Sunday, May 1, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World, Part 4

"Cowgirl" is an attitude, really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands; they speak up. They defend things they hold dear. --Dale Evans
Perfection. The workers' paradise. Full prosperity. The New Jerusalem. Total well-being. Perfect health. Infinite wealth. Perpetual youth. Joy. In return for obedience, all these were promised--and still are--by the Masters of the 3Cs. Tomorrow.

It was never today, of course. The perfection promised by the Masters of communism, capitalism, and Christianity was always what Thomas Merton called the "proximate utopia," the earthly paradise just over the next hill, just around the next bend. A lovely place, this brand of utopia, where, as Merton puts it, "the last sins are currently being eliminated and when, tomorrow, there will be no more sins because all the sinners will have been wiped out." Once the authorities had managed to get a few hooligans and malcontents out of the way, once those sodomites had been sent to hell, once those lazy, stupid poor people dragging the rest of us down were kicked off welfare and forced to get jobs at Burger King, we, the Sons of Light, would get our just reward. It was all carefully calculated, prophesied, predestined, dialectically synthesized, Ayn Rand approved. It was inevitable. It was only a matter of time. And the time was always Tomorrow.

The final page of Kartinniy Slovar' Russkovo Jazyka, a children's primer, Moscow, 1950

Tomorrow. Soon. Someday. Never today. Today was for diligence, and obedience, and everyone wearing the same hair style, the same height of skirt, the same col- lar on the same shirt, going to the same church, the same job, the same role, thinking the same thoughts. It was the world I and my fellow elders grew up in, raised children in. And it wasn't exactly the nightmare you read about in 1984 or A Wrinkle in Time. Think Ward and June Cleaver, Dagwood and Blondie, the kids in Peanuts all fed, clothed, and sheltered by grown-ups who were never seen. . . . 

No, it wasn't that bad. Not for most people.

But it was what life was like in, say, 1965, and yes it was boring, and uncreative, and limiting, and people died in pointless wars, and people were thrown in jail or killed for their beliefs, and people who didn't conform because they couldn't were blamed for their "failure" anyway and thrown into various dark corners. And not just the poor, or the malcontents, or people with too much melanin. The average life-expectancy for a person with Down Syndrome in 1965 was 2 years. They could have lived much longer (as they do today), but they were shuffled off to those dark corners . . . and those corners were very dark indeed. But the vast majority of their fellow citizens never knew. They were the lucky ones. They were normal.


Normalcy. The ultimate drug, and everyone wanted it. Don't you? Think cozy living rooms and sunny Sunday mornings and watching parades go by. Think of Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy and Bob Hope and Dutch Reagan and his good buddies Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Then don't think about Angel Unaware, the book Dale Evans wrote about her child with Down Syndrome, a child that she and Roy arranged to live in a corner that didn't seem dark until you looked closely. Robin Elizabeth Rodgers died just before her second birthday, and Dale never told us why.

You won't find a copy of Angel Unaware in my home town. Not in the libraries, anyway. Mom didn't have the option Dale Evans had, of being wealthy and well-connected enough to hire a nanny to care for her Down Syndrome baby. Nor did she have the option of building a separate dwelling for the child to keep her away from her other children as Dale did, supposedly under doctors' orders. (The other children might have been "disturbed" by contact with such an odd duck, you see, so Dale didn't let them have any.) 

And Mom certainly lacked the arrogant gall to write a book about her daughter from the child's point of view, and in a sickeningly sweet, pseudo-inspirational baby-voice that in comparison makes Rainbow Brite sound like Vlad the Impaler. No, you won't find a copy of Angel Unaware in my hometown. Mom tracked them all down and burned them. Blame it on her German ancestry, if you will. Or maybe Mom was just being a good cowgirl.

We're told Dale's baby "died of complications from Down Syndrome." My sister also tried to die when she was two. She tried to die when she was twenty. In fact, she tried to die just a couple of weeks ago. But she didn't. And not because of luck, or because of angels, or because "The Bible Tells Me So." (One of Dale's most popular songs--I used to sing it in Sunday-school.) Dale's gone to her grave now, and her husband Roy, and their good buddy Ronald Reagan, along with plenty of other famous rich people. But I wonder about Robin Elizabeth Rodgers, and where her grave is, and if anyone ever visits it.

The young women who grew up in the world of the Masters should have turned out as self-satisfied, narrow-minded and mindless as Dale Evans. That a signifi- cant portion of them did not must mean that something happened to them during that time of life when the mind is most open to influences outside the family: adolescence. The mothers who raised the current crop of under-30s reached this time of life during the 1960s, the decade so often called "tumultuous" by those who either weren't there or have something to sell. To hear pop-sociologists tell the tale, something about the time period itself got into the youth of those days like a virus or an evil spirit or a drug, something coming out of the radio or the TV or the movies or the akasha, something their parents couldn't control and that had even the Masters scrambling, something their dialectics and market analyses and ancient prophesies had failed to account for. What mysterious essence came oozing out of the ether and turned the docile young ladies of the 60s into the mothers of the Obama Generation? And what does this have to do with the four men who will save the world?

to be continued

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World, Part 3

The 1950s have a reputation for being a decade of conformity, but it may be difficult for people in the 21st century to realize just how stultifying 50s America (and, I suspect, 50s Earth in general) could be. It was an era in which the entire planet was ruled by what we may call the 3Cs--capitalism, communism, and Christi- anity. Yes, there were other ideologies in existence: a few hundred million Hindus, a few hundred million Moslems, the growing Black Liberation movements in Africa and the US, the tiny but influential Beats. But the hegemony of those who had authority within each of the Cs--let us call them "the Masters"--was overwhelming to the point of being nearly absolute.



Communist authoritarian- ism is well-known and justly despised, but the authoritarianism of the other 2 Cs was every bit as oppressive. Perhaps more so, as their Masters had had more practice. To give a minor example from personal experience: when my father was an undergrad in the early 50s he was forbidden to take a copy of Das Kapital out of the university library--despite being a sociology major. He was also required to swear to the infamous Truman loyalty oath, but the professor who was supposed to administer it refused to do so and dad--who found the oath repugnant and didn't want to swear to it--ended up never taking it.(Many who refused were branded communists and had their careers ruined.) Dad was no martyr for the cause of liberty and didn't see himself as such, but if you multiply these insults be a hundred million or so you get a society no much freer (though much more prosperous) than your typical police state. And that's what Eisenhauer's America was, as the overthrow of Mossadegh, the rise of Nixon, the terror of McCarthy, and the murder of Lumumba should make clear.

On a less personal level, anyone familiar with the history of American cin- ema knows the role played by the Hayes Office and the Legion of Decency, and the stranglehold they had on American popular culture. And then there's the role that both capital- ism and the Southern Baptist Convention played in promoting racism . . . and still play, if the move- ment to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest (co- founder of the KKK) is any indication. I could go on at length here (though Lies My Teacher Told Me goes on longer, and better), but regardless, there's plenty of documentation available to show that by 1965 the Masters of the 3Cs had most of the planet firmly in their grip, with a chilling effect (to put it mildly) on global culture. And that the Masters were no more inclined to loosen that grip than are the current regimes in China, Singapore, Missisippi, the Vatican, or Wall Street.

