could find no artworks when I entered "doubt," and only Blake's Resurrection for that of "disbelief." Godless artists have some catching up to do, given the preponderance of religious subjects so far! I wonder if future worldly patrons will be as lavish for aspiring aesthetes as has been the Vatican?

Karen Armstrong's "Buddha":Book Review

It's difficult to fit this subject into the usual "Penguin Lives" format. As Armstrong acknowledges, we really know hardly anything about his dates of birth and death, many of the places mentioned in the early Pali texts (she uses this form of transliteration which differs from traditional Western spellings of even the name of the Buddha let alone terms for his concepts) no longer can be found, and the scriptures tend towards supernatural contests as often as they do pithy exchanges between mortals with names, if not developed characterizations. The absence of the texture of daily life that we gain from more familiar Jewish, Christian, or Muslim texts makes the study of the formative years of Siddhama Gotana challenging even in simplified form in a couple of hundred pages for the general reader.

However, as I'm that reader, wanting a introduction to a topic I know next to nothing about, Armstrong's succinct summary met my needs. On the other hand, parts of even this short text dragged-- the fourth chapther on "Mission" with its accounts of internecine warfare between chieftains and strife within the burgeoning communities of adepts who followed the "dhamma" failed to rouse much of my attention. The most moving section can be found in her paraphrasing of the end of the Buddha's life. She tells the story well: "the Buddha experienced an extinction that was, paradoxically, the supreme state of being and the final goal of humanity" (187); she shows how he struggled to overcome "the distorting aura egotism that clouds the judgment of most human beings" (187).

Especially strong are the background chapters that place the birth of Buddhism within the yogi practices and Hindu caste system, and that compare the rise of the new "dhamma" within the contexts of the Axial Age's shift from unchanging, unquestioned roles for gods vs. humans into a restless, almost existential, despair that Siddhama himself experienced. Armstrong shows how and why he left his sleeping wife and child, and why this separation would have been seen as necessary.

Similarly, she explains the persistent structure of gender roles and how the women were placed in a subordinate position even as followers; likewise, the laity had to assume an auxiliary status and could not attain the full potential that only the monks could aspire towards. While Armstrong compliments Buddha's teaching as the first that broke out of a tribal or specialized group to offer enlightenment to all, it remains inevitably disappointing that the everyday pursuits of making a living, raising families, and tending to one's necessities turn into barriers to fulfillment, then as now, for most of the religious and spiritual paths that have been developed with roots in the Axial Age of 800-200 BCE. This isn't a fault of such systems as Buddhism, and Armstrong does her best to place this approach to holiness within the confines of its feudal times, but it does keep the full realization of what the Buddha offered to the rest of humanity at a bit of distance from the mundane preoccupations that consume much of our efforts.

The liberation and the freedom from such worldly concerns turns interior for much of this narrative, and it's difficult material to make vivid on the static page. Armstrong relies on both the primary texts and interpretations to try to enliven this journey within to those of us who stand outside of the process towards "Nibbana" and away from "samsara." A list of further reading might have aided us after we close this study.

Armstrong's a skilled interpreter for popular readerships of monotheistic faiths from the Middle East. The strengths lie in how she compares and contrasts the traditions more familiar to Westerners with the more esoteric nature of a less theistically based, more subtle and ethically centered tradition in Buddhism. However, I also wondered if Armstrong found herself a bit out of her familiar expertise with this daunting subject. She's a well-placed interpreter, but I did keep aware that she, not speaking from within the tradition, might not have been able to master the nuances and lived experiences that could have clarified and revivified what remain rather unfamiliar concepts for most of her English-speaking readers.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

"In t-Ainm na Fhada" leis Deas Mac an Easpaig

Tá mé ag léamh agallamh Beo ann an seachtaine seo. Nuair tá mé go bhfuil ag géabh a thabhairt ina traen, léann mé ar feadh beagán noimead. Tá mé ar an leath bealaigh triu sé. Téann mé níos mall go leor as Gaeilge. Tá mé ag iarraidh a chleachtadh líofach Ghaeilge agam. Is mian liom a fásadh stór focal orm.

Fuair mé an mí seo gur alt an-maith orm, leoga. Is Deas Mac an Easpaig Meiriceánnach é; ach tá sé fuirseoir Éireannach go aithnidiúil. Tá sé ag obair seó grinn ar an bhoinn. Is dhá bliain is tríocha d'aois anois. D'imirt sé as Nua-Eabhrac go hÉirinn agus é ceithre bliana déag d'aois.

Bhí suim aige riamh sa Ghaeilge, dúirt sé Caoimhe Ní Laighin
Bheo, an iris idirlín go iontach as lámha le chéile Oideas Gael. Rinne Deas dhá straith araon ar RTÉ cheana féin. Bhí siad ráchairt an-mhór orthu. Faoí deireach, tá Deas ábalta a staidéar an teanga i d'Tír an Fhia i Leitir Móir i nGaeltacht Chonamara, ina gContae nGallimh. Bhí sé ag déanamh clár nua faoí an eachtra seo go dana. Is é "In t-ainm na Fhada."

D'fhoglaim an t-uafás bainte amach aige anuraidh. Tá na straith nua teilifíse seo ag forbairt a scannánú Dheas ag cur roimhe an blas fhíor-Ghaeilge Chonnacht a fáil air taobh istigh de bhliain amháin. De réir Caoimhe, is an t-éacht aige. Measaim sí go bhfuil "ag éiri go breá le Bishop ó thaobh na bhfuaimeanna de-- is geall le dúchasach de chuid Chonamara anois". Mar sin féin, imreoidh sé os comhair lucht féachana lán Gaeilgeoirí mar chuid de sheó speisialta. Craolaidh na straitheannaí is nua RTÉ 1. Chuir tús léi ar an 13 Márta. Fheadhfai tú ag breathnaim an chéad dhá eipeasód ar an idirlín ar an nasc síos. Chonaic mé siad inniu. Scríobhfaidh mé fúthu an t-am ina dhiaidh sin, nuair iarrfaidh mé as Gaeilge, afach.

"In the Name of the Fada" with Des Bishop

I've been reading an interview in Beo this week. I'm only part of the way through it. When I take the train, I read for a while a few minutes. I go much more slowly in Irish. I've been wishing to practice my Gaelic fluency. I want to increase my vocabulary.

Indeed, I found this month a very good article for me. Des Bishop is American; but he's a well-known Irish comedian. He works in stand-up comedy shows. He's thirty-two years old now. He left New York for Ireland when he was fourteen. He's had an interest before in Irish, he told Caoimhe Ní Laighin of Beo, the splendid on-line magazine "hand-in-hand with" Oideas Gael.

