Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hmm. A lot of Mumbo Jumbo You Say

What to think about Ishmael Reed’s postmodern novel Mumbo Jumbo? Well, I don’t rightly know, so after an overview of the novel’s themes and storylines, I will try to explain how this book could be genius or possibly drivel, I am unsure which, but in the end its message is one that is extremely powerful and relevant to everyone who has ever lived.

To begin, here is my summary: The book’s plot revolves around the dealings of a mysterious monotheistic group called “The Wallflower Order,” clearly referring to the type that stands around the outskirts of your typical dance, enviously, while others have fun in the center shaking their hips. They are mostly concerned with controlling the masses—i.e. a secrete society bent on world domination (a typical postmodern thematic device)—by suppressing this thing/feeling/energy that just grew among the population, mostly among African-Americans, appropriately named “Jes Grew.” To achieve this, they renew their long lost kinship with the Knights Templar who they were partly responsible for ousting from power way back when King Philip IV of France removed Pope Boniface VIII from office by force during a very, very complicated time in history that resulted in Pope Clement V being a religious/political puppet for the state who more or less dissolved the Knights Templar Order at Philip’s request which took with it much papal power.

Let’s just say that the Knights Templar are somewhat bitter and want to regain their former prestige. Did I mention that these two groups are portrayed as being immortals? Well, their symbolism should be somewhat apparent—people like this never die or there are always people like this sort of thing. But Jes Grew (JG) also has those who are trying to bring it about more fully to the annoyance of the Wallflower Order, itself a branch of a group called the Atonists that can sort of said to be the opposite of Jes Grew Carriers, most notably among those standing in opposition to them is protagonist PaPa LaBas, who is an older black gentleman living in Harlem who is something like a witchdoctor. He and his acquaintance Black Herman, a magician who really existed, are attempting to locate a secret JG text that would spread JG, tracking it down to its last known whereabouts in the office of militant, black Islamic convert named Abdul Sufi Hamid, who takes his monotheistic religious sentiments to the pulpit of the street-corner.

While this stuff is going on there are also the following: a group of art thieves who are returning African art to the people it was taken from and brought to the West, demonic possession turns LaBas’s daughter into a nymphomaniac, and Henckle and his men are trying to locate the perfect “Talking Android” (someone who happens to be black that is actually the mouth piece for the Atonist way). By burning the book then, Abdul does one better than he could have done as the Talking Android because with that act he resolved the JG crisis by taking away its text thus manifesting the prophesy “Jes Grew was jumpy now because it was 1920 and something was going on. A Stirring. If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment,” (211).

Hmm. Like most of the quote unquote great works of postmodern literature, I am unsure whether I hated or loved it. There were certainly things I loved about it and certainly things that I absolutely loathed. Every aspect of the work I can think of is like this so I don’t feel that being right in the middle here is an accurate representation. The main narrative of the novel was one example of this wildly varying feeling but when I look over my notes on the various plotlines

The major source of drama in the book, the frantic search for a semi-sacred text, I kept thinking was an extreme waste of time and completely and totally unnecessary since “Jes Grew,” which I guess could be defined as sort of the positive spirit of an age or the collective unconscious or that special thing that makes the universe resemble God or Nature or whatever that makes people care for one another as human beings through the cultivation and celebration of life.

A lot of the reviews I have read were based on racial defensiveness (and limited understanding of what exactly was going on with the whole JG phenomenon) either saying that if you don’t like this book you are probably a white who hates blacks as a result of I.R. telling a truth that white America is unwilling to accept/account for and end up ignoring the work’s merits as a piece of literature. For example see Rastafari Speaks Interactive review of the book, where the author writes “Even arch-whiteman literary pundit Harold Bloom included this book on his list of the ‘500 most significant books in the Western canon’ even though it exposes the rigidity and fear at the heart of ‘white civilization.’ I guess Bloom could not ignore Ishmael Reed’s wildly inventive use of the novelistic form.” White America, on the other hand, think that I.R. is a racist akin to Louis Farrakhan who was just trying to preach black superiority against the white devil or whatever. Either way, these people are missing the point. JG, it is explained, did not originate out of Africa and is not specific to any one ethnic group.

Though set in 1920s Harlem during the “Harlem Renaissance,” Reed presents this time as a vehicle that this celebration of life and freedom—i.e. Jes Grew—was almost able to move through when the oppressive “one way” nearly became actualized in not only the black community but in the potential human community. This is basically taking “the Kingdom of God” that Jesus was always talking about and taking it out of the Christian context which throughout its history has been mainly concerned with reinforcing the status quo.

The Areas of His Expertise

John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise was hilarious. Yes, I actually found myself laughing out loud and what not; but that was not what was most fascinating a bout the book. Actually, the whole thing was pretty fascinating, even if it was completely made up.

I was turned on to John Hodgman’s work, funny only if you know that JH is the PC guy in the Mac commercials, by my girlfriend. If she is reading this review, you know who you are Sara Hof—aka the girl of my dreams (which is fact)—go ahead and stop reading because your Christmas present from my parents is implicated here so skip ahead to the next paragraph. So anyway, since this is obviously a review of John Hodgman and since he has another book out right now, I am sure anyone can figure out that my parents gift to my one true love in life is JH’s second work, More Information that You Require, and also since my gf is a genious and what not and the only person who reads my blog, it isn’t going to shock you, Sara Hof, when my parents hand over this gift to you whenever we go home to Indianapolis, whenever that may be, so just act surprised I guess.
Anyway, Hodgman’s satirical almanac of absurd historical information and totally made up facts about nearly everything makes for some good reading. In a day and age when we are bombarded with constant information, worthless facts seep in from every aspect of life and these things that we accumulate don’t really offer us anything. They don’t bring us any added skill to the work place and unless you go on Jeopardy! they aren’t going to make you any money. So why read an almanac filled with facts that your not going to be able to use, specifically Hodgman’s? Answering this question proves interesting and in it lies the genius, if you can really call it that, of Hodgman’s work, for in the info that he bestows upon us isn’t accurate at all, in fact, he goes beyond just making it up, he actually works hard at providing but nonsensical, incorrect info. The few things here that do in fact end up being true, i.e. discovery of a real furry lobster, he actually spends some time in asserting that this furry lobster and the one describes (actually a sea otter) “are not the same creature at all.”

What has come to be the most popular part of the book, the chapter “What You Did Not Know about Hoboes,” was actually something I had read in 2005’s edition of America’s Best Non-required Reading, which features David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to my graduating class at my alma mater Kenyon College that has become insanely popular since his self-inflicted death and can be found here. Though this section has brought hoboes into the mainstream, my favorite part of the work has to do with writing successful books. In that section, JH actually gives some pretty solid advice when he writes that one of the essentials one must have as a writer is “the belief that the world cares about what you have to say,” (47) which is a tough thing to have, really, and it is about the only thing that can make anyone really want to write, otherwise, there aren’t really all that many things to really motivate you. I also find his life of a writer to be pretty accurate when he says “Mine is the typical life of the professional writer: one of quiet contemplation and knowledge-gathering and masturbation and the cashing of enormous checks,” (18) except for the part about cashing enormous checks.

One of the interesting and surprising things about Hodgman’s work is that it does force you to learn in this absurd way. Because all of the jokes aren’t clear unless you have some pretty extensive knowledge, you end up looking up a great deal of stuff to fully appreciate his satirical wit. With knowledge, as JH explains, the world is “perhaps less magical, but also less frightening.” “Such is the effect of KNOWLEDGE,” he goes on, “upon the brain—a zinging clarity that does not quickly fade, but will last all the way to dinner, and then by bedtime will turn into awful, crushing dread,” (223) which is truth. So basically, what JH has done is played a sort of joke on us while critiquing our need for hard statistical facts, by embracing that need for constant knowledge though providing knowledge that is false and lacks meaning and in that, guess what, there is meaning.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I am Rejestered to Vote!!!

I just got my voter registration card in the mail yesterday, several months after I registered and two-and-a-half weeks after the election. Well, I guess I could still be outraged or whatever but I still got to vote and the election turned out in my party’s favor so I am not, for once. However, Rock the Vote is now on the “Dead to Me” list that I have resurrected from like junior high after watching “The Colbert Report” back when I had cable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This week picks for the NFL: Week 12

I have mentioned before that I used to gamble a lot and I ended up getting pretty good at the NFL picks game that I used to play at a bar run by my old man’s bookie. I liked this because the entry fee was only like $10 and the payout, depending on the week, was about $800 for first and a few hundred for second and third. I got first once and second a couple of other times so I would say that I was remarkable good at it, especially since I didn’t even get in every week and was still floating around the top of the leader board. So I figure my investment was something like $100 and I got back around $1000, maybe more, which isn’t all that bad in the seedy world of underground illegal gambling. The way we did it was we picked all 14-16 games and attributed a total number of points to that team based on how sure we were that that team would win, so if we thought Pittsburg was a lock to win over Cinci, we would give them 16 points, but if we just couldn’t really decide or if we were iffy we would give them a score of 1 point, and so on and so forth down thru 16 to 1. So these are my picks for this week.

16. Pittsburg over Cincinnati- A shoe in. Pittsburg almost always finds a way to win, especially against division rivals, and even more so against the Bengals, who aren’t very good.

15. Denver over Oakland- Denver has an impressive offence and their D looks good at times. Oakland, however, is a joke and never really looks all that great. This is a lock.

14. Tampa Bay over Detroit- Garcia is another one of those guys who I think doesn’t really get a fair shake, he is a winner and he is as tough as they come. I can’t say the same for Culpepper or anyone for Detroit for that matter.

13. Dallas over San Fran- Romo is back and so is Dallas, the bastards, and there is something about Singletary I don’t like as a coach, maybe it was throwing an assistant under bus or calling out individual players (that I have less of a problem with) but something, whatever it is, doesn’t sit right and I think the SF locker-room gets the same vibe.

