Thursday, September 30, 2010

Clive Bloom's "Gothic Histories": Book Review

Drawn to the hallucinatory, enchanted by the morbid, the gothic sensibility mixes incarceration with necromancy, technology with architecture, vampires with séances. The bizarre and wild, Professor Bloom explains in this spirited survey, emerged with the European fear of modernity. Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, authors disturbed by the loss of control presented by democracy, rebellion, and technology reacted. They revived antiquarian settings, scientific subversion, and macabre predicaments.

How could a style of ecclesiastical architecture claim the same adjective as erotic and violent tales? Medievalism and a return to Catholic caricatures compete with God-denying, sexual, and sadistic torment. Bloom accounts for their common ambiguity. Gothic set the “mind in relationship to the supernatural, the universal and the divine.” (4) Gothic tropes preceded psychology by a century and a half as they revealed hidden, repressed, and alienated fears. The dead return as if alive, the imprisoned claw towards release, and the restrained writhe against their bonds.

This introduction moves rapidly through the two-hundred-and-fifty years of this genre. English and German writers sparked the movement. Female sensibilities imbued early British stories, while Teutonic terror tended toward brooding Byronic anti-heroes, the occult, the metaphysical, and the irrational. “Gothic horror,” Bloom elaborates, “is about that which should not be.” (64) Its characters face the abyss and the end of sanity. Their moment of awful recognition allows the spectator to enjoy a frisson of annihilation while the distance between action and witness toys with the safety of the viewer. A reader glimpses the “otherness of cosmic indifference” which lies at the core of the gothic encounter.

The Romantic era rushed into emotional, despairing, destructive tendencies that revolution and industrialization hastened. Frankenstein's “monster’s self-questioning is the first real expression during the nineteenth century of the existential crisis of those who felt they were abandoned by God and who sought revenge for this abandonment.” (71) Mary Shelley’s story roams a ruined landscape, articulating the bewilderment of the stranger, wandering where salvation eludes those who never asked to be created. Her predecessors toyed with humanist progress as an answer, but Shelley and later gothic authors began to stand for refusal. Denial of transcendence and a rejection of liberation darkened tales.

The French Revolution tinted this gothic tone. Social collapse, feared by the aristocracy, gave way to psychic decay. Penetration and violation flooded the vulnerable self. The body turned into a prison. Tales told “the language of ruin.” Bloom defines this mode: “Gothic is the map of a border, a mapping of the edge always illuminated by the shadow of night and the rays of the moon.” (79) The gothic forays into that unknown territory within the self, he adds, predicted what psychoanalysis would later confirm. Instead of goodness and creativity, violent will and self-destructive tendencies lurked.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, these themes turned clichés. Thomas Love Peacock and Jane Austen satirized sinister storylines soon after Shelley’s success. Poe, Dickens, the Bronte sisters sketched upon the templates of such imaginative novels as Charles Maturin’s nihilistic Melmoth. Both wordsmiths and hacks -- encouraged by a demand among the newly literate for pulp fiction and melodramatic theater -- broadened gothic conventions into detective novels, romances, thrillers, and mysteries. Such remain the patterns for today’s diverse and gloomy entertainments. Theosophy, mesmerism, spiritualism, Marxism, and the rise of soulless corporations that live on forever: these Victorian innovations also furthered in surprising ways the cultural and ideological rule of the gothic.

Although the gothic mood domesticated as it infiltrated the city and the household to inflict its terrors, vaudeville emerged as another stage for its shudders of delight. In turn, film inherited the dramaturgical patterns familiar to those who attended séances or sideshows. Early cinema spread the appeal of the uncanny. Vampires, automatons, and undead filled the screens of Europe with a visual language that illuminated the literary and theatrical applications of an elongated, ectoplasmic, distorted conflict.

Bloom conjures up its cinematic captivation: “This is a weird world of shadow and light, theatrical make up and the stagy rhetorical gestures of silent film, but it is also a powerful world of floating images and of monsters who combine stillness with spastic urgency, their spectral gliding and glances to camera the basis of dreamlike fear.” (174)

Movies channel today’s dissimulations. Our printed stories, Bloom avers, rely upon vampires far more than monsters. He suggests in passing why this may appeal to their largely female readership. Vampires combine “male domination with female empowerment.” Also, they can blend in better than ghouls or zombies into everyday haunts. Their “protean nature allows them to appear in bars or nightclubs as well as high schools.” (187) This book’s short scope hurries its final chapter. Bloom hastens over the persistence of the gothic essence in gaming, cyberspace, music (if he errs in my opinion in crediting the very few bands he does as primarily Goth), sexuality, and fashion.

He addresses gothic transformation. Horror has moved from the external force taking away a body, or coming back from the dead. Instead of the gothic itself, a new kind of “soft-machinic body horror” permeates the contemporary body. It fears submission to a force that impels it by “torture and extreme violence” as the body “is split open and anatomized.” De Sade delineated vast labyrinthine dungeons where victims were immured; today’s gothic interiors make bodies themselves “the new architectural spaces of fear.” (182)

Currently, Bloom finds the gothic energy less in bestselling spin-offs than a corollary culture that horror films and television have spawned. Video games enable fans to enter spaces of fear. “So vivid can these games become that some of their creators try to build in the sort of mental confusion to their players that might be expected in real life encounters with monsters in order to enhance the imaginative and dream-like quality of play.” (189) Rather than escaping reality, Bloom argues that those dressing up, filling dance floors, or losing themselves in role-playing continue a venerable tradition of excess, artifice, and safe play that frustrates the mundane and opens up the inexplicable.

This is a brisk primer, with generous excerpts from primary sources, free of jargon or academic posturing. Selected reading lists guide inquirers, while Professor Bloom spans a lot in a little book. It is recommended to anyone curious about why the gothic craze began, why it has lasted so long, and how it continues to translate its shape-shifting spells.

(Featured 6-15-10 on New York Journal of Books; brief summation not quoting from the above review posted 6-15 to Amazon US.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Goth: Undead Subculture": Book Review

"Ironic indifference" sums up a dark pose. Both artifice and aesthetic, this style's flamboyant and macabre, mindfully traditional and socially liberating. For those who dress up in an ascetic eroticism, the lush, spare, baroque music echoes fascination with literary influences from over two centuries ago.

Unlike punk, which took itself usually too seriously, Goth grins at itself while mocking the celebratory, relentlessly conforming and spirit-quenching nature of a society bent on getting and spending. Co-editor Lauren Goodlad defines the movement as a "bricolage of the hyperromantic," (92) taking elements of glam rock's theater and punk's iconoclasm, but extending its view back into darker tales and taboo fetishes. While often mocked even by its participants, it upends gender roles. Males dress up in dresses, makeup, jewels, and coiffures; females share their attire with men. What contemporary narratives often create combines feminine attributes of "forbidden depth, antirationality, and sensitivity" within a masculine character who feels and cries: "a postmodern evocation of aesthete, dandy, and tragedian."

Goodlad's perspective's typical. The contributors to this Duke UP anthology often present their studies in dutifully jargon-laden ethnographic treatises, but the best ones-- often by participant-observers who feel less of a need to back up every utterance with a reference to anthropology, sociology and/or the French-- transcend the academy. I'll give a quick listing of the entries, which range widely in style.

The co-editors provide a solid, if theoretical, introduction. Joshua Gunn's similarly dense "ironic indifference" and comparison of ambivalence within "misogyny and resistance" by gender ambiguity finds energy by his interviews. Kristen Schilt compares women's participation in L.A. and Austin scenes. Trevor Holmes contrasts his role as a club dancer with his scholarly perspective. Goodlad delves into "The Crow" and "Fight Club" as narratives and films to explore androgyny and ethics.

Next, Rebecca Schraffenberger tells a story others share: of her own immersion as a teen into this subculture, and then her academic direction through it. David Shumway & Heather Arnet examine David Bowie's impact on what would become glam's roots for goth. Catherine Spooner wonders if (as of the late 90s) the "return" of Goth was imminent or hyped; Michael du Plessis roams through gay and bisexual identities, "fixated melancholia," and works such as "The Hunger."

I liked Mark Nowek's panoramic chronicle of a local Buffalo band Nullstadt, and that gritty city's brief Goth efflorescence 1982-84, when the music seemed to break out of its confines amidst the post-punk indie rock community. Jason Friedman looks at Southern Gothic writing, and Ken Gelder shows us Australia's cultural responses.

Co-editor Michael Bibby gives a standout essay on Joy Division and the Factory Records invention of and marketing of a sound that inverted guitars and voices to distance them, while foregrounding bass and drums with Martin Hannett's studio experimentation. Bibby explains the creation of this dislocated ambiance, and how the marketing with the label's distinctive graphics of this influential post-punk, proto-Goth music took on disturbing neo-fascist elements. Some may disagree with his placement of the racist imagery within "a gothic spectacle of absences, an exhibition of the spectral self, a funeral for identity," (253) but as a critical consumer of this music during its original era, I accept his argument as plausible.