Des has made two series together with RTÉ. These were received very well. Lately, Des has been able to study in Tír an Fhía in Leitir Mhór in the Connemara Irish-speaking district, in Co. Galway. He's done a new program about this bold adventure. It's "In the Name of the Fada."

He learned to accomplish a great deal for himself the past year. This new TV series is developing around filming Des taking on getting the flavor of true Connacht Irish within only a year. According to Caoimhe, it's a great achievement. She thinks that "Bishop's gotten on nicely with the sounds-- it's like he's a Connemara native now." But, he will play before an audience full of Irish speakers as part of a special show. The newest series will be broadcast on RTE 1. It started on March 13th. You can watch the first two episodes on-line at the link below. I saw them today. However, I will write about them next time when I try Irish.

Beo agallamh/ interview: Be careful/Bí curamach! Feic suas/Look up Eagrán 83/ Márta 2008

Grianghrafái & epeasódaí chlár na RTÉ /Photos & episodes of the show:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Kitten's Wedding

Possibly to make up the absence of Garfield from the previous illustrations, here find what my wife found classified as Anthropomorphic Taxidermy in Wikipedia. The entry there explains this art, popular during the late 19th and early 20c in England. "The most famous practitioner was English taxidermist Walter Potter. His most famous work includes The Upper Ten or Squirrels’ Club featuring 18 European red squirrels socialising at their 'club', and Death of Cock Robin, a setting of the nursery rhyme."

This tableau sparked an outburst of laughter when I saw it at the Victoria & Albert a few years ago during their fittingly Victorian exhibit. I the ugly American was the only one audibly amused within my earshot.

My Irish blood does quail at the thought that I could flaunt mirth from this period so close to and encompassing the Famine, but chalk that risibility up to 1) my long interest in this diverse and too stereotyped (as that of the Middle Ages) period, which was a sub-specialty of mine in my qualifying exams for my Brit Lit Ph.D. 2) my catholic sense of gallows humor 3) my habitual love of (certain) domestic animals and how we show our twisted affection for these poor dumb beasties 4) my inability to take much seriously unless my ego's at stake 5) my sensibility which has little room for sentimentality unless my ego's at stake.

In fact, I dragged my sons and spouse back to this diorama at the V & A, which luckily was a short walk from our rented basement flat in Knightsbridge at the Snow White Apartments. These premises were dominated by a tawny puss larger than lasagned Garfield, named Custard. She would have appreciated, I know, this exhibit. We told her all about it.

Walter Potter made many such displays in the latter half of Victoria's reign. This is one of his best known. There's an earnest tenderness in such a difficult endeavor, awkwardly expressed yet moving to me. This combination, in fact, represents the spirit of its time. It's also his final arrangement, from the 1890s.

You can find out much more at: A Case of Curiousities

Garfield meets Beckett

Time magazine, as I perused a stray copy in the dentist's chair the other day, brought me not only Pico Iyer's intriguing article about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan revolts (I saw them in our paper today labelled a milder "protest" while the Chinese diligently spin them into making their colonial aggressor the put-upon shrinking violet, now jailing over 600 "reactionaries"), but this welcome news of one Irishman's own struggle manipulating the same power of the medium to make a message worldwide against bodily oppression and soul-destruction.

"If you still doubt the awesome power of the Internet, consider this: it has the power to make Garfield funny again. Garfield Minus Garfield, at [Here 'tis] is a website that republishes old Garfield strips doctored so that Garfield himself isn't there. All you see is a lonely and apparently demented Jon Arbuckle wandering an empty landscape of countertops and refrigerators, lasagna and coffee. 'Who would have guessed,' writes the site's author, who identifies himself as Dan Walsh, 32, of Dublin, Ireland, 'that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the empty desperation of modern life?' Samuel Beckett, eat your heart out."

I must credit Leo with telling me about this ahead of Time! If only by a few days. He certainly perches at the cutting edge of pop culture detritus.

Image: March 25th's entry. This week's closest to Beckett, notwithstanding the sign-off the television test pattern motif. I'm not seriously diminishing the desparation in Tibet. I've posted on it twice this past week. Time's cover story on Tibet can be found via the March 31st issue A Monk's Struggle. Time now has a website that allows you to search the magazine back to its 1927 birth with Henry Luce.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pigs in the Parlor

Irish Americans may recall this quaint phrase as signifying being "shanty," that word in turn from bog-Irish "sean tí/ teach" or "old house," the shack ("teach" again?) being the opposite of what the "lace curtain" Kennedys and their bootlegging ilk aspired towards. The connection of people and beast in domestic prelapsarian harmony reminded me of a swapmeet depiction that I originally commented upon a year ago in a post here, "A Steak the Size of My Head."

My dear wife opined upon my supposed identification with our poor animals and contrasted, fittingly if snidely, the juxtaposition of my blog sentiment with my bog appetite. Niall and I were finishing off an enormous slab of meat for dinner one spring back. While he and the (who gave up her vegetarianism as one of her first practical acts once we courted, and once she saw me try to eat the salad which she'd
set before me innocently) wife and Leo (who to his credit lasted a few weeks a while back as a non-carnivore back from the Minnesota State Fair's carnival displays of penned carne and deep-fried carnage) happily polish off four foots, since I left for Ireland last summer and decided not to eat quadrupeds, I now find myself relishing but the sizzle on the grill that's a sign of bustle in Her New Kitchen.

But, it's a today but a whiff of nostalgia for my knife-clutching, fork-ready first half (I hope) of my mortal span. Still, I have not succumbed. What's the point of this decision? After all, I long have characterized myself as an dependable consumer of roast beef and spuds.

Each time I ride the Blue Line back towards downtown amidst the industrial wasteland that's Southeast L.A., I can see a neatly painted cow on the right and a pig on the left, each in a circle above the sign across from the Vernon station. They sell themselves, in fleshly fashion.

Today, on that same train, I took in "A Short Digression on the Pig, or, Why Heaven Hates Ham." This is an aside in Christopher Hitchens' elegantly casual screed god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It's as if Voltaire's commissioned by Vanity Fair-- which when stuck waiting for a haircut or a dentist, I turn to and peruse Hitchens' column. Like his journalism, it's both rather haphazardly erudite and of course very witty in that British sense which I suppose from my glimpses into Auberon Waugh (via his son's memoir Fathers and Sons of that literate clan reviewed by me here last week) remains a perogative more of the British Fourth Estate. The late Bill Buckley notwithstanding-- and he certainly proved no less than the Kennedys his aplomb at imitating his forefathers' rivals as the lace curtain Irish bested the scions of Fleet Street as well as at the Court of St. James in flair, wit, and connivance.