12. Chicago over St. Louis- Jeeze, talk about a toilet bowl. Chicago got killed last week but I still they bounce back against the awful Rams.

11. Baltimore over Philadelphia- Philly is unpredictable but I think the Ravens defense is just too damn good for the Eagles to move the ball and I like that rookie quarterback they have behind center.

10. Washington over Seattle- If Portis doesn’t play, I would drop this to 4 but still take Washington

9. Buffalo over Kansas City- I don’t really know too much about these two teams, but what little I have seen would suggest that KC is horrible and going to be rebuilding next year. I like Herman Edwards but for some reason he doesn’t seem to be able to win games. I think it is time for a change.

8. Indianapolis over San Diego- A rematch from last year’s AFC semi-finals, I think the Colts, who are having a disappointing year, get their payback as Manning and his crew really saw things coming together last week, though they did play Houston.

7. Minnesota over Jacksonville- Internal problems for the Jags and their season I think is over. Plus the Vikings have found some success in ancient gun slinger Gus Ferrot who doesn’t always look so bad. And then the Vikings do have a guy named Adrian Peterson. That guy is pretty good.

6. New Orleans over Green Bay- Green Bay is playing super well right now but I think Brees is going to torch them since all those defensive touchdowns means they are doing a lot of gambling and that can cost them and Brees is the type of player to make them pay for let it all ride.

5. Cleveland over Houston- Another toilet bowl, but I think Cleveland has underachieved this year with all their offensive weapons. So playing the perennially crap defense of the Titans I think they will get some huge numbers and another win.

4. Miami over New England- Miami is a much improved team from last year and I like Pennington who I have always thought was a much better QB than he is given credit for. Plus I like the one two punch of Brown and Williams. But they are playing the Pats and they are a team of winners but I don’t really think that is necessarily true of the guy they have behind center who has until recently seen hardly any action for nearly a decade.

3. Jets over Titans- The Titans are undefeated, I thought they would go maybe 500 this year, and they have done it with the suprising play of veteran quarterback Carrey Collins. They are having an unreal season but there is no way they can run the tables. I think this is the week they go down considering the Jets have their own veteran in Favre whose play is improving as of late. But I am keeping this one low because the Titans are very good and beating teams with relative ease.

2. Atlanta over Carolina- Two teams that have somehow found ways to win, this one is a tough one to call but my gut says that Delhoume will blow it in the end.

1. Arizona over the Giants- This is a super tough call, hence the 1, but I am going to take the Cardinals against the reigning Super Bowl Champs because I like Kurt Warner who is finally back to his St. Louis greatness, St. Louis I am sure is thrilled that they went with Bulger instead of their former MVP.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Date Night With the Female Companion: Movie Night

My female companion and I went and saw two movies the other day, sneaking in Chipotle burritos, Izzies, and chewing tobacco (no booze this time) and they were both quirky and funny. The first of the two was the movie Role Models which despite its apparent plot holes was pretty funny. The cynical viewer will note the poor judgment in our judicial system for sending two young assholes to work with children instead of spending 30-days in prison. Sign my kid up! Wait I don’t think any but the most negligent of parents would send their kids to such a program. Why not sign up sex offenders for community service with the boy scouts or something. I don’t think so. But if you can get past that, this is a hilarious movie staring Seann William Scott, who should just go ahead and legally change his name to Stifler since that is basically the role he thrives in, and the always grumpy and humorous Paul Rudd who co-wrote the movie.

This is not a movie for children, so I am told, although my parents wouldn’t have objected, since it has children dropping the F-bomb about 50 or 60 times and has a fairly decent, no pun intended, amount of tit, breast, or “booby” shown throughout the film—not that I am complaining—unless my wonderful companion is reading this in which case I am outraged.

Anyway, the plot revolves around two breakers of the law who are forced to complete 150 hours of community service at a Big Brothers/Big Sisters type of outreach program or spend 30-days in jail. It is a tough call but after watching an appropriate amount of HBO’s Oz, they go for the community service, hilarity and problems ensue, and in the end they get their “get out of jail free cards” and all end up learning valuable lessons. But who learns from whom is the real question, which just about makes me and Paul Rudd, see last night’s Conan, want to throw up. But it is funny and worth your $8 or whatever.

The second of our grindhouse double feature was the digital animation Madagascar 2 which we ended up at after the original movie we snuck in to see, The Nightmare Before Christmas, turned out to be 3-D and we didn’t have the glasses and couldn’t find any in the trash, so it turned out to be a nice little surprise in that it didn’t suck and I thought it was better than the original. The less I say the better considering this was in fact a G-Rated, Pixar film.

Maybe I am getting soft or something, I haven’t went and seen movies like these since I was in high school, when I dated a girl who made me go see mostly G-rated films and rarely indulged my need for violence and simulated death on the big screen. Female companion, though she is much more likely to do so than her predecessor, isn’t exactly all that thrilled by the fact that the first two movies I had her watch (The Rules of Attraction and A Clockwork Orange) opened with rape scenes and my attempted third (Blue Velvet) to which she finally put her foot down, was so violent and its rape so graphic that she was questioning whether I was autistic or sick in the head or what (even though I still and will always claim that it is a great movie). But it goes without saying that those films may not have been the greatest of movies during the getting to know you stage of the relationship.

So any who, I think that a year ago, I probably would have been less likely to pay money to see these, or one of these and then sneak into the other, but had I watched them I probably would have found them somewhat entertaining, as I do now, but I think I would have been more critical of them then. For example, about thirteen months ago, one month before FC, I did the double feature thing and I went and saw 3:10 to Yuma, which kicked ass, and the Halloween Rob Zombie remake, eh, which one was a western, a genre damn near universally hated by women, and a slasher flick which we know is usually unkind to young women (and this one we pretty much all know is unkind to young women). Now I went and saw two movies that are “cute” which on some level makes me want to throw up while on another I am sort of happy that I am going and seeing movies like this. Like I said, it has been pretty much since high school since I have gone to see movies like these, the last double feature I can remember with the high school gf was a Monsters/Harry Potter outing.

We do go see my violent picks sometimes, we went to a Journey to the Center of the Earth, which sucked, and Batman showing this past summer, but it is nice to go see the nice and quiet comedy where no one dies and is quote unquote romantic in nature. When you are a guy and you are going to see these kinds of movies and are enjoying them, something must being going pretty well with you and your squeeze. It gives me hope at least.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Throw an Old Dog a Bone: Paul Auster’s Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Paul Auster’s heartbreaking novel, tells us more about the we live in and the way we treat “the least of these” than any other book I have read in recent memory and has moved me into action on more than one occasion. Paul Auster, with his literary genius, which has touched more so than any other author (excluding DFW of course), achieves these great feats through the eyes of the kindest, gentlest, most innocent of soul ever to grace the pages of a novel. No human being could ever make you melt with a metaphorical kiss on the hand like Auster’s protagonist, Mr. Bones, in this brilliant work of fiction. And no human being does. That is because Mr. Bones is a dog.

The relationship between Willy G. Christmas and Mr. Bones is as touching as any relationship can be. They share a bond as well as what they have—they deeply and unconditionally care for one another. In their symbiotic relationship, the two of them are innocent, caring, intimate, connected, etc. and in the end this is what we are to walk away from the novel having learned—to live a life that is all of those things, which is so foreign to the way many of us out there live, going through the motions throughout one’s life and never really and truly caring for anyone else. It is a moral fable in this way with the three “masters” he has representing three different ways of life with only, I shall argue, Willy and him coming to the ideal relationship that leads to happiness.

Opening the novel in media res, the reader finds Mr. Bones traveling along side his only friend, a man without any other friends himself, Willy, whose vagabond days are numbered, dying a slow and painful death on the streets of Baltimore. His master’s death is imminent, sadly, and Mr. Bones knows it; but good old Bonesy sticks to Willy’s side so he doesn’t have to spend his final days’ void of friendship. It goes without saying that is an extraordinarily sad thing for a dog to lose its master just as it is for a person to lose their dog but here it doesn’t end up being as bad as it could have been because the two were able to say goodbye in a way that cushions the horrible blow through a dream Mr. Bones has just before Willy goes forth into the great beyond.

In this dream, Mr. Bones runs to the end of the corner while his master, a poet, is taken from the doorstep of the tragic 19th century author Edgar Allen Poe’s Baltimore home. Mr. Bones then dissociates from his canine self and becomes a fly who witnesses the final day and pleasant death of Willy who originally traveled to this city to find a former teacher so his manuscripts may live on after he parishes. The manuscripts, tucked away in a bus station storage locker, are eventually recovered with the help of that former teacher whom the hospital was lucky enough to track down. It was a beautiful, peaceful, and dignified death in the dream and it would serve as the duo’s sweet good bye.

Once the dream has ended, the real thing begins to take place. At first Mr. Bones isn’t sure what to make of the “vision” he just had. In a scene reminiscent of King Lear, when Lear checks his daughter’s breath over and over again, convincing himself in his incredible state of grief, Mr. Bones looks upon his master’s breath hoping for signs of life. This scene, found on page 64, coupled with the hope that Willy will recover and someone will find his manuscripts that have long gone unread, is a sincerely ingenious literary strategy that puts the reader on the same plane as the dog, we are also holding on to hope just like Mr. Bones. But the entire time, we know this will not end well, Willy is going to die and his writing will be lost. It is tragic but it is also intensely good fiction.

