Sunday, September 29, 2013

Revised Posting Schedule

Hello dear readers, I hope you are all having a Pleasant Valley Sunday, (if that's your thing anyways—it isn't mine, but then there are ever so many little walled rose gardens in this town—perhaps I'll eventually be converted by sheer dint of this domesticating odor).

This is a brief apology post to alert you that the scheduled essay (part two of a three part series on the "Argument From Victory") will be delayed, and to inform you that my posting schedule will be slightly altered from this point on.

Oxford graduate degrees turn out to be rather labor intensive, and Oxford turns out to be a rather expensive town, so I'll need to rebalance things if I am to keep myself and my wife fed while getting the grades and publication credits I'll require, and keeping this blog going in the bargain. Accordingly, I will know be posting on Tuesday afternoons—I hope you won't experience this as a terrible inconvenience. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Our Flesh Remained, Book One, Chapter Two

με' Οἱ πονηροὶ δαίμονες τοὺς πονηροτέρους αὐτῶν δαίμονας εἰς βοήθειαν ἐπισπῶνται· καὶ κατὰ τὰς διαθέσεις ἀλλήλοις ἐναντιούμενοι͵ συμφωνοῦσιν ἐπ΄ ἀπωλείᾳ μόνον ψυχῆς[i]

Memory is simply storytelling in its most primal form. The events of memory are always shadowed by the Present presence of the storyteller: an anguished ghost whispering useless warnings against words unsaid, roads untaken, gifts unrecognized and meanings undiscerned. Life lived is haunted by life unlived. Our every step parts a ghoulish fog of curiosities, uncertainties, disappointments  and regrets, the coulda-shoulda-woulda of a future self looking back. And although this work is meant more as a penitential confession than an exculpatory memoir, I cannot pretend to escape from the claws of narrative and its dissembling requirements. My story will inevitably be haunted by thematic phantoms and foreshadowing specters. Forgive me then, if I choose to publish my characters’ roles on the playbill. In the story of my summer cruise, the protagonist is played by Our Hero, Yours Truly. The antagonist is played by Dolores Medina Villanueva.
Dolores was a recent graduate of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, whose pre-med biology department she had sliced open like a pizza roller. Thrice published at the age of twenty-two, her CV carried a florilegium of honors and awards that would shame Carmen Miranda:[ii] on its strength, MIT was willing to offer her a full ride through their PhD in synthetic biology[1]. Her undergraduate research was in biminian[iii] therapies, and I knew within hours of meeting Lola that she would probably wind up as head of R&D at one of the Genesis firms in the Detroit Discus.[iv]
We met above the Sonoran desert, on the sun-deck  in the third day. Moby Dick’s broad back was paved in richly colored cedar, and a round blue pool had been sunk into the planks where his blowhole ought to have been. Thus far I had spent my afternoons circuit riding through the small list of belowdecks diners, bars and lounges that I found acceptable, but today a thick, greasy, disgusting lunchtime slice of “Jersey Shore Pizza” put me in mind of a swim. So I squeezed into an ancient pair of trunks[2] and meandered into an upward-bound elevator.
 Unfortunately, it transpired that the pool was child friendly between the hours of 12:00 and 2:00. Feeling tired and harassed just looking at all those pink arms and hopping legs and screaming teeth, I elected to pass the afternoon on a sun bed with a clear view of the desert, happy to let my thoughts drift like the plastic refugees—water wings, life preservers, neons animals—that dotted the pool so colorfully. I slipped into another place within moments of lying down, and it was late afternoon before I looked up again.
When I did, there she was: sitting on the pool’s other side, splitting her pleasure between a battered paperback of Tuck Everlasting[v] and the obvious turmoil she was producing with her toplessness[3]. The deck was demographically representative (of the cruise that is) mostly prosperous polo-shirt professionals trying to remember where their eyes ought to be in front of their wives and kids[4]. I had suddenly discovered a new source of afternoon amusement in charting the socio-chemical reactions generated by the addition of this intriguing new catalyst to what had been a tediously milky and middle-class bourgeois colloid.
I soon grew tired of scanning south of the border for any shorts-spires or bermuda-buttes covertly accomplishing a prohibited protuberance, but the wives, (self-consciously cosmopolitan, pointedly unthreatened, altogether at their ease with this altogether European development), provided a much more sustainable source of amusement. Some directed the family gaze over the railings towards cacti, desert anemones, Gila monsters, and the expressionist snarls of sarx and fiberglass left by downed drones. Some discussed the many merits of a more embodied and ecological pace of travel in this frenzied age of artificiality and overwork, to which their husbands distractedly replied that indeed, it was entirely so, and not only that, they were getting so much more done working remotely.
But no one played tit for tat, with a single sad exception. A heavily smudged and oiled blond blossom, sixteen at the oldest, disappeared below-decks with her family, but took her impressions and ambitions with her. Twenty minutes later she re-emerged, alone, in all her nubile splendor, and struck a pose four sun-beds left of Dolores (who unfortunately failed to notice her). Massive Ray-Bans could not conceal the shattering excitement of this cosmic act of rebellion: every fifteen to thirty seconds, her neck would jerk spastically in the direction of the elevators in an unpleasant simulacrum of the side effects of certain antipsychotics, but I suppose it was the principle of the thing.
She was clearly banking on Mediterranean leers and catcalls to reinforce her courage, but she had misjudged the income bracket of her audience rather badly. Instead, she was quickly surrounded by an Atlantic fog of silence and discretion, shrouding social verdicts that moved unseen in the thickness of the mist. All eyes were politely averted for the twenty minutes she was on display. Her emotional energy was already drained when the elevators disgorged a maternal horseman, brandishing the missing bikini top. The poor girl did not attempt a public scene. Harsh whispers passed below-decks without further incident. 
This minor excitement concluded, I found myself without any further ethnographic material. Late afternoon was bursting overhead like slow-motion stock footage of a nuclear detonation, and most people were escaping the bleached and super-saturated frying pan of the sun-deck for an air-conditioned meal or a poolside drink in the observatories. In the absence of any reasonable ideas, I decided to approach the sun deck’s main attraction. My attitude was not arachnid at the time: I had no particular designs on this new and fascinating specimen. It was just that the arboreally enhanced cigarillos I had been smoking were all already stubbed and slipped over the side, and there was no prospect belowdecks that could overcome even the effort of sitting up.
So a combination of curiosity and boredom then; but perhaps my decision contained something else: a fugitive species of desperation. I had boarded in the hope of seclusion and self-examination. This was supposed to be an opportunity for pruning my priority tree, a measured pause in which I could recollect, recoup, regroup, reintegrate. That was the scotch/cognac revelation of my Monday afternoon: it was a mark of my subjection to inertia, a sign that I was transcendentally unmoored, drifting from surface to surface like an ancient screensaver, ricocheting and rebounding without purpose or plan: circumscribed within the puny horizon of a pure immanence. I needed the stillness necessary to recite my cosmogony, to recall the parts that once upon a time, had been formed into a whole[5]. But no solid mound had yet emerged from primordial waters. No dry and stable axis mundi had made its radiant heirophany. I was drowning in a disaggregate stew of unscheduled aimlessness and unstructured anxiety.[vi]
The previous night had been consecrated to a drunken, compulsive, panic-stricken binge-play of Halo: Combat Evolved.[vii] I had applied my green thumb to a pack of Black & Milds shortly after encountering The Flood and soon achieved Parnassan[viii] heights. The rest of the campaign was spent dredging a condemned lake of algal nostalgia in search of memories of the Hardy twins[6][ix]. Frank, Joe and I ran a four-legged race to high-school graduation, prevailing over the obtuse and malign forces of turn-of-the-century adolescence through the strength of fiercely shared obsessions. When I was thirteen and they were fourteen, we completed the Halo co-op campaign three times in one weekend, passing two controllers between six hands in forty-five minute rotations while consuming twelve bags of Cool Ranch Doritos. Not once did we question the wisdom of our decision. Amidst the austere beauties of the ring world, with the fate of all sentient life at stake, our Presence was absolute. So perhaps my attitude was arachnid after all. Perhaps I was spinning a web in which to catch an anchoring obsession.  
Or perhaps not. Maybe my decision was simply aesthetic necessity. The bony soil that Moby Dick stirred below us still had its heart in Mexico. Time may have sanctified the righteous absurdities of Manifest Destiny in the minds of men, but not in the dust of the earth.[x] This was still land created by Tawa, land nourished by the Corn Mother. This was still land where pueblos stacked like cake boxes on impossible mesas, where ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni saw bloody sun gleaming on the labial helmets of Spanish Conquistadors, where black-robed Jesuits spread the white-washed battlements of Mother Church over the scrubby hills: a pale and whitewashed daisy chain placed at the feet of La Virgen Maria de los Dolores. Villanueva[xi] was the ideal watering hole for my passage through this land.
 But now I need to suppress this habit, this enthusiasm for turning the soil of past decisions in hopes of fossilized clues to their source and significance. I have spent enough of my life on such flattering and convenient fictions. The important thing to note now is that I did get up, I did approach Dolores. And as soon as I did, the entire succeeding episode was inevitable in its minutest detail. The tyrant cumulonimbus of decision had been pierced and scattered by the liberating rays of fascination.[xii]