Back to the swine in Vernon, he reminds me in his patient gaze, in a human manner lacking in his bovine counterpart, of Hitchens' aside. I will review his dogged attack on the multifarious follies done in the name of religion after I finish it. Meanwhile, my own digression. Other pork products emanate from this corrupt blue-collar burg. For, Hoffy can be smelled here if you drive a few streets over down Soto. And, more vividly still as those harsh scents fade away another block, you see the murals.

Farmer John, when I was a kid hearing Dodgers on the radio each spring, chortled in the voice of Vin Scully their slogan: "Easternmost in Quality, Westernmost in Flavor." This elegant conflation of Kennedy-Buckley heirs/airs to the manor/manner born that we yokels out in El Lay associated with the Brahmins, Back Bay, and Boston Baked Beans (in a can), with the down-home, indigenous, and therefore folksy canned appeal of we (sub)urban pioneers on the continental frontier proved a memorable adline and a potent phrase. Les Grimes in 1957 and Arno Jordan in 1968 brushed that sylvan setting for pig and human on the side of the Clogherty Meat Co. (Walter O'Malley's Dodgers hire Scully and shill Clogherty: the Irish diligently slop Dinty Moore as purveyors of ribs, hams, or sausage to the he-men corralled in cities of Big Shoulders watching other beefy men swing bats and pitch balls.) As you drive up Soto, these bright walls surround the meatpacking factory. I have never sniffed the odors there that permeate Hoffy. So, as you pass you're spared any real-world reminder of the fate of particular four legs kept at Animal Farm. Two legs good.

Two pigs looked out of prison bars. One saw mud, the other saw stars. Acknowledging the shift in the proper subject noun, this proverb stuck with me since twelve. It's also Chrissy Hynde stealing from Oscar Wilde. This other painting featured above serves almost as a medieval diptych, or a reminder of the salvation vs. damnation pending pigs. Here, no frolic, only resignation. Two windows, two sets of bars, two pigs.

Hitchens could have employed these depictions to support his own thesis. In his porcine meditation, he suggests a reason-- beyond either the hackneyed "hygienic" explanations advanced by secular Jews that trichinosis by the kosher ban could have been prevented, or the plain fact that the middens of Canaan show neatly Jewish vs. non-Jewish settlement by the presence or absence of pig bones-- for the stern if perplexing (as so much of the Torah thunders and threatens) dietary restriction.

Pigs, Hitchens informs us, if crammed together in sties act like swine. They fight. They make noise. They may be driven to devour not only their excrement but their own young. Yet, with enough space, they stay clean, "arrange little bowers," raise families, and get along with their fellow porkers. Their ratio of brain weight to body weight, a sign of intelligence, nears that of dolphins. Adapting well to their environment, they also appear to have a lot in common by DNA with ourselves: the heart valves, skin, and kidneys all have been transplanted into us. (My adopted mother lived for a while longer with her rheumatic heart thanks to this trans-species borrowing.) A useful animal, it may remind us of ourselves.

There's the rub. Hitchens suggests that the look, the taste, and "the dying yells of the pig, were too uncomfortably reminiscent of the human." (40) "The simultaneous attraction and repulsion derived from an anthropomorphic root." In the pig, we can hear-- as echoed by the workers cringing as they hook the pigs aloft and then slit their throats in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or the firefighters who Hitchens claims eschew crackling and roast pork, our own haunted voices. We, in our love and our fear of the pig, he suggests, see ourselves in an animal. We're spooked by our ancestral human sacrifice and cannibalism. We used to eat if we climb far enough up our family tree "long pig"-- for apparently we taste like pork when cooked enough.

Hitchens warns us: "Nothing optional-- from homosexuality to adultery-- is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash."

This passage shows the range of this study of man's inhumanity to not only man but to the natural world in the cause of religion. Hitchens wonders: why can't the religious fanatics leave us alone? Their very insistence on a received truth they must compel us to accept spurs them on. Not taking no for an answer, they force everyone else to submit to Allah or YHWH and/or Jesus. And, to belabor the obvious, these share competing and contradictory forms of the sole, incompetent, aloof, yet insanely meddling, meticulous, jealous #1 Deity. Who, we are told, loves us so much that He will damn us if we mortals don't surrender to His unfathomable plan. Against this demand a few have been vociferously if still quixotically arguing for centuries, at least in the relative tolerance of the recent West. More will follow on Hitchens and his iconoclastic campaign anon.

For now, "this apparently trivial fetish" of the pig Hitchens employs to demonstrate how "faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world." (41) Humanists, countering the ownership of ethics and lovingkindness often claimed by many religious proponents, do choose to live rightly without the loss of science, the abandonment of reason, or the threat of eternal torment. In Hitchens' view, we can choose not to eat the meat he obviously salivates over. "But this is a decision we can make in the plain light of reason and compassion, as extended to fellow creatures and relatives, and not as a result of incantations from Iron Age campfires where much worse offenses were celebrated in the name of god." His aside concludes with Ralph from The Lord of the Flies. Fearful of punishment as he was stranded among the raving crowd of schoolboy peers on the island, he has the courage to look "in the face of the buzzing, supperating idol (first killed and then worshipped) that has been set up by the mob." Ralph symbolizes the freethinker facing the torchlit thugs demanding his capitulation: "Pig's head on a stick."

In my premature judgment, Hitchens glosses over the use of kosher to separate, that imperative so key to Leviticus and Jewish identity. I favor, whether in Celtic recovery or Jewish practice, the modern follower who takes what he or she finds valuable from the heritage, not as an unthinking gesture to appease a wrathful and capricious power, but as a conscious acknowledgement of one's wish to connect with a rich past. And, to revive that hallowed object or ritual for one's own spiritual nourishment today. Not as a museum piece, a rote task, or a craven posture.

Hitchens, as I'm halfway through the book, I predict applies Ockham's Razor to "the reconstruction of the fables" (thanks, R.E.M.) as he has to the Indonesian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. While some may explain these catastrophes as punishment from an angry God, Hitchens shrugs. Why invent causes without need? Cut to the chase. Keep it simple. Snuff the incense. Toss the candle. We already have explanations. They're based on facts. Our ancestors wrote their scriptures ignorant of them. But we know science. It tells us that we live on an unstable planet with unpredictable weather patterns that have endured long before sodomists, idolators, or pagans walked the planet. Once in a while, the earth shakes and sky swirls.