After a nice little diatribe to remember Willy by, the awful part of the dream sequence begins to take place in real life, but Mr. Bones doesn’t stop at the corner to watch this time because he already knows what is going to happen and that ending is good enough for him. As explained in the book, marked as a “tragic figure,” disqualified from “the rat race of vain hopes and sentimental illusions,” Willy was one bestowed with “an aura of legitimate suffering” who “indelibly cast himself in his chosen role: as malcontent, as rebel, as outlaw poet prowling the gutters of a ruined world,” (15). But the thing that makes him truly odd, in that special way that only the wisest of holy men are odd in that their ascetic ways have led them closer “to the truth, to the gritty nub of existence,” is the militantly, anti-capitalist philosophy that takes as its most devastating critique on the whole consumeristic world the Christmas holiday.

According to Willy, “Christmas was a fraud, a season for quick bucks and ringing cash registers, and as the symbol of that season, as the very essence of the whole consumerist shebang, Santa was the biggest fake of them all,” (21). I tend to agree with Willy on this one, in my own anti-capitalist ways (I live off something like a couple of thousand dollars a year), but extreme asceticism isn’t the way to go either, (this I know from experience). Go that route and you more than likely end up like Willy, on the other extreme—finding meaning through earning money to buy things—and you end up unable to truly care for anyone but yourself, as can be seen by the end of the novel in the home that Mr. Bones eventually comes to live. There, a man named Dick reluctantly takes Mr. Bones in off the street after his wife and children had already seen the infinitely pure soul of the tough little guy. Dick financially provides a good home for his young family; however, he withholds his affection from everyone failing to see that in doing so, he makes all of those around him unhappy in imposing his misplaced values upon them. Thus even though he has purchased a home for his wife (Polly) that she loves, she never really loves her husband because to him it is enough to provide without any real connection (159). We learn that those things that make life comfortable really aren’t so bad, but putting absolute worth in them is exactly what Willy was trying to warn us not to do.

Dick is not nearly caring enough to recognize the greatness in a dog like Willy and thus treats him as a second class citizen. For example, Dick says of Mr. Bones to his daughter, “don’t feel sorry for him, Alice. He’s not a person, he’s a dog,” (144). Again, Dick shows that he is incapable of caring for others since this mindset also caries over into other relationships that he has and one doesn’t find it that much of a stretch to think that Dick would probably say something along the lines of “she’s not an adult, she’s a child,” in regards to Alice and “she’s not a provider, she’s a wife” in regards to Polly. Thus Mr. Bones “pitied him for not knowoing how to enjoy life,” (149) since his priorities are so out of whack. The first master he comes to after living with Willy also lacks the ability to truly connect and care for Bones in a significant way that elevates the relationship to that of the one he had just come from.

Immediately after Willy’s death, before he lives with Dick, Polly, and their kids, Mr. Bones comes to a most unlikely master in a young Chinese kid named Henry. Unlikely in two ways that oppose some of his former master’s most terrifying advice, (1) stay clear of children because they can be cruel and don’t make the call as to whether a dog stays or goes and (2) avoid Chinese restaurants like the plague because they will cook you up and eat you. But after being kicked and mistreated by some other boys, Bones finds himself and Henry developing a connection. Having lost much of his will and with the situation growing dire, Bones ends up following the kid home right into the “gates of hell.” On the one hand, “Henry proved that love was not a quantifiable substance,” (103) to Bones, but on the other, Henry’s lack of control disqualifies the two from being a real pair.

A deeply sad and lonely boy for which Mr. Bones, whom Henry renames Cal, can only do so much, and though all that he can do for Henry he does, the boy’s sadness goes beyond what any other being can help with. Not only this, but he also brings Bones down with him in his despair, as we see “dogs feel with their masters… [and] he had taken on the boy’s sadness as his own. Such is the way with dogs,” (113). Thus in taking on those feelings, the one’s unhappiness becomes a burden on both of them. You cannot totally rely on someone else for your own happiness just as you cannot rely on material goods either. Ultimately, the change must come from within him if Henry ever wishes to share a connection like the one enjoyed between Willy and his dog. But even with this understanding, it is no less heartbreaking when Henry’s controlling, anti-dog father discovers Bones and tears the pair apart while Henry pleads “Cal, don’t leave me! Don’t leave me Cal!” (115).

The final master of Bones is, as stated previously, a woman named Polly along with her kids and the already discussed Dick. While a very good master, one that is infinitely better than Dick in affection and able to provide in a mutual way that greatly exceeds Henry, she still makes the mistake of using Bones as a means of defiance over her husband, meaning their bond is ultimately not nearly as strong as the one shared with Willy. This leaves the only non-debased, truly whole relationship Bones has with Willy, who he clearly has the most love for of all his masters.

But what makes Mr. Bones so loveable and wise is his dogginess: “Mr. Bones was a dog, and the truth was that Willy took pleasure in that dogness, found no end of delight in watching the spectacle of his confrere’s canine habits,” (36-7). He is like a miniature Buddha, a dog with Buddha nature who has a rather Zen way of experiencing the world, “he was no more than a lame-brained pup, a nincompoop with floppy paws who ran after his own tail and chomped on his own shit, and if this was the only life he’d ever tasted, who was he to judge whether it was rich or poor in the stuff that makes life worth living?” (29) As a dog, he has simple desires that lead him to ask some of the ultimate questions about life and death and existence. For example, Auster writes that “Willy had judged him to be wholly and incorruptibly good. It wasn’t just that he knew that Mr. Bones had a soul. He knew that soul to be better than other souls, and the more he saw of it, the more refinement and nobility of spirit he found there,” (35). Mr. Bones in the end, not to give too much away, is a kind of John Donne of dogs.

Willy, convinced that Mr. Bones has a soul, asks “did it not stand to reason that a dog of such spiritual inclinations would aspire to loftier things – things not necessarily related to the needs and urgencies of his body, but spiritual things, artistic things, the immaterial hungers of the soul… Did that make him the first man in recorded history to believe that such a thing was possible?” (40). Of course not, I have, I think of my dog, Cap n’ Crunch, who I have definitively come to answer the age old question of whether a dog can have Buddha Nature, my personal favorite koan. Actually there are a lot of similarities between Mr. Bones and my Cap n’ but I won’t try and prove that to you here, suffice it to say there are just some dogs who absolutely love being dogs and doing the things that dogs do and God bless them for it.

And once the book begins to come to a close, we hope that Mr. Bones will end up with Willy in Timbuktu, where they will be “at one with the universe, a speck of anti-matter lodged in the brain of God,” (49). We realize, that the same “dreads and agonies” and “unthinkable horror” (50) that grips us when we think about our own finiteness too much also effect Mr. Bones.

I find it repellant and bullshitty that many mainstream Christian sects don’t think animals have souls or what have you. One the hardest pills to swallow about dogma (no pun intended, I assure you) when you think about it logically, I might add, in its ego centricity. All things, I contest, have that same special breath of life that make all things resemble God.[*] That is because “life wasn’t for sale, and once you found yourself at death’s door, all the noodles in China weren’t going to stop that door from opening,” (31). When we are all pieces on the board and once we are taken off, man or four-legged friend, we are all worth the same—zilch. As Willy so elliquently puts it, “in the vile game of Ego” one is participating in “the one game that everyone loses, that no one can ever win,” (67). This novel is an example of giving a voice to those who are voiceless, much like the Coetzee does with Friday in his book Foe. As we read, we realize that dogs aren’t just marginal characters but have the potential for being the main story. That is what Auster does and he does it well.

[*] I am such a firm believer in this that one of the most traumatic experiences of my life came when I was a kid and some Sunday school teacher tried to tell me I was practically worshipping Satan for believing this. This was not a church I went to regularly as a child. I went there exactly once. I do not remember where it was but if I did I probably would have burned it to the ground a long time ago. The night before I spent the night with some kid and his family went to this church every Sunday. Being seven, maybe eight, I didn’t really know that different churches believed in different things so pretty much everything I heard I assumed was Gospel. This woman, I am sure she meant well, but I vowed to never attend Sunday school after her “lesson.” She told this room full of kids that animals do not have souls. They are put on this earth for our enjoyment (This always seemed to me like saying the stars are there because God wanted to light up the sky for us to navigate our ships which is just absurd and infuriating and stupid. It is that total ignoring science that gives some fundamentalists that “crazy” label. After all, Einstein said that “religion without science is blind but science without religion is dull.” I don’t think science ever really attacked religion the way religion attacked science. Saying that evolution is “just a theory” is totally ignoring all scientific data and misunderstanding what a capital T “Theory” really is) alone. I was not feeling this at all. I started to panic almost. My hand shot up and I told her, not these exact words of course, that my parents said God could be found in all things and that everything had a soul. She then replied that that was “New Aged crap.” (A comment made in that special confidence that is pretentious and also wrong.) And, let’s just say, my reaction more or less got me banned from that kid’s house like for life. But I stood firm and defended my actions. To think that we, as human beings, are the only life in the universe that God cares for and loves was just cruel and horrible.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Two Readings of Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, while not the most significant book that lead me to pursue literature as a career—comint at different stages of my life, as though preordained, those would be The Stranger (12th grade), The Divine Comedy (junior year of undergrad), and Infinite Jest (my 1st [and part of my 2nd] year out of college)[*]—this is the book that started process. “She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted,” (72). That is, Bradbury’s novel was the first thing I ever read that I considered a serious work of fiction that taught me the incredible importance of books and also that there is something not right underneath the surface of our existence that is sucking the lifeblood right out of our veins.