Jessica Burstein enlivens this collection with what I wish a few of her professorial peers had done more often: include interviews. Valerie Steele tells her how "asceticism as denial, and the eroticization of that aestheticism" (265) gave a guiltily Catholic response for goths who memorialized the breaking of taboos rather than their absence, as the back-to-nature hippies had done (and I may add, away from which the punks veered). Fashion bared part of the body, but covered up in skirts and boots other parts. Steele believes that this heightened the effect of restraint.

Robert Markley investigates "Edward Scissorhands" and Nancy Gagnier views different versions of "Dracula." "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" gets Lauren Stasiak's attention, while Angel Butts briefly takes us into the NYC club scene. A leading authority as an insider turned professor, Paul Hodkinson (see my review of his own "Goth") wonders about individualism's presence when "we've all got the same boots on."

Finally, Carol Siegel (see my review of her "Goth's Dark Empire") discusses cult author Poppy Z. Brite. Anna Powell brings a much-needed chapter on religion and "parareligion," which takes on the trappings of faith but not the supernatural scope, and she finds many goths prefer reticence about their personal beliefs regarding religion or its lack as opposed to philosophical or moral inquiries. Jeffrey Weinstock speaks as a fetishist, and David Lenson wonders post-Columbine about the moral panic and media backlash over Goth and goths.

All in all, this accompanies Hodkinson's and Siegel's studies from the past decade. There's not as much attention devoted to the music, but this appears a common shortcoming of academic studies that accentuate the style and fashion and cultural relationships with other media. Sexuality earns somewhat greater scrutiny due to participants' reports, even if these are often filtered through theoretical recitals. Still, the inclusion of participants schooled in scholarship makes this a useful compendium. (Posted to Amazon US 8-2-10 & 8-4-10)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Carol Siegel's "Goth's Dark Empire": Book Review.

Gloom shrouded me by sentence three of this academic treatise. "And just as [Linda] Williams set out to examine the Foucauldian 'knowledge-pleasure' produced as 'the frenzy of the visible' through the convergence of 'a variety of discourses of sexuality' within pornography (36), I set out to examine the Deleuzoguattarian becomings [1] that are produced within the discourses of sexuality that converge within Goth." (1) Siegel, a professor of English, studies Goth culture within fiction, music, film, and sexual mores. This is an admirable goal, but I wonder if those who'd benefit most from these contextual chapters can even decipher much of this prose.

I started this hoping that Siegel, given her "sex radical" hippie-era formation and her interviews with Goths in the Northwest U.S., would incorporate a wide-ranging survey of how sexuality and fashion, music and aesthetics, morals and subversion all intertwine in the American manifestations of this often caricatured subculture. Glimpses of this persist, but much of her 2005 academic work, three of its six topical chapters published previously (often a sign that a book's cobbled together from past research rather than conceived as an organic project), struggles to arrive at the goal that her introduction promises.

Professor Siegel tends to wander around her subject. Digressions about our destructive automotive reliance, abstinence programs in schools, and Chandra Levy (remember her pre-9/11?) may distract readers wishing for a focused analysis. Her insights reminded me of a passionate lecturer, eager to pursue tangents, and then bringing the discussion back a few minutes later to the main point. This may please some of her audience but may annoy others.

The audience needs lots of background in critical theory. I found two of my grad school classmates cited in the text, and while I admit less patience for extended forays into jargon than they indeed possessed, the theoretical tone of much of this work does distance itself from those readers likely to take it off the shelf for information. I found in teaching students needing reference works on Goth culture (the reason I sought Siegel's book out), that undergrads lacked solid, thoughtful explanations. Siegel does bring sympathy to her project, but her reading level's elevated so high that few outside of-- yes, grad school seminars in post-modern cultural criticism-- will be able to understand her own analyses.

That being said, patient readers will come away with some value. Within the text, phrases pop up that sum up her perspective well. "In place of the denial of the future that characterizes mainstream American life, Goth offers a very special kind of masochistic delight in knowing the worst." (25) Chapter One tries to contrast Goth culture with "abstinence programs." It veers all over the place in doing so.

Chapter Two takes on Angela Carter's fiction. Siegel spends much of this section lamenting the passing of 1960s celebrations of free love but while she advocates similar freedom for today's teens, she seems to gloss over the American reality that has followed this shift. She decries sexual restraint, while she blames the dearth of "useful information about sex" that results in an "appalling rate of unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases." She then states how "young people form radical countercultures around their musical tastes," to resist a custodial, infantilizing social schooling routine. (25) Siegel packs so much into so small a space that this left me puzzled as to how sexual rebellion could bring freedom-- given the dismal track record (pregnancies, STDs, sexting) of radical alterations in how sex was brought into teenaged American culture by the late 20th century.

And how does Goth relate? Siegel promotes casual sex and feminist-positive play. She wants to resurrect sexual expression from those who demonize it among the young. But within the "Dark Empire" of Goth, how these aberrant revolutionaries will manage sex better than their cowed if somewhat perkier peers appears uncertain. Siegel left me befuddled as to how this transformation will occur.

Chapter Three dives into Poppy Z. Brite's novels, which celebrate male masochism and female dominance. Yet, given the cannibalism of Exquisite Corpse, even Siegel appears to shrink back at the extremes of such liberties. She's on surer ground when navigating the gender fluidity and male self-discovery and female empowerment within such fiction. "In Brite's fiction, as in much of Goth, the gendering of classic Gothic iconography may seem reversed, for she presents her female readers with breaking and broken male bodies that fill the spaces of her prose as if it were the last act of Hamlet." (84)

Comparing a documentary on Brandon Teena vs. the Boys Don't Cry film treatment of his fate, Siegel favors the former portrayal, for it does not "erase" the boys and their brutalization of Teena. (Brandon, as she notes if gingerly, was no icon.) She earlier, if tangentially given her convoluted approach, juxtaposes Punk with Goth. Punk's "destructive fury" followed the loving hippies. After punk's rage subsided, youth faced scorched, haunted landscapes. Punks posed in bondage gear but twisted free of its signifiers; Goths "express their rejection through a defiantly eroticized passive resistance." (97) They wrench punishment into victory.

Chapter Five surveys "male femme homosexualities" in film, but without a thorough knowledge of her examples (as with the literature earlier discussed), readers will be challenged to grasp theoretical formulations. The sixth chapter winds up her pursuit of masculinity with Asian American Goths. She settles on a satisfying take on Keanu Reeves as Neo in the Matrix series. "Man enough to save humanity, gentle and nonmacho enough to be himself and saved by a woman, and easily sexually attractive enough to inspire her devotion, Neo models the new masculinity" that these new models engender. (151-2)

One ends this work with little of a broader appreciation of the sexual subcultures as lived by Goths today; one does learn more about how Goths are dramatized in films, literature, and music. Siegel strives to expand Paul Hodgkinson's Goth thesis (see my review and also that for Jillian Venters' Gothic Charm School) farther from fashion into sexual behavior. Still, you get little sense of how actual Goths, as opposed to aestheticized ones, express such devotion to the alternative models she so longs to see replace those of the typical high school campus. Musically, as with Hodkinson's monograph, Siegel leaves us without the depth this aspect merits, but Don Anderson's appended discography's very helpful.

She concludes spiritedly. "Goths escape the willed stupidity of the American dream to find in the nightmare of fallen knowledge a becoming that is also a coming to knowledge with no goal beyond intimacy with life's dark side. They refuse end goals, remaining, instead, fascinated with natural decay and the falling apart of all things that current mainstream values formed. By valorizing perversion and artifice for its own sake, they express their desire for a regime of endless desire." (166)

Again, I'm unsure how this manifesto plays out given this decade's downturn in Goth's fanbase. I also wondered how Goth may endure among older devotees. Those readers who could gain the most will find this work far too dense to unpack its meanings easily. (As an aside, from my observation, Siegel overlooks a delayed generational identification of some Latino and inner-city youths with a Goth-rave-darkwave-death metal assortment of styles.) Still, she tries to extend the direction of cultural studies towards Goth, and while the background's foreshortened and the examples as digressive as often as targeted, Siegel's empathy assists her and her sympathizers. (Posted to Amazon US 6-11-10)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Paul Hodkinson's "Goth: Identity, Style & Subculture": Book Review

Coming out of (post-)punk, Goth combined music with an aesthetic that stretched back to the Romantic era two centuries before. Even if Greil Marcus tried to link John Lydon to Levellers, Ranters to reggae, I remained unconvinced. Theoretical labor expended over punk for its overtly politicized, commodified contradictions. Coming of age along with the music I liked, I read Dick Hebdige's "Subculture: The Meaning of Style" when it came out, bright pink mohawked gal on yellow cover when it came out in '79. I tried to match my own inquiries to its theoretical template, yet I was discouraged by Birmingham School ("of Business School" as Mark E. Smith sang-- not to mention "Mod Mock Goth") jargon.