Heroically (despite the fascination of centuries of theodicy and theology vs. Hitchens' unwavering atheism and formidable intellect), I struggle back from this overwhelming subject. Retreat to an intervening paragraph in the "Digression." Hitchens treats the origin of the Spanish offering of a plate of charcuterie to the Catholic fanatics who used the entreé to torment and nose out the "New Christian"-- was not a "marrano" derived from the word for pig itself, I recall dimly?-- masquerading Muslim or Sephardic fidelity in Inquisitional Iberia. It's a sign of the need for survival among a persecuted minority that may distinguish the subdued Moor or the apostate Jew in late medieval Spain in their aversion to pork.

Today, less traditional Jews as far as I can fathom choose to avoid pork out of not so much any "belief" in Mosaic law, so much as a sign of loyalty to their heritage. Does this mean the sign's empty of meaning? Can one be a humanistic Jew, for example, or a Celtic revivalist who knows full well the Mórrigan's not appearing under the next full moon?

Reconstructionists laud this mental recalibration, and I suppose the Conservative and Reform Jews that choose some modified form of kosher also follow suit. Those who don't may avoid bacon or shellfish out of a fear of annoying Bubbe & Zayde, or when out of range of Chinese restaurants. I'd credit my modified practice of this biblical jot-and-tittle from a three-thousand year-old injunction to that of self-discipline. If nothing else, I promised when entering the covenant to remind myself I'm not an animal and I can control my cravings.

I'm unsure that there's a God, but I did make a commitment in front of the Torah. Speckled with inconsistencies and spattered with ignorance as that patched and contradictory human document remains, it does also record the half-idiotic, half-inspirational attempts of a desert people sunk in the same narrow-mindedness as their neighbors to hack out of their barren existence one of the first groping lurches towards the kinder and gentler modes of thought and deed that Hitchens praises as his cherished exemplar: a precursor of the Enlightenment.

I'm not sure if we're as bold or as ready as he is to cut our ties-- as his secular Jewish mother had-- with our cultural legacy. Again, with Ockham's scalpel aloft, Hitchens urges us to hack ourselves free from outmoded Anglo-Semitic attitudes. The Reconstructionists, to his mind, may erect but a halfway house to full parole from the bonds that kept our ancestors blind from human truth: that we find ourselves accidental, alone, and therefore able to look laterally, not vertically, for reasons to believe. Not in the god(s) above, but in our own capacity to love and live.

Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (and two out of the last three advocates also share a secular Jewish background), urges us to do so, the final act of liberation. Hitchens compares his own break with Trotskyism, that sect with its own prophets and anointed, its own relentless absolutism, and its many splinter groups advocating finely delineated authorized versions of the rabbinical scion Marx's "total solution." Hitchens, veteran of such internecine conflicts among true believers, mindful of the lofty ideals that inspire many who preach from a rhetorically potent manifesto, reminds us of the agony this abandonment of faith can cause. "Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic. What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees? Infallibility?" (153)

I promised I'd leave the review of the book until I finish, but a bit more! It's as if I'm lecturing and you all want to dash out for coffee. It'll only take a few minutes. "Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your faith undermined-- as I hope-- I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through. There are days when I miss my own convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking." Nice hint of Marx there, and it's intriguing to hear in Hitchens' editorial appeal the urgency of the manic street preacher in Hyde Park. It's also apropos to note my own refusal-- unlike others with whom I had worked in the heyday of Irish republican activism-- to take Marx as my personal savior stemmed from my own inability to let go of the very need Hitchens shared during his materialist slog: an inbred if atavistic desire for the transcendent.

But, for him, Marx and the didactic mode rang as false as does religion for him today. The same parallels, as for a lapsed adherent, align. The glories of the doctrine lay in the past. "Something of the heroic period might be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them." (153) I first saw this book being read in the house of a former IRA prisoner turned outspoken journalist. He too had followed the same long march away from idealist yearning and messianic revolt into measured humanism and political analysis, pursued more calmly if still in the face of orthodoxy from not only the mainstream liberal media but his own former leftist comrades who spurned his honesty. As with Hitchens, I admire too my friend's courage.

Hitchens intimates strongly that as we lose the religious dogma and gain the humanist reason why we do an action, we free ourselves from unthinking behavior. He demonstrates this in his own committment, an unpopular one among his peers in the media and academia. For him, his own outspoken support of the effort to eradicate the assasins bombing their way to a restored caliphate in Iraq and the need to resist a pandering multi-cult acceptance of Islamic canards impels him to take a stand against the popular press and many liberal colleagues.

For my Irish friend, he too has had to resist censorship not only from the right but the left wing. He stands, as Hitchens, as his own man. How can I equate not chomping on a pork chop with such intellectual and journalistic choices? Well, while my avoidance of meat has no real cause in my wavering and eclectic and syncretic "faith," it does show my own turning away from habitual desires. I too fit into a mold that I had to consciously break, and still must do when I pick up a menu. While this has not brought me the death threats that both Hitchens (for his stance against the Salman Rushdie fatwa) and my friend (for his criticism of the leadership over what has taken the name of the Irish Republican Movement) have received -- and in both cases their families too were endangered-- it may reveal according to Hitchens' model a nod at my own toddling towards moral evolution.

I still miss the crunch of baby back ribs or the tang of slippery shrimp. So, why do I turn away from them now? Perhaps the pig's eyes gazing at mine as I ride the train have penetrated me more than those of any divine entity. Leo asked me yesterday about the gaze of Dr. Mecklenberg above the ashy dump in The Great Gatsby. After looking up that splendid setting opening chapter two, I suggested it was the presence of God. That He'd been neglected, that He still looked out, and that it wasn't certain if His stern righteous mien needed to be returned by we mere mortals anymore. We were no longer enthralled. The place, after all, had been abandoned, as empty as the plain of pottery shards where Job scratched at his sores. God did return to him, but as my late professor, Albert B. Friedman (who I only found out posthumously in the N.Y. Times, had been cruelly imprisoned in Burma by the Japanese), quoted from some learned scribe: while He gave him a wife and children, they were not the same ones. That is, the innocents whom He had earlier doomed, to make a cosmic comeuppance, and at whose loss Job had descended into that very pit of despair.

The comforts that such a personally attentive Creator gives, then, appear hardly to balance the agony inflicted by an inscrutable and paranoid Lord. Hitchens like many seculars today wishes to be freed of the pesty fanatics and fatwas. But, those who have committed themselves to the ranks of the faithful are determined not to let us skeptics rest. Let alone the atheists like Hitchens and my friend. The persecutors will not listen, Hitchens complains, to logic. Deep down most of us moderns must know that there's no Nobodaddy going to damn us for nibbling shrimp or scarfing ham. Trouble is, how do we convince everyone else? And, if we do, what illusion will we manufacture from VR as our newest digital obsession for our next download to Nirvana?