The first truly great book I ever read, almost a decade ago, there have been something like 500 books since that time. Of that 500 I would consider 150, give or take 50 or so, to be very good to great. Starting the school year after my 451 experience, I immediately found myself reading my next installment of literature’s heavy weights. That Year I had my first taste of Beowulf and Chaucer and Coleridge and Mary Shelley. My senior year was defined by works of modernism—Hemmingway, Camus, Joyce, Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, etc—and then in college, the deluge. As of that time, I have averaged a book or so a week. Of say any given 50, I would find around 20 to be quote unquote “Great.” Many of those great ones are written in the same vein as 451. Of course there are the political philosophy works that are all amazing and I developed a quick attachment to them after the move from public to private school the summer after 451 had rocked my worldview. Lord of the Flies, Braver New World, 1984, these were a few of the books from the philosophy class I took in high school. My final paper for that class was something about the role of media in dictating policy/political discourse where I incorporated other assigned readings like Hegel and Martin Luther King, the former I remember intense frustration in trying to decode a message I could understand and seemingly write about as though I had understood it. I don’t recall what I got grade wise on the paper (I would assume an A since Dr. Jansen was a notoriously easy grader) but I do remember going into great detail in regards to the similarities between Brave New World’s social critique of media culture to that of 451 and how they both were eerily similar to our 2000 situation and where our nation could be heading if their warnings went unheard.[†]

451 was a love story for me, a heated affair between books and a society that no longer needed them. As such, the statements it makes remain solid. However, after reading it again a couple of months ago, I realized its audience is, for the most part, not the Montag who suspected something was wrong and went against all he had been conditioned to feel, or not feel, but for the Millies who knew something was wrong yet did nothing, in complete servitude to the ever alienating and soul-sucking status quo. And how does it happen? In the words of the novel’s antagonist, Beatty, it was our own doing:

When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I'd say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn't get along well until photography came into its own. Then - motion pictures in the early Twentieth Century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass… And because they had mass, they became simpler," said Beatty. "Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm… Picture it. Nineteenth century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the Twentieth Century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending. (54)

However, now, in the year 2008, while the world we live in is nowhere near as desperate, in the time between my 1st and 2nd readings of the book, our world does look a lot more like the one Montag lives in. The internet, admittingly, was very much a part of American lives in the late 1990s, but at that stage we were yet to be dependant on it.[‡] Then too we were still slave to time with regards to our entertainment but with shows being “On Demand” via high speed/cable connection, we have the ability to watch whatever we want when we want, 24/7/365.[§] Virtually every book has been summarized and the information out there is truly incredible. People read Sparknotes or Wikipedia for a general sense instead of actually reading a given text. And all this technology, which I have often found myself critiquing, unaware that I was using Mantag’s words when I said “Good God, nothing’s connected up,” (46). And though we do not resemble “The Family,” our families’ are not really connecting all that much, so saturated with media and all. We have also suffered from a devastating terrorist attack in this time between readings, as does the society in 451 which was not an awakening as it is implied to be in the book but the opposite resulting in more loss of freedom and more government control, not to mention a dubious war that is ever present (apparent in our world, literal in their’s) and few of us really understand, it is so heavily mediated.

With these facts in mind, I am greatly appreciative that the National Endowment of the Arts provided me this book, free of charge, as part of their Big Read program. Even if it is not as well written or profound or in any other way as good as I remember it being way back when, it is still one of the most meaningful books I have ever read and has become even more culturally relevant now a decade later. For it is Bradbury’s genius that he is both Orwell with his oppressive regime, placing pressure for the government to change its tune, and Huxley, with his citizens being drugged up, mass media saturated indifferents, which is his genius. He takes the two conceptualists and combines them in a way that is realistic and frightening.

[*]King Lear and Hamlet also had a profound impact on me but reading them at about the same time as The Stranger, the plays took on a less significant role in shaping my way of seeing the world. Then when I reread them in college—3xs each in Freshman Lit, Inro to Shakespeare, and a Shakespeare Major Tragedies seminar, they were too close to either Camus (fr. year) or Dante (jr. year) and sophomore year I had yet to experience real tragedy and loss that would call for a more positive outlook on life than existentialism. Also, some of William Blake and P.B. Shelley’s works have greatly influenced me, especially in regards to my religious beliefs, but more or less just gave voice to stuff I was already feeling and thus was not a total 180 like these other books represented when I first read them.
[†] This was just after the 2000 Indecision when shit first started to hit the fan or roll downhill or whatever. In that election, having voted for Nader, as an 18-year old who knew next to nothing, I had no clue how closely we would actually come to resemble the world depicted in these two books. Even now it is hard to believe.
[‡] For instance, no one would have dreamed of paying bills online then while today hardly anyone I know has a checkbook. Also, email is now the preferred way for any and all to communicate, just to throw a few examples out there of the little ways the internet dominates modern existence with a role every bit as important as TV ever was if not more.
[§] I consider this a pretty good thing for the most part, at least in my case. If the mood strikes me to watch a show, I go online and find a specific thing that I want to to watch. I don’t end up watching crap that I don’t really care about just because it is on at the time when the mood strikes. So I actually end up watching less of my entertainment in that I watch only what I want instead of watching and waiting for a particular program. But still the potential for constant and instantaneous viewing is still there.

My Second Favorite Writer (Jonathan Franzen) on My Favorite Writer’s (David Foster Wallace’s) Suicide

In the middle of September, when my literary hero, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide, I was a wreck. I was a wreck before and I have been a wreck since. But I didn’t know the man. Previously, I knew that Franzen and Wallace were friends, but I didn’t know they were best buds. Since learning that, I was anxious to hear what Franzen would say about his amigo’s death by hanging and the life that he lived. Furthermore, I always thought of Franzen as being a much angrier and sadder writer and guy than DFW; in other words, I thought of Franzen as being more like myself. But then DFW died and I felt like I had been deceived briefly and then I felt like I had lost a friend (when in truth I really hadn’t). So this is what Franzen had to say about the suicide before giving a “not-so-dark” account of what it was to DFW’s friend which he says was a “great happiness and privilege and endlessly interesting challenge.” Here it is, curtsey of Adam Begley of The New York Observer:

“And so now this handsome, brilliant, funny, kind Midwestern man with an amazing spouse and a great local support network and a great career and a great job at a great school with great students has taken his own life, and the rest of us are left behind to ask (to quote Infinite Jest), ‘So yo then, man, what’s your story?’

“One good, simple, modern story would go like this: ‘A lovely, talented personality fell victim to a severe chemical imbalance in his brain. There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.’ This story is at once sort of true and totally inadequate. If you’re satisfied with this story, you don’t need the stories that Dave wrote—particularly not those many, many stories in which the duality, the separateness, of person and disease is problematized or outright mocked. One obvious paradox, of course, is that Dave himself, at the end, did become, in a sense, satisfied with this simple story and stopped connecting with any of those more interesting stories he’d written in the past and might have written in the future. His suicidality got the upper hand and made everything in the world of the living irrelevant.

“But this doesn’t mean there are no more meaningful stories for us to tell. I could tell you 10 different versions of how he arrived at the evening of Sept. 12, some of them very dark, some of them very angering to me, and most of them taking into account Dave’s many adjustments, as an adult, in response to his near-death of suicide as a late adolescent.”

An Obama Nation

These are notes that I put together in the days leading up to the election and some thoughts from the day of. I am adding to this and trying to get it published. As always, comminents are much appreciated.
T-minus six days until our great and beautiful nation has a peaceful and wonderful regime change, or to be technical begins one, since the change of power doesn’t become official until the twenty something of the next year. We take it for granted, but this doesn’t happen everywhere in the world. Either way, McCain or Obama, I believe it is going to wind up an improvement, but honestly one would prove slightly better while the other will be a huge milestone and a huge improvement.

With that said, this paragraph is something of personal voter history so feel free to skip ahead, but be warned, there are some pertinent voter controversy tidbits that you may want to read. Ever since I have been of voting age, I have witnessed voting controversy, some of these controversies, I have been directly involved in while others I was forced to watch from a distance. Growing up, I was raised to vote as a liberal, and today I am as far left as you can get, the product of a working class, Irish-American background with an old man who said things like “a working class man voting republican is like a chicken voting for the colonel” and a mother who has spent most of her adult life cleaning the homes of wealthy people (including the home of an ex-girlfriend), I have considered myself too poor to vote for the Republican Party. So in 2000, eighteen-years of age, I voted third party (Green) and watched as the party I second (perhaps third considering I am a registered socialist) most identified with celebrate prematurely and have the election stolen away from them. In all my years as an American citizen, 26-years running, I have only been sicker with the democratic system one other time, which came in November 2004, when I had to wait in line for ten and a half hours just to express my constitutionally guaranteed right of voting. The so called “ground zero” of long waits, this “longest line in America” was the most attention paid to my little college until David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to my graduating class blew up with popularity after the writer’s suicide. On that day, once I was finished up with the frustrating but inspiring experience of casting our votes after thinking that the election was really going to come down to us, suffering through the rain and ridiculous wait, I vowed to never vote again. Immediately after voting, when Fox News was already calling the election a “Bush victory” while other networks were showing some restraint after the 2000 fiasco, I thought I was going to throw up. The next day, in a Shakespeare seminar I was so depressed that I almost skipped, when asked to interpret a portion of a “Macbeth” soliloquy, I responded with basically, “who fucking cares,” and it went over pretty well considering my professor was only a few spots behind me in line and it was no secrete who she was going to vote for, God bless her. But 2006 rolled around, I registered at the last minute, still not really expecting to vote. Plus my congresswoman at the time, up for reelection, a democrat who was bat-shit insane, the now deceased Julia Carson, wasn’t worth the trouble of casting a vote.[*] The night before the election though, a friend of mine who was then in Iraq, fighting for this country that I still naively believe in, told me not to forget to vote. Coming from a combat veteran who was fighting in a war that he doesn’t support, I found my own petty gripes about the democratic system to be insufficient in justifying my staying home and denouncing the system that had previously let me down. So this year, having registered on “Rock the Vote,” I am involved in yet another voter controversy, this time having to do with whether or not I can vote rather than whether or not I choose to. I am afraid that I am one of the many whose voter registration cards has not yet come because my application has gone unprocessed like many other thousands of people who went through that agency. Every four years and some bullshit happens and I am outraged at my American government. Goddamn it, why is it so fucking hard to vote? This is not a good thing and it shouldn’t be stood for, but this too seems to be the rights ploy, making it as difficult as possible for a young, poor voter’s voice to be heard.