Hebdige argued that a subculture's only viable as long as it appropriates and subverts everyday goods. Think of the cut-up art of the punk era. This 2002 study challenges this widespread theoretical assumption, that for sale means selling out. Hodkinson deftly deflates Hebdige with a reminder of Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood. Without their "Sex" shop on Kings Road, Chelsea, how would punk have been peddled, and where would John Lydon have been "discovered"? As a participant-turned-observer, sociologist Hodkinson adapts his Ph.D. thesis (at Birmingham) into the first mass-market study (at least that I know of) of this off-shoot of the (post-)punk era.

The result dutifully follows the conventions of the genre, and plenty of social scientific references sometimes document what commonsense already proves. The book as true to its origins is meant for a seminar rather than a settee. But, as an insider, Hodkinson enriches this dense, sober, academic treatise with valuable insight into a misunderstood, stereotyped, and feared lifestyle. For, as he finds, the visually prominent identification of Goths makes them hard to hide. They share their communal identity as their primary bond. Politics, beliefs, gender, race, class: these as the author argues mean little compared to the key affiliation. Not an outward style that can be donned and discarded, but a mutual support system forms for Goths. Although I suppose this could be said for any visually apparent faction in our society, as its members find camaraderie and sustenance among those they choose to bond with and mate with and stay with.

Ideals form "cultural substance." Hodkinson breaks this down into identity, commitment, consistent distinctiveness, and autonomy as four "indicative criteria" for Goth subculture. (29) In passing, he notes a crucial factor. Hostility by outsiders towards Goths reinforces "Gother than thou" reactions towards who's in and who's out, within the subculture according to its arbiters and gatekeepers, as well as in a more black-white fashion (as it were) between the hip and the square.

"Subcultural capital" accrues. Selflessness in supporting bands, making products, selling records, providing services may add up to dividends not tallied up financially so much as in terms of status within the Goth world. He examines clubs, conventions, shops, mail-order, online discussion lists, and fan sites to explain how contrary to previous critics of subculture, the "capital" is not diminished as it spreads but it is enriched, as fans use the media to enhance participation, widen contacts, and expand the impact locally and globally that Goths, as with any wired subculture, tap into and make their own.

He notes sensibly that "the likelihood of an individual without an initial interest subscribing to a mailing list with 'goth' in its title was surely only slightly higher than that of the same person deciding to spend the evening in a goth pub as the result of having coincidentally having walked past it." (179) That being said, in a hipster neighborhood near me, there's now a "Goth pizzeria" that attracts celebrities. Perhaps the past decade (this book's research stops about 2000) has found the term-- as with purveyors of its accoutrements and couture for teens at malls worldwide-- more loosely applied than before?

Although relatively underground, Goths rely on the wider world for materials, distribution, technology, and transportation. I would have liked attention paid to how Goths make a living if they cannot do so in the subculture, and how appeals to femininity & gender ambiguity in fashion translate into sexual and personal behavior. Did Goths share any values, any beliefs, any philosophy? The answers are not part of the questions asked for the dissertation, I guess.

The music gains attention, if often secondarily to what is after all an installment in a "Dress, Body, Culture" series. Yet this overlap appears often elided in Goth studies, and merits coverage. Similarly, the heritage Goth inherits from aesthetic and literary Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian periods in Britain deserved much more context alongside fashion trends and social theory.

Still, any thesis able to sneak in a passage like this earns my nod:
"Slimness of body and face, were, on the whole, also valued for females-- consistent with more dominant fashion-- although the ability to show off an ample chest with the help of a basque or other suitable low-cut top often seemed to more than compensate for those with larger general proportions." (54)

P.S. The author's made his career out of his passion, and for that I admire him. He's now at the University of Surrey. I hope he follows this up with a look at the past decade of the Goth scene. A slightly more updated, if textually slighter, but tonally lighter read can be found via "Gothic Charm School" by Jillian Venters. See my review. (Posted 5-15-10 to Amazon US.) Paul Hodkinson's website.

P.P.S. Since this, I've reviewed Carole Siegel's "Goth's Dark Empire," and "Goth: Undead Subculture" eds. Lauren Goodlad & Michael Bibby. Hodkinson contributes to the latter. Both books are from profs, so earnest theory drags down moments of participant-observer clarity. Still, one essay in Goodlad-Bibby tries to answer my question of what Goths believe-- politically not so much as spiritually.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jillian Venters' "Gothic Charm School": Book Review

"Nice costume! Halloween is over, freak!" How should a black-clad denizen respond? "The Lady of the Manners" explains Goths to the rest of us-- and "mundanes" to Goths. Once you wear black, do should you ever talk back? Can Goths age gracefully, under umbrellas and sunscreen? How do you get makeup stains off the sink? What one-liners have Goths heard far too many times from the likes of gawkers like you?

Expanding her "gothy advice column," Venters in this spirited primer encourages: "Good manners for Goths, why you shouldn't dress like the Crow, or how, if you're going to wear whiteface, you should make sure you apply it on your damn ears and neck." (5) She emphasizes how "Goth is a subculture and (for some) a way of life, not an emotional template." (19)

This underlies her whole approach. She denies any "secret Goth cabal." She patiently relates the historical background, pop cultural contexts, snarkiness and cattiness, gossip, accoutrements, sartorial fripperies, sounds, and sights that Goths gravitate towards. She explores her subculture wittily.

She advises how Goths should act among themselves, online, at jobs, and in public. "You chose to dress that way, which means you don't get to complain about the attention your appearance garners." (186) Politeness rules, which appears to be a tricky point among an assemblage so devoted to gatekeeping, backstabbing, and mopes. A sub-heading is telling: "Why no one has an 'original' Goth look, so get over yourselves already." (199)

Her later chapters address her cohort, with plenty of detail on couture, cosmetics, and wardrobe-- not costume. Aware of how rumors about doom, depression, death, and decadence dog her trenchcoated, booted peers, she also reminds "Snarklings" that the way Goths respond to both taunts and inquiries represents for "norms" the way that those leaning towards the dark side will be perceived. "The Goths who express themselves through their wardrobe aren't doing it to draw attention to themselves; they're applying their preferred aesthetic and bringing the world around them closer to what they want it to be." (45)

Speaking from decades of experience, she relates to worried parents, co-workers, friends, and possibly romantic partners (I wondered if Goths ever date exogamously?) how to behave around crushed velvet and heavily mascaraed companions. She admits her own predilection to dress everyday as if the evil twin of Mary Poppins. But she warns neophytes: "Think long and hard whether you have the physique to wear the costume; it is a sad, harsh fact that nothing becomes an object of ridicule faster than a heavier-set person dressed up as a character previously portrayed by Brandon Lee." (98)

Taking on a persona that one must dress the part for takes courage. Yet this also leads one into conformity. Venters directs her Goth audience towards lightening up. She twists what people inside and outside her charmed circle expect. "Not only does the Lady of the Manners now derive quite a bit of amusement from her over-the-top moments of gothness, but she tries to hone and refine the more clichéd aspects of herself in order to make them the more perfect examples of those clichés." (113)

This reminded me of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex keening, so early in the punk movement that paralleled my own coming of age, "I Am a Cliché." Commodification with Hot Topic (and Emily's Strange, strangely unmentioned) signals "mainstream acceptance" rather than prolonged denigration. Venters navigates deftly between the two perils of giving in to what the subculture pressures a "Goth cabal" (or should it be "cabbalist"?) initiate to imitate-- and the stronger current that pulls one outside into making a living. She spends considerable time on socializing, rumor-peddling, and gossip, as these, reinforced by clubbing and costume balls, strengthen the subcultural bonds Goths, as with any such group (say, sports fans) thrive among.

Paul Hodkinson's Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture (2002; see my review) studies this phenomenon as a participant-observer sociological thesis; Nancy Kilpatrick's The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined (2004) intersperses comments from Goth respondents with her own topical entries. As with Gavin Baddeley's Goth Chic: A Connoisseur's Guide to Dark Culture (2006), defining Goth reveals its widespread (post-)Romantic aesthetic within past and present Western society. Whereas many Goth surveys tend towards the encyclopedic, Venters as "Lady of the Manners" adopts a personal, chatty persona.

This makes her "Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them" a welcome, brisk introduction. As with some of her predecessors, however, there's minimal attention to sexuality (as opposed to flirting) or music (as opposed to brief discographies) given their role in the scene. Music's treated only in her penultimate chapter.