Sam Harris in The End of Faith argued that only if we could all be truthful with our children, then the foolishness of belief would evaporate in a generation. The tolerance that liberals allow in letting religious teachings continue, I heard Richard Dawkins insist, remains the fatal flaw that will prevent intellectuals from eradicating the backward world-views based on illiterate and semi-educated desert nomads thousands of years before we knew of Copernicus, Darwin, or Einstein.

The flaw with this logic is that it's raw logic. But, we frail humans often need more than reason to cushion the existential brutal blow. I'd add that the lifting of the veil of ignorance, to adapt Hobbes' wonderful metaphor, may prove more damaging than telling Virginia there's no more Santy Claus. Is there any method that Dawkins at Oxford, Harris at Stanford, Dennett at Tufts, or Hitchens at the New School could devise to send this message of secular wisdom into the madrassas of Cairo, the homes of Hebron, or the churches of Memphis? These bastions of fundamentalist belief may never wish to listen to the measured, tenured voices from the universities. What was the curse laid on the Jews who refused to listen to the alternative Messiah? A stubborn and stiff-necked people. When we don't want to give in, we'll hackle and snarl.

I realize that this dilemma remains the stumbling block in the détente between the forces of religion and those of secularism. How can Doc who knows better wrest us away from our sloppy pacifier? Or Mom from her drying breast? These four authors risk much in their determination to expose the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of those who demand that we all bow down before their chosen, if non-American, idol.

However, why does Harris assume that the faithful might be able to separate themselves and their loved ones so easily from their innate delusion? What kind of psychological damage would this wrenching from one's cherished tradition cause a suddenly godless family? How can the parent know of his or her ignorance, and then choose to ignore it in the name of a Deity? Can believers step away from their souls?

Still, it's up to us to decide how we further goodness in the world, to a pig or a person. No Maker will sweep us away in a whirlwind, and certainly none will restore our perished family. Fitzgerald, another honeyed and pickled gin Fitz, another Jazz Age Irish Catholic gone worldly and upscale, might agree.

We sit amidst the post-modern, post-Marxist, and post-Christian urban dungheap, under the faded gaze of a stern Old Man, but we also can recognize that He's been propped up, decorated, and now's left to totter. We put Him up, Hitchens might add, even if we do not live long enough in the dump to see Him fall. That, I might conclude for now, would be more than I could bear.

Job's opiate of faith (Hitchens cites Freud's The Future of an Illusion) may have emerged to protect our fragile psyches against the knowledge that we, unlike pigs, know, of our demise and doom. They fear the hook and the knife at the butcher's hand. But, we squeal many lonely nights-- long before our own sudden meeting or lingering moment facing our eternal fate. We need comfort no less than the pigs. I'm not sure if contemplating the double helix will ease our psychic pain. For, out of the quirks of that beauty of nature's design emerges often the cancer cell.

Farmer John Murals

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

An Dúshlán Thibéad

Scríobhann Pico Iyer leis an iris "Am" an seachtaine seo (31ú Márta 2008) faoí an ceathrú Dalai Láma déag agus an dúshlán Thibéad inti. Is alt go maith aige. Insíonn an bheirt fúthu go bhfuil an olc go mór agus an fearg go leor ina thír sin anois. Bhí éiri amach a tharla le deanaí ansin. Tá ceannairceach go deireanach ann. Níl sé ach an seachtaine caite féin, mháirseáil na mílte Thibéadachaí in aghaidh na ríalacha Shíneach. Is dhá thrian chuid duine inimirceachaí de An tSín i gcathair Lhasa. Gach lá, tagann sé mhíle strainséirí ansiud an traen nua.

Afach, níl iarraidh na tSíneachaí ansin orthu. Tá Tibéadachaí orthusan féin ag iarracht a dhéanamh a fáil saoirse. Ach, ní tabharfaidh seo chucu inniu. Measaim gur go mbeidh go luath níos mo gur ag fanacht ar an lucht na airgid ag stiúradh. Gheobhaidh na tSíneachaí cumhlacht amháin.

Níl meas acu ar duine Síneach. Thóg siad sé chéad dhrúthlannaí is chuig ocht ann; éiríonn siad as áit ceanna seo dhá cead is triocha ocht hallaí na rince is gairid. Tá Pálas Photala go halainn ann go bhfuil phairc siamsa thairis é anois. Léamh mé leis an agallamh na "t-Am" ní raibh ag muintir ann an pobal air an teanga dhúchais. Tá cultúr Thibéadeach go marbh idir an cúlra na h-impiriúilachas. Ní dhearna an ríuil ní mbeadh go fírinneach ina t-ainm "na phoblacht phobal shóisialaí," ariú! Feadfaidh tú go bhfuil ag bréag i bPéicing. Níl ann ach an t-éitheach ó thosach deireadh. (Fuair mé an frasaí seo ar foclóir agam!)

Ar ndóigh, caitheann muid ag iompraim na Tibéadachaí. D'éisteach mé ar feadh deireadh na seachtaine seo an fóghraíocht faoí "An Bunú Hiomalaethid Meireceánach" ar an teilifis, i mbannaí Google air. Tá aithne agam faoí tionscadail ina Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá. Obair siad ina réimsí talamh ar an taobh theas in aice leis India. Níl mé ábalta tuiscint cén chaoi is mo ag cuir cabhair ar Thibéad fós. B'fheidir tugann tú eolas eile go luach orm?

Struggle in Tibet

Pico Iyer writes in "Time" magazine this week (31 March 2008) about the fourteenth Dalai Lama and the struggle in Tibet. It's a good article of his. The two tell about the great spite and the abundant anger now in that land. There's a rebellion that's happening there lately. There's demonstrations recently there. Not even a week ago, thousands of Tibetans marched against Chinese rule. Two-thirds of the people in the city of Lhasa are Chinese immigrants. Every day, six million foreigners come by the new train from there.

However, the Chinese are not wanted by them there. The Tibetans want to get freedom for themselves. But, this will not be given to them today. I estimate that it will be sooner that the rich will stay in control. The Chinese will find only power.

The Chinese do not have respect. They built six hundred and fifty-eight brothels there; they raised in that same place two hundred and thirty-eight dance halls recently. The lovely Potala Palace there is surrounded by an amusement park now. I read in the interview in "Time" that the native tongue cannot be taught there to the people. The Tibetan culture is dying amidst a backdrop of imperialism. The rule in the name of the "socialist people's republic" cannot be made to be true, certainly! Surely you can see that there's lying in Beijing. There's nothing but a pack of lies. (I found this phrase in my dictionary!)