* * *

T-minus three. Once I came to terms with the fact that my voter registration card would presumably never come, I got up a little earlier than usual today and took some initiative by going down to the Forsyth County Government Building to register and vote early. With only three hours separating the time I got in line to vote from the time I had to be at work, I was gambling on the efficiency of governmental officials. After the 2004 debacle, I didn’t think this wise, but what was I to do if I wanted to vote? Not too bad this time around, only a two hour wait to cast my ballot. Still infuriating, plus this time I wasn’t surrounded by my nearest and dearest as I was four years ago, though I wasn’t completely alone in the line either, a girl I went to school with was about 15 spaces ahead of me so I did get to talk to her when the winding line snaked just right and we could chat for a couple of minutes until we got too far away from each other and then a few minutes later again converse face-to-face when our spots in line met up. But two hours of wait isn’t nearly as taxing as ten and half. If I would have been in Gambier, I wouldn’t have voted. But I did get to vote and that was that. Now I am done with it and can chill at home watching election coverage on TV while many go out and wait. And wait.

Recently, I heard someone say that “Obama looks presidential while McCain looks like the guy who doesn’t want Barrack Obama to be President.” This turns out to be apt but that seems to be the republican way and it has worked for them in the past. Actually, going back over the past damn near 40-years, it has worked very well with five of the last seven presidents sporting elephants instead of donkeys. Tonight on SNL, McCain made an appearance on “Weekend Update” where he was sort of funny, I guess, in telling of his last minute strategies going into Tuesday, one of which was called the “Old Grandpa” where he basically says “come on people, Barrack Obama has plenty of chances to be President, let me have my turn.” I fail to see how this is all that different from his actual strategy.

* * *

T-minus two. The following is somewhat of a response to a New York Times article from two months ago entitled “The Final Days” written by Peter Baker. According to Baker, the Shrub’s, George W. Bush, legacy depends on McCain winning this election. Though neither likes the other all that much, they found themselves once again connected on the campaign trail. The question that McCain is now asking himself in the Shrub’s 11th hour is whether or not Bush will beat him twice. Win or lose, he is running against a legacy as much as he is a democrat.

McCain knows this. And so does Bush. And so does Obama and most everyone else. Hence the ads that claim McC is a Bush clone and we “can’t afford four more years” and Will Ferrell on SNL doing his W saying “a vote for McCain is a vote for George W. Bush.” For McC’s part, he has been distancing himself as far as humanly possible from the sinking ship that goes way past anything Gore mustered in 2000 with his relationship with Clinton. Unlike Gore though, McC can afford to and he must. Far enough away from the President’s circle of trust and with a well documented history of piss and vinegar candor, McC can criticize W while not seeming like someone who stood back while he screwed up the country or got a blow job from a government intern and then was wishy-washy about it or whatever. Bush, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be all that pissed off about comments like “we’re worse off than we were four years ago,” which is quite the statement since it refers to the ineptitude of a leader from his own party. He lets McC be an asshole and trounce on his Presidency because that's the guy who can validate it. Obama though no doubt went negative (both candidates went negative, of course), at first setting his sites on the past 8-years, and then on the Bush clone himself. Going after the Republican nominee though may give people just the excuse they need to lose interest and stay at home and do bong rips on Election Day instead of taking the trip to the polling station.

Getting people disinterested is therefore going to benefit the GOP just as it did for Bush in 2000 when he nearly lost to the anti-candidate (McCain). But when the anti-candidate has a realistic shot, the candidate begins to do all those things he or she denounced and did not do before that made him or her popular and standout in the first place. We not only get bored of this stuff, we find it uninteresting and toxic to our ideals.[†] Being popular, in other words, barely matters. What is important is maintaining power. This is what Bush has done, to be sure, after all, many admired the man for “sticking with his gut” and not heeding to things like information and deliberation and history that in the days pre-9/11 get in the way of swift, decisive actions. And thus, we have had the Joker for a President from 2001-2008—“I don’t plan, I just do.”[‡] So, of course he found his presidency a “joyous experience,” he was obeying what he thought was a call from God after all. So sure he is with his rightness in his “principles” and his “values” that he doesn’t even toy with the notion that it could theoretically be mistaken. Maybe it’s not God talking to you there good buddy, its Dick Cheney (who may very well be Satan).

* * *

T-minus one. Got around to reading the Rolling Stone piece on Obama from the October 30 issue and it is amazing, actually the second most amazing thing that I have read about the candidate. He is, no doubt, a historic candidate and this is a historic turning point in American history. He has always been popular. He has become even more popular as of recent days because of this whole economic crisis. Iraq has become second fiddle to this whole “Second Great Depression” and McCain handled it poorly. This shift has put Obama over the top with the “meltdown” on Wall Street as well as McCain’s “equally impressive meltdown” by erratically/recklessly handling of the crisis not to mention his smear campaign that resembles Bush’s tactics he was so pissed about back in 2000. But much of the credit needs to go to Obama himself for “displaying precisely the kind of character and judgement we need in a president: renouncing the politics of fear, speaking frankly on the most pressing issues facing the country and sticking to his principles.” He has had a big couple of weeks, of course, with the wear and tear of a presidential campaign, a wedding anniversary, the death of his grandmother, and win or lose, the coming days are going to prove extremely difficult and even bigger than the days leading up to Election Day.

Part of his appeal has to be his sense of outrage as most Americans have been outraged for quite some time. In Philly two weeks ago, he called the financial crisis “a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years” and this has been the GOP economic philosophy supported by McCain that insists “the market is king” and believes in the value of Trickle Down Economics that says the super wealthy are the most deserving of massive tax breaks. So when McCain tries to change his tune, America is wise to his tactics.

Things are not good right now, the Bush administration has damaged our country in so many ways. Who would want the job of leading this bruised and battered nation? Obama does. And he is rising to the occasion. Pray for it. Pray for us. God help us.

* * *

Underworld. Woke up and went with my female companion while she went and voted, I having already done so. She gets ready. Dresses like a first lady. I wear track pants, a sleeve on my head, and a hooded sweatshirt.

Once I get back home, I pop in the documentary “Out Foxed” to get me syked for the day’s festivities. There in, Jeff Cohen, former Fox News Contributor, says, “Media is the central nervous system of democracy” and when that it doesn’t run properly, neither does the democracy. So the point is, when right wing propaganda is played around the clock, they distort the news and make it next to impossible to make an informed decision. They misrepresent and then when they are contradicted they speak over the ones contradicting them and claim that they are speaking “the truth” and “facts” when they are being deliberately misleading.

The best part of the video is a segment about Jeremy Glick, a young man that lost his dad in the 9/11 attacks who was on the O’Reily Factor and said that Papa Bear used the 9/11 attacks to project his narrow right wing viewpoint. O’Reily, of course “spins” it after he kicks the kid off his program, calling him “out of control” and claiming the he said that Bush had planned the terrorist attacks. When he tried to sue Bill for defamation, he couldn’t because the guy lies so pathologically that it was almost impossible to prove that he knew he was lying.

I watched the election at a friends house, a partisan house, most of the kids there have parents that voted for McCain. Some are obnoxious, others are cool, all are drunk. When states get called, someone colors them in red or blue on poster-boards of the country. Once the election gets called, we toast to champagne.

I called my parents, we talked for hours, it was a great time and great day the country. I couldn’t enjoy most of it though, the female companion and I were fighting.

One of the first commercials after Obama’s speech I notice is for Vagisil. This is history. History books are being written right now. No time in my life has been more exciting. I am drunk. So is Tom Brokaw. What a country. What a fucking country. I end the night looking at white guys with bad tupes while my beautiful redhead sleeps upstairs while Indiana, the state I was born, goes blue.

[*] A few days before, a friend of my dad’s, an Irish-Catholic guy much like my father, who is very racially conscious, and is married to a black woman, went to a JC political rally and was appalled by the congresswoman who he witnessed attempt to leave a limousine to only fall back in which caused her to lose her hairpiece. In this reported bit of damn near slapstick comedy, JC ended up leaving the wig in the car and some guy ran up to her just as she was about to go on stage for some political rally and threw on her crooked hair which she barely noticed and she had some clueless look on her face throughout the entire speech she read off a piece of paper and the whole thing looked terrible but she still got reelected. She died not long after. That is the system working for us.

[†] For a more eloquent and informed explanation, see David Foster Wallace’s Rolling Stone essay “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub” on John McCain’s 2000 run for the Republican Presidential Nomination and political apathy among the young.

[‡] But where does he get the balls big enough? Well, as it turns out, his religious convictions have the same stink of absolutes that drive his foreign policy. There is a deep need to protect the capacity to will such certainty in the face of daunting complexity and opposition that tere is no way he is doing anything other than what he truly believes is right. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, he is going to stand up there as everybody listening looks pissed and do what he damn well wants. But when you think about his supporters in the Evangelical Right he looks more like a Manchurian Candidate who is a puppet for some group of constituents who want things a certain way and are unwilling to budge. Facts don’t need to stand in the way of bold decisions of unshakable faith when there is need for “righteous actions” in the form of a “crusade” where “evil” is attacked and “God’s gift” of democracy is spread to all.