That said, it's important to realize that the vast majority of those laboring for the Masters were perfectly happy to do so. They didn't consciously think of them- selves as oppressed, and I'm guessing most of them still don't. I don't think this bland acceptance can be chalked up entirely to propaganda, brain-washing, or any of the usual ways many of us explain the hold an ideology other than our own may have on its believers. I don't think people are quite as naive, gullible, or stu- pid as they sometimes seem, any more than I believe bigots are simply irrational and have no descernable reasons for their delusions--or that all humans are Fundamentally Bad. I do think, however, that many people are easily bought--especially if they don't realize they're being bought.


So how do the Masters retain their hold over their followers? It is their ability to appeal to certain emotional needs that all humans have, through another 3Cs--a program we may call "contentment through conformity and continence." Each ideology bought off its believers and stifled potential dissent by promising those under its control lives of mild, moderate happiness, of simple pleasures and more- or-less fulfilled expectations (assuming the expectation weren't too high). A dacha on the Black Sea and a Lenin medal on your chest . . . a vacation in the Bahamas and a house in the burbs . . . coffee and donuts in a cozy church basement and a promise of reuniting with loved ones in the afterlife . . . these pleasant satisfac- tions could come to anyone willing to conform to the dictates of authority and contain their passions within certain acceptable bounds. (Acceptable to the Masters, that is.) And why not? You've gotta pay the piper, true? Don't we all have to earn our pleasures? It's not as if the universe handed them out on a silver platter. Arbeit mach frei--jah?


And if the dacha was a bit shabby? The vacation a wee bit boring? The love of Jesus something less than all-consuming? At least it was better than what THEY got. You know: the sinners. The counter-revolutionaries. The lazy, the stupid, the poor. The losers.

And anything is better than being a loser. Anything is better than being left out. Anything is better than being alone.

Needless to say (in the 21st century), the Masters paid for their power, and their servants for their servitude. And the price was, and is, survivor guilt.

Yet as Stewart Smalley might say, "But that's . . . OK." For to sweeten the pot, and to make that guilt a bit more palatable, the Masters promised their servants some- thing else. Something more. Something that, for a brief moment, actually was delivered. . . .

But not by the Masters. Not by Marx, nor by Jesus, nor by Adam Smith. It was delivered instead by the four men who will save the world.

to be continued

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World, Part 2

Let's examine the assertion of American conservatives that hetero pair-bonding is the "foundation of society." Plenty of philosophers have searched for the rela- tion(s) that society is "based on"--K'ung Tzu (aka Confucius) comes immediately to mind--but from a scientific standpoint, the idea that all human relations are dependent on marriage is patently ridiculous.

Swedish Semites by Luca della Robbia, Florence, c. 1455
As a quick illustration, con- template for a moment the history of European visual art. For every one depiction of Mary and Joseph there's probably a hundred of Mary and Jesus--as an infant. Virgin and Child is (I'm guessing) the most all-time popular motif in European art, and not just because Europe has been solidly Christian for the past thousand years. It would seem the ancients knew what some who claim to follow them today have chosen to for- get: the most important relationship in human existence is the physical and emotional bond between a child and his or her primary caregiver. It is this relationship, especially as it plays out during the first 3 to 5 years of the child's life, that lays the emotional foundation for everything that the child will do and think and feel for the rest of her days. It's not the emotions themselves that come into being at this time--the brain takes care of that by itself--but the way the child will process emotions--the emotional coping style--that is established within this crucial time period.

An emotional coping style is made up of a person's habitual responses to anything that triggers emotion: novel stimuli, relationships with others, and especially stress. If a young child experiences love, trust, security, and empathy within the caregiver bond, she will carry those feelings into every subsequent relationship; she will respond adaptively to novelty; and she will tolerate a fair amount of phys- ical and emotional stress. If, on the other hand, the child experiences anger, randomness, fear, and cold-heartedness within her primary bond, these experi- ences will damage her ability to relate to others in every area of life from the boardroom to the bedroom--and the nursery. She will be mistrustful of novel stimuli (since the changes she's already experienced are likely to have been painful), and will be easily knocked off her equilibrium by stress.

Sai//gai and son =Toma, c. 1965
The emotional coping style is not a series of conscious choices. Infants and young children do not chose to throw tantrums, suck their thumbs, play with their own feces out of boredom, or shriek whenever they're put to bed. Nor do they chose to become the kind of people who, later in their lives, will take drugs, have too many babies, drive Hummers, or commit mass murder. There is a robust correlation between the emotional coping style that a child develops in the first 5 years of life and how that child will behave as an adult. That is: there are direct causal connec- tions between how we rear our children, the kinds of people they become, and the type of society they create. If you want a stable, humane, and honorable society, your first order of business is to raise happy children. The Bushmn did it for 100,000 years. It's time the rest of us to get on board.

So why haven't we? Because we as a society are still used to the notion that "some people are just born bad," or even "all people are born bad." You might call it the doctrine of Fundamental Badness (FB). Its the deep-seated belief that to be born human is to be born, somehow, BAD--and that this badness is so deeply ingrained that it can never be rooted out or overcome. To put it simply, current global culture is in despair over the future of the human race, because it sees H. sapiens  as being unworthy to have a future. You've heard the public laments: "WE are ruining the planet" or "WE are disrupting the climate," or even "Nature would be better off without us." Politics has little to do with it. Liberals believe "we" are "naturally exploitive"' and (eagerly) await the breakdown of civilization; nothing will happen to them--they'll just grow their own granola. Conservatives think "God is angry with us sinners" and (eagerly) await Apocalypse; nothing will happen to them--they're morally superior. They hate queers, don't they?

But in the words of the old joke, "Who you mean WE, paleface?" There's not a shred of scientific evidence that humans are born with a propensity to wage war, commit rape, over-exploit resources, or murder our children. All of these evils are learned behaviors, no more innate than is a knowledge of trigonometry; they are far less innate than is a taste for mango-habanero sauce or a preference for the color green. There's not much I can do about global warming or legalizing same- sex marriage, but there's plenty the Koch brothers can do--and don't. People who voted for George W knew he didn't give a damn about the climate and voted for him anyway--I voted for Gore. And I'm not taking a bum rap just because I happen to belong to the same species as Adolf Hitler--I also belong to the species that gave the universe Aung San Suu Kyi, Harriet Tubman, and the Dalai Lama.

No matter that all the evidence indicates that it is a corrupted childhood--not a corrupted "soul," whatever that is--that is the source of "evil," broadly conceived. No matter that for 99% of our history as a species we lived almost exactly like the Bushmn, who have no history of war, rape, environmental degradation, or child maltreatment. Not matter that we now know enough about the developing brain to observe the effects of different child-rearing strategies. No matter that the international scientific community has spoken out on the origins of war--certainly the ultimate "evil"-- and has concluded that war begins in nurture, not nature. No matter: the "doctrine" of Fundamental Badness is so deeply ingrained in western culture that it's hard to find someone who doesn't believe in it. (Although actually it isn't: the Dalai Lama is one who doesn't. But he's not a Man of the West.)

The one we read in high school.
The idea that we humans are somehow "bad" in our essence, souls, genome, or what have you, is the most irrational, pernicious, and inhumane notion anyone can hold. And yet people can be quite shocked when you contradict it. I remember reading Lord of the Flies in high-school and vigorously arguing with my teacher that the novel was flawed because of its central premise:
Fancy thinking the Beast was some- thing you could hunt or kill! You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you? I'm the reason why it's no go? My poor, mis- guided child, do you think you know any better than I do?
And Simon the visionary looks on "with the infinite cynicism of adult life." Infinite? William Golding got a Nobel Prize for this well-written piece of trash, so beloved of English teachers and the pseudo-learned. Even the Funny Times quotes Golding in their "Curmudgeon" column: "Man produces evil as bees produce honey." Though to give them credit they also quote A. A. Milne: "No doubt Jack the Ripper excused himself on the grounds that it was human nature." I think it's time to stop making excuses for despair.

