31 May 2011

Beyond Belief

Well, we all certainly had tons of self-righteous fun making sport of the self-righteous end-of-time true-believers who predicted the Rapture of the Elect would occur recently, specifically May 21, 2011, heralding a five-month period of Tribulations for the Remainder which would end with the end of the world on October 21, 2011. By all accounts, however, there was no Rapture. No reports of mysteriously missing people or tombs being opened and the dead in Christ ascending bodily to Heaven. And now the good folks who brought you this latest scare are re-jiggering their Biblical accounts in the hopes of coming up with a new last date.

I am not so much interested in the whole timing issue here as in the notion of the belief system that leads these and suchlike people to assert, in the face of so much countervailing physical evidence, such certainties.

Belief is a very powerful notion. For plenty of Christians, belief is transformative (-ational): if the Individual believes in Jesus Christ as his/her personal savior, s/he will transcend the physical certainty of death by being resurrected intact bodily from the dead, ascend to Heaven, and live eternally in the presence of God. All it takes is belief. The sole difference between an eternity of Paradise (existence with God) and an eternity of Torment (either non-existence, existence without God, or existence with Satan—depending on your flavor of belief) is whether you hold this belief at some point during the few short years of your existence here on Planet Eartsnop. That's a lot of stress on that one notion.

The belief that the Individual's sense of identity perdures even after the atomization of its physical embodiment is foundational to Western religions. The belief that holding a certain belief in this temporal lifetime is determinative of one's eternal fate is structural. The belief as to what the substance of this certain belief must be (i.e., that Jesus Christ died to absolve one of one's condition of original guilt) is superstructural.

What does this adamance about belief tell us about ourselves?

Believing is a subjective mental act. When I believe something, I insist that it is true—regardless of proof. Any notion I hold which has not been proven is properly said to be a belief of mine. Though philosophers are more or less parsimonious about the thresholds of admissible proof, beliefs are said to be true or false depending on how they can be shown to correlate with facts or proofs. I can have a true belief even if it has not yet been proven true—so long as it has not been falsified, I merely await its verification (of course, I may never find out that it is true—that's a matter of luck). Once a belief has been confirmed it can be called knowledge, and a belief to the contrary is a false belief.

For some beliefs we can imagine what a proof of their truth might look like, or what it might take to falsify them. Other beliefs, however, allow of no proofs. They can never be falsified. Such are the beliefs of our end-timers. There is no evidence that could prove or disprove their belief that Jesus's self-sacrifice saves us from our condition of Original Sin (itself an unfalsifiable belief); there is no evidence that the subjective mental act of believing can make a difference in our eternal salvation; there is no evidence that our individual identities outlast our physical extinguishment. And there can be none. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary: our identities die with our bodies. We have no privileged vantage point either into or from eternity and its eternal verities to judge otherwise. The only confirmation these folks can have will come long after we're all dead and in a realm to which we have no present access.

Yet they persist in their beliefs. In fact, they are defined by them. And here's where we learn something about ourselves from these end-timers and their adherence to these absurd-on-their-face claims: what we believe is determinative of who we are, not what we know. This may be the central notion of identity in Western culture, over and above social, ethnic, racial, gender, communal, political, or even religious issues. The things I believe that have not been confirmed (or even that have been falsified) are the things that define who I am.

This notion of a personal identity that survives the certainty of death goes back at least as far as the great Pharoahs of ancient Egypt. It is the subject matter of the oldest extant story: the motivation of Gilgamesh's epic quest for immortality in his unquenchable grief for Enkidu, his dead friend, which I've discussed as part of my Ur-story series on literature.

The post-Enlightenment West is nothing if not a scientific, knowledge-based society. The rise of knowledge has crowded out many false beliefs. And with this change the very notion of personal identity has come under attack. For example, it's difficult to reconcile the bodily ascension to Heaven of either Jesus or Mary when we know that physical bodies are subject to a cosmic speed limit; that is to say, neither Jesus's nor Mary's body can be more than 2,000 light years from here, and, by all indications, Heaven is somewhere beyond this physical plane.