Of course, we must support the Tibetans. I heard during last weekend an advertisement about "The American Himalayan Foundation" on the television, sponsored by Google. They work in the southern areas closer to India. I know about projects in the US. Yet, I'm unable to understand how best to send help to Tibet. Perhaps you may give me some valuable information?

Links/ Nascannái: Time cover story on the Dalai Lama: A Monk's Struggle.

American Himalayan Foundation AHF Photo by/ Grianghraf le Vassi Koutsafis.

Tá dhá dream cheart daonna eile anseo: Saoraim Tibéad (Londain) agus An Feactas Idirnáisúnta Sábháil Tibéad (Naomh Pronsias). Chonaic mé seo ar an blog "Independence Cymru" (20 & 24ú Márta/ March) leis alt go laidir le Dave Kopel faoí damáiste nádúrtha agus daonna Thibéad.

There's two other human rights groups here: Free Tibet (London) and The International Campaign for Tibet (San Francisco). I saw these on the "Independence Cymru" blog, along with a strong article by Dave Kopel about natural and human damage in Tibet.

Free Tibet
International Campaign to Save Tibet
Tibet: Ecocide & Genocide

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fred Goodman's "The Mansion on the Hill" Book Review

The year of Springsteen's commercial peak, 1985, Dylan's quoted by Goodman: "if you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song." (351-2) This narrative history by Goodman does not, as some previous readers who've posted on Amazon (where this review appeared today) appear to have expected, give you in-depth studies of the music or the lives of Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Young, although these three singers share the subtitle with Geffen.

Instead, this study focuses on such men as the managers and handlers who prospered along with their clients: Dylan's Albert Grossman, Springsteen's Jon Landau, Dee Anthony with Peter Frampton and Humble Pie, Irv Azoff vs. Geffen with the Eagles, and of course Geffen himself as the main character throughout, morphing from agent and advisor to owner of a label with Young and the Eagles and CSNY & Joni Mitchell and Nirvana and dozens of other artists. I found many of the blow-by-blow deal making accounts necessary but rather dull. It's difficult, on the other hand, to provide a thorough treatment of the business that makes music without such details. So, some readers may be engrossed by the complex litigation around Mike Appel vs. Springsteen and Landau, or how Grossman played off the industry differently than Geffen. The author shows his talent in charting the rise of the capitalist behemoth that crushed the fragile naivete of the counterculture. "The shark entered the lagoon"-- as Ned Doheny puts it. Geffen comes to L.A. as the 1970s begin, and the business overtakes the music.

The Eagles and then the Boss, in different poses and for different reasons, appear to be the prime motivators here for getting from coffeehouses and bars to arenas and mansions in Malibu or Beverly Hills. Fitting too that first Dylan left for SoCal and later Springsteen, and how this happened while the songwriters attempted to keep their bohemian aura or streetwise cred proves certainly an instructive tale for any rock fan or ambitious musician. The anecdote of how the Grateful Dead backed down from their expletive that they had insisted be an album title--once they found from WB's Joe Smith that it would not be stocked at Sears-- turns into a marvelous fable about the purported hippie self-righteousness vs. their desire to cash in on their attitude against the Man.

In such comparisons between the late-60s folk-rock Boston clubs that spawned Elektra and Asylum Records and the CBS-Warner battles that characterized the mid-80s stadium sellout scene, Goodman indeed displays his strengths. John Sinclair had been always a footnote to me, but his story, and that of Landau and Lennon and the MC5 became a welcome look into the clash of ideals and the marketplace. The role of not only Landau but Dave Marsh and others at Rolling Stone, however, could have been expanded even more at the cutting of some financial detail, for it made me wonder what Goodman, credited on the dust jacket as a "former Rolling Stone editor," might have been holding back from what needed to be more fully told-- perhaps he's saving it for another book?

Also, to my disappointment, a tale not told fully here as also skimped on in later books. (I have also reviewed on Amazon and my blog Michael Walker's "Laurel Canyon" and Barney Hoskyns' "Hotel California" about this same period; the lapse also enters Hoskyns' earlier history of L.A. pop music, "Waiting for the Sun") Goodman should have covered more into the 1970s the ethos, half-cynical, half-affectionate, that Stan Cornyn appears from Goodman's account to have pioneered at WB Records. I still recall the clever marketing ads to get you to buy "Schlagers"!" and other WB-label cheapo compilations on the inner sleeves of that label's releases in the early '70s.

However, Goodman-- whether discussing the savvy of Geffen, the drive of the Eagles, the abandonment of Sinclair, the reasons why Jackson Browne made his management choices or how payola did and did not differ from an Atlantic A&R rep with a few joints for the d.j.'s he visited with new records-- remains scrupulously fair to all involved. He balances damning recollections of those betrayed with other quotes or editorial insights into why the decisions to move from clubs to arenas had to be made, partially to offset the enormous expenses such lesser entities as Humble Pie had generated on tour and in excess.

Goodman's own bias--one understandable and well-supported with much primary evidence-- against those who manipulated the artists or their earlier supporters when times were rough, or his own explanation of why Landau sought to make rock music criticism more serious, plays well into the trajectory he marks of the shift to the mansion on the hill from "But the Man Can't Bust Our Music." His deadpan recital of such infamous Columbia ads in 1968 issues of RS I found hilarious. The move from spacy folkies at the Boston Tea Party to cocaine cowboys at Doug Weston's Troubadour to the sold-out stadium tours pandering "Born in the U.S.A" may after a few hundred examples turn rather obvious. Still, it's a tale well worth telling. This book should be rewarding reading for those as interested in the "starmaking machinery behind the popular songs" (Mitchell's lyric in "A Free Man in Paris" about Geffen is oddly missing from the narrative) as hearing the songs themselves.

Image: I first tried to Google to give, in the spirit of this review, the underdog a chance. But, the title had the word "bust" that triggered an filter. Google did not seem to mind, so dig it here: Columbia Records 1968 Rolling Stone ad

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wonder Valley's Iron Age

Purim-Paschal Season-Holy Week(end)-Spring Equinox-Triduum-Easter near Joshua Tree, we've returned after three nights in a small cabin nicely outfitted, "Ranch House" as deemed by its owner. He's a Lebanese (I surmise from "internal evidence" if second hand) wrought-iron worker who transformed, as Layne noticed, every item and surface he could into a demonstration of his craft practically and if possible artistically as well. The small domestic cube's one of hundreds that dot this stretch past Twentynine Palms in the Morongo Basin. South, we took a drive for about thirty miles that carried us over the Pinto Mountain whose titular road we stayed on at the "ranch." This descended after a rise passing joshua trees and lupine and desert dandelions into a flatter terrain, all the way to Mexico. We left, by cresting that ridge, the Mojave and had entered the "transition zone" of the Sonoran desert, which I had never seen.