For me as a preternaturally pale, (post-)punk veteran, "Goth-friendly" by her classification but admittedly on the outside looking in, I wished she'd covered music much more. But she carefully expounds on club etiquette and proper conduct. I note how often decent behavior goes unmentioned in any coverage of this subculture (or any such, for that matter). Many Goth overviews downplay its sounds and dampen its erotic sensations. Perhaps these elude explication. The visual appears more readily transmitted. Venter's enchanted by signifiers: the dress, the looks, the ambiance-- as signs by which Goths identify each other, congregate for safety and camaraderie, and reinforce their own codes and defense mechanisms.

That defense must be established seems a circular action. Goths have set themselves apart, so they may bristle and snarl back when outsiders edge too close, touch their finery, taunt their stance. Venters steps into this standoff. She reminds her fellow creatures of the night how etiquette confers dignity. The more stereotypes are diminished, the greater the hopes for Goth's acceptance and sustainability.

What of Goth's future? She speculates on a Steampunk-Goth evolution. I share her hopes that "Eldergoths" may age gracefully into "subcultural migration" and cross-fertilization. Concluding, she predicts that her fellow revelers need not "grow out of" this embrace of the macabre, the haunted, the morbid underside of what's relentlessly peddled to all of us as a sunny, cheerful, bright-- and forced-- demeanor. Morbid but not moribund-- now there's a forecast any blanched, parasoled Goth might smile up at.

(Posted Amazon US & "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" 5-14-10-- and featured 5-25-10 on Pop Matters.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Brad Warner's "Sex, Sin & Zen": Book Review

Punk bassist and Zen priest, columnist at the Suicide Girls website, and marketer of Japanese monster movies, Brad Warner’s resumé’s not the Dalai Lama’s. His “Hardcore Zen” replaces the material-spiritual, body-mind split, reincarnation and mantras, and “cheesy” or “drippy” Buddhism marketed as pop culture. However “dubious” may seem to earnest adepts his four books, they articulate an existential, realistic approach to dharma. They also feature his raunchy, erudite, self-deprecation. He blends philosophical ruminations with raw memoir, confessional admissions, and textual explication.

In his mid-forties now, Warner’s practiced Zen since starting college. He embraces a common love in Buddhist and hardcore communities. He loses himself in the moment, free of the material world or the spiritual deception, and here he enters the space free of time, the place where he’s fulfilled. This simple but profound quest energizes his books. Hardcore Zen ([my review] 2003) narrates his coming of age, his move to Japan working for the company who gave us Godzilla, and his understanding of zazen, “just sitting.” It confronts the mess we’re in. Its combination of mental discipline and bodily balance seeks to overcome daydreams and stiff knees in bringing the practitioner closer not to enlightenment but reality. This approach, shorn of exotic trappings or false hopes, resembles Stephen Batchelor’s recent Confession of a Buddhist Atheist [reviewed by me]. Both authors free Buddhism from its own delusions, as peddled in pop culture.

Warner’s 2009 follow-up to Hardcore Zen reveals in its subtitle what’s happened since: Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma ([my review] 2009). Despite his typically phrased summary of this as a “ball of big snarly confessional vomit,” his insights into his mother’s death from Huntington’s Disease, his exasperation at Zen pieties while on a stifling Great Plains retreat, his brushes with trendsetters and metal rockers in Los Angeles, and his calm explanation of how he and his soon-to-be ex-wife drifted into being no more than “a pair of marginally friendly roommates,” assured that he knew how hard it proved for him to take responsibility for his own life. His struggles resonated with his intuitive code that demanded truth-telling. He takes us on his global and interior journeys while he tries to sort his real destiny out from his false desires.

Warner’s collaboration with the Suicide Girls site in explaining Buddhism beyond a New Age fringe or earnest do-gooders deepened his determination to articulate how his philosophy addressed sexuality. In his slightly more traditional 2007 "Sit Down and Shut Up"  [my review], he explains the intricacies of Dogen’s 1234 A.D. treatise Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Warner blends the founder of his Soto Zen school’s iconoclastic attitudes into his own “punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death.” He cites Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips: “I was resigned to believe in ‘the real,’ but I longed to be immersed in the ‘Guiding Light.’” Warner shares his fellow musician’s yearning for uplift, while he gazes unflinchingly at the intangible turned cruel or lovely, moment by moment around us.

Again, as the book’s subtitle promises in its consideration of verities as constructions of our minds and predicaments of our bodies, Warner stresses the everyday as the only enlightenment we will obtain. He emphasizes the “eternal now” as all we can grasp, as the past and future stretch beyond our control. This ambiguity, he argues, represents the closest we can come to any breakthrough into higher awareness of what “Spiritual Masters” err in claiming as awaiting a gullible seeker lining up to pay for such a magic entrance to an elusive attainment. Coming from the Straight Edge punk scene of the early 1980s that advocated freedom from intoxicants or “meaningless” sex, Warner found its tenets compatible with his youthful Zen interest. Even if, as he adds, the sexual temptations for his band, Zero Defex, appeared as illusory as the “materialism” overcome in the precepts preached by old Dogen.

His chapter on “Sex and Sin” in Sit anticipates, in advocating a “Middle Way” for those not celibate, and in denying “sin” as a Buddhist conception, his contributions to Suicide Girls. These in turn led to his newest work, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. As his début surely marked the first time a toilet graced the cover of a Buddhist primer, so Sex claims, unsurprisingly, to sit on its own crossover shelf, the first mass-market paperback about sexuality from a Buddhist perspective.

Rare for Buddhist authors, Warner intersects in his writings with wider trends that PopMatters covers. His first three titles all bear “Buddhism/PopCulture” as their back cover classification. Likewise, his musical encounters, his website exchanges, and his personal adventures compel him to look at his own struggles in hopes he can help us with ours. From Gene Simmons of KISS to a dominatrix, from Robyn Hitchcock's guitar to Mr. Spock from Star Trek, Warner integrates apt references to help a non-Buddhist audience appreciate his stories. He's never forced in his musical and cultural examples, even if those footnotes, a feature of all of his books, may slightly annoy as often as they amuse. At least they're pithy, not David Foster Wallace imitations.

Warner's study blends further autobiography with interpretations of what dharma has had to say, suggest, deny, hint--or perhaps never had to confront--about what sexually challenges those who live outside monasteries. Most historical texts from his Soto Zen tradition address monks, so Warner seeks to expand their contexts and to add his own suggestions for moral behavior that balances the erotic with the tempered, the passionate with the controlled, as a “Middle Way” that remains faithful to Buddhist advice yet acknowledges the growing explicitness of contemporary sexual depictions and actions in predicaments that his predecessors never had to witness.

Sex brings attachment; Buddhism resists attachment. Warner counsels moderns to not cling to anyone. That is, to enjoy each other’s company while we can, but not to turn despondent if he or she leaves, if we’re rejected, if they die. His own divorce and his own sober grappling with intimacy deepen his insights. His own fears growing up that he would inherit what killed his mother very slowly, Huntington’s Disease, matured Warner early on. He brings a seasoned sensibility to his reflections. He investigates how the transports of sex may bring many people the closest they may come to leaving behind the senses and merging with a greater oneness, the same direction a practitioner may contemplate upon a cushion while meditating. Some who scoff at a higher realm may be those who long most for intimacy.

Warner as a hardcore bassist wore his hair more like a hippie; on Suicide Girls among the “punk rock nutcases and tattooed women, I got to be the guy who advocated quiet and equilibrium.” He resents the incense-scented whiff of self-righteousness peddled by many Buddhist colleagues, and reminds us how “mystical serenity” has nothing to do with true wisdom. The very lack of fulfillment we suffer, Warner avers, presents us with Dogen’s hard-nosed enlightenment breakthrough. Zazen offers us, he insists, incompletion. This humbling message can be compared to “leaving home” as the Buddha departed his palace, his sleeping child, and his longtime wife. That is, “the pursuit of the truth is more vital than the pursuit of what society—your home—tells you is important.”

In his minor brushes with what his readers and followers expect him to act like as a Zen monk in the world, Warner gets irritated. Considering his modest role as a spokesperson for punk-Buddhism, he suggests why spiritual leaders may succumb mid-life to scandals. His reasoning that these serious men, for many years devoted to study and solitude, when brought into a position of acclaim and power, give in to the fame and lusts that they were long denied makes sense. He also wonders if the jealousy engendered within certain Buddhist experiments in America with coed monastic living (never attempted in Asia) bring on competition between celibate followers of a guru revered as a chaste “father figure” and those who seek to become his more physical partners, as if akin to a sort of “incest” as perceived by the chaste, self-denying brethren.

I am not sure if for many more texts, Warner can sustain his relentless pace. His four books tend to leap from topic to topic; he includes transitions and connects a dizzying array of subjects, but he may run the risk of repetition. This in punk as in Zen's not a flaw, all the same, even if for publishing he may find himself telling the same old stories to the same devoted fans. I hope his audience keeps growing, and that he keeps his balance off the mat as well as his many hours on it, this quarter-century.