Former Bush speech writer and religious nut job Michael Gerson (the one who coined “The War on Terror”) calls the Shrub’s non-negotiation “unrewarded heroism/courage” in “doing the right thing under pressure.” As Mike Conway says, “he believes he’s got a role and he’s doing what God wants him to do.” To go again God is certainly something I not going to advocate but to put all you’re faith into something that just isn’t going to work is to turn a democracy into what W wants to eliminate in the Middle East—an oppressive, sectarian government where church and state are one.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Top Ten Horror/Halloween Related Movies

Compiling this list, I tried to make it as accurate, yet original, as I could. Upon looking at several other lists, I discovered that most of these can be seen on most critics lists as well as the definitive 100 Scariest Movie Moments which aired on Bravo in 2005 and has been the regarded as the list to end all lists of the movie genre. Much like AFI’s list has its place in the back of minds as the authoritative source for the greatest works of film, the Bravo segment has put our horror in an ordered set that proves conclusive. With that said, this list is not simply a scary movie list, this has to do with the horror genre for the most part yes, but not all of the these flicks are horror outright. Many of them aren’t scary at all in their over the top ridiculousness and some of them are actual comedies—one of them isn’t even a movie. Thus I defend my picks as being anything but another, alternate list to refute the picks made by whatever selection committee Bravo employed to compose their choices. As always, comments are appreciated, so tell me what you think of the little list I have composed here, and let me know if you have anything to add about any of these films or you would like to recommend your own.

The Evil Dead Trilogy- What can I say besides Bruce Campbell is a God among men. The film “Bruce Almighty” in fact was actually a screen adaptation of BC’s life. One of the coolest things I have ever heard was a kid I knew who claims to have hooked up with Bruce’s daughter and afterwards he said “you know what’s really great about this? Your dad is Bruce Campbell!” That did not go over well, as the story goes, but everyone was in agreement that that was the only appropriate thing to say when such a thing happens. I mean who doesn’t love/idolize a guy who writes books titled If Chins Could Kill and Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way? These films are a fist full of “boomstick” and should not only be watched but studied for all those who think Z-Day is coming or who just want to see the manliest of men kick Deadite ass and look extremely cool while doing it.

The Exorcist- The last movie I watched that totally scared the shit out of me. I went to see it my senior year of high school with my lady friend at the time who was extremely averse to watching it. I told her something like “I’ll be here to protect you baby” or something like that. And for the most part I was, but when Linda Blair, in full getup, climbs down the stairs in the way that she does, which I could never accurately put to words, it really must be seen to be appreciated, I was petrified. I could then understand why people fainted, vomited, and ran out of the theater screaming when I saw that incredible scene on the big screen. I couldn’t look at the stairs in my basement where my bad faced them for weeks and slept on the couch upstairs it fucked with me so badly.

Event Horizon- Rented the film thinking it was going to be a rip off of Star Trek and/or Alien and would involve a bunch or space/science fiction stuff that I was used to. Thus I was completely unprepared for how freaky and terrifying this movie really is. I have talked to many people about this movie and all of their reactions are ultimately the same, saying something along the lines of “that was the scariest fucking movie I have ever seen.” And with the exception of The Exorcist, I would say this film staring Sam Neal and Lawrence Fishburn is, surprisingly, one of the scariest films ever made. Traveling into other dimensions that are thought to be pinnacles of human achievement, they actually open up a gateway to hell, I know it sounds cheesy but you have no idea how chilling this movie really is until you watch it and are paralyzed with absolute fear.

Halloween 1 and 2- October wouldn’t be complete without at least one viewing of each of these two John Carpenter films. These archetypal slasher flicks really should be watched together, but never watch 2 without 1. Many of the critiques that caused the second film to be so much less popular hold true—stuff like it not making any sense if you haven’t seen the original (as with any horror sequels I feel), the plot being absurd, full of cheap thrills, etc. But when viewed together, the second one has a charm that one has to like in films where upwards of a dozen young people are brutally murdered. Plus it provides conclusion which you don’t get with the first one. Though don’t even bother watching any of the ones that follow. They just aren’t very good. (Rob Zombie’s remake isn’t too bad either btw, and for someone who grew up on these flicks, there are a bunch of little nobs to original franchise. One of note is that Danielle Harris, who I sort of had a little thing for when I was a child based on her staring roles in Halloween 4 and 5, returns to the series in the role of Annie Brackett, protagonist Laurie Strode’s best bud. Malcolm McDowell takes over Donald Pleasence’s old role as Dr. Loomis, another little perk that may make this little diddy worth seeing.

In the Mouth of Madness- Another Sam Neal staring role, as well as a John Carpenter film, this 1995 film might be the director’s most chilling work. In this horror flick, a best selling author goes missing while he still churns out creepy work. Neal then goes on the hunt to find the author and ends up in one twisted town that turns out to be some kind of Hell where the books play out in real life. While staying in this hell-hole, he finds that whoever reads the book goes completely and violently insane. With people assuming he has gone mad, he is tucked away in a mental institution while a film version is in the works with anyone who watches again being instantly transformed, and considering the mass appeal and easy access to the film, the work of fiction is ready to alter the outcome of civilization.

Re-Animator- As you can probably already tell, I love myself some absurd, over the top zombie flicks and this one is right up there with Army of Darkness as being the best of the best. This is a bizarre, low budget film, that is as gory as it is darkly funny. For example, an asshole doctor who has been decapitated, carries his head around and after he ties up his colleague’s daughter, one of his student’s who is romantically involved with the medical school’s prized student, he takes the severed head and attempts to perform oral sex on the girl in the film’s most infamous scene.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein- Bud Abbott and Lou Costello team up with horror greats Bella Lugosi (the quintessential Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (the timeless wolf-man), and Glenn Strange (after Boris Karloff gave up the monster role afraid he was being typecast, it was Strange who would go on to star in half a dozen or more Frankenstein roles) in this monster movie spoof that was kind of a farewell to all of these great stars from the genre’s golden age. At times hilarious, even by today’s standards, it is another over the top monster movie which without would leave my list incomplete.

Scream- My favorite “teen scream” of the 1990s, this came out just when I was about to enter high school and I loved it. A bunch of hot little things running around being chased by a masked butcher sporting THOs, it was great. It also paid tribute to all the slasher flicks that came before with a horror encyclopedia incarnate. As a trilogy, Scream left something to be desired, although all three were alright in their own little ways, the original was clearly the best and the only one I will more than likely watch this Halloween season.

Silence of the Lambs- It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

The Blair Witch Project- The first time I saw this, during the summer of 99 at Tibbs Drive In, where I spent more time and energy making out/getting it on than I did watching the movie, I ended up in the concession stand buying hamburgers and nachos and missed the beginning part where it was explained that the serial killer guy would make one of the kids face the corner while he killed the other one. The girl I was with at the time also missed this bit of information although she stayed back in the car watching the movie. So when I saw the end, with that guy in the corner being the last thing we see before the camera falls to the ground and we hear screaming, I didn’t get it. I remember thinking something like WTF that does not seem like an appropriate time to just whip it out in the corner and start taking a piss, this movie sucks and is not scary, people, why are going to see this stupid, stupid movie. Then a year later, with a new gf, I was forced to watch the film I had put way out of my mind. I didn’t remember anything about it when I rewatched it on Halloween 2000. After viewing it that time though, I got why it was so goddamn scary and what all the hype was about. Good show.

Fifteen Notable Mentions: Nosferatu; Rosemary’s Baby; Psycho; Hell Raiser; The Omen; Vacancy; The Vanishing; The Howling; The Others; Thriller; A Nightmare on Elm Street; The Hitcher; House on Haunted Hill (1959); The Last House on the Left; Jacob’s Ladder

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sources of Bushido: Inazo Nitobe's Book Bushido: Samurai Ethics and the Soul of Japan

This work, written for a Western audience, was one of the first instances of any book on Japanese culture that found its way into the American literary world. Broken up into user-friendly sections with titles such as “Justice;” “The Duty of Loyalty;” “The Institutions of Suicide and Redress;” “Courage, The Spirit of Daring and Bearing;” and “Benevolence, The Feeling of Distress” it served as an introduction to not only the Samurai mindset existing in Japan, which is exaggerated for effect, but it was also one of the first discussions on the religions of Japan, of which one of the major one’s focused on was naturally Zen Buddhism, an “ethic” that is quite at odds with Bushido. However, Zen and Bushido do seem to share something of a bond in their development and also in the traditions that shape the two if not outright molding each other. With that said, Inazo’s study is rather interesting and easy to digest for the Western reader, though its claim of bushido being “the Soul of Japan” is far from the truth at his time of writing, though leading up to WWII it did find itself more prevalent, deployed as a system of control since it stresses absolute loyalty to one’s master, a complete submission to fate, and the deeply rooted sense of familial/clan honor.

One account depicted by Inazo that I found remarkable in its similarity to a technique found in the peaceful and pacifistic Zen was with samurai in training and Zen bodhisattvas’ practice of endurance in waiting outside of the training ground which he defends against claims of being a seemingly “ultra-Spartan system” (22) since they are ways of testing one’s commitment to their cause. We have all, presumably, heard of this practice before in one form or another—in the Sex and the City episode “Great Sexpectations,” the title of which makes me want to go and spill the groceries for some many different reasons, had Charlotte waiting outside of a synagogue trying to convince a rabbi she was legit in her interest of converting to Judaism and in the 1999 film Fight Club[i] when Tyler Durbin makes members of Fight Club wanting to partake in Project Mayhem stand for a three-day period on his front doorstep while he shouts discouragingly at the would be member of the tribe[ii]—but I never associated with the samurai, I assumed it a strictly Zen phenomenon until reading this book.