But I digress. Those who cling to beliefs that have either been proven false or are not subject to confirmation experience a very real sense of uncertainty, a lack of self-assurance, a weak sense of self and self-esteem. Knowledge is a direct challenge to their identity. They reassert their beliefs as a way of shoring up their loss of identity. They become more adamant in their beliefs in order to assert an identity against the prevailing societal norms.

Indeed, our very identities are tied into our beliefs at a very profound level. Knowledge, because it is verifiable, is social and objective by definition. No community, however, is required to obtain it, merely education. Beliefs, on the other hand, are personal and subjective. Sharing beliefs is a profoundly social affair and is a way of creating community, but they are not publicly provable.

If we have no beliefs, if we accept only what we know to be true (or at least probable, given the scandal of inductive reasoning and empirical proof) do we have any identity as individuals? Maybe not in the ancient sense, or the eternal sense. But this is what makes us modern.

26 May 2011

In Syndication

Sorry. I've been away without explanation. And no, I didn't make the cut for the Rapture (lest you think that explains my absence). Wesdom (now that school's out) & I took a short retreat to the N. Georgia mountains where he obtained his Lifeguard certification [NB: all three of my kids are lifeguards, and all are employed this otherewise dismal summer for jobs], and I re-structured the new novel I'm working on. An agent now has the full text of EULOGY. Please cross the appropriate number of fingers and toes.

Your Choice:

Dream Syndicate A:

or Dream Syndicate B:

Also, one thing I learned this week was that the cool kids in the ATL like this stuff:

111111111111111111111111111111 11111111 000000111111001111001100000000 11110011 000000001111001111001100011100 01110011 000000000111001111001100011110 00110011 000111000011001111001100011100 01110011 000111100001001111001100000001 11110011 000111100001001111001100011100 01110011 000000000111001111001100011110 00110011 000000001111000000001100011100 01111111 000000111111000000001100000000 11110011 111111111111111111111111111111 11111111

16 May 2011

A Day Late...

It seems I can never get a break. For the last several years, I've been toying with the idea of starting up an insurance company: a Rapture Insurance company. You know, collect premiums from millennialist Christians, promise to take care of their plants and pets and property and Left-Behind family members with the percentage of same I haven't skimmed off in salary, benefits, and, you know, general overhead and taken, as is my God-given right as a capitalist, as profit.

Well, now it seems I'm too late. According to these folks, Judgment Day is this Saturday, May 21, 2011. After a period of torment, the world will end five months later, October 21st. Too late to get anything done. You don't move, you lose. Opportunity only knocks once. Or does it?

Okay, so here's what we do: let's all take some old clothes, configure them like the pic above—like someone's been taken to heaven without dying in them—and leave them lying around town, especially near some of these fundamentalist churches on Sunday morning so when they show up for church they're like 'Uh-oh!'

NB: None of these folks will ever vote for a Democrat. This is a big part of the unreconstructed Republican base. Believe it.

That's a damn shame, too, because I start training for my first full mary next week. The Atlanta Marathon is October 30. Crap.

And what's more, for those of you keeping score at home, I just got a request for the full manuscript of my novel, EULOGY, this weekend. More's the pity. No need to send it now.

In case you missed it, here's some items that caught my attention while the blogger was down (which I don't think BDR scooped):

Fukushima Daiichi #1 reactor is in full-blown meltdown. [Maybe those guys were right!]

Big wig hedge fund manager convicted of insider trading.

Big shot International Monetary Fund ruler charged with diddling chamber maid, forcibly. Held without bail.

On that score, journo Matt Taibi lays out a pretty interesting case against Goldman Sachs for financial crimes.

The Koch brothers are the latest left-populist bogeymen, at least according to the other Greenwald, Robert. Poster boys for Citizens United.

BTW: If you're at all inclined, this guy keeps a fairly tidy and readable blog about legal stuff in the headlines.