Here, while a few purple lupines still grew, the joshuas abruptly ended. Yuccas with their stubby shape and delicately exploding limbs of yellow aren't that dramatic, but they, like the four or so basic vegetable groups of this vast terrain, prove persistent. Ocotillos, spiny medusan fingers tipped in reddish brushes, crawled into the cloudless sky, about eight or ten feet high. While the desert dandies proved ubiquitous, they now were joined by a patch of jumping cholla cactus we wisely stayed clear of, thanks to their roadside imprecations with snarly spines that we knew (from Bowser, our dog of blessed memory's encounter long before I knew her-- yes, as with Fido today, Layne named a bitch with a generic male hound's moniker) could inflict prickly pain. Other than that, the desert whether Mojave or Sonoran proves remarkably consistent.

That is, nearly devoid of trees. Even in Wonder Valley, or other areas with permanent people, nobody plants but a very rare cottonwood, and hardly any palms. By the way, both the yuccas and joshua trees appear incredibly loyal to only a few locales, and none grew over the whole 29 Palms region at least as far as I could literally see. In the park, the smoketree bushes that sprout about waist-high are grey bland puffs in bloom or otherwise barren balls of twiglets. A grayer tumbleweed, perhaps. The yellow flowers and their white cousins were not complicated, but they were abundant along roadsides, washes, and clearings. An accidental side trip down a jarring Black Eagle Mine Road a few hundred feet (which seemed as if by Conestoga across the wilderness in their rutting noise; I thought our Volvo with Cross-Country 4WD would've handled the unprepossessing track with more aplomb) brought us to a splendid scene that you can glimpse faintly here. It's muted, but those desert dandies speckle the hill, while a palo verde's limply over me. The piles of rocks behind us recalled Mordor's in their implacable lack of hue, but at least this spring the ground was softened by warmth in texture and dappled by bursts of tint.

A black bird, but a hawk or (according to naysaying Leo) only a crow, swept down across the asphalt of the main road as we thundered down it towards this happenstance beauty spot, to swoop up a lizard. Not the symbolic vision that showed the Aztecs where the eagle and snake would appear and where Tenochtitlan would rise, but still rather a sight. Suggesting a third avis not raris, Layne mused, "the raven does not know it's a raven; the lizard doesn't know it's a lizard. They just do what they know they must do." I sat silently but tried to memorize this sage utterance.

As for the palo verde, this "green stick" of a stoic thin plant fails to inspire raptures from spouse or koans from latter-day saints. However, the joshua did for the desperately seeking a sign Mormon pioneers who must have passed nearby, on what's still called the Utah Trail. To think that San Bernardino would prove the acme of their trek's enough to understand why the LDS failed to create a second Deseret in the Inland Empire. (Although my first friend in grad school at UCLA grew up in Upland as a descendent of such a clan, and he now teaches at BYU-- but their considerably lusher Hawaiian campus!)

Even back at the ranchette, the bushes stay apart from one another a few feet. So do the homestead cabins, which as Wonder Valley Arts explains, flourished post WW2 when the government subdivided the otherwise useless (from our inbred habit that cannot view any space without judging it at least as of today still "undeveloped") land (not enough water for farming or grazing, I suppose) into 5-acre tracts. "Jackrabbit" weekenders left the coast, as we had, to flee inland to these hideaways. They probably drove out here without interstates in the same time we did with them, considering fifty mile jams both ways.

While many of the cabins even to my city eyes appeared far closer together than this demarcation, they each managed to keep their prim distance across the flat landscape. I only saw two buildings on such land with even a double story, and these appeared to have been far larger than the cabins that could be constructed from plans for as low as $1500 for 450 feet. My dear wife mistakenly saw the folder for the "art exhibit" sponsored by WVA (more on that in a moment) and thought in a rare display of financial innocence from the ad prominently displayed that the cabins today could be had for such a pittance. However, as we've inherited a lot near the brackish Salton Sea, perhaps future desert experiences may continue to surprise us.

I'd say on a walk to the main road, such as it is as it had twenty mailboxes, and back this morning that in the 1.7 miles each way, about half the places had been abandoned. I judged this from the lack of powerlines, in the absence of the more obvious signs of decay such as broken windows, gutted interiors, and missing doors. You can see one somber example in the picture here. It's the only wooden one, without color, that we found on our morning stroll. Layne pointed out the bush in front of the door as a sign of its long demise. The WVA artists depict more cabins after their own tutored fashion-- these subjects are usually pastel, aesthetically charming in their post-war decline, and forlorn in a suitably romantic sense in albeit blistered coats of paint. Except for the wiseguy who reduces the subject to a few lines abstractly suggesting a dwelling. Yes, my sons could have done, did, that.

As I walked along under the glare of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, I wondered, if in say 1946, 1958, or 1969, who'd've stayed here, and how. Some shacks appeared to have outhouses and I bet others must have before they were blown away. Electricity, so fans. Water, from tanks. But, some of these cubes lacked, it seemed, any amenities in the form of outbuildings. They were simply four walls and a roof, no more than a large tool shed, but on their own determined parcel. (An ex-Marine I taught whom I ran into the day after I wrote this entry, who trained in a "nuclear suit" in 120-degree heat here one summer, dryly commented on how it'd prepared him for his tour of duty in Iraq.) Who'd stay here unless conscripted or under orders, in a place averaging 110 in summer and 65 even in the dead of winter, for long?

A boy like myself would've loved this setting. Of course, our urban(e) boys crawled the walls despite MTV 2 (charming double pit bull logo) and sampling the jacuzzi. The wife and I devoured the stillness. I finished Zachary Lazar's novel (see blog entry yesterday) "Sway," which I had brought to fit the desolation. But, more Marrakesh with the Stones than Spahn Ranch with Bobby Beausoleil, which was probably better for my soul. Kenneth Anger, stuck in So Cal and then the Haight, reminded me of my own countercultural vignettes, if seen more from cars or on TV than in my own reality, stuck in the confines of an Irish Catholic family in dull blue-collar houses without air conditioning let alone any countercultural medium except an half-bewildering episode of "Laugh-In" or "Love American Style." Not that my 1960s experience included rough trade, the occult, lending Mick an Uncle Sam top hat, or even a visit to Santa Monica's Camera Obscura. Yet, I suppose we all wish to be again where we met our youthful muse, drab or dull as she looks to the outsider.