He seems to be packing more and more of his experiences into four books now over a half-dozen years. Somehow he finds time for reflection, and this twice-daily exercise exemplifies that he practices what he preaches. Perhaps he's inured to this balance of action with contemplation after his punk formation in the blustery Ohio winters? Warner, as one of the first exponents of a practical Buddhism that takes on the stench of the nightclub, the rush of the drug or drink, the confusion of the morning after, seems well-placed to weigh in to his readers about how to handle such temptations for today’s seekers.

He compares Zen instruction to teaching guitar. You learn the chords, comprehend the scales, and then how you use the training becomes up to you. “You may choose to use it for good, or you can use what I’ve taught you for evil purposes, like playing guitar in a Julio Iglesias cover band, for example.”

Warner’s most inventive technique taught here? He interviews Nina Hartley. For twenty-five years, she’s been in the adult entertainment industry. She grew up in 1970s Berkeley as a “Zen kid,” the daughter of parents who became prominent Buddhist teachers. This “sex activist” and “registered nurse” expounds about pair-bonding as opposed to lifelong monogamy, the pressures of performing with actors, the responsibility for morality among polyamorists, and the difficulties of matching one’s own libido with that of partners. She explains, in short follow-up discussion, a connection between “power balance,” zazen, and “ungulate animals” in a scientific rather than “kinky” manner that shows how well she has reflected upon such disparate material.

As their conversation proves, this book roams far from the expected topics, for sexuality as well as meditation overlap with Buddhism. So does pop culture and life itself. Study this and you may find your expectations upended. The cover may convince you of a wacky jaunt through the wreckage of an Asian fraternity’s lost weekend in Vegas, but as with all of Warner’s writing, the subtlety and seriousness despite the incessant footnotes and goofy asides remains longest with a patient reader. A poignant account of a young student’s abortion after being date raped segues into the Japanese tradition of venerating Jizo, a goddess adopted by those who have aborted and seek reconciliation with the deceased. Warner for all his bluster knows when to step back and listen to the pain and hope of others.

He pivots between the punk concert and the Zen platform, the silent sittings for weeks on end in a remote hideaway and the press of a sweaty moshpit below where he pummels his instrument. “If I’m in a room full of pompous wannabee Buddhists all trying to be pure of heart and mind, I just want to rip my clothes off, plug my Stratocaster into a stack of Marshalls, and blow the fake-ass beatific smiles off their faces. All that lovey-dovey good-vibes shit makes me gag.” But, he goes on to muse over his own lovey-doveyness divvied out at Suicide Girls. Both venues enable him to reach those seeking compassion and questioning emptiness beyond the mundane. He may wander far in his writings, but Sex, Sin, and Zen attests that for all its stage stances, an ethical and sane Warner’s as rooted in the everyday as are you and me.

(P.S. Re: polyamory, see my "Sex at Dawn" review. Also read my "Buddhist Erotic Art: In search of?" This "Sex, Sin, Zen" review's posted in shorter form to Amazon US, 9-2-10 & 9-24); without my review hyperlinks, also featured as above 9-15-10 on PopMatters)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Brad Warner's "Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate": Book Review

A sophomore slump personally and in print, even if numbered third of his now four books. He deals with what went down after ”Hardcore Zen” (see my review) made his reputation for better or worse. The year 2007 as the subtitle "a trip through death, sex, divorce, and spiritual celebrity in search of the true dharma" says it all, but what may elude a casual reader is the seriousness beneath the Ed Hardy-tattoo like cover and the tone that Warner prefers, to keep it snappy, snide, and snickering as much as profound, philosophical, and even poetic. Both modes alternate and this makes it a book that secular skeptics will welcome perhaps more than "drippy" Buddhist types.

That's his intention: to get a Soto Zen message of facing down reality on the cushion and then getting up to do better than you do habitually. He rejects fantasies and fear, to as "Sit Down and Shut Up" (see my review) used the Soto founder Dogen's precepts to keep a balance and to live life now, in the moment, while admitting that "I Don't Know" can be a fine way to navigate its challenges.

He can write movingly; much of this book concerns his mother's slow death from Huntington's Disease and his fears of inheriting the same when he grew up. This pragmatism made him determined to sort real from false desires, and even if he calls it "a ball of big snarly confessional vomit," he can reach beauty. Considering his grandfather's death, he notes how even if he himself does not believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, he admits how Grandpa's presence remains: "The same thing that stared out of my grandpa's eyes and wondered what he wondered what the f[--]k it was all about stares at the world out of your eyes and out of mine." (191)

This tone reminds you this is not an ordinary Buddhist book; it can be profane as well as pretty. Warner's impatience as a punk-priest with piety and dogma makes this a great recommendation for a more open-minded approach. He tells us how Zen is there so we don't add more garbage to the pile, no more tension than what we're already stuck with. In his own weaknesses as he recounts, he shows how responsibility beyond ourselves is essential for morality.

Narrating how he and his wife became "distantly polite roommates," he anticipates his fourth book, "Sex, Sin, and Zen" (see my review; also featured 9-15-10 on PopMatters--) to show how sexuality and temptation complicate a modern Buddhist's daily challenges. He loses his coveted dream job, he takes on morality as based in reality for all its messiness, and he reflects how even life and death somehow in Dogen's estimation constitute nirvana. This makes sense if you stick with it; as with his other books, Warner wanders around a topic or chapter before wrapping it up neatly.

Of all his books, this one does roam about the most. 2007's difficulties do cause Warner to zig-zag and duck and bob a lot. For good reason he warns how distractions in zazen come like wheels left spinning upside down in a bicycle shop. Such metaphors keep the book quirky and the message accessible to the doubtful. While at first the book may seem too glib for the serious reader, Warner varies his pitch and knows his wider audience demands a repertoire of tunes, as it were, to entertain them as he delivers his message within a deeper, more fragile and sensitive exploration of his own setbacks as his hard-won lessons to share with us in relating his ups and downs to Zen's practical, steady reaction to whatever we face.

He's good at explaining such tricky topics as absolute vs. "relative" reality and how atheism in his mind differs from a non-theistic Buddhism that still expects ritual and devotion for their own sake of respect for each other even if ultimately no god or gods in the conventional sense exist for its practitioners. He even expounds on the problem of evil, and how it starts as does anger and fear from within.

Warner advocates intuition along with action; he compares his musical zone when playing on stage to that of meditation, to "uncover the intuition you already have" to perform well. Zazen or sitting still does not seek any other goal than the reality of the moment, as he concludes: "enlightenment is for those who can't face reality." (Posted to Amazon US 9-2-10 & 9-24)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Brad Warner's "Sit Down and Shut Up": Book Review

Second in his series of now four titles mingling his "hardcore Zen" punk-monk experiences into his Japanese fluency in its culture and language, this comments on Dogen's 1234 A.D. Soto Zen teachings. Warner unlocks their compressed, intricate, enigmatic utterances and explains how the Japanese concepts unfold as he compares this wisdom to his own life during a chaotic few years of the past decade.

”Hardcore Zen” (see my review) told how he got to be a bassist-monster movie marketer-Zen priest, so "Sit" continues his own stint as a reunion player in the Akron scene, but this work concentrates more on Dogen and less on his own adventures. Therefore, being grounded in the founder of his tradition, Soto Zen, I think Warner succeeds in keeping this the most serious (with lots of room for his snarky humor and snide footnotes) of his works. He lets Dogen's practical insistence on the balance of zazen, the body-mind mix of the material and the mental, to dominate his pages. They may roam and suddenly veer off, as in a deftly told chapter on his shaved head that somehow winds up making the analogy of our life to a bubble on a stream. But, he keeps Dogen as the core of his message, and that helps him balance his own prose.

He sums it all up late on, expanding the "eternal now" focus: "Dogen's Buddhism is all about understanding what you really are right here and right now. And reality often includes the fact that you cannot see reality as it is. The ability to understand that you do not understand is what real enlightenment is all about." (239)

The book starts off confidently and never falters. He alternates his "punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's 'Treasury of the Great Dharma Eye" with his own life's lessons. (For more, go on to "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma" for the aftermath of what happened mid-decade, and then "Sex, Sin, and Zen" (also featured 9-15-10 on PopMatters--  for his full-frontal look at Buddhist sexuality. Both reviewed by me.) The chapters may seem ramshackle if taken out of context or read at random, but there's a flow, speaking of the stream, that shows how Warner's decades of staring out reality in zazen and the rest of his life permeate these lively, raunchy, calm, and hard-headed reflections. He reminds us that punk and Zen share a distrust of pat answers, how ambiguity is the message of enlightenment, and how the Big Questions may never get solved.