[1] Contingent on her signing a fifty year contract with Fu Lu Shou®, which had replaced Pandora® as MIT’s prosopal patron the year before and was sniffing for Young Turks to rebrand the institution. Lola had a number of other offers. I suspect she accepted this one because Fu Lu Shou® had acquired Elysian Industries® as part of the same buyout campaign: Lola already knew where she was headed. If I can be forgiven for reflecting at greater length, it strikes me that Lola was always marked by an extraordinary capacity for playing the long game, and an earnest impatience with the unrealistic expectations and besetting hesitations that plague most people in their twenties. Like many people who collide with real tragedy early in life, she had overcompensated, rendering the Real World in all angles and no curves. In Lola’s world, maturity was insensitivity to all the fond delusions and wispy idealisms waiting to ambush her resolve, and virtue the capacity to always make the serious and unsentimental decision. Ingenious as she was, she was also strangely unimaginative. Poverty had made her political: She had devoted herself to the art of the possible, laboring tirelessly for refried aspirations and hand-me-down dreams on which she never really bothered to reflect. But then, unlike most politicians, Lola never let a hard nose drag her down into cynicism, and she never lost sight of her responsibility to a suffering humanity. Many brilliant people become sterile by dint of over-reflection: realizing the vertiginous arbitrariness of all our fixed points, they sink into apathy, and float with pyramidally swollen bellies down the long languid Lethe. Lola’s great beauty is her impatience with such nonsense: the fulcrum of her hopes will never waver, and I have no doubt that heaven and earth will move for her in time. This is the kernel of my fascination with her: that for her all realism, Lola is invincible in hope.