For me, from the age of eight to eleven I had been left to wander in a place that evoked where I trudged in the sand this morning. The chaparral where I grew up failed to reach the high desert, but the dirt and the air reminded me of my long hikes and bikes into the foothills. I shrink from too much sun today, but I must have benefitted then from a thicker ozone layer, for I was out a lot despite my long pale face. While never an outdoorsy kid, I need nature near my door, around my book-lined room. For, when I was a child, I roamed Claremont's then-dulling, now blunted, edge of the urban interface, such as it was then, at the county line separating L.A. from this enormous San Bernardino County that could hold six states in its boundaries, not to mention all of Israel!

From Joshua Tree, you still had to drive about 150 miles (well within S.B. County) to the Arizona border. North, you'd-- as the road name that got us here indicates-- get to Amboy, which I wanted to go to but which was 50 miles each way for what Wikipedia warned Niall and I would be a virtual ghost town with not even Roy's Diner (featured in an Enrique Iglesias video!) open for reliable business. Here's Amboy photos that saved me half a tank of gas on our 100,000-plus mile V70 station wagon. But, I reduced my carbon footprint. So, I'll still remember not the actual place, but remain in my Proustian mentality to unfold the county map I opened at thirteen, lost vicariously among Route 66's forlorn depots: Ludlow, Bagdad, Siberia (nice irony that), Amboy, Cadiz, Danby, Summit, Goffs, that dessicate in their extinction by a dozen miles north, the completion of Interstate 10. No more Utah Trails lure continental drifters along the deserted desert highway.

Up at restless dawn, I tried with Layne's digital camera to catch the Resurrection light. First time awake for my version of a sunrise service. Then, the battery died out, minutes into the day. So, she and I after chores and cleaning (Leo spilled candle wax on the corduroy couch), went for a jittery stroll that finally, half an hour each way, managed to calm her down into a bit of equilibrium. I craved the chance to hear the twittering of the transformers on the little powerlines that reminded me of my Tyco train set. These formed grids along which the cabins speckled the ground, which rarely undulated even a few feet higher or lower across the hardscrabble valley floor. The boxes and the posts steadily marched into the distance, down straight dirt lanes with names like Normglow and Prairie Dog Lane and Mica and Mesa and Indian Trail and the oddly Victorian terrace evoking perhaps a manse of Mick or Keith or Brian on some Surrey's Dinsbury Road.

Photos don't (at least at my level of skill and my limits of camera choice) do justice to the unchanging, stern, and enduring nature of the desert's demands. It's not a coy or a seductive place. Even today, its two greatest local pop culture moments are as a U2 album (Anton Corbijn's photos look more like Death Valley than the National Park) and as the place Gram Parsons, Harvard dropout trustafarian turned (speaking of the Stones and especially Keef) Nudie dope space cowboy troubadour, wound up stolen away to/from to be interred by his faithful manager. Yet, despite what the Scouts that had stayed noted in the Guest Book (after many half-literate Levantines)-- that the "Art Exhibit" had most of its WVA pictures already gone and that it was "disappointing" and the ambiance at the gallery "The Palms" proved only "very seedy"-- I was happy to have stayed in Wonder Valley. Like so much of our Californian landscape, the implacable place may have not lived immediately up to its splendid name. Yet, as those of us hardy natives can attest to, it reveals its own dignity to the patient.

In that way, last night, I taught Niall how to find the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers. That's about all I could recall from my own boyhood love of astronomy. I wasn't sure which of two stars was Polaris, but I narrowed it down nonetheless. In such tender, if uncertain, moments the years compress and under a vast sky, the time and space open into an awesome empty bowl of power and distance. Such times I long keep in my mind as I grow older, and perhaps he will too. In this way, staying and listening and looking take on new intensity, however fleetingly, when wrenched by their unfamiliarity out of the urban haze.

Well, I rose today for the first time in my life up before dawn on Easter. Another violation of the Abrahamic covenant in this arid clime. I failed to get so dutifully drunk the other Purim night as to confuse Haman with Aheushvaros. Yet, in the manner befitting the three Patriarchs and four Matriarchs, at least I resided in a house of iron made by a man from the Fertile Crescent, an inheritor of one of the most ancient of crafts, first forged almost ten thousand years ago near the Dead Sea. Reading on the endless car ride (half of the 150 miles spent in rush-hour traffic) as my steadfast wife drove us away from sunset towards the Mojave, I learned from Karen Armstrong's "Penguin Lives" entry of a man we know nearly nothing about, of the Buddha and his own need to leave the city to hear his own voice and to seek his destination. This necessary quest guided his jaded spirit away from his familiar home. Under a desert stillness, and for a minute here and there outside this past weekend I could imagine a glimpsed life led under such perpetual rigor, in a place with little green or gold, but lots of gray and silver.

Mary Magdalene waited by a stone another mythical morning at dawn. Siddhartha Gautama walked out on his wife and child to force his own inner liberation into the Buddha. The Jews fled Persian pogroms and laughed about it twenty-five hundred seasons since. The Mormons chose to see in a two-pronged succulent the image of Joshua holding up the sun so Moses and Aaron could smite sensuous sun-worshipping, moon-praying pagans. They all made their choice on how to commemorate their spiritual drama, but we thousands of years later must make up as piety or principle what we simply cannot prove, in these remnants of tall tales rooted in the archaic Axial Age. We try to follow their hallowed examples, but how can we? We're like Mick and Keith and Brian as Lazar re-invents them, starving in a dingy flat in Edith Grove in 1962, yearning to imitate the Chuck Berry grooves until they become not learned but natural rhythms, not chords learned by the mind but grooves within the body. All of us must create our own versions. In the same way as Niall and I, we inherit ancient patterns, and then we invent our own variations. We imagine constellations in random patterns above, and we riff stories from our own point of view, happenstance as it must be on the edge of one of countless galaxies.

Once, as a Scout myself earlier the year Gram died, I slept over the range fifty miles or so from Pinto Mountain at the mellifluously named Pushawalla Palms, north of Palm Springs. During my first visit to the (low) desert, with an AM station warbling The Sweet's "Little Willy" into my red transistor radio as I sprawled in my sleeping bag under the whispering grove, I too spent a spring night entranced. Not yet twelve, in the cool of the desert, I looked out on a panorama that seemed to stretch past a nearby city of dusky stone and diffused light into an infinitely layered vista of rock and star and dark.

P.S. Perhaps presaged by my worn S.F. 49ers (but never Giants) cap that I wore on the trip? After I typed this entry, a warm Easter greeting from my birth mother appeared in my e-mail box. A simple reminder of continued stories we tell under Western horizons and Eastern heat and of celebrations we cherish. The trek in our life's desert can be bleak, or it can be nourishing, depending on how we're equipped for the pioneering venture.