His skepticism, as a punk philosopher, is welcome. He tells us to look at things and people as they are, to focus on the "eternal now" rather than the fled past or intangible future. This may sound like platitudes, but if you take these chapters slowly and with an open mind, you start to gain a sense of the long-fought and long-sought commonsense that Buddhism presents via Dogen as what we always knew deep down. He draws attention to the "Bodhi Mind" and the "it" that we cannot quite articulate but which we intuitively know as the direction to follow.

Without preaching, he shows us how to welcome each moment as a "once-in-a-lifetime" one, and not to let life pass by in delaying fulfillment. He does not promise ease from zazen, but boredom; he does not believe in easy insights, but in honest ethics. His practice equals a lifetime of hard work every day. He warns that if we seek Ultimate Truth, that it comes only at the present instant, as inescapable and as fleeting as that. This, he concludes, is the only reality we can find, and here, he tells us, we must work out our own encounter with a quiet truth deep down. (Posted to Amazon US 9-2-10 & 9-24)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Brad Warner's "Hardcore Zen": Book Review

"You eat God and excrete truth four hours later." (3) There's a toilet on the cover, a first for a Buddhist book, I reckon. Punk, monster movie making, and a decidedly raw version of dharma enliven this bracing introduction.

Warner's only a few years younger than me, so I could relate to his story of growing up in the time when music mattered enough to rouse idealistic, pessimistic, and frustrated youth to lash out. His fury muted, however, as the "weirdness" of his existence hit him one Ohio winter in the bathroom of a dingy bar. He tells- in energetic prose that reminded me of an update on the Jesus freak, denim bible retellings of a counterculture a decade earlier-- of his life's progress from nihilism to meaning, not via creepy Ken Wilber New Age nostrums, but by hard-won wisdom. His Soto Zen practice emphasizes the tedium, the boredom, the pain of "zazen," "just sitting," and the tough truth that any enlightenment is elusive, illusory, and if it does happen, it's in the everyday confrontation with our limits.

The best way to get a feel for this memoir-primer is to sample its flavor. He starts by warning us off of elevating any concept as more sacred or profane than any other. Until we learn this, "kids will keep getting new dates to memorize for history class."(2) The holy is not apart from the rest of the universe. Truth evades belief; it transcends religion; it denies negotiation.

He dismisses those who think that an attitude or a cause will change the world. He urges us to look within, and first to heal ourselves, to find balance. This comes in Zen, for example, by staring down one's self, and facing the Big Questions and finding our own answers. An aside from the punk scene illustrates this: spray-painting the letter "A" on a wall teaches nobody about true anarchy, and only makes more work for the poor schlub stuck cleaning the building up. While taking on the evils of the world may help, what needs to be done before that is to clean up one's own act.

He tells his own difficult journey; he lands after an early-80s stint in a hardcore band, Zero DFX, and then a neo-psychedelic project, Dimentia 13, a dream job in Japan helping to make monster movies, his childhood love. Still, he's unhappy. He shows this as the Buddha's "first noble truth," that of dissatisfaction as our mundane human condition. "The pain of having your dreams come true appears vividly when you realize that even if your dreams really come true, they never really come true." (58)

He explains the lofty concepts of Buddhist philosophy in his struggle to understand the evanescence of our experiences. This is challenging, but Warner's discussions reward attention. (You may want to read a brief overview such as David Fontana's "Discover Zen" -- see my review-- for some practical pointers; Warner has a 2010 follow-up memoir documenting the apparent difficulties of his life after this book-- see my link below to "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate.")

Summing up the "Heart Sutra" teaching, he renders the "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" core as the way "here and now all of creation blossoms into being," and how we cannot perceive this easily as the present moment's "obscured by the present itself and by the act of perceiving it and conceiving of it." (80) Yet, that's about as clear as it gets, from my past study of this idea. "The entire universe is created by us and we rule over it unopposed-- but for the oppositions of our own minds." (108) Goodness occurs when we fit our own longings into the moral order, the precepts suggested for us and those around us. He tells us how: "morals are rules you have willingly imposed upon yourself," so "it's easy and natural to act in a moral way." Existence bursts each second into being, the universe appears and disappears while we are in the midst of it all.

He can rise from sarcasm (I can sympathize but this can lower the tone of his exhortations) to poetry. "The universe desires to perceive itself and to think about itself and you are born out of this desire. The universe wants to experience itself from the point of view of a tree, and so there are trees." (124) I know this may sound as ethereal as in the pop-guru claptrap Warner avoids, but it's an honest attempt to convey Zen mindfulness, where the divisions between subject and object, perceived and perceiver, even mind and body, disappear into the flow of oneness. Beyond past and future and self, Warner adds, sense recedes into illusion.

Our self, our "me" merges rather than separates itself from creation. That present moment that we experience is eternal. "It's always there. It is unborn and cannot die. And it does not reincarnate." (131) The challenges in this book may unsettle readers expecting a slight or sensationalistic account, but within the (sometimes too-subtly arranged or occasionally too-casually told) chapters that unfold Warner's tutelage under his master, Nishijima, we find-- even if you resist Authority Figures, cultic chants, and name changes-- there is a movement towards insight and equilibrium. Warner knows we have to return to the workaday routine, the chores and frustrations that fill our lives, and he aims to offer us some shared guidance in how to reconcile our reveries with reality.

Whatever freedom to act we have therefore does not lie in the vanished past or the unattainable future, but only now. This allows us to gain control over our mindset. That's the summation of Zen's message. The arduous journey to our own awareness of truth will not happen with drugs or ecstasy, for when the bliss ends, we're stuck right back here all over again. Warner warns that Buddhism gives us no answers, but it may help us ask ourselves the right questions. Nobody else's responses will satisfy us. The Buddha told us to test what he told us by our own experience and intellect, and Warner shows how he over the decades learned to apply this direction.

Where he wound up is not in an otherworldly trance, but in the tedium of "zazen." More than most books on Zen for Westerners, Warner stresses the dullness of this. It's not a shortcut to "enlightenment," but a confrontation with one's self-image. "You'll eventually see that the 'you' that's a mess isn't really 'you' at all." (92) This may sound as illogical as the disappearing universe, but such concepts lie at the heart of Soto Zen, and Warner presents them fairly and briskly.

He admits that in his Zen practice, the "social organization known as Buddhism" has become a facade. The "real Buddhism" as a flower (a lotus?) blooms out of the muck, but it's beneath the trappings of religious institutions and cultural traditions. He cites Johnny Rotten: "It isn't a rip-off if you tell everybody it's a rip-off." (160) That is, the sham if declared as a sham reveals its own construction-- the con-artist lets us in on the trickery of his legerdemain.

Not that Warner denies the efficacy of Buddhism, but he emphasizes how unlike religions, it denies "the self" as "a substantial entity" and shows how the foundation for our self-image is imaginary, impermanent, and "a convenient reference point and nothing more." (93) This "useful fiction" stands in for the fact that our truer identity lies in our self's passing away. No afterlife that we can perceive awaits us; these sorts of imaginings are non-starters for the Buddha. Rather than worry about reincarnation, which Warner dismisses (for an advanced follow-up, see "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and "Buddhism without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor, both reviewed by me), he encourages us to find our meaning in the mundane, to reject illusion or salvation.

"The best thing you can hope for in life is to meet a teacher who will smash all of your dreams, dash all of your hopes, tear your teddy-bear beliefs out of your arms and fling them over a cliff." (184) Surprisingly to many who may open this book, he closes it insisting that in this transformation, one can find balance, duty, and transformation by accepting our own nature. After all, "our ordinary, boring, pointless lives are incredibly, amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly joyful." (197)

(Posted to Amazon US) 6-17-10; since then I've reviewed his other books on my blog and on Amazon US & "Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's 'Treasury of the Great Dharma Eye'", "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma" and --also featured 9-15-10 on PopMatters-- "Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sexuality, Celibacy, Polyamory, and Everything in Between.")

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Black Angels' "Phosphene Dream'': Music Review

Compared to "Directions to See a Ghost," which for me fulfilled the promise of "Passover," this third album's less consistent and more eclectic. I understand why. The band risked getting trapped in their overwhelming, percussive, intense drones. I loved these (see my reviews on Amazon US or my blog of both CDs), but I admit if they had produced another record full of the same darkness, without room for light, it might have been nearing a dead-end however polished and raw both.

So, with no idea what to expect, hearing these ten tracks shows me that the band recognizes what had to be done. I will briefly comment on each song to give you an idea of the range. "Bad Vibrations," a would-be slogan for the band's earlier work, starts with their familiar distorted guitar on top of a heavy beat, but it races towards a livelier end than usual. "Haunting at 1300 McKinley" continues this approach, but "Yellow Elevator #2" mixes a Clinic-like vocal processing with stacked and interwoven voices to add layers to what in the past has been the same intonations from a single throat. It works well to vary this style, which as the song goes on reminds me of very early Pink Floyd blended into "Dark Side of the Moon"'s title track: the song definitely evokes this period.