*   *   *

The difference in attitudes toward same-sex marriage that we observe in the mem- bers of the over-50 and under-30 generations are best explained by differences in the way the generations were raised. The old folk (like me) were raised with a certain level of fear, mistrust, and anger, so that when confronted by anything "abnormal" they respond with these emotions. The youth, on the other hand, do not respond to the "abnormal" in this way because they were raised without the same level of fear, mistrust, or anger. If we can identify just how the under-30s were raised, and what made their childhoods different from those that came before them, we may be able to create future generations of  people who don't reflexively buy into the malarky of Fundamental Badness the way the over-50s do. And once people have gotten FB out of their way, they will be free(er) to be more caring, tolerant, compassionate individuals, and thus--eventually--to create a better society and a better world. That IS what we all want, isn't it? Those of us who aren't Tea Partiers, that is.

So who raised the current generation of under-30s? What made their parenting style so different? To be under 30 in the year 2011 means to be born after 1980. Assuming the parents of this age-cohort were between 20 and 35 years old when their offspring were born, this means the parents we are interested in were born between about 1945 and 1960. Seeing that the vast majority of child-rearing in all known human societies is done by women, we may simplify matters here and ignore males, and instead concentrate on women who are now in their 50s and 60s. What made these women so special? What made them different from their mothers?

For the fact is, they shouldn't have been. Almost all the significant advances in our understanding of child development were made after these women had already matured. And, as the followings of James Dobson and John Rosemond attest, scientific discoveries in this field have been slow to penetrate into the general population: anti-attachment child-rearing is still gospel among many who know nothing of those discoveries and don't care to. Given all of this, the special women we are concerned with here should have been carbon-copies of the women who raised them. Instead, they became something subtly, profoundly different--and not because of anything scientists told them. Nor was it thanks to artists, or writers, or even the Bushmn--it was the doing of those four men who will save the world. . . .

to be continued

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World (Part 1)

Whenever I despair over the state of the planet Earth, I recall that I am old and dying, and that this is a very good thing.

No, I don't mean that I look forward to death as an escape from the disappearance of Bangladesh, the desertification of Beijing, the nuking of Jerusalem, or the inauguration of President Gingrich. Rather, I figure that if I am dying, so are my age-mates. And not a moment too soon.

The Tunguska Impactor didn't kill anyone--or threaten to.

Here's a key statistic: most Americans over the age of 50 are opposed to legal- izing same-sex marriage, whereas most of those under the age of 30 are in favor. This simple factoid reveals something very profound about America, about its future, and about the future of the species. For I believe that an indi- vidual's attitudes toward homosexuality hint at that individual's basic attitudes toward a broad range of issues--issues that must be confronted, attitudes that will make or break the civilization of the 21st century.

From a strictly legal standpoint, gay marriage is a no-brainer. The 14th Amend- ment to the US Constitution clearly and firmly guarantees equal protection under the law, and that equality cannot be denied without due process. A century's worth of Supreme Court decisions have established that dividing people into categories and treating the members of each category differently--that is, creating "differen- tial standards of treatment"--is only permitted within narrowly defined limits. In par- ticular, a differential standard must serve a definite and necessary social purpose, and it must not be "arbitrary and capricious."

The legal drinking age is a good example of a properly established differential standard. Setting the legal minimum for consumption of alcohol at 21 means that all human beings are divided into two categories (those above and those below the limit) and that members of one category are treated differently from those of the other (those above 21 may drink legally, those below may not). Twenty-one is certainly an arbitrary number---it could as easily be 20, or 37---but it is not capri- cious, because society has a clearly rational need to discourage people from drinking before their brains have finished maturing. The boundary has to be set somewhere, and 21 is a traditional and convenient number. (Teenagers may disagree, whereas on scientific grounds the legal age should be 25.)

Yes, this law is frequently broken--but that does not make it irrational. Law is not just about coercion or punishment: law also serves to embody society's values: in this case the value that society places on the health of its young people. Society can't hold anyone to a standard unless that standard is set up somewhere where people can see it, and in America that somewhere is the law.

Barack Obama is personally opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Yet he's also a scholar of constitutional law--it's what he taught at the University of Chicago--and he has instructed the Justice Department not to defend DOMA, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" forced through Congress by Newt Gingrich, and which forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Obama knows that DOMA won't hold up in the courts, and he sensibly wishes to save the taxpayers time and money be refusing to defend an indefensible law.

Social conservatives such as the members of the Tea Party claim they wish to "restore the Constitution" and to "return to the values of the Founding Fathers." So why do they continue to oppose same-sex marriage? Their arguments amount to calling for a differential standard of treatment under the 14th Amendment. Mind you, those in favor of same-sex marriage need prove nothing--the onus is entirely on the tea-baggers and their ilk. To succeed in court they must prove that such a differential--treating homosexuals as different from and inferior to hets--is neces- sary to the proper functioning of society in the same way that setting the minimum drinking age at 21 is necessary. And they must also prove that such a standard is neither arbitrary (what about bisexuals? transgendered people? masturbators?) nor capricious (i.e., based on personal prejudices).

What kids really need--tiger moms take note.
Yet the anti-gay-marriage forces can mus- ter no such arguments. In fact, they don't even try. Instead, they focus entirely on gay sexuality per se, as if sex were all that gay people did, leaving them no time to raise families, care for sick partners, join the army, or any other myriad other things my gay friends, neighbors, and co-workers do. By claiming gay sex is wrong conserva- tives claim that gay marriage is wrong, as if sex and marriage were the same thing--which, in the eyes of the law, they are not. (The eyes of various churches are another matter.) When not claiming that the Bible forbids gay sex (which it does not, and I can prove it), social conservatives claim it's "unnatural" (so is underwear--do you see any other animal wearing any?), or that "the union of a man and a woman is the foundation of society" (which it certainly isn't, and here's a summary of the evidence). These three claims--from the Bible, from nature, and from social structure--simply don't hold water legally, logically, or morally. So why do so many of my fellow elders continue to make them?

When people are being grossly illogical there's usually a perfectly logical reason for it. That reason is emotion. Emotions don't just pop up at random: they are caused by certain experiences. Experiences that link regularly to emotions are commonly called "triggers"; when someone has a powerful emotional reaction to a seemingly innocuous trigger, we suspect an illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes the relation between trigger and emotion is evident--a smiling baby makes us happy, a Simpson's rerun makes us laugh, the brilliant acting talent of Rondo Hatton inspires a feeling of awe.

But the relation of trigger to response can also be buried in the unconscious, and here is where things can get tricky. And dangerous--it can be all too easy to blame the trigger for the severity of the response. We've all heard of cases in which a war veteran cannot tolerate exploding fireworks because they remind him (or her) of bombs. However, I know of no veterans who consciously think fireworks are bombs, or who think that July 4th celebrations are sponsored by Al Qaeda. A diagnosis of PTSD, oddly enough, may help protect the veteran from making the mistake that conservatives make in reacting to homosexuality--reading into the trigger stimulus something that isn't there.