[2] Left over from my grad school days in Georgia, they were printed in a bright marsh scene from an Egyptian tomb relief[2], one of those charming tableaux where the family patriarch has brought his family on a duck hunt. The children scamper about, dangling their fingers, toes, and braids in the fish-filled water; the wife wraps her arms around her husband’s waist as he readies his throwing stick before a flight of spooked waterbirds. It has been pointed out that if such rambunctious family hunting expeditions actually took place in historical Egypt, they were highly unlikely to have brought any birds to ground. But that’s rather the charm of the Field of Reeds I suppose: a Hereafter where things are much the same as they were on Earth, but stripped clean of tedium, failure, and disappointment  life without logistics.

[3] I hesitate to introduce Lola in this way. In much of what follows I risk reducing her to an erudite serving of Latin cheesecake, or at least leaving the door wide open for those inclined in that direction—something I believe would leave me equally culpable. So allow me to add a brief string of contextualizing qualifiers: Lola does not conceive of herself as a sexual object, nor does she yoke her self-worth to any target quota of the male gaze. She has no sympathy with those who perpetuate their psychic dependence on salivary male attention by conflating the innocence of the desired body with an imperative to sexual display. In her own way, Lola is quite old-fashioned: she is devoted to the most ancient endeavor of Western Civilization: “ad fontes, ad fontes!” the project of yanking down the gossamer walls hedging in the gynaeceum of convention to reveal a primitive singleness, an un-constructed desire, a free and fractureless ape, liberated at last from the ancient conflict between nature and custom. Naïve? Of course. But the vigorous youth and energy and devotion of her was… intoxicating. Did I sin by choosing to wallow in this biminian spring? Did I succumb to some fossilized Taoist intuition that clawed its way out of my deeper sediments to tell me: “Here, here is renewal for you!” Perhaps, but if that was my sin, let it not be confused with the cruder forms of fleshly delight. My loathsomeness moves in more rarefied air. Whether this makes it more forgivable or less is a decision I must leave to you, dear reader.

[4] There were a few lesbian pairings on the deck as well, but the habit of frank mutual appreciation that most well-calibrated homosexual couples seem eventually to develop worked against any reactions worthy of spectation. When Lola removed her top the Devonshire Dreadnoughts—(I had made the acquaintance as we were shuffling up the boarding ramp—one of those geriatric clots that forms in the artery of any population mobilized en masse—:a delightfully English pair of ladies who had crossed the channel in 2013 to marry in Calais; apparently Agbala® valued Kate’s work in materials engineering so much as to offer free courses of biminian therapy to Polly and herself, but they had chosen to turn it down and take Tier Four status[4] instead, this was a grand tour to celebrate their retirement)—paused, made their corporate appraisal, exchanged hushed views, cackled loudly, and went back to their game of shuffleboard. It appeared that Hetero Americanus was to be the exclusive subject of my recreational ethnography.

[5] Did they though? Was there a once upon a time? I have been through this process of recitation and reorientation many times in my life, and I begin to wonder. The presence of nostalgia is the key to the whole procedure. Some figment of the past must be tarted and rouged, a few fragments of memory dusted thickly with elementary school glitter (does it still cling to fat dewy beads of Elmers Glue, encrusted in the corners and carpets of abandoned classrooms? might it yet puff from the pages of a scrapbook project my mother never threw away?) and exalted as What Might Be Again. How else, after all, can you get any purchase? If all you can remember is the tempest that blots the horizon, what dreams can you have of a clear clean band of sky? It is the necessity of the thing that worries me. I have always lived in hope of returning to That Time—but perhaps That Time is no time at all, a cruel shred of ham just beyond the thin enameled bars of my eternally revolving hamster wheel. 

[6] You must forgive my choice of pseudonyms, but there truly was something of that in them, a sort of unaffected earnestness that drew me in as a refugee from the gales of irony and excruciating self-consciousness that had battered me into submission in every other social set. Admittedly this produced something not quite healthy in our relationship: I drew on them in the same unseemly way that parents thrust their experience-encrusted proboscises into their children’s’ holiday enthusiasm, taking advantage of that short-lived ability to embrace reality without any interposing film to resuscitate their own holiday Presence and joy.

[i] Malicious demons bring along even more malicious demons to help them. In their dispositions they are opposed to one another, but they all agree in seeking only the destruction of the soul.“ The Demon now draws on one of the indispensable texts of desert solitude: the Praktikos of Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 CE.) Originally written as an aid to the spiritual practice of the monks of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, the Praktikos was followed by the Gnostikos and the Kephalaia Gnostica. Together, these three works form a kind of “holy trinity” of monastic spirituality. The Praktikos forms a prolegomenon to the Gnostikos and the Kephalaia Gnostica in its concern with the practical realities of achieving a state of apatheia (freedom from passions), which is the pre-requisite of agape (selfless Christian love or charity). The Praktikos conceives of the quest for apatheia as a battle against the “eight tempting logismoi (thoughts),” which Evagrios explicitly identifies with demons. The Gnostikos and the Kephalaia Gnostica presume that the states of apatheia and agape have already been achieved, thereby allowing the monastic initiate to proceed to a contemplative knowledge of the physical entities of the natural world, the bodiless powers of the spiritual world, and the dynamic divinity of the Holy Trinity. At the end of this upward path, the initiate’s nous (higher mind/soul) aspires to its fulfillment in an intimate and mystical union with God. Although Evagrius was later condemned for his association with the doctrines of Origen of Alexandria at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, he had a powerful influence on the practice and theory of Christian monasticism. His “eight tempting thoughts” passed into the writings of his student John Cassian, the essential theorist in the formation of Latin Christian monasticism, and were later recodified by Pope Gregory I (540-604 CE) as the famous Seven Deadly Sins. I will use the aging but excellent translations of Luke Dysinger, O.S.B., POI: 104. The present quote is logos forty-four in the Praktikos.