"Sunday Afternoon" opens with perhaps an electric jug like their Austin, Texas, predecessors 13th Floor Elevators used; this tune also recalls "Nuggets"-era garage rock. "River of Blood" returns to their signature sound with a war theme but it hurries up the pace also as it progresses. "Entrance Song" continues a tribal beat.

"Phosphene Dream" as the title track alters the tone and moves to a thicker, clotted production that recalls Echo and the Bunnymen with its chiming keyboards. "True Believers" adds a folksy, artsy twist that hints of Clinic and Elf Power in an experimental take on indie ambitions that filter older melodies into lo-fi studio atmospheres.

"Telephone" dramatically departs for a peppy song that could be the Beatles circa 1964. "The Sniper" ends it all with a guitar rock-based song that's rather straightforward by the band's standards, and somehow the guitar riff and delivery suggests an epic passage of the first or second Led Zeppelin albums. So, you can hear how varied this record is, as it draws upon a lot of 60s' inspired psychedelic influences. Like the best interpreters today, rather than imitate this creative period, The Black Angels filter and play and alter it into their own reality. (Posted to Amazon US & 9-15-10)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Elf Power": s/t: Music Review

This grows on you. Insects, dirt, bones, ghosts haunt this disc, dedicated to the late Vic Chestnutt. Elf Power, by self-titling their tenth (!) album, appear to let the churning, restless sounds backing wistful, literary, and yearning lyrics sum up their ambitions. The modesty of this homemade album, full of whirring keyboards, efficient percussion, chiming guitars, and processed snippets, continues their recent direction.

That is, progressing from the medieval instrumentation of such as "When the Red King Comes," this shifts away from the dense, early-Eno feel of their work towards a more pastoral approach, from "Walking with the Beggar Boys" onward. While I favor their earlier albums for their daring swirl, they have matured gracefully into a more direct manner of delivering stories as sung and played. With no lyric sheet, you have to pay attention; the graceful thoughts come slowly through the speakers.

There are still hints of their more experimental period, as on the psychedelic riff of "Boots of Lead," or the hints of a waltz on "Little Black Holes." For a band that's been around Athens, Georgia so long, they still stock their songs with textures, even if not as immediately "out of time" as their earlier work showed. Part of the Elephant 6 collective, five members are backed by as many backing musicians. I'm not sure who plays what, as the album credits are sparse, but repeated listenings open up depth in what feels at first a pared-down delivery.

Early R.E.M.'s recalled on "Like a Cannonball," with its echoes and distortions, but most songs sway with a more straightforward musical backing of, as the album progresses, increasingly literary narratives in a few minutes each. "Spidereggs," "Ghost of John," and "The Concrete and the Walls" form a trilogy exploring the underside of life; "Tiny Insects" marvelously conjures up the mystery and oddity of their half-glimpsed realm as it intersects with ours. This sort of Southern Gothic's not macabre, but somehow life-affirming, perhaps part of the message of this audio response to the passing of Chestnutt, a collaborator.

Andrew Rieger sings these short songs, and his pleasant, but not carefree, tone recalls the Southern college-rock ambiance of twenty-five or more years ago in the mixture of a more popular style with a faintly British invasion, prog-psych, folk-rock, and art rock mixed influence. Give this a chance to play a few times, and the tales tucked inside will begin to unfold. Good accompaniment for a restless night.

(Posted to Amazon US & 9-14-10; Elf Power website)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ag iarraidh taennaí eile

D'inis mé agaibh faoi tae nua an aiste seo caite. Tá mé ag ple an ábhar tae seo níos mo anseo. Cad raibh cineálaí éagsúlaí tae ábalta fáil mise?

Téigh go mo chistin. Oscail an doras cupaird. Céard gheobhaidh mise istigh ann?

D'ól mé tae cuirín dubh le Ahmad le Londain inniu. Tá blas finéalta ach dana ann. Déanann déantóir sin fanaile agus sméaraí measctha freisin. Ceapaim siad go bhfuil chomh blasta fós.

Is maith liom marcannaí tae le táirgtheoirí eile. Mar shampla, cheannaigh mé tae dubh Bricfeasta Sasanaigh is fusa le margadh Úr agus Furasta. Go raibh fíorshaor ar an shladmhargadh ach aontaim go mbeadh den chéad scoth air.

Thairis sin, ólaim tae Bricfeasta for-Éireannach go minic le chomlacht Stash ina gcathair na Tír na bPort ina h-Oireagan. Tá boladh láidir agus úrrunta as. Oibríonn sé go suaimhneach leis bainne agus siúcra.

Tá cuimhne liomsa de rud eile ó bhaile in aice leis an gcathair Naomh Proinsias. Tugadh tiosán liom ó An Phoblacht Tae faoi deireanach. Measaim an tae glas sin créúil agus úrach.

An bhfaighidh cumaisc níos mo le Seosamh an Trádálaí. B'fhéidir, gheobhaidh mé. Mar sin féin, ní dhíolann sé níos mo chomh níos luath air ansúid.

Bhí mé go cur cuairt an siopa sin a cruinniú tae dubh le Kandy ina An tSiolóin fadó. Ní bhfuair mé sé ar chor ar bith ansin. Ámarach, imeoidh mé go áit eile a ceannach an tae Siolóinaigh  nua le Dilmah go raibh ag scríobh mise faoi an am le déanaí!

Searching for other teas.

I told all of you about a new tea in this last entry. I'm discussing more tea matters now. What other kinds of different tea am I able to find?

Go into my kitchen. Open the cupboard door. What will you find inside there?

I drank a blackcurrant tea from Ahmed of London today. The flavor's delicate but bold. That manufacturer makes a vanilla and a mixed berries too. I think they may be as tasty also.

The tea brands please me from other makers. For example, I bought a simple dark English Breakfast tea from the Fresh & Easy Market. It may be dirt-cheap as a store bargain but I agree that it's of the first quality.

Furthermore, I have been drinking Super-Irish Breakfast often from the Stash Company in the city of Portland in Oregon. There's a strong and hearty smell from it. It works smoothly with milk and sugar.

I am reminded of another one from a town near the city of San Francisco. A tisane from the Republic of Tea was given to me lately. I judge that green tea to be earthy and fresh.

Will I get more brands from Trader Joe's? Maybe I will. All the same, it does not sell as many as before over there. I used to pay a visit to that shop to gather dark tea from Kandy in Sri Lanka long ago. I don't find it there anymore. In the future, I will go off to another place to purchase new Ceylonese tea from Dilmah that I had written about last time!

Photo/Grianghraf: 1905-1915 group of tea workers at the Black Sea harvest/lucht oibreachai le fomhair tae, An Mhuir Dhubhe

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ag lorg tae nua

Chuir cuairt mé an mí seo caite chuig ár chairde in aice leis Naomh Crios. D'imigh mo teaghlach a feiceáil siad. Bhí Crios agus Bob tae brea cuanna go minic ina cistin acu.

Bheul, rinne mé dearmad. Bhí mé imithe as mo chuimhne. Ní thug mé tae liomsa chomh go coitanta ar an turas.

Ní raibh tae ina teach ar cíos ansin fós.Fhiafraigh Niall chuig Crios má thabharfadh a h-athair tae beag ó ár chara. Chuir Crios suas cuid tae Siolánaigh.

D'ól mé an tae nua. Baineadh stad asam le hiontas. Bhí maith liom é go leor.

Bhí sobhlas é. Is ainm é "Dúiche Lheim na Leannáin." Cé go bhfuil tae níos dorchaí, measaim go bhfuil blas chomh tae glas agus mín talamh leis meala air.

Ní fhaca "Leim na Leannáin" taobh amuigh de an margadh "Duilleoig Nua" ina ceantar ag imeall an teach na Crios agus Bob. Tá tae órga agus sléibhteach go blasta ach fínéalta agam ann. B'fhéidir, an gheobhaidh mé eolas le dáileadh de An Siolán Watte Series from Dilmah? Inseoidh mé nuacht níos mo faoi taennaí difriúlaí agaibh go scríobh mé an am seo chugainn ina h-aiste as Gaeilge anseo.

Seeking new tea

We paid a visit this past month to our friends near Santa Cruz. My family went off to see them. Chris and Bob have fine elegant tea often in their kitchen.

Well, I made a mistake. It slipped my mind. I did not bring my own tea as usual on a trip.

There was no tea in the house for rent, furthermore. Niall asked Chris if his father could get a little tea from our friend. Chris sent down a share of Ceylon tea.

I drank the new tea. It took me by surprise. It pleased me a lot.

It was a pleasant taste. It's name's "Lover's Leap Estate." Although it may be darker tea, I reckon that it may be a greenish tea flavor and a bit of earth and honey in it.