No gay person I've ever met is any more dangerous, offensive, immoral, or annoy- ing than any straight person I've known, and I have no reason to believe my ex- periences with human beings are fundamentally different from those of most people. If the majority of my conservative age-mates find gay people more dan- gerous, offensive, immoral, or annoying than they find straights, I am forced to conclude that my age-mates are reacting to a trigger in much the same way that veterans with PTSD may react to loud noises. That is: by venting their spleens at queers, they reveal themselves to be reacting to something not in their triggers, but in themselves. Like shell-shocked veterans they have a mental disorder: one captured as well as may be by the term "homophobia."

If homophobia were merely a garden-variety irrational fear like arachnophobia or claustrophobia, we as a society might sympathize with it or offer its sufferers some kind of thearpy. But since homophobia is a fear of a particular kind of people, it is potentially damaging to those who are feared (because they are likely to be targets of violence--think Matthew Shepard), and thus damaging to the society of which they are members. And it seems that, like PTSD, homophobia is positively correlated with a wide variety of other anti-social behaviors, so that a homophobe is likely to be several other brands of bigot

Chicxulub--Yucatec Maya for, "Bye-bye dinosaurs."
The tendency of illnesses to appear together--e.g., PTSD and alcoholism--is called "co-morbidity." Co-morbidity explains why the same people who would make the lives of gay people miserable would also do nothing about global warming (or make it worse); would interfere with women's ability to control their own bodies; would sabotage Obama's presidency because he's smart, good-looking, and Black; would do nothing to rein-in the reign of the rich; would let the poor and downtrodden die painful, preventable deaths; and would cheat the rest of us out of our only opportunity to obtain health care. Homophobia, in other words, is co-morbid with racism, sexism, climate denial, class warfare, and mindless worship of the Invisible Hand. Homophobia is just one part of a complex of attitudes and behaviors--fears, resentments, greeds, hates-- that has made the Republican Party and its astroturf offshoot the greatest threat to the health and well-being of this planet since the Chicxulub Impactor.

And the GOP's core constituency is old people. My age-mates are trying to kill the planet. And they're succeeding.

But the youngsters . . . there's more to being a progressive than being in favor of same-sex marriage, and I daresay the under 30s have their fair share of fears, resentments, greeds, and hates. Yet from my observations I would say that those in favor of same-sex marriage are also more likely to want us to get below 350 ppm, to advocate for the rights of women, workers, minorities, the poor, and children, more likely just to be aware. They may not know just what actions to take, but they want to do something, and they care about the future. They are going to be living there, after all, as I and my fellow elders are not.

And so we return to this mother of all generation gaps, the profound differences in attitude and outlook between the over-50s and the under-30s, the gap I am sum- ming up in shorthand terms by dis/approval of same-sex marriage. Why the big diff? What can anyone do about it? Should anyone even bother?

And what does it have to do with the four men who will save the world?

to be continued

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Request to the Reader, or, The Ghost of Humphrey Bogart

#18 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

Help!

As of this writing I've completed 17 blogs on the subject of sex in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I've had a blast writing them, and from what I'm hearing on the cyber-street at least a few people have been having fun reading them. But now I'm stuck. Try as I might, I can't get a handle on what to write next about everyone's fun couple, Galadriel and Gimli. And I don't think it's writer's block. It's something more . . . sinister.

Part of the joy of writing is that you're constantly discovering things. Your readers, your material, your own subconscious: they're all a strange far country seen in the distance, and you really want to get there. And to get there you have to stretch yourself, poke at the boundaries hemming your life in, crawl under the fence and run around in MacGregor's garden chomping carrots. To write today, you have to be someone slightly different from who you were yesterday--someone more. The "more" is hard to categorize, but it's there. Maybe it's more intelligent, more obser- vant, more creative . . . it doesn't matter. What matters is the far country. But it's hard to get to.

Which is why it's come to this. Simply stated, I'm out of my league. I suppose I know as much about sex as most mammals, and I also know (approximately) how to write about it in ways that respect its power without letting that power overwhelm reason and turn W2WW into just another porn-site. No, the naughty bits don't trouble me, and I hope they don't trouble you. What troubles me is the stuff that H. sapiens does that no other species can even imagine. Stuff I'm not sure I can imagine myself. Stuff I don't think I can write about. Stuff I don't think I want to. It's . .. ugh . . . dare I say it? . . . It's . . . romance.

I HATE ROMANCE! I can't stand the Valentine's Day bilge, the hearts and flowers, the soulful gazes and sundry symbolic gropings, the bridal registries and soft- focus photos and crappy poetry. And don't get me started on kissing! Whenever Aragorn and Arwen start pitching woo in Jackson's movies I just close my eyes, turn my head, and concentrate on parsing the Elvish. (David Salo's got 'em using too many datives for my taste. Liv Tyler does a fine job on the fricatives, though. But I digress.) Just thinking about the mushy stuff sets off a powerful knee-jerk reaction in my brain, a distaste bordering on revulsion.

I'm not quite sure why this is. I've got a long-standing debate about it going with an old buddy of mine. I say I have some kind of autism, some form of brain damage that prevents me from comprehending the subtleties of romantic expression. He says I just have an extremely low tolerance for bullshit. Maybe it's both. At any rate I have never married, never will, and don't understand why anyone bothers.

And how DARE anyone call all that romantic balderdash "love"?! I spent 33 years of my life watching my mother patiently slaughter herself taking care of my pro- foundly handicapped little sister. I saw her sacrifice friends, career, marriage, and finally her life for the sake of someone who couldn't so much as speak her name or say thank you. And mom though herself the luckiest human being on the planet for having such a person in her life. And she was. And so am I. THAT is what I dare to call "love." My little sis taught me everything I need to know or ever will on the subject. Lesser mortals have nothing to tell me.

Remember Wood Allen's Play It Again, Sam ? Lovelorn Woody-the-nebbish says to the ghost of Humphrey Bogart, "But all I want is a meaningful relationship!" To which Bogie replies--in words that should be carved on a mountain somewhere-- "Relationship?! What kinda woid is that? Sounds like something from one of your Madison Avenue shrinks." My sentiment exactly.

Hanta i Valar Galadriel and Gimli don't ever have a "relationship"! Yet they do have something. So what is it? What do I call it? How do I explain what I think Tolkien is trying to do? What IS the Master of Middle-earth spending so much time and effort trying to tell us? For it seems to me something is peeking out from behind the thicket of stately diction and sly innuendo, something that is more than sex, more than romance, but isn't "love" in either the hearts-and-flowers sense or the sense I'm used to. To me, love is a kind of work. Joyous work, yes, but still work. Yet to Tolkien it's almost as if "love" was a kind of poetry--an artform. Love as an artform? I'm truly out of my league here.

And so, as I sit in my office pouring over scripts from old Bogart and Bacall movies, I'm asking for your help. I'm not asking for clever ideas or brilliant insights--creativity is my responsibility here, one I took on when I first decided to enter the blogo- sphere. I guess I'm just looking for support. Maybe one of you have encountered a similar difficulty in navigating this aspect of reality and can let me know how you fared--and if it gets any better.

Because just seeking the far country is scary business, neighbors. I feel like a not-too-bright little kid walking down a dark alley and it's way past my bedtime. Any flashlights tossed my way will be more than welcome. And in the meantime I'll be trying to make sense of maps like this one:



Vivian (Lauren Bacall): Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is. What makes them run.


Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart): Find out mine?

to be continued

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Birthday, Lion-Man

A typical scene, somewhere in the wilds of Africa. After a bloody struggle, one of the mightiest predators ever to the walk the earth--a full-grown male lion--has brought down a zebra and hungrily torn it to shreds. Now we see him taking his ease, belly swollen with the 40 pounds of meat he can eat at one sitting. It is a scene that has been repeated countless times for millions of years, and perhaps will be for millions more.