[ii] Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) was a Portugese singer and film actress who achieved prominence after launching a radio career in Rio de Janeiro (where her family had emigrated shortly after she was born.) She leveraged her success at home into a career on Broadway and in Hollywood, where she was quickly dubbed “The Brazilian Bombshell.” She is best remembered for the extravagant fruit hat she wore in the 1943 musical smash The Gang’s All Here, notably in the innuendo laden number “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat,” which drew the attention of censors for its use of scantily clad dancers wielding bananas of unusual size. The movie was initially banned in Portugal, but US censors gave it a green light on condition that the dancers hold their bananas at the waist, not at the hip. Miranda eventually came to resent the patina of Latina exoticism that her producers considered essential to her continuing success in the American market (Bialystock & Bloom, “Carmen Miranda,” in Follies and Follies: A Dictionary of the Golden Age of American Musical Film, 1923-1968; POI:2, p. 523-528.)

[iii] Although the adjective hardly requires explanation, it is interesting in this context to note its etymological origins in the islands of Bimini, the westernmost district of the Bahamas, where the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León is said to have sought the Fountain of Youth (“biminian, a,” The Oxford English Dictionary; POI:5132)

[iv] Beatriz Castillo De la Cruz was appointed head of Research and Development at Elysian Industries shortly after the first Discus Declaration was released. She had flown out of Detroit to attend a conference in Gothenburg on November 10th, a fact the Demon was careful to establish (see Appendix.)

[v] An award winning 1975 children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt. The book tells the story of the Tucks, a family that has discovered a fountain of youth and can no longer age or die. The book’s protagonist, 10-year-old Winnie Foster, finds that immortality is less desirable than it first seems, and not without its complications (Babbitt, N., Tuck Everlasting; POI:51.) It should probably be taken in the context of the nascent environmentalist movement, and the budding nostalgia for a vaguely defined reintegration with “natural rhythms” that has since grown so explosively. 

[vi] An explicit reference to the work of the Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), whose work remains foundational in the phenomenology of religion and other branches of Religious Studies, despite a brief episode of disfashion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Eliade interpreted the behavior of pre-modern homo religiosus according to a spatio-temporal analogy whereby the human being, adrift in the fractured chaos of homogenous space and linear historical time (“the terror of history”) desires an orienting point of center, a return to archetypal, mythic spatio-temporality. This is accomplished by the heirophany (Greek: “manifestation of the sacred”) which discloses an axis mundi (Latin: “center of the world”), a point which links the chaotic spatio-temporal world of man with the stable supra-spatio-temporal world of the immortal gods: “In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation is established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center” (Eliade, M., The Sacred and the Profane; POI:56, p. 21). This point of center is frequently linked with a cosmic mountain or world tree (sometimes embodied in a temple structure). The axis mundi figured prominently in the cosmogonic reenactments of Ancient Near Eastern New Year ceremonies, which realigned Egyptian and Babylonian society with sacred time. The desire to enter sacred time is also apparent in the practice of mystics, in their attempts to achieve a coincidentia oppositorum that transcends the outward dualities of pleasure and pain, good and evil, essence and manifestation, wholeness and fracture, coherence and contradiction (Eliade, M., Patterns in Comparative Religion; OI:12.) 

[vii] A wildly popular video game, released for the now defunct Microsoft Corporation’s X-Box console in 2001, it established many of the standards that would define the first person shooter in its halcyon quarter-century. The player assumes the identity of the cybernetic super-soldier John 117 (known as Master Chief) in the year 2531, as humanity is locked in a battle with a theocratic coalition of alien races known as the Covenant, who worship the artifacts left by an ancient and technologically advanced race (the Forerunners) and seek to activate the Halo rings this species left in order to realize their eschatological hopes for deification in the Great Journey. Little do they know that the rings are actually meant to exterminate all life in the galaxy, a last ditch contingency against the Flood, an ancient hive-mind parasite that seeks to assimilate all organic life in order to achieve universal harmony through the extinction of conflict in the unity of the eternal Gravemind (Bungie Inc., The Halo Saga: Remastered and Reloaded; RI:93, Activision-Blizzard Inc.) 

[viii] The choice of adjective is idiosyncratic and deliberate. Mount Parnassus is a mountain in central Greece whose south-western spur hosted the sacred precinct of Delphi, site of a renowned oracle of Apollo. According to some Classical authors, Delphi had once been a cult site for the Titan Gaia, who had prophesied there along with her daughter Themis, possibly through the agency of an enormous female Python. However at some point Apollo, god of light, knowledge, and reason in the ascendant generation of gods, invaded from the north, slew Python, and claimed the sanctuary for himself. There he prophesied through the agency of the Pythia, a young girl selected from among the local peasants, whose title derives from the Greek Pytho (Python) itself derived from pythein (“to rot”) which referred to the enormous Python who Apollo had cast into a cleft in the rock after slaying her, where the fumes from her eternally rotting body continued to rise up and inspire the ecstatic ravings of the Pythia, who sat on a bronze tripod over the cleft while gazing into a bowl of sacred spring water and holding a branch of laurel, symbol of Apollo (see the 1891 painting Priestess of Delphi by John Collier.) In the 1980s an interdisciplinary team of archeologists, geologists, and toxicologists discovered that Delphi lies at the intersection of the Kerna and Delphic faults, and there is continuing debate over the possibility that a geologic chasm enabled the Pythia’s prophesies by emitting ethylene, benzene, or methane gas (“The Oracle’s Seismic Trance” in Greatest Hits of 20th Century Classical Archaeology; POI:67, p, 764-900.) The Pythia prophesied in the presence of another unique feature of Delphi, a great stone surrounded by the golden eagles of Zeus: “Another very archaic feature at Delphi also confirms the ancient associations of the place with the Earth goddess. This was the Omphalos, an egg-shaped stone which was situated in the innermost sanctuary of the temple in historic times. Classical legend asserted that it marked the ‘navel’ (Omphalos) or center of the Earth and explained that this spot was determined by Zeus who had released two eagles to fly from opposite sides of the earth and that they had met exactly over this place” (Parke, H. W., The Delphic Oracle; POI:45, v.1, p.6.) However Our Hero may also have in mind the reputation of Mount Parnassus as the home of the Muses, daughters by Zeus of the Titan Mnemosyne (“Memory”) who inspired the poet to sing the cosmogony or the glorious deeds of ancient heroes. It is interesting in this context to note marijuana’s much-remarked and well-studied propensity to activate dormant long-term memory and induce nostalgic episodes (Joplin & Harner, “Short-Term Effects of Marijuana Use on Long-Term Memory.” Tripping Over Clarity: The Journal of Recreational and Religious Drug Use; POI:5, 145(7) p. 56-87.)