James Joyner has joined with those who see no difference between: (a) pre-emptively invading a country because their dictator double-crossed us and they have tons of publicly-held oil which we want to keep the Chi-coms from getting their red hands on and (b) providing airborne military assistance to a groundswell populist revolt against a double-crossing dictator who is likewise sitting on a shitload of oil.

And now for something completely different: This may be the coolest site on the internets. Frankly, it's what it's all about. It's public. And it's free. Your national jukebox.

In response to a comment by Randal Graves, one of my two favorite librarian/bloggers: yes, we did seem to move in completely different musical circles. Your place is an education for me. But I'll bet you, in a Venn diagrammatical sort of way, we intersect somewhere around here:

13 May 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 6

(cont'd from previous posts)

This is the continuation of my look at Elias Canetti's monumental novel Auto-da-Fé. If you click here, you will find the previous posts in this series (plus this one and any that come after). As always in blogland, they scroll from the bottom of the page upward.

I left off in the midst of looking at the major characters in the book. Sorry for the interruption.

Benedikt Pfaff, the brutish caretaker of Kien's apartment building, is a former policeman who, in the past, abused his wife and daughter literally to death. This is all in his backstory told in excruciating detail in Part Three, Chapter 1, "The Kind Father", but Canetti constantly references it to show how Pfaff's conscience haunts him throughout.

We first encounter Pfaff as the caretaker (super, watchdog) of Peter Kien's apartment building:
"From beggars and hawkers No. 24 Ehrlich Strasse had for many years been free. The caretaker, in his little box adjoining the entrance hall lay in wait day after day, ready to spring upon any passing derelict. People who counted on alms from this house held in mortal terror the oval peep-hole at the usual height, under which was written PORTER. Passing it, they stooped low, as if bowing down in gratitude, for some particularly charitable gift. Their caution was vain. The caretaker troubled himself not at all about the ordinary peep-hole. He had seen them long before they crouched past it. He had his own tried and tested method. A retired policeman, he was sly and indispensable. He did indeed see them through a peep-hole but not the one against which they were on their guard.

Two feet from the floor he had bored in the wall of his little box a second peep-hole. Here, where no one suspected him, he kept watch, kneeling. The world for him consisted of trousers and skirts. He was well acquainted with all those worn in the house itself; aliens he graded according to their cut, value or distinction. He had grown as expert in this as he had been in former times over arrests. He seldom erred. When a suspect came in view, he reached out, still kneeling, with his short, stout arm for the door latch; another idea of his—it was fixed on upside down. The fury with which he leapt to his feet opened it. The he rushed bellowing at the suspect and beat him within an inch of his life. On the first of every month, when his pension came, he allowed everyone free passage. Interested persons were well aware of this, and descended in swarms on the inmates of No. 24 Ehrlich Strasse, starved of beggars for a full month. Stragglers on the second and third days occasionally slipped through, or were at least not so painfully dealt with. From the fourth onwards only the very green tried their luck." (85)
Kien, after once being mistaken for a vagrant and nearly beaten to a pulp, tames the caretaker by giving him a monthly gratuity "larger than the tips of all the other tenants put together." He enlists Pfaff to help him throw out all the furniture with which Therese has cluttered up his library. Pfaff remains loyal to Kien—so long as the money keeps coming in. He visits Kien when he is sick and protects him from Therese's rages. Kien hallucinates, imagining Pfaff as a contemporary landsknecht. This delusion of peasant nobility, as so many others, abides.