Let us all hope so. For to most human beings, the lion IS Africa, the Africa still embedded in our own African genes. With his strength, his beauty, his regal mane, his thunderous roar, he is a summary and avatar of Nature itself, of the world outside our roads and billboards and slums and cement. Somehow we know the ferocious killer we see here is living the life he is meant for, and is in his own way as happy and contented as any living being should be. For he is free: he is himself, master of his own destiny, and beyond the reach of the heavy hand of Man. . . .


Hey, wait a minute--what's that old geezer doing there? Sitting on a tree branch ten feet from a wild lion, and . . . filling his pipe? He must be crazy! Doesn't he know smoking can kill him?

Perhaps the old geezer is a bit daft. He'd probably be the first to admit it. But then, this is no ordinary old geezer. This is George Adamson, the Lion-Man.

Today would have been Adamson's 105th birthday. This is within range of 108, the average number of days that a lion gestates in the womb. And if any man could have shared a womb with lions, it would have been George Adamson. No one before or since has ever had a more profound love of lions, or a more intimate understanding of them. Even George Schaller, perhaps the world's pre-eminent naturalist, and the man who wrote THE book on Panthera leo-- namely, The Serengeti Lion--relied on Adamson to tell him things about lions (such as how they smell, or how they call their cubs) that no scientist could get close enough to discover.

How close was Adamson to lions? Here is one of many possible examples, from his first autobiography, A Lifetime with Lions. He is speaking of three lions who had originally been kept in captivitiy, and whom he is rehabilitating to return to the wild:
Ugas soon found out that it was only necessary for him to rear up and lean on the wire with his great weight for it to sag and permit easy ac- cess into my compound. He availed himself of the knowledge on several occasions and spent nights in my tent, stretched out on the floor alongside my bed. Once Boy and Girl followed him and I had all three lions sleeping beside me. As there was nothing much I could do about it I let them be and followed their example. They were very well-behaved, at least by lion standards; that is to say I was permitted to sleep undisturbed, but lions are not particular about where they urinate. . . .
How many humans have ever awakened to the aroma of cold lion pee? And how many would have taken the opportunity (as Adamson does in the remainder of this paragraph) to use the experience to speculate on the evolutionary function of lion toilet habits? It was Adamson who discovered that lion urine is a natural insect repellent--a fact which the makers of DEET have been remarkably slow to exploit.


Adamson was born in India, the son of a British civil engineer, but moved to Africa as a child. In his youth he led the life of a typical White adventurer of the day: panning for gold, hiking across deserts, stumbling on ruins and ancient graves, and becoming intimate with peoples who to most outsiders are little more than legends: the regal Maasai, the courageous Boran, the kindly Elmolo. And of course, like all his contemporaries he did a lot of big-game hunting: in those days you could purchase an elephant-hunting license for a couple of week's wages, and you were perfectly free to sell the tusks.

But at some point Adamson had a revelation: "I realized," he wrote in A Lifetime with Lions, "that I enjoyed watching animals more than shooting them." As a result, he enlisted as a game warden in what was then one of the wildest places in the world: the Northern Frontier Province of Kenya. For decades he criss-crossed hundreds of thousands of square miles of mountains, forests, rivers, deserts, and plains, chasing poachers, bandits, rogue elephants, and an occasional madman or two. He was trampled, gored, bitten, stung, and came down with malaria (more than once). But it was while hunting down and killing a pair of man-eating lions--and almost getting killed in the process--that Adamson came upon the greatest love of his life. Her name was Elsa. . . .
   Elsa is the one lioness a significant portion of the human race knows by name. The star of Born Free, written by Adamson's wife Joy, Elsa has had a movie made about her life, a song inspirted by her, and--perhaps her most lasting honor--a change in public attitudes toward wild predators. Before Elsa came along, lions were seen as vicious, frightful killers, symbolic stand-ins for rapacious royal houses. Joy and George changed that view forever.
   Born Free went on to sell millions of copies and make Joy Adamson a literary star. Her husband's writings, however, are less well-known. Which is too bad. I've never encountered any works quite like My Pride and Joy, or A Lifetime With Lions, from which I quote:
One night I was woken by a yell from Joy. A lion had tried to enter her tent. A few nights later I heard them in front of my tent and looked out to see a young male reaching up the trunk of a tree and tearing a new canvas water bag which I had hung there to shreds. Next, there was a disturbance in the kitchen and by the light of a torch [flashlight] I saw a lioness going off with a large empty cardboard carton. Then there was the hyena who became the bane of my life . . .

 Adamson was not only a civil-servant/adventurer/animal rights advocate. He was also an excellent writer with a distinct and sometimes hilarious voice. You can easily imagine him sitting in some gentleman's club in a smoking jacket, snifter of brandy at his elbow, regaling his cronies with tales of improbable adventure in a stiff-upper-lip British grumble.
Every few nights the hyena would come into my tent and steal various items of food. Cheese and bacon were his favourites. When I locked these in an iron box he tried to go off with the box. He seemed to have an uncanny instinct for knowing when I was asleep. Among unopened cans of food he invariably chose Ideal Milk, which he would carry off a short distance, then pierce the cans with his teeth and suck the contents.
You can see a discrete smile play across his face as he pauses to relight his pipe. "Cheeky devil," he mutters, not without a touch of admiration.
Once he entered my men's tent and stole a pair of shorts, whether for personal adornment, in order to impress his fellow hyenas, or for consumption it is difficult to say. At length, in desperation, I set a rat trap baited with a piece of bacon. This gave him the surprise of his life and a sore nose, and it was a long time before I was molested again.
One wonders--briefly--how Adamson knew what was or was not surprising to a hyena. But it's a telling detail, and says much about the man, when you realize that Adamson could empathize with a wild and to most eyes rather ugly predator--even one who had the audacity to run off with a gentleman's shorts.
A week later Black Mane again started a fight with Ugas. I was out in time to prevent any damage and chased him away. But now Ugas was determined to get his revenge and set off after him. I was equally determined that Ugas should not get involved ina  serious fight and followed. . . . Black Mane kept his distance. At intervals he would roar a challenge, to which Ugas replied in kind and doggedly followed. Finally, after stumbling over lava strewn plains for hours, I managed to convince Ugas that he had seen Black Mane off and we started back for camp, Ugas leaving many a message, doubtless insulting, on bushes he passed. Dawn was breaking as we entered camp.
"Doubtless insulting"? Let's remember that the person writing these words is the world's greatest authority on lion urine. If anyone would know, it would be George Adamson.


to be continued

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Her WHAT?!?!

#17 in the series "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

In all this talk of love and lust in the Lord of the Rings, one poor guy seems to have been left out completely. Our wallflower's name: Frodo.