While this little anecdote I found believable, some of the other Zen/samurai connections made by Inazo were something of a stretch. This is especially so when Inazo writes about the compassion of the warrior, which sort of strikes me as an oxymoron since he goes into such painstaking detail about how the samurai is one of action. Action here translates into killing. So when he says “benevolence to the weak, the down-trodden or the vanquished, was ever extolled as peculiarly becoming to a samurai,” (28) you sort of have to do a double take and wonder if he is talking about the same class of people that we equate with Kill Bill. While I do think there probably is some truth to this, samurai’s couldn’t go around killing people willy-nilly after all, I think that probably had more to do with social norms rather than compassion per se. This claim is most ludicrous when detailing the tea ceremony, a Zen staple, in any other than what it represented for the samurai—a means of control.

Inazo writes, “the tea ceremony presents certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc,” (34). I can’t help but think one of those things he yadda-yaddas is in fact the human being participating here. I do not limit this to tea ceremony or Zen or bushido, that goes for any system that seeks to control its subjects rather than actually “enlighten” them. Inazo could have been writing of Christian dogma, or any dogma for that matter, when he writes “the spiritual significance of social decorum…is out of all proportion to what their appearance warrants us in believing.” Be it Buddhism, samurai ethics, Christianity, Islam, whatever, when you place “spiritual significance” on “social decorum,” your religions motives have the wrong idea in mind, especially considering pretty much all of the religions I can think of started out, at least in part, as a way of challenging, not enforcing the status quo. “Social decorum,” to stay in line, to be a part of the state’s mechanism for suppressing true freedom, those are the attributes being highlighted here. But it gets weirder:

That calmness of mind, that serenity of temper, that composure and quietness of demeanour which are the first essentials of Cha-no-yu (chanoyu), are without doubt the first conditions of right thinking and right feeling… The utmost refinement of taste is the object aimed at; whereas anything like display is banished with religious horror. The very fact that it was invented by a contemplative recluse, in a time when wars and the rumours of wars were incessant, is well calculated to show that this institution was more than a pastime. Before entering the quiet precincts of the tea-room, the company assembling to partake of the ceremony laid aside, together with their swords, the ferocity of battle-field or the cares of government, there to find peace and friendship. Cha-no-yu (chanoyu) is more than a ceremony—it is a fine art; it is poetry, with articulate gestures for rhythms: it is a modus operandi of soul discipline. (36)

This explicit reference to the 8-Fold Noble Path, naming two of the spokes in the dharma wheel, “right thinking” and “right feeling,” either looks to mislead the Western public about the relationship between these two systems or greatly misunderstands these two concepts. I don’t believe that if you could somehow talk to Bodhidharma (sp?) and ask him if it was maybe like ok to disembowel someone with a razor sharp samurai sword and still practice “right action.” No, that would be ludicrous. It is no different to dwell on doing it or not doing it either since neither one is what you would call a healthy type of thought filled with compassion, not to mention it is seeing this dualistically and is also a form of attachment which are also Buddhist principles that it breaks. But these are ignored. While there may be more connections and the two could, one could argue, be more closely tied than first appears to be, to throw around one or two elements from a doctrine without thoroughly explaining it as a way to like show how they can be reconciled is basically bullshit.

In this light, Inazo’s declaration that “what Christianity has done in Europe toward rousing compassion in the midst of belligerent horrors, love of music and letters has done in Japan. The cultivation of tender feelings breeds considerate regard for the sufferings of others. Modesty and complaisance, actuated by respect for others' feelings, are at the root of politeness,” (31) becomes chilling as our view changes and we see the control units placed upon us in the name of Christ.

To be fair, he does try to throw in some more 8-FNP stuff in there, for example, he explains that one practicing Gi-ri (Right Reason) and doing what that part of the psyche tells the samurai to do, one “does not rush to deeds of virtue, recourse must be had to man’s intellect and his reason must be quickened to convince him of the necessity of acting right,” (18). As a nice little touch, he adds, “the same is true of any other moral obligation.” This is another example of abomination on Inazo’s part since he takes the 8-FNP, which is designed to cease suffering for all sentient beings, and specifically tries to justify why it is ok to go out of your way to cause suffering in sentient beings. You can’t rectify this really without some fancy maneuvering I don’t think, but we don’t even get that. Inazo banks on us not knowing shit about Buddhism and when he was writing I am sure this was the case. But now Zen is hot. Richard Gear is Buddhist. Our Western theologians and spiritualists are even influenced by the Zen world view. Thus for readers with any background or basic knowledge of Buddhism, his arguments are going to seem pretty unconvincing as for the Zen nobility of the samurai class.

This ties in with the fact that both bushido and Zen also share a weariness of book-learning, which are considered intellect inferior to ethics and emotions, in these versions of extreme transcendentalism which consider their practices not an end but a means. In the “Era of Warring States” that found both systems coming into prominence, time was defined by confusion and people looked to these belief structures as ways of making sense of the state of being and to provide some order in the chaos of a life of uncertainty made exceedingly dangerous with the hostile environment. Bushido then originated as a type of code with the point of providing safe conduct in a feudal society (see page 15). He explains in a way that is typical of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Zen, that “samurai was essentially a man of action. Science was without the pale of his activity,” (57). Yet here, when he could make his case for the two being directly related, he totally down plays the connect saying “[the samurai] took advantage of it in so far as it concerned his profession of arms. Religion and theology were relegated to the priests; he concerned himself with them in so far as they helped to nourish courage.” Thus trying to legitimate bushido as an ethical system, I don’t know why he would even say this since it undercuts the point he is really trying to make, unless that is he trying to say that bushido is the only ethical system when you break it down, which I think he is getting at, but even this idea is one appropriated from Zen.

Loyalty to the truth, you would think, would have some bearing here since he goes on and on about it all over the place. But what we get is a highly romanticized version of the samurai consciousness in early 20th century Japan. The idea of a “national consciousness,” based on Shinto beliefs, was one of extreme obedience to the imperial family. This system also found much of its support in such Zen influences as the Chinese thinkers Confucius and Mencius, both of whom stressed loyalty to the state. This basically became a part of the “soul of Japan” at about the time that Inazo was writing his book. Before then, loyalty was paid by the samurai, in some but by no means in all cases, to his retainer but it was a system not shared by all of Japan as he would lead you to believe. That was a product of Japanese nationalism which was fueled by propaganda that emphasized the bushido code of ethics, much like this book does.

All in all, the book is pretty interesting even if it is completely full of shit. There are also some ESL issues in Inazo’s writing and he doesn’t exactly cite his sources very well. I don’t really think this book worth your time unless you find bushido an interesting topic but be warned this is a terrible source if you are writing a research paper.

[i] Granted, I should have seen this as being more of a violent practice than the one undertaken in Zen, but at the time I saw these men as being modern day, secular ascetics who were above worldly things that someone could place a price tag on. I still do, actually, but now I have come to learn that they are meant to be more of the blindly loyal followers of their master more representative of the samurai class than with Zen monks who are encouraged to hold onto nothing, even the teachings/sayings of their noble masters. FYI, I also saw the Jedi of Star Wars as being more like Zen monks rather than the samurai they were clearly supposed to be because of their Buddhist principles that I later learned were the principles I write about above that were the ones adopted by the samurai class from Zen. But, the introduction of “metachlorians” negates any real choice of entering into a sacred brotherhood that shouldn’t be about birthright and garbage like those worldly things which also ruined the whole Star Wars saga for me to be perfectly honest.
[ii] See Reading in-between the lines: An analysis of Fight Club for an analysis of this scene, among others, though not what you would call "academic," the "analysis" touches on the Zen aspect saying “This is how the Buddhist temples have tested applicants going back for bah-zillion years…You tell the applicant to go away, and if his resolve is so strong that he waits at the entrance without food or shelter or encouragement for three days, then and only then can he enter and begin training.” For an interesting take on Fight Club as a whole through a Zen perspective, see Charlie Reed’s essay in Journal of Religion and Film, which I have linked, titled Fight Club: An Exploration of Buddhism as well as Steve Olson’s Discovering Zen take on the remarkable film and how it ties in to Zen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blake’s Innocence: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man through a Theological Perspective

William Blake, protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Western Dead Man, died the moment he decided to go to Machine. Machine is his Hell, but not “the end of the line.” Up until he kills Gabriel Byrne’s character he is dying in the way in which we all are, moment after moment he comes closer to his day of judgment just as we all move closer to death as every second passes. After this bloody act, however, he becomes a marked man and lives on borrowed time. It is sin that causes his death: the sexual desire, the murder, and the greed all kill him. I argue that these sins (as in the seven deadly sins) manifest themselves in human form throughout the film as Blake continues on his spiritual quest.

Blake’s journey begins with the character taking a train ride into his own abyss. As the train progresses toward the town of Machine, he drifts in and out of consciousness the as groups of people, appearing increasingly wilder, get on and off while the landscape turns bleaker and bleaker. During the ride, the only person who talks to Blake (a conductor played by Crispin Glover), sits across from him and in the first words spoken in the picture begins:

“Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later that night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, ‘Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?’”

Two major developments arise from this scene: first, the audience notices a surreal/dreamlike quality which persists throughout due to the oddness that immediately opens the film and secondly, in speaking about the “boat”, the conductor is actually prophesizing Blake’s death. This death is not clear to the first time viewer; however, future problems are clearly foreshadowed when the conductor explains to Blake that he has come “all this way to Hell.”

Once reaching his final destination, Blake discovers that Machine really is a type of godless hell where his true journey will begin. In this town he sees death (in the animal skulls that decorate the buildings and coffins propped against them), filth (the streets are literally filled with dirt and manure), and sex and violence (a man in between two buildings forces a woman at gunpoint to perform oral sex on him). What is worse, things continue to deteriorate as he finds the job he has been promised by the owner of steel company (John Dickinson) has been given to someone else. With no money and no one to help him, Blake has hit rock bottom or so it seems. Having no other prospects, Blake goes to a bar and buys a small bottle of whiskey. After leaving, he sees a woman (Thel Russel) get thrown in the mud by a man who says “we liked you better when you was a whore.” Coming to her aid, Blake starts to move toward the good, he is overwhelmed with a sense to do right even though he is surrounded by forces of extreme evil. At this point he is invited back to the woman’s hotel room changing his luck for the better. Here he has a place to stay and a woman who loves him (at least physically). But this reversal of fortune does not last.