After Therese exiles Kien from his library, the next time we see Pfaff, he is accompanying her to the pawn shop (the Theresianum) to try to wring some money from Kien's library to which both feel they are due. As they say in Hollywood, they "meet cute"—NOT. Therese is incensed that Kien has no money, and now that he's abandoned her (meaning, now that she's run him off), she's not sure what to do. Pfaff, likewise, is incensed because Kien, the "Professor", is late with his tip. Pfaff accosts Therese as she returns from yet another awkward, delusional encounter with the furniture salesman and asks her where Kien has gone. Therese is inarticulate, and Pfaff thinks she's killed the goose that laid his golden eggs. He storms up to the flat, searches it, tosses Kien's desk, and throws books to the ground in a rage. Therese brings over a ladder to help replace them:
"Her successful day moved her to sway her hips. With one hand the caretaker handed her the books, with the other he went for her and pinched her violently in the thigh. Her mouth watered. She was the first woman whom he had won by his method of wooing. All the others he had simply assaulted. Therese breathed to herself: There's a man! Again please. Aloud she said, bashfully: 'More!' He gave her a second pile of books and pinched her with equal violence on the left. Her mouth overflowed. Then it occurred to her that such things aren't done. She screamed and threw herself off the steps into his arms. He simply let her fall to the ground, broke open the starched skirt and had her.

When he got up, he said: 'That'll learn him, the old skeleton!' Therese sobbed: 'Excuse me, I belong to you now!' She had found a man. She had no intention of letting him go. He answered 'Shurrup!' and that very night moved into the flat. During the day he stayed at his post. At night he advised her, in bed. Little by little he learnt what had really happened, and ordered her unobtrusively to pawn the books before her husband came back. He would keep half the proceeds as his due." (280-81)
During the melee at the pawn shop, where Kien is trying to ransom books others are trying to pawn, Pfaff arrests Kien, beating up both Kien and Therese in the process. Eventually the police show up and subdue the maniacal Pfaff and bring Kien, Therese, and Pfaff down to the police station. All the while, Pfaff fears they want to question him for the disappearance of his wife and 'beloved' daughter—whom, we are told, he had abused mercilessly and killed ("He polished his red-haired fists on his daughter with real pleasure, he made less use of his wife. … [h]is wife died, of overstrain. … On the day after [her] funeral his honeymoon began. More undisturbed than before, he treated his daughter as he pleased." (367-68) He even puts the young girl through an unholy catechism:
"'A father has a right to…' '…the love of his child.' Loud and toneless, as though she were at school, she completed his sentences, but she felt very low.

'For getting married my daughter…' —he held out his arm—'…has no time.'

'She gets her keep from…' '…her good father.'

'Other men do not want…' '…to have her.'

'What could a man do with…' '…the silly child.'

'Now her father's going to…' '…arrest her.'

'On father's knee sits…' '…his obedient daughter.'

'A man gets tired in the…' '…police.'

'If my daughter isn't obedient she gets…' '…thrashed.'

'Her father know why he…' '…thrashes her.'

'My daughter isn't ever…' '…hurt.'

'She's got to learn what she…' '…owes to her father.'" (370) FN
After they return from the police station, Pfaff locks Kien up in his closet and returns upstairs to Therese in the flat. Kien watches the shoes and trousers that Pfaff normally observes through the lower peep-hole. Pfaff manages to extract even more money from Kien, forcing him to pay for food. When Therese appears with his dinner, Kien still believes himself to be hallucinating, puts on a blindfold and cuts off his finger, then kills Pfaffs beloved canaries—which, by the way, are the same color blue as Therese's iconic starched skirt. Pfaff does not get the chance to punish Kien because Kien's brother Georg shows up to save the day—sort of.

Georg sees through Pfaff's bluster, divines his guilt, manages to wring a confession out of him by pretending to be the chief of police from Paris, and drives him off with threats and bribery.
"Benedikt Pfaff, the stalwart ginger-headed tough, contracted his muscles, knelt down, folded his hands and implored the Head of the Police [whom he believes Georg to be] for forgiveness. His daughter had been ill, she would have died of her own accord anyway, he begged leave to recommend himself, and asked not to be sent away from his job. A man had nothing in the world except his peep-hole. … Pfaff promised to redeem all the books he had pawned, in person, on the following morning. He was, however, to leave the house. At the far end of town, close to the dairy shop bought for the woman, he was to be set up in the animal business." (454)
Not at all a satisfactory comeuppance for this thug.