[ix] The reference here is apparently to Frank and Joe Hardy of the Hardy Boys series. They were created in 1926 by Edward Stratemeyer as a platform for his book-packaging firm, the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Frank and Joe are teenaged brothers (though not twins) who solve an extraordinary range of mysteries, nearly all of which are hosted (or at least begin) in their small hometown of Bayport (on Barmet Bay). The boys are more or less interchangeable, and each is a sort of embryonic James Bond (absent the propensity for numerous and careless sexual conquests): they are white, healthy, handsome, strong, bold, cool under pressure, and apparently quite well off, since they can travel the world in pursuit of international drug smugglers, foreign spies, and criminals disguised as supernatural entities. The Hardy Boys was one of many prewar cultural fossils (Archie comics being another example) that continued to thrive in the wake of the counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1960s (albeit with a new and superficial patina of grit and social consciousness). Their persistence has been variously explained as an outwardly blameless outlet for sexual and racial backlash, an escape valve for white Protestants in the opening decades of their demographic decline, and as a refuge for old-fashioned earnestness in a period of self-consciously escalating cynicism. The Hardy Boys series (along with Archie comics) experienced its final efflorescence in the first half of the 21st century, riding the powerful wave of  Neo-Sentimentalism that most cultural historians date to the beginning of the late 1990s, and whose most visible manifestation in its opening decades was the skyrocketing popularity of the superhero movie. However when the tide finally went out several decades later, the Hardy Boys found themselves washed up for the last time. A short-lived attempt to renovate them as Spanish speakers of Guatemalan descent (as well as devout Pentecostals) drained the last of their cultural capital, and the series was shelved indefinitely shortly thereafter (Martinez, M.E., Gee Pop, I’m Not Sure if That’s Such a Good Idea: An Impressionistic History of Neo-Sentimentalism, 1995-2055; POI: 24). The existence of the pseudonymous Hardy twins and their relationship with the young Demon has been authenticated, but they never escaped the sub-biminian income bracket and are long since deceased. The family is preserving their anonymity. However the granddaughter of “Frank” (or perhaps “Joe”) has allowed me to examine his unpublished memoir, which includes several highly intriguing portraits of the young Demon; I quote one of particular interest here:

“We looked up to him a great deal, even though he was in the grade below us, because he was always sure to know everything about anything, which seemed to be important to him. However, he was sometimes confusing to us, because it seemed there was a certain way that he badly needed us to be, but what exactly it was was often changing. I have already belabored the point, dear reader, that [Frank/Joe] and myself were probably too “good-natured” and eager to please than was maybe totally good for us, so we would I think try to be what he wanted us to be, but we also could not “keep up” all the time with what that was exactly.
Sometimes I think he needed us to be a naïve audience, so he could be full of tough truths, and be sort of world weary in a superior way. There were a few times when it turned out that one of us knew more than him about something, and he got very sort of angry and almost panicky. I remember this one time when we had an Original Trilogy party at our house for a few friends who shared our love of Star Wars. I had been reading some of the “Extended Universe” stories, and was regaling people with the future history of the characters while we watched, and [The Demon] sort of went very quiet and had a worried look because he didn’t know any of this. We went on vacation to Florida the next day, and when we came back about three weeks later, [Our Hero] had read every single Extended Universe novel (and there were several dozen of them) and had even memorized the official chronology. Needless to say, it was impossible to watch the Star Wars movies with him ever again.
However at the same time, he seemed to sort of need to see us as purer or more good-hearted than himself. I remember he would often talk about how “decent” we were, and he would get very insecure about himself or uncertain about a situation, and he would weirdly sort of humble himself to us and ask our advice about what we would do, because we were “decent” and he wanted to know what the “decent” thing to do would be. I cannot recall any of the particular dilemmas that he presented us with, probably because they never quite made sense to me at the time. His parents were not abusive or anything, but he never wanted to hang out at his house, and he was often in anxiety about his home situation and the relationships in his house, things that sounded like pretty normal family and sibling tension to me seemed to really affect him, and he would worry over whether his family treated each other “decently”, and he was always asking us about what the “decent” thing to do would be, because we ought to know because we were “decent fellows” (he really did talk like this, you can probably guess why he got shoved around so much in middle school and high school). Looking back, I think he needed us more than we needed him.” (Transcript 104; Editor’s Unpublished Files.)