My personal fave
Frodo is, on one level (of the many possible) the story's Christ-figure. We might expect a devout Christian to weave a Jesus into his tale; plenty of others more talented than C.S. Lewis have done so, and even agnostics like Faulkner have had a go. But Tolkien goes beyond them all by giving us not one but three Christs: there's Gandalf, master of elemental powers and ageless wisdom, and Aragorn, rightful and righteous king, and Frodo . . . sacrificial lamb. We might also expect a typical Christian not to attach any sexual energy to Jesus. Though the Bible portrays him as an ordinary human man who like good food, good wine, and good foot-rubs, the traditional view of Jesus was of someone who--despite being awful chummy with Mary Magdalene--had not the slightest sexual aura

By Tim Kirk, from the 1975 Tolkien Calendar
Surely Frodo has no such aura. He isn't as much as chummy with a single female of any species throughout the entire story. Galadriel is one of only three women with whom he has any kind of contact, and she is more mother than mate. (Recall that Frodo is an orphan and was raised by his uncle. And of the other females, Goldberry is a Maia, and Arwen he talks to only after she's married.) I've already asserted that the Phial of Galadriel is not a sexual symbol, and I believe the above data reinforce this view. Frodo's suffering, his receipt of the Phial, and his lack of any percepti- ble libido, make him otherworldly in a way that even Elves are not: other- worldly in the way of wizards. After his wounding with the Morgul blade he even becomes slightly dematerialized: there is a certain transparency about him that can be detected by those with eyes to see like Gandalf. As a Catholic, Tolkien was taught that sexuality and spirituality are not compatible: note St. Paul's "I would that all men were like me." And Paul means not merely abstinent, nor celibate, but "chaste": not even thinking about sex. This was the ideal of the "spiritual" life that Tolkien lived with on a daily basis from childhood--between the ages of 12 and 21 he was even raised by a priest. We can say, then, that the kind of otherworldliness we find in Frodo is a defining characteristic of "spirituality" as Tolkien understood the term. "My kingdom is not of this world," said Jesus, and neither is Frodo's, in the end.

But all that Frodo might have had in this world he bequeaths to Sam. And unlike his ethereal master, Sam is . . . well, Sam is downright earthy. Sure, he's a gardener, but that in itself should clue us in to the central role fertility plays in his life. We've already seen the overtly sexual nature of his temptation by Galadriel, and his powerful reaction to it. We know exactly with what Galadriel is tempting him--or rather, with whom--and we also know he's been fantasizing about this certain someone throughout the story. He thinks about her in Lorien, he thinks about her in Mordor--on the very slopes of Orodruin!--and no sooner is he back in Bywater than he's getting his mack on with Rosie Cotton before the War of the Ring is even over. Shy stumble-bum he may be, but he knows what he wants. And he wants it bad.

And Galadriel knows it. Which is why her gift to Sam is particularly dirty. Literally.

"G" marks the spot
It's . . . dare I say it? . . . a box. Her box. It's even got a G-rune on it. A box full of dirt. A bunch of dirt with a seed in it. A white seed. And Sam knows just what to do with his seed. After marrying Rosie, that is. Forget the darn mallorn--and remember that Sam and Rosie end up with thirteen children.

La vala Manwe! No more! I can't go on . . . it's all too smutty . . . her box . . . oh, the humanity . . . parents, tell your children. . . .

And how does our "gardener and lover of trees" respond to Galadriel's act of generos- ity? "Sam went red to the ears and muttered something inaudible." So, I imagine, have many young men upon receiving the gift of a lady's . . . box.

Galadriel devotes more time to describing Sam's gift (and telling him what to do with it) than she spends on any other gift she bestows--with one exception. That exception is the entire (paperback) page she spends on her gift to Gimli. And at first she doesn't even know what she's going to give him. But if the previous interaction between the Elf-queen and the Dwarf is any guide, we know that--in the immortal words of James Brown--whatever it is, it's got to be funky. . . .

to be continued

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Greenhorny

#16 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

"Vagina." Given what we know about that Tolkien fella and his devilish hidden agenda, that was a no-brainer, wasn't it?

OK, so the sheath that Galadriel gives Aragorn is magical. (Aren't they all?) "The sword that is drawn from this sheath shall not be broken or stained even in de- feat," she says. We should hope not--ouch! But precisely whose "sheath" is the Elf-queen offering? Not her own, certainly. A clue to the identity of this Mysterious Lady lies in the other gift Aragorn receives. For the future king of Gondor is the only member of the Fellowship to receive more than one gift, and his rank isn't the reason. But enough of these sexual speculations--let's have some real fun and talk Elvish.

In Quenya, Galadriel's native language, there is a complex of words associating youth, femininity, sexuality, and the color green. Here they are, quoted from the "Etymologies," an essay on Elvish word-origins published in volume 5 of "The History of Middle-earth," The Lost Road: 

 
To get technical for a moment: all of these words begin with a letter of the Elvish alphabet (vilya, tengwa #24) that was originally pronounced "w" but which in the Third Age was pronounced "v" at the beginning of words. It was still a "w" after a consonant: note the Elvish spelling of the word "Arwen." The typeface used here is "Tengwar Annatar" designed by Johan Winge, and is in my view the most elegant and legible of Elvish typefonts. It is one of many such; Elvish typography is sufficiently sophisticated that there is a standard keyboard layout, and there is a proposal before the International Standards Organization to make Tengwar a Unicode character set. I have supplied the translation "virgin" for vene as it is implied in the source. By "blended with" Tolkien meant that the words ven and vende derived from different forms in proto-Elvish (reconstructed roots *GWEN and *WEN) but are felt to be related words by "modern" speakers--one of whom, we may assume, is Galadriel.

Miss April from the Tolkien Desk Calendar, 1980
Armed with a knowledge of Elf-speech, we can see Ara- gorn's second gift in a new light. It's a rock--a green rock. Specifically, it's the "Elessar," a sacred jewel with healing powers. The Elf-queen has foreseen that this stone should come to Aragorn at this time, for "Elessar" is "the name foretold for you." Or so she says. The stone itself--or rather, its color--says some- thing more. Linked with the sheath and the various ideas connected with green, the Elessar lets Aragorn know he has just received a third gift, the most valuable the Lady of Lorien has to give. Though Aragorn denies it--"it is not yours to give me, even if you would"--Galadriel is the eldest remaining member of her clan, and her opinion on a certain matter pertaining to her clan's youngest member should carry considerable weight. To put this more bluntly, Galadriel has a moral (if not strictly legal) right to control Aragorn's access to the one thing he wants above all else: Arwen. Or rather: Arwen's venya venesse.

Pinky by the Brothers Hildebrandt
By providing Aragorn with not one but two symbols of Arwen's sexuality, Galadriel blesses the union of the two lovers and signals her approval. The mes- sage is not lost on the scene's other speaker of Quenya, for Aragorn immediately draws the connection: "For the gifts that you have given me I thank you, O Lady of Lorien, of whom were sprung Celebrian and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?" The stone itself actually belongs to Arwen, who got it from her mother and she from hers; Arwen has entrusted it to Galadriel to give to her beloved should he pass through her realm. It is not just the Elessar itself but the women it came from and the blessing it symbolizes that evokes Aragorn's outpouring of gratitude. We know he needs Arwen, but he needs Galadriel, too. For Aragorn, like so many characters in the Lord of the Rings--and like its author--is an orphan, and the Lady of Lorien is the nearest thing he has to a mother.

Once again we see that a close reading of Tolkien's work--including obscure texts typically assumed (by, say, The New York Times Book Review) to be of interest only to geeks--reveals that the tweedy Sweet Old Dear of back-cover photographs is more than he seems. You don't have to play it backwards, and it won't screw up your turntable, yet "playing" the text of the Lord of the Rings the right way reveals messages far more interesting (and useful) than "I bury Paul." And if vaginas and virgins aren't sweaty enough for you, there's still what Galadriel does to that poor hobbit. . . .

to be continued

Monday, January 17, 2011

Of Bottles, Bows, and Belts

#15 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

Of the various gifts Galadriel bestows upon the members of the Fellowship of the Ring on their last day in Lorien, the easiest to interpret symbolically are those given to the "mid-ranking" characters, the ones we've already mentioned as being the least interesting (so far). Legolas receives a bow; Merry and Pippin each receive a silver belt. These gifts are physical embodiments of a gift Galadriel herself possesses: prophecy. Though she denies her own ability--"all foretelling is now vain"--everything she predicts for the various members of the Fellowship eventually comes true. Tolkien surely intends for her to be seen as (among other things) a kind of sybil or oracle. 