I have not seen "Lover's Leap" outside of the "New Leaf" market in the district around Chris and Bob's house. The golden, mountainous tea's tasty and delicate for me. Perhaps, will I find information from the distributor in Sri Lanka Watte Series from Dilmah? I will tell you all more news about various teas the next time that I write an entry in Irish here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

John Steinbeck: an Appreciation

Steinbeck's hard to classify ideologically: a writer with the common touch, but subtly subversive. His populist novels and naturalist stories mark him as a people's rather than a professor's writer. After being exposed to his works often in school, few study him in college. After my teens, I never heard his works mentioned or had any assigned in university courses as an English major, all the way through my Ph.D. Now, my specialty wasn't American lit., but the comparative neglect Steinbeck's endured from academics says a lot about their own expectations about what a fiction writer should take on ideologically.

I suspect as with Jack London or even John Dos Passos, he may have been admired more abroad over much of the past century for his workingman's sympathies than here at home, where he was regarded as subversive. I think he is, but in a manner that can be more subtle than a lot of clunky, obvious, school-board approved moralistic narratives marketed to schools to assign to teens today.

"Of Mice and Men" still gets calls once in awhile to be banned from libraries or reading lists in classrooms today. But it's a teachable, readable, and accessible parable that as with many of his works connects more easily with everyday folks than socially engineered texts aimed at more of a specialty niche, a sensitive constituency, or an overly pat presentation of complex ethical issues.

That is, Steinbeck eludes easy summation. "In Dubious Battle" documents the [Communist] Party taking credit--and bearing blame--for its role in a fruit-pickers strike in Watsonville. Perhaps I note in him a kindred spirit for my own eclectic political views and reading tastes. Maybe he helped shape my own perspective. For, I stumbled upon a strange, minor novel of his in seventh grade on the shelf of my small public library.

"The Wayward Bus" caught my eye as Steinbeck was on a list of writers we could choose from to do reports about. I liked its ramshackle quality, its cast of characters thrown together in that familiar scenario of disparate types stuck bickering or romancing or communing in a predicament. I also liked his depiction of the rural Californian landscape that was fast receding as I grew up around where I lived. Perhaps not Steinbeck's best, but it inspired me to check out every other work of his I could, even buying some Penguin paperbacks with my scant allowance.

"The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden" succeed as epics; the Dust Bowl-to-Oakies sweep of the first and the Cain & Abel adaptation of the second make these stories easy to get lost in, and the fact both were made into fine films adds for many no doubt to their enduring appeal among schoolchildren looking for book reports! Also, "The Red Pony" and "The Pearl" often stay in print perhaps due to their brevity among alert students assigned a "novel" to read, but they are decent if not spectacular efforts.

Readers of his bestsellers may not know of his wider contributions. "The Moon is Down" is a play about the Nazis entering a Norwegian town; "Travels with Charley" is about the trip across America he took circa 1960 with his dog in a camper shell trailer. He adapted the Arthurian legends of Malory into Modern English and wrote Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," although he asked his name be removed from the film's credits. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962, which angered critics.

I especially liked his short stories such as "The Chrysanthemums." That and the novella-length "Red Pony" appears in the collection "The Long Valley" (1938); for me, it and "The Pastures of Heaven" (1932) stand out as my favorite books by him. "Pastures" tells in a dozen tales of those in a long, remote valley (Carmel Valley?) near Monterey, where his "Tortilla Flat" also takes place, a more lighthearted effort. Monterey's cashed in on his reputation along the street front along the bay renamed Cannery Row, where no fishermen remain but where a franchise of Bubba Gump's sits near the elegant Aquarium.

Salinas, his birthplace, further inland, is grittier. Few tourists go there, but some may now. Its agribusiness growers opposed for a long time the National Steinbeck Center which finally opened in 1998. There you can see his tiny trailer shell camper, dubbed "Rocinante" after Don Quixote's horse, displayed.

Steinbeck took on the growers, siding with the workers as he had worked beside them at Spreckels Ranch, just south of this city. He ran into trouble for supposed radical sympathies after championing the migrant workers in his fiction. He later covered the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where his son served, and surprised some for his fair-minded portrayal of the common soldier sent over there.

His common touch may seem sentimental or agitprop to today's readers. But as Steinbeck showed his first readers in the Depression, he reminds us of a message worth repeating. He alerted audiences to the dangers to human dignity and family cohesion brought about by the onslaught of factory farming and animal agriculture--that since this era have driven out nearly all the small families who in his lifetime made a more modest living in such California locales. So, he's still teaching some of us by his legacy today, even as he entertains long after our school days may have ended. Perhaps you'll pick up one of his books from a shelf yourself.

(P.S. Read my review of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" for an exposé of how much agribusiness has boomed since the days when local boy Steinbeck worked on a ranch.)

(Posted to 8-9-10; Image can be seen better here: "John Steinbeck Map of America"--well, Central California at least.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals": Book Review

This book helped lure my teenaged son away from meat and fowl. At his school, he and his brother heard Foer speak at his school after last Thanksgiving, during his book tour. While my older son reverted to meat soon after, my wife and I have stuck with my younger son. We finally gave up chicken and turkey as we had gradually beef and pork.

I mention this as testament not to the message Foer promotes, for that's familiar. But he convinced my family of his thesis: "We need a better way to talk about animals." (33) Like billions of consumers in cities, we ignore factory farms as "animal agriculture." This system comprises 99% of all meat which we buy as "processed." I use Foer's euphemism for the slaughtering and butchering methods that he, in a clandestine night visit to an enormous turkey "farm," compels us to witness. He relates what "rescue" means for one small bird, unforgettably.

That is, he does not sentimentalize, preach, or pander. He stays calm. "Just as nothing we do has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat, no daily choice that we make has a greater impact on the environment." (74) He integrates facts accessibly; the graphic presentation familiar from his novels here increases his data's power. 40% more of an impact on global warming than all of transport combined is due to animal agriculture. A KFC chicken (a drugged football with feet) lives 39 days and an "organic" one but 42. For all the fish discarded when serving a helping of sushi, the true haul of that catch would fill a plate five feet in diameter. Cattle now live only 12-15 months. On the slaughter line, cows may survive for seven minutes after they're supposedly stunned and bled.

He confronts how we get what's on our plates. He challenges us to engage in dialogue with our neighbors, and with our families. He visits the touted "natural" alternative of Niman Ranch; he learns that this once-idealistic business has just been sold to a factory farm. His interspersed accounts from a PETA activist, a family-based turkey rancher, and workers involved in the raising, care, and killing of animals enrich this narrative's depth.

Foer's grandmother during the Holocaust literally risked death rather than eating pork: such an example burrows deep into ancestral contentions where food and survival contend with conscience and commitment. His Judaism and its kosher tradition also deepen this tension. He faces disengaging from thousands of years of lamb-shanked Seders, and childhood Thanksgivings and barbecues. He examines how our "table fellowship" tests the bonds of family and friendship vs. those of individual ethics and global betterment.

At times, as with his musings on Judaism and his family, its organization jumps about, as his novels do. It can be diffused or contemplative. It also stays hard-hitting and open-minded. It's challenging now and then to figure out its direction. So, this narrative may confound those wanting a more disinterested arrangement of anecdotes, factoids, reporting, and reflection. But I was surprised how fast the pages flew, despite or because of its idiosyncratic pace and unflinching attention to quirky or grisly detail.

Foer spent three years researching this book. He wrote it to explain to his newborn son why his father chose not to eat any more animals. "Will he be among the first of a generation that doesn't crave meat because he never tasted it? Or will he crave it even more?"

As with my older son--who has chosen to not eat meat when at home--my family along with many readers may agree with Foer's pronouncement: "The justifications for eating animals and for not eating them are often identical: we are not them." (63) Yet, we can not claim ignorance any longer. For, reading this, and honestly articulating the unease about our fried chicken, cheap burgers, and greasy drumsticks--and the fish that I admit I still eat, more guiltily than before--you will close this book more conscious, more humanly aware, of the choices we all make three times every day.

This is why, even as Foer remains a nuanced proponent of vegetarianism, he finds that compromise with organic this or free-range that sells short our potential to solve the dilemmas that factory farming presents as Third World demand increases the bargain-priced flesh. We eat 150 times more chicken than our families did 80 years ago. Until 50 years ago, small farms were where we got our beef and chicken. Now, rural alternatives barely exist; family farms continue to give in to the Combine, as has Niman Ranch.

"We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory--disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own." Suffering worsens; the climate warps. The money that feeds animal agriculture comes from our subsidies, our taxes, our pockets as we shell out for a Happy Meal or a filet mignon. Foer ends with the "question of eating animals" as "ultimately driven by our intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have named, perhaps incorrectly, 'being human.'" (264)
Posted to AmazonUS & 7-20-10; and PopMatters 9-1-10. Eating Animals website.