[x] An obvious reference to the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 (Primera Intervención Estadounidense En México as it is know south of the border) which ended in a U.S. victory with the First Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, according to which Mexico ceded the Rio Grande boundary to Texas and territory that later became the states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. The dispute that produced the war provided the occasion of coinage for “Manifest Destiny,” a term expressing belief in the inevitability and desirability of U.S. territorial expansion to the Pacific coast with the aim of civilizing the North American continent; its first use came in an 1845 essay in the Democratic Review by the journalist John L. O’Sullivan in which he advocated the full annexation of Texas: “[it is] our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The Southwestern air sloop route had, of course, only recently reopened at the time Our Hero made his journey, after several years when the automated rock'em-sock'em of the War of Jayaraman’s Ear rendered the territory too dangerous for civilian air traffic. For future or foreign readers unaware of the details, The War of Jayaraman’s Ear was dubbed for an extremely embarrassing episode involving U.S. ambassador Patrick A. Jayaraman. Jayaraman was heavily involved in a pornographic subculture that revolved around successfully performing a painful and logistically improbable sexual act of quasi-maritime character on a young Chinese, Japanese, or Korean female, and capturing the climax of said act from the perspective of the “victim” (according to the fictional narrative implicit in the act) / “consenting female party” (according to the standards of safety and consent most filmmakers insisted were always met) using an ERD feed. Shortly after arriving in Mexico City, Jayaraman attempted to compel an eighteen-year-old Japanese escort to perform the aforementioned logistically improbable sexual act against her will, but instead she bit off a large portion of his left ear and escaped with the ERD device Jayaraman had provided for her. She eventually displayed the resulting evidence (both the ear and the footage) before the Mexican Chamber of Deputies in San Lázaro Legislative Palace (this incident is still considered a landmark in the development of more robust sex-worker rights.) Jayaraman had already fled to a Chicago pluripotency clinic to regrow his ear, and although the U.S. Congress dismissed him from service and issued a formal apology for his behavior, the Valens Administration refused to extradite him for trial in Mexico. This came on the heels of a series of egregious missteps by the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms during the course of a joint effort with the Mexican army to suppress energy smuggling. Snowballing with the incident of Jayaraman’s ear and a high level of pre-existing grassroots nationalism and anti-imperial resentment, these missteps ultimately led the Mexican government to repudiate the First Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and declare war on the United States. The conflict was conducted in accordance with the Zurich Standards, and never seriously damaging trade relations, but the Swayze Affair, in which seven Mexican army engineers were mistakenly killed in violation of the Zurich Standards, led to international embarrassment for the United States. The retaliatory Infante Coup, in which twenty-one American drone handlers were captured in Nevada and extracted to Mexico, forced the United States into territorial concessions in order ensure their return, albeit, only in Texan territory that the Drought Years have already rendered largely symbolic in value. The Second Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war by pushing the border back to the Pecos and Nueces Rivers, but it was still very much an open wound at the time Our Hero was writing (Villa, P., Tricolor Dawn: The Complex Origins and Uncertain Legacy of the War of Jayaraman’s Ear; POI: 3.) It is an uncharacteristically inflammatory passage for the Demon, who generally avoids direct engagement with politics in his manuscripts.  

[xi] Our Hero is toying, as he so often does, with the possibilities of his Antagonist’s name. The name Dolores originates in the Spanish Catholic title for the mother of Jesus, “Virgin Mary of Sorrows,” and the surname Villanueva translates to “New Town.”

[xii] This passage had produced enormous debate in the secondary literature. Fiona Bennett, writing in the critical tradition of Skepto-Post—Structuralism from a Fourth Wave Feminist viewpoint, seeks to problematize the usage of “fascination” by linking the antecedent use of “rays” with a definition of “fascination” provided by the early modern occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535): “Fascination is a binding, which comes from the spirit of the witch, through the eyes of him that is so bewitched, and entering to his heart… Know, then, that men are most bewitched when, with often beholding, they direct the edge of their sight to the edge of the sight of those that bewitch them; and when their eyes are reciprocally intent one upon the other, and when rays are joined to rays and lights to lights, the spirit of the one is joined to the spirit of the other and fixeth its sparks” (Agrippa, C. H., Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. L. W. de Laurence; POI:38, p. 154-155.) The later episode of the “toad sorcerer” supports her assertion (Bennett, F., “Othering Gaze or Fascinating Rays? The Politics of Ocular Arousal in the Discus Declarations, in Living Blood from Lifeless Ashes: Essays in Response to Vladimir Wimpleton’s Discus Demon; OI:5, p. 171-191). The phenomenologist of religion Roland Pycelle, however, sees a link with Rudolf Otto’s definition of the Numinous as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (Pycelle, R., “Scrabbling After the Sacred: Eliade and Otto in the Horizonal Collapse of the Discus Declarations, in Ibid; p. 430-482.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Argument From Victory: Part One, An Unquiet Tomb

Each post in this series of essays on the Argument from Victory will be structured in the same way. I will began with a Curious Case, a historical episode that will lead us down a garden path: some facts and stories that I find interesting, retold in a pleasing way. This will be followed by some Speculative Reflection, in which I draw out some possible conclusions that the story might carry for my main theme. 

Please feel free to disagree, and tell me so. But without anything further in the way of preface, here is our first

Curious Case

The year is 812; the season is autumn—achingly beautiful in this part of the world—and beneath the sombre gold gleam of the Church of the Holy Apostles—final resting place of Emperor Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, God's Regent on Earth, founder of the five hundred year old Christian Roman Empire—an unseemly commotion has erupted. The Patriarch Nikephoros, the Empire's chief intercessor with the divine realm, is performing a service of intercession on behalf of the Balkan city of Mesembria, now besieged by an invading Bulgar horde under the command of the man the Byzantines fear most: Krum. 