By Inger Edelfeldt, from "Tolkien's World"

Through her strong sense of foresight Galadriel perceives that Legolas may need a weapon powerful enough to deal with a flying Nazgul. So she gives him a bow-- and a week later he uses it to shoot down one of the dreaded winged riders. The Elf-queen also perceives that the two hobbits may one day need to take up lead- ership roles in their native culture, and so--expercising a traditional royal preroga- tive--she elevates them to the nobility. In England even today there are "belted earls," aristocrats whose badge of office is a special belt. After Merry and Pippin return home the Shire will have a similar custom, at least in their case. Matured by their journeys, the two will become "noble": not just the somewhat spoiled sons of the landed gentry they'd been when they started off, but leaders who rally their people against their enemies. "Lordly," their folk will call them--even, presumably, those who care little for elves.

(To those of us who grew up in lands where patents of nobility are unconstitu- tional, it may be easily forgotten that once upon a time nobles really were war-leaders and not just parasitic anachronisms. And the tradition of aristocratic leadership hasn't entirely died out. During World War II a teenage noblewoman remained in London during the Blitz and made radio broadcasts rallying the British against the Nazis. Later she enlisted in the army and served in uniform as a truck-driver and mechanic. That young woman's courage, aplomb, and willingness to serve are still remembered in Britain today, though the noblewoman--a certain Princess Elizabeth--is now an old lady, and has a number "II" after her name.)

I'm going to pass lightly over Frodo's gift of the star-glass. This is not because it is too difficult to shoehorn it into my interpretive scheme, but because it's too easy: too easy to claim that the phial is a uterus and the white fluid within is seminal. I don't believe Tolkien had the slightest intention, conscious or not, of making the Phial of Galadriel a symbol of anything remotely sexual. His good buddy C.S. Lewis was famous for his critiques of Freudianism, and Tolkien certainly shared his disdain for Freud's one-dogma-fits-all approach. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes a glistening whiteness is just a star.

But the remaining gifts--those bestowed on Boromir, Aragorn, Gimli, and Sam--are definitely cigars in the Freudian sense. Given Boromir's sexual insecurities, is it not fitting that Galadriel gives him a chastity belt? It's a gilded belt, true, and without lock or key, yet unlike those of Merry and Pippin this belt ele- vates nothing, Indeed, it seems intended to prevent an elevation or two. It is a tactful reminder that our macho war-chief has a bit of a problem in the vicinity of his hips, and that he might want to get a grip, as it were. This belt, in other words, is also a prophecy-- and a warning. The only other time we hear mention of it is when Boromir is arrayed for his funeral.

The good translation.
I suspect many people have asked, "Why the heck does Galadriel give Aragorn a scabbard for his sword? Does it even need one? It doesn't seem . . . well, a fancy enough gift for the occasion. Shouldn't he have something a bit more . . . magical?" Well asked, o perspecacious reader! How to read this riddle aright? Let's do it the way Tolkien himself might have done it were he in our position: by focus- ing on the etymologies. Note that in the text the scabbard is actually called a "sheath." The use of this word instead of "scabbard" is significant. "Scabbard" is the more technical of the two terms; it is only used of coverings for swords and knives, and is only attested as far back as the Middle English period. "Sheath," on the other hand, goes back to Old English, which despite being a more generic term would still make it the more attractive choice to a dedicated fan of Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon such as Tolkien.

But there's another possible motive influencing the choice of "sheath" here: Latin. Tolkien's grandson Simon tells us that his gaffer was mighty put out by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, disliking in particular its imposition of the vernacu- lar Mass. In fact, he disliked it so much that when responses were called for in church he would respond (loudly) in Latin rather than English, to Simon's intense chagrin. Tolkien appears to have been as fluent in Latin as he was in Anglo-Saxon, and there are Latin influences present in Quenya, the language of the High Elves. So the Master of Middle-earth was certainly aware of the Latin trans- lation of the English word "sheath." Are you? I'll give you a minute here to run off to that pile of books you keep for bathroom reading and dig out your Latin dictionary. On your mark . . . get set . . . go!

to be continued


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Three Scenes for the Elven Queen

#14 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

There are three scenes featuring Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings. We've now dealt with the first, in which the Fellowship encounters the White Lady of Lorien in her palace atop the mallorn. The second, which we won't get into just yet, involves only Frodo, Sam, Galadriel, and her Mirror. The third and final scene brings the Fellowship and their hostess together one last time for a ritual of considerable significance in the traditions of the fairy-tale: the ceremony of gift-giving.

From its beginning with William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, fantasy literature has been firmly identified with medieval imagery. LotR is the type- specimen of the tradition. How many of us would have known (or cared) what a "vambrace" was if we hadn't encountered the word in the Return of the King? And of course Tolkien was a professional medievalist, an expert on the literature and life-ways of the western Europe of a thousand years ago. But why was he a medievalist? Why, for that matter, have all the Great Ones of fantasy--Morris, Dunsany, Eddison, Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, and now George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling--set so many of their tales in a medieval setting?

Let's start our journey toward an answer by following the FREPE. This is a mnemonic used by anthropologists when describing any human culture. The FREPE for a fantasy medieval society would run, very broadly, something like this:
Families are extended, patriarchal, and close-knit

Religion may be important but is usually kept in the background. Diversity of religious/metaphysical opinion does not exist--everyone believes pretty much the same thing.

Education takes place at home or in cloistered settings. Books are rare and valuable.

Politics is the business of an aristocratic elite. There are kings, nobles, ladies and lords. Commoners are seldom visible, but (contrary to actual medieval practice) serfdom does not exist.

Economics is very definitely non-capitalist.
I'd like to focus on this last point. Fantasy literature is fake-medieval for more than aesthetic reasons. Morris, the founder of the modern fantasy tradition of castles and kings, was a revolutionary socialist who spent much of his life trying to revive the medi- eval craft-guild; indeed, he is best known today not as an author or a radical, but as an interior designer and the creator of Morris furniture. Le Guin, the most honored fantasy author of all time (Hugo, Nebula, Gandalf, Lifetime Achievement and National Book awards) is an anarcho-feminist who has written the only convincing Utopian novels I have ever read: The Dis- posessed and Always Coming Home. Just about everything Le Guin has ever written has included an at least implicit attack on "propertarianism": late-imperial, industrial, statist capitalism.

So: why did Dunsany, Tol- kien, Le Guin, et al. set their tales in worlds with- out machine guns, stock-exchanges, credit-default swaps, or Great Gatsbys? It's not just the castles and sailing ships, the cobbled streets and torch-light, the flashing swords and pris- tine forests that make a fairy-tale world "medieval." The Middle Ages were the last time in history that most people on this planet could survive without turning everything (including themselves) into a commodity. Ours is a world of Bernie Madoff and Casino Jack, but once upon a time. . . . Only in a pre-modern, pre-capitalist world could Frodo travel thousands of miles across alien territories and not have to spend any money. Not a silver penny! And he can only do this because his author ignores the Invisible Hand and relies instead on the Open Hand: the gift. Fairy-tales are a collective, fading memory of a time before the Almighty Buck, of a time when not everything was assigned a numeric, monetary value. If you want to talk about gifts--as opposed to commodities--then the fairy-tale is one of the few ways we still have to do it.