[FN: A quick interpretive note: I'm trying to steer clear of interpretations here, but this one deserves a note mainly because so many readers of Auto-da-Fé find Canetti to be sympathetic of Georg, Kien's psychologist brother. One of the clear targets of Canetti's satire is the doctrinaire Freudianism of the day. One of the scandals of Freud's psychoanalytic theory relates to his theories of female hysteria and the so-called Electra complex. He derived these by discounting the testimonies of his neurotic female patients w/r/t to their abuse, physical and sexual, by their fathers. Simplistically stated, Freud attributed these to their repressed fantasies of being in love with their fathers—oh, and to their discovery that they lacked penises. Canetti here is viciously skewering Freud, in fact the very assumption on which much of his psychoanalytic theory of neurosis is founded: Pfaff's abuse of his daughter is very real and graphically drawn. And her fantasies of escape, however neurotic and projective, have nothing to do with either her lack of a penis or her love for her father.]

(to be yet continued)

02 May 2011

No Excuses

I take no joy in the death of any man.

On May 1, 2011, nearly ten full years after the destruction of the World Trade Center in NYC on September 11, 2001, by suiciders who had commandeered passenger airliners, President Barack Hussein Obama announced the death of Usama bin Laden, the leader of an underground paramilitary group which overtly declared war on the United States and its people for their complicity in occupying traditional Caliphate territories and which has been widely credited with carrying out these attacks.

bin Laden's announced strategy was "to bleed America bankrupt." He predicted that a few strategically targeted, high-profile attacks on American assets would provoke an over-reaction on our high-strung, hyper-militaristic leadership. He was right. In an earlier post, I called this a "blunderbuss" response.

President George W. Bush and his administration lost focus on, al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the 9-11 atrocity, early on. Here is Bush at a press conference not six months later:

And, not surprisingly, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld junta failed to capture bin Laden, despite their blustering promise to get him "dead or alive." They managed to capture and very publicly kill another Arab/Muslim leader Saddam Hussein, the autocratic ruler of Iraq, and his two sons, who had nothing to do with the attacks on American soil. But that was something they'd pretty much planned to do anyway.

Shortly after taking over the Constitutional role of civilian Commander-in-Chief of U.S. armed forces, Obama re-tasked the vast war machine and state-security apparatus Golem roused to life by Bush with the explicit purpose of tracking down and killing bin Laden. This day marks a successful pinnacle of that strategy.

We may have moral qualms about purposing our warriors to assassinate individual persons, but bin Laden was an avowed enemy combatant. He understood the risks of his action. But for incompetence, there was no other outcome. "He who lives by the sword..."

Many in America and around the world are cheering this action much the way they cheer on their favorite football team. Sports, with their sublimation of violent opposition, condition us to respond in precisely this manner: "Our team won a great victory today. Rah! Rah!" I cannot say this isn't a genuine feeling on their part. Frankly, it isn't that much different than Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy to the glorious shouts of his men.

Yet, it isn't my feeling.

Like Homer's Odysseus, we are a war-weary nation (though, by all rights, no "war" has Constitutionally been declared by Congress). Our economy is the proof: we cannot sustain sufficient growth to create the level of employment we had before 9-11 or to pay off the enormous burden of debt this precipitous turn to militarism has imposed upon us. In this sense, bin Laden was successful. We have exhausted our resources—material and spiritual—in pursuit of the Procrustean target Bush called "terror". And we are paying the price for that now.

I am tired of this "war", and I welcome the death of bin Laden as, hopefully, the beginning of its end. I supported Obama's Afghan "surge" initially, because I believed it was a necessary tack to wind down our involvement there. The death of bin Laden is clearly its first fruit. C'est la guerre.

As part of his surge strategy, Obama has planned to begin the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan this summer. I urge the President to stay true to his vision: bring home the troops. End our occupations. Repurpose our economy to productivity instead of destructivity.

bin Laden is dead. Now, there can be no excuse.