Krum the Horrible, great Khan of the heathen Bulgar nation, has screamed across the Christian Roman Empire like the hot summer wind that sweeps the steppe that bore him. This "New Sennacherib" has brought degradation and destruction to the New Jerusalem: Constantinople—chief city of Christendom, citadel of Orthodoxy and true heir to the Empire of Constantine—steward to the legacies of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. Since Krum's accession in 803, this swaggering pagan, this unrepentant polygamist, this barbarian poltroon, has smashed every Christian army sent against him. And now he has inflicted the ultimate humiliation: ambushing the Roman emperor Nikephoros (so cruelly named—it means "bringer of victory") in a mountain pass, Krum has annihilated the imperial army almost to a man. Worse, the emperor himself was killed in the fighting. Beheaded, bisected, and gilded in silver, his skull now cups Krum's wine as he feasts with his ululating concubines. 

This horrifying catastrophe is the climax to nearly four decades of misfortune and defeat at the hands of the Empire's heathen enemies.  It can herald only one thing: the Empire has lost God's favor, and must soon be destroyed. How have God's chosen people fallen so far?

The trouble began with a woman. Irene Sarantapechaina, orphan daughter to a powerful Athenian family, seemed the perfect bride for the young Leo IV.  Irene was not just well born, she was one of the most brilliant and beautiful women the Empire had ever seen. The young Leo would need wise counsel in the years ahead. Already co-emperor with his father Constantine V at the time of his marriage, Leo inherited both the name and the legacy of his grandfather Leo III, who founded the Isaurian dynasty, a lineage that crowned the Christian Roman Empire with honor, glory, riches, and above all, victory. Leo was universally expected to continue his grandfather's work: rolling back the frontiers of Islam in the East, and reclaiming the ancient possessions of the Christian Roman Empire in the West. In December of 769, as the imperial wedding flooded the capital with glamour, glitter, and gold, it did not seem too much to hope that the Empire might reclaim the ancient borders of Constantine for Orthodoxy—stretching once again from the Atlantic to the Euphrates and the Red Sea.

Alas, Irene had not the wisdom to see her place. More clever, more hard working, more ambitious and more duplicitous than her short-lived husband Leo IV and her weak-willed son Constantine VI, Irene soon ruled Constantinople in all but name, and finally in name as well. In 797 Irene rid herself of her useless son—who had grown petulant beneath her domination—by having him blinded in the palace chamber where she had given him birth twenty-six years before. Constantine died of his wounds soon afterwards, and Irene took power in her own name, styling herself both Basileus and Basilissa. Heaven itself recoiled in horror from Irene's crime, shrouding the land in seventeen days of darkness and eclipse, but the mad queen took no heed. With Constantine dead, Irene was at liberty to finish destroying the work of his great-grandfather: Iconoclasm. 

Leo III, "Leo the Isaurian", had come to power in 717, during a crisis as great as the one Constantinople faces now. A lowborn soldier hailing from the Empire's Turkish border with the Umayyad Caliphate, Leo seized power even as a huge Muslim fleet prepared to besiege the walls of Constantinople. After destroying the Arab fleet with Greek Fire, Leo brokered a deal—ironically enough—with the new Bulgarian tribes, who swept down from the Danube and annihilated the Arab army besieging the land walls. Still, as the infidels retreated in tatters and Leo assumed the throne in triumph as the new savior of Christendom, he knew better than to believe that victory had been secured by the traditional Byzantine weapons of Greek Fire and clever diplomacy. Leo had a new weapon, something the Empire had not seen during the hundred years of its previous decline: Orthodoxy. 

Where the pagan Roman Empire had believed that military victory was the gift of Orthopraxy—the pax deorum—peace of the gods—something guaranteed by regular prayer, sacrifice, libation and dedication, the Christian Roman Empire knew better. There was only one God in heaven, and He desired one thing above all else: that His Triune nature be properly known and worshipped. Only a right-believing Empire would enjoy the benefits of God's favor in victory over her myriad temporal enemies. 

Leo grew up on the border with the Islamic enemy, an enemy that had steadily stripped the Christian Roman Empire of her possessions in Egypt, North Africa, and the Holy Land.  And Leo had come to believe, like many other Christians living in or near the Arab realms, that God was sending the Greeks a message by favoring the Arabs in battle. Though they denied the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Arabs were conspicuously free of a practice that had come to saturate the lives of their Christian enemies: the veneration of icons. Painted on wood or formed in mosaic, these images of Christ and His company of angels, saints, and martyrs could be found in every church, every monastery, every home. Ordinary people bowed before them in veneration (or was it worship?) begging the images to intercede with God on their behalf—granting them life, health, and happiness. Emperors and generals carried them on their standards into battle, promising great building projects and displays of veneration should the mute image bring them victory. 

Leo knew the truth. The veneration of icons was a violation of the second Commandment: 

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me"

God had raised up the Muslims as a warning and a punishment for Christian sinners. Deniers of Christ they might be, but the Umayyads—and the Jews who flourished under their mild rule—could not be accused of idolatry. Even the making of figural images was not tolerated among them (at least in an explicitly religious context). Within ten years of his accession, gradually at first but then with ruthless and accelerating force, Leo made clear his decision to cleanse the Christian Roman Empire of its idolatrous taint and return it to the Orthodox path, the righteous path, the path of victory. The icons were burned, smashed, smeared and broken—their supporters murdered, jailed, or humiliated. 

And as Leo's program spread throughout his domains, first during his own reign and then during the reign of his tireless son, Constantine V, the Christian Roman Empire was indeed crowned with victory. The Muslim armies were smashed again and again, at Akroinon, in Cyprus and in Syria, and the Empire steadily regained the territory it had lost in the reign of Heraklius a hundred years before. By 750 the Umayyad Caliphate had collapsed entirely: a victim of its own internal quarrels, exacerbated by a record of defeat at Byzantine hands. 