In "modern" "civilization," giving is often considered a negative behavior. We can't just give citizenship to all those pesky illegals, can we? It's far too valuable!. So it may be easy to lose sight of the social significance of generosity. In most soci- eties, throughout almost all of history, most goods and services were circulated as gifts, not as things to be bought and sold. Did Jesus sell his life on the cross? To listen to Mel Gibson you'd think he had. And Yoga Journal is none too eager to remind its well-toned readers that Lord Buddha spent the last 45 years of his life as a beggar. Feudal warriors offered their swords to the local lord; lords fed and clothed their retainers. No money was exchanged; the value of a man's arm was not set by "market mechanisms." The great cathedrals of Europe were built on donated land with volunteer labor. Chinese emperors made such magnificent gifts to their Tibetan gurus that to this day the Han name for Tibet is Xizang, "Western Treasure-house."

From Shostak's "Nisa." Mother Eve would have looked like this.
Lewis Hyde refers to the gift as "anarchist property." The gift is the original ownership, the property of the original anarchists, the Ancestors. Gift-giving is in our genome: humans and bonobos are the only animals that share food with anyone other than their children, as well as being the only primates who copulate face-to-face. And those of us humans who still retain a connec- tion to the Ancestors--for example, the Zhun/twasi Bushmen--have in their !Kung language the word kxaro. This is a word for a concept almost completely alien to English-speaking culture, so much so that we have no word for it. A kxaro is a "market" where nothing is bought, sold, bartered or traded, but only given: a network of formal, ritualized gift-exchange. It wasn't until a couple of generations ago that the Bushman even learned what a commodity is. They would have been better-off without the knowledge: they hadn't needed it for 100,000 years.

Given the economic structure implicit in Middle-earth's medievalness, we can anti- cipate that Galadriel will give gifts to her guests, gifts "fit for a queen," as we still say. And given the powerful charge of symbolic energy the Lady of the Golden Wood carries with her whenever she appears, we can also anticipate that her gifts will carry a good portion of that emotional electricity. Tolkien, as usual, does not disappoint us: every one of the gifts Galadriel gives to the members of the Fellow- ship is not only sumptuous, but charged with hidden meaning.

Readers of modern literature are used to thinking of the "meaning" of objects in terms of symbolism, of "objective correlatives." Hollow men with heads full of straw stalk the pages of our poetry; bits of cutlery sum up a woman's failed relationship with her mother. But in the non-literary world every gift is, by the fact of being a gift, a bearer of meaning--namely, the meaning of the emotional bond between the giver and the recipient. What is the "meaning" of a piece of cheap plastic crap from Walmart? Utterly nothing--unless it was bought for you by your child with her lunch money. Poof! The piece of crap is crap no more. The magic that can trans- form even Walmart junk into something marvelous is the decision to give it away rather than to sell it or hoard it. And if that decision is motivated by love, no spell of Faerie is mightier.

Magic is something Galadriel is famous for. On the other hand, we don't usually associate the Lady of the Golden Wood with cigars. . . . TBC

homage to Christina-Taylor Green
may she find refuge from suffering in the bardo

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"Womanly Words, Manly Deeds"

Happy 119th birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien!

What is a four-letter word that ends in "K" and means "intercourse"? Talk.

Followers of this blog should know by now that if you want the kind of "good time" promised in countless public restrooms thoughout the land, don't bother calling that number--just reach for the works of that sultan of smut, J.R.R. Tolkien. Who was the first to give us sex between and an Elf and a Dwarf, eh?

As we saw in our last installment, Galadriel, in her role of Mysterious Lady of the Deep, Dark Forest, has been busily seducing the local Young Man Seeking His Fortune, the Young Man in question being Gimli son of Gloin. And she seduces him--in the very nicest sense of that somewhat disreputable word "seduce"--by speaking to him in his native tongue. Khuzdul is a secret language, never spoken around strangers; to learn it one must either be a Dwarf or be extraordinarily cozy with them. Even Gandalf must rely on Gimli "for words of the secret Dwarf-tongue that they teach to none," yet here's this Elf-lady, of all people, speaking words that prove (a) her respect for Dwarvish culture, (b) her excellent sense of timing, and (c) her desire to make Gimli feel good.

The scene of Gimli's encounter with Galadriel, up a tree without a grappling hook, is a sex scene and nothing less. Granted, there's no T & A: no one breaks a sweat, creates a fetus, incubates a disease, or mentions word one about con- doms. And the sensuality of the scene seems to have flown beneath the radar of most critics: despite a deep understanding of his work, even Ursula Le Guin--inheritor of Tolkien's mantle as Grand Master of Fantasy-- asserts in her essay "The Staring Eye" that "there's no sex" in the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps in a world where girls barely into puberty wear bombshell bras, it is unreasonable to expect people to recognize sexuality unless it's expressed Nicky Minaj-style. (Though I daresay there's plenty of folks who know more about the subject than I do, including the esteemed Ms. Le Guin.)

An image from Rolling Stone, slightly modified
Not that i'm knocking knockers here, but could sexual expres- sion have other, more subtle options? There must have been such options in Tolkien's day, even if men back then weren't supposed to talk about their own underwear let alone anyone else's, and women were sup- posed to lie back and think of England and not of orgasms. Yes, sexuality was suppressed during the Edwardian era, yet truth will out, and Tolkien--who grew up during the reign of Victoria the Virginal and Edward the Uptight, and who spent his adolescence under the care of a priest--got his ya-yas out anyway, through the medium of his writing. There's no escaping the erotic imagery of seduction in LotR, of one party sweet-talking away the other's resistance, of penetrating and being penetrated. Like Galadriel's beauty--or Gimli's--it's there to be found. If you're willing to find it, that is, and if you're willing to accept what you find when you do.

And if you want to make a hard and fast distinction between metaphorical/symbolic/sublimated/displaced lust versus what you'd see on RedTube, go right ahead. I'd only point out that without the metaphorical kind the more physical kind would never get off the ground, or on it. Neither we nor the Dwarves are animals: we don't go around smiffing each others' butts and then presenting. We need a bit of foreplay. And that almost always means . . . talk.

Note Islamist date-palm and crescent moon.
(The title of this installment is taken from the official motto of the great state of South Carolina. The words were originally chosen to be blatantly sexist, but let us be charita- ble. Afterall, words are deeds--as any politician or preacher will tell you--and deeds can relate to each other in a kind of syntax. So perhaps the good citizens of South Carolina are trying to tell us that the ideal human being is a hermaphrodite. Put that on RedTube and smoke it!)

Alright--after all this argument you're finally willing to accept the idea that there really is s-e-x in the LotR, that Tolkien had something to say about sexuality, and that for reasons cultural and personal he chose to say it in the language of the fairy-tale. But let's face it: his "sex scenes" aren't very . . . well . . . sexy. It's not as if they're, um, arousing or anything. If we're going to say that Tolkien is writing pornography, shouldn't we at least see a little cleavage?

Cleavage, you say? Very well! Rest assured, o reader, that at Welcome to Weird World what you want is what you get! But you might also want to be careful what you pray for. It's easy to forget that "cleavage" can be something created by the scrunching of a pair of breasts--or it can be something created by the slashing of a sword. . . .


to be continued