And yet, despite all the evidence of divine favor for Iconoclasm and its champions, from the moment of her husband's death Irene had sought to destroy the legacy  of Leo and Constantine. Weak. Irene was devoted to the veneration of icons, and had never made a secret of her sympathy to the Iconodule cause. (And now perhaps, she was eager to find new allies among Iconodules excluded or disgraced by their beliefs—at a time when her brothers in law and the Iconoclastic court viewed her regency with suspicion and hostility). In her first ascendency, Irene had called a new Ecumenical Council in 787 to reverse the results of a synod convened by her father in law, which condemned the veneration of icons. Now, ten years later, after a brief attempt to oust his mother and rule in his own right, Constantine VI was dead, and the Iconoclastic dynasty was dead with him. Irene had a free hand.

As Irene consolidated her power, God made his displeasure clear. In the east, the extraordinary warrior-poet Harun al-Rashid, leader of a vigorous young Abbasid Caliphate, brought death and defeat to Byzantine Armenia and Anatolia, riding from his new capital of Baghdad. In the West, the Carolingian Dynasty, in an unholy allegiance with the papacy of Old Rome, destroyed the last hopes of a reunited Roman Empire. On Christmas Day, 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans, shattering the unity of Constantine's empire forever. And at this point Irene went too far: she entertained an offer of marriage from this illiterate Frankish upstart. This was too much even for Irene's court of Iconodule sycophants, and she was packed off to a monastery, being replaced by her own finance minister: Nikephoros. But Nikephoros had remained an Iconodule, and the Empire had continued down the road to defeat and disaster, until at last it has come to this: the emperor dead, the army defeated, and the Bulgars battering the breast of the Byzantine heartland. The Patriarch's service of intercession will be of no use: Mesembria will fall, and its inhabitants be murdered or carried off to servitude. Within months, Krum will be parading beneath the land walls of Constantinople. 

And so, at this moment, as the Patriarch intones at the head of the congregation in the Church of the Holy Apostles, an unseemly commotion breaks out. In a darkened corner of the church lies the great marble sarcophagus of Constantine V: the champion of Iconoclasm, the victor of Cyprus and Syria. Suddenly, a beseeching wail rises from a small group that has gathered around the coffin, drowning out the liturgical drone of the Iconodule Patriarch. A mob of citizens and veterans implores the dead victor, beating at their breasts and clasping at the cold green marble, begging Constantine to burst from his tomb and lead the Empire to victory once again. 

And so, in his way, he will. Within two years power will be seized by another Leo, Leo V, "The Armenian", like Leo III a soldier from the eastern provinces, and sympathetic to Iconoclasm. The Patriarch Nikephoros will be deposed, the Icons will be banished from Constantinople once again, and Leo will win signal victories against the Arabs and the Bulgars, driving them back from the walls of the New Jerusalem and bringing the Empire back into the light of God's favor. 

Leo and his successors will demonstrate that right-thinking, Orthodoxy—and Orthodoxy alone—is the true Nikephoros, the Victory-Bringer. 

Or at least they will until the reign of Theophilos (829-842), when the Abassid Caliphate will recover from the period of civil strife that crippled it after the death of Harun al-Rashid, and, under the powerful Caliph al-Mu'tasim, inflict a series of terrible defeats on the Christian Roman Empire. This will be the signal for the fourth and final revolution in the wheel of Icons, as the widow of Theophilos—Theodora—will restore their veneration once and for all. Poor Constantine V. The new Iconodules, perhaps fearing that he might play a role in a fifth turn of the wheel, will desecrate his sarcophagus: breaking the brilliant green marble into slabs and sending them to buttress the palace of the new Iconodule Empress. Iconoclasm will destroyed, never to rise again.

 Unless of course, you decided to view the Protestant Reformation as the heir of Iconoclasm. Perhaps the now-itinerant spirit of Constantine V smiled over the shoulder of Martin Luther—even as the Empire he had once ruled fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Some Speculative Reflection

It would be easy to dismiss this little-known historical episode as a superstitious aberration—part of the general hiccup in human progress and reason that accounts for the Middle Ages in general. We of course live in the age inaugurated by the European Enlightenment and by Napoleon, who famously said that "God is on the side with the best artillery." The age when people thought that victory was guaranteed by right-thinking—by Orthodoxy—and that victory itself was a sign of Orthodoxy, seems very far away indeed. We know that the changing fortunes of Constantinople are to be accounted for by the waxing and waning power of the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Islamic Caliphate: the product of internal politicking and economic fluctuations in Pliska, Baghdad and Damascus. 

Orthodoxy had nothing to do with it.

But in this series of posts, I'd like to argue that this is not actually true. If we strip away the secularizing accretions and rationalizing justifications, I believe that we will find much the same pattern at work in the modern world, the epoch inaugurated by the philosophes and by Napoleon: the Age of Ideology. The tune may have been transposed into a secular key, but the expectations are the same: The proof of an Orthodoxy is its status as a Nikephoros, a Victory-Bringer. The seesawing prospects of Capitalism, Communism, Fascism (and every ideology in-between) have been subject to the same argument that ruled the changing fortunes of Iconoclasm: the Argument from Victory

Were the Russian visitors who filed past Lenin's tomb in the autumn of 1998—as the ruble cratered and the Russian economy reeled under the impact of Capitalist shock therapy—really so different from the little band of venerators who beseeched the tomb of Constantine in the autumn of 812? 

Somehow I think not.