Meeting this mysterious woman, while providing temporal security, does not make Blake whole. In Thel his quest for a place of belonging has been satisfied but that sort of satisfaction is only temporary since everyone parts in the end through death (if not sooner). The separation between Thel and Blake does not take long. Walking in on the couple in bed together, Charlie Dickinson (former fiancée of Thel and son of John Dickinson) fires his pistol at Blake. Instead of slaying the protagonist, Charlie shoots the woman of his affection, killing her instantly. While physically alive, the bullet that killed Thel passes through her body and lodges its self into Blake, from this point on he is living on borrowed time. This bullet will eventually kill him; the narrative is now one long death scene. Afraid for his life, Blake then shoots Charlie in the neck, fatally wounding him. This random occurrence puts the spiritual quest into motion as he now has to leave his own personal hell. Trying to figure things out, unsure of what to do with his life that is clearly in the gutter, the search begins as he flees the town. The spirit is forced on him; his spirit is taking him to where it belongs, a crossing over from the real into the unknown. Throughout the whole dream-like-journey, William Blake begins to experience the frailty and confusion that defines reality and is personified here in the seven deadly sins in this case lust. One can see Charlie as lust incarnate because he lusted after Blake’s partner. In trying to kill Blake because of his desire for Thel, Charlie could be viewed as envious. This however does not seem to be the case considering this act is primarily a crime of passion. Charlie desires (but did not respect or love) the woman and that drove him to attack Blake, not because he was envious, but because of his total obsession with the girl. Upon killing Charlie, Blake has encountered and overcome the first of the seven but in order to finish the quest, he must overcome each of them in due time.

Having undertaken the quest, the other six must be dealt with to reach enlightenment. No easy task, Blake seems helpless against these powers. However, to assist him in overcoming the personified sins, Blake receives a spiritual guide to lead him away from the evils of this world. Regaining consciousness in the wilderness after fleeing the scene of the crime, he finds himself in the presence of a large Native American trying to dislodge the metal from Blake’s chest. Here, Blake is acknowledged as a “dead man” for the first time when the man asks him “did you kill the white man who killed you?” He then responds “I’m not dead” but he is: he has yet to accept it but he is a dead man. This man named ‘Nobody’ soon takes on the Virgil-like task of guiding him through Hell where people are defined by one of the seven sins.

With someone to lead him through this cold, unforgiving world, he is now ready to take on the next part of the journey. A fugitive of the law, he wonders through the wilderness where he stumbles upon “three stupid white men” representing gluttony, greed, and sloth. Testing his disciple’s ability to overcome these evils, Nobody forces Blake to meet them head-on. Assessing the task asked of him, Blake would really rather not go stating “I don’t know them and they don’t look very friendly, what if they kill me?” However, his guide will not allow him to skip the parts of his journey that he finds difficult. He must deal with all of them no matter the sense of danger. Luckily, he has Nobody (a clever pun used in the film her) to “observe.” In one of the more hilarious scenes of the film, Blake goes down to meet the three men who are arranged into a sort of grotesque family unit with one of them taking on a motherly type role by wearing a dress and cooking their dinner. As Blake confronts the three men in the wilderness, the man in the dress (Sally Jenko) quotes the scripture but interprets it incorrectly. This man who preaches the “Word of God” but knows nothing of what he is saying and he lives a dubious lifestyle to say the least. Sally then represents slothfulness because he fails to love God with his whole heart, he reads the Scripture but never takes the time to learn its message and ultimately leads others astray for which he does not care.

The other two men Benmont Tench (gluttony) and Big George (greed) are just as evil and together they pose a very dangerous threat to the quest. Both the men want Blake (it is implied to use him sexual) but for different reasons. Benmont desires Blake because he was simply there. He does not need him at all; he wants to indulge just to do so embodying gluttony.[1] Big George, on-the-other-hand, wants Blake all to himself because Benmont wanted him too saying “if I want this one I’ll have him too by God.” This makes George greedy in the worst of ways since he uses Blake to assert power over his comrades asserting that if he couldn’t have him then nobody could. And Nobody does, coming to his rescue, killing thus helping Blake overcome the evils.

The remaining three evils out to destroy that quest take the form of the three bounty hunters out to kill Blake. The audience learns that these three are much more dangerous and much more a threat to Blake’s quest. These three hired guns, Johnny “the kid” Pickett (wrath), Conway Twill (envy), and Cole Wilson (pride) represent the most deadly of the seven and rightly portrayed as assassins. Pursuing Blake for their reward, the three begin to fight amongst themselves and the audience learns that Cole is the worst of them all. Telling Pickett about Cole’s past, Twill begins the first of the quarrel among the three saying Cole “fucked his parents, he killed them and he ate them. He ain’t got no God damned conscience.” Twill, seeing that he lacks Cole’s reputation as a killer, encourages Pickett to kill Cole since he is disrespectful to “The Kid.” Here one notices how the two evils manifest. Twill envies Cole’s status and wants to see him dead. He is envious both in the classic sense and in the more modern; he wants Cole to fail and also wants what he has. Pickett, because of Twill’s words, is less willing to deal with Cole’s demands and more prone to wrath. With this the evils start to consume each other and all are consumed by pride, the root of all sin, and do not actually come face to face with Blake but still pose a threat to his journey.

In Cole, the audience does not just hear about the evil things he has allegedly done, they get to see it firsthand. At times one thinks that Twill’s story may be part of his “legend” until he kills Pickett and eats Twill. After Cole shoots Pickett from behind for cursing at him, the two remaining sins come across two marshals (discussed later) Blake had recently killed. Falling into an extinguished fire pit, one marshals resembles a sort of sun god in the way that he is positioned. Cole says that he “looks like a goddamn religious icon” and grotesquely smashes his head with the bottom of his boot. One sees pride going out of its way to destroy the quest illustrated here with the head stomp. Pride wants to end the quest because it believes in only itself. It doesn’t need the spirit or a higher power, all it needs is it’s self. With this action Cole is basically saying “Screw God, I can do it on my own.” That is even too much for greed it would seem. But then again, pride doesn’t need the other sins anyway, through pride all the others follow but it is ultimately pride that ruins the quest.

Central to Nobody’s teaching is the need to forgo one’s desires by eliminating pride. It is important to note that Nobody has also undertaken a spiritual quest and has learned that pride is the root of all sin. Not respected in his tribe because his parents belonged to warring tribes, Nobody is an outcast among his people. Wondering alone as a boy, he was kidnapped by whites and his spirit seemed to have left him. Taken and forced to become a sort of living museum or a type of zoo animal for the white world, he is an outcast there as well. Taken to England as a “young savage,” he imitated them so they would lose interest but it only grew. Put into schools, he discovered the work of William Blake. After eventually escaping, he goes back and sees the destruction of his people. Once reunited with his people, the stories of his adventures angered them, he was called him a liar and given the name “He who talks loud but says nothing” (but he prefers to be called Nobody). Pride made his tribe deny him as a person so he became a true outcast. Ridiculed by his own people, left to wonder the earth alone, he was then able to realize his true identity: a nobody.

Even with a fellow outcast who has experienced and learned first hand the negative effects of evil, Blake has trouble following his master. Blake does not always listen to his guide and frustrating him, causing him to lose focus, delaying the quest. As a result, the guide leaves him from time to time. He does this in order to allow Blake to grow on his own. Nobody hints at why he leaves him to fend for himself when he says that “quest for vision is a great blessing… to do so one must go without food and water, all the sacred spirits recognize those who fast, it is good to prepare for a journey in this way.” Here, Nobody leaves Blake because he knows that his student is unable to fend for himself so fasting is really his only option. He must experience the world for himself not rely on others. Through this he will be ready to let go of the desires he holds so dear. Blake, at this point, wants some peyote but Nobody says it is not for him, he is not ready for this part of the spiritual journey. The visions would be too much for him at that point. On the drug, Nobody sees Blake for what he is, a dead man, in the form of a skull. That is what we all really are as far as the flesh goes, but as Blake shows, the spirit goes on anyway and searches for meaning despite eventual death.

Returning to the scene where Blake kills the two marshals, this concept becomes even more interesting. In shooting them dead, one observes Blake beginning to accept his new way of life. When they see Blake in the distance, they ask “are you William Blake?” He replies “yes I am, do you know my poetry” and shows them his new talent by killing them. While he does this he quotes the poem “some are born to endless night.” In this scene, Blake demonstrates that he now embracing the quest that he has undertaken and all that comes with it. Although he is committing unlawful acts that one could argue are wicked in nature, he does what the quest demands of him. Things of the world lose their importance in light of the truly significant. Urgency decides the odyssey. The old Blake is dead and the new Blake must accept his new way of life.

Underlying much of Nobody’s philosophy is the poetry of the historic William Blake which causes some confusion among Nobody, Blake (the character), and the audience. Early in the film after calling Blake a “dead man”, the two characters begin the following dialogue:

Nobody: What name were you given at birth stupid white man?
Blake: William Blake.
Nobody: Then you really are a dead man.

Nobody: You were a poet and a painter, now you are a killer.

In this sense, the past really doesn’t matter in the film as a whole, whether he was a poet or an accountant is not the point. The quest is infinitely within the present. What was done in the past is of little concern, but he cannot escape it. He is always responsible for his past mistakes but in the spiritual quest it is not the most important thing. The quest is in the here and now, the past does not dictate it, it only dictates where he is, not where he goes or what is happening. So when Nobody says “this gun will replace your tongue, you will speak through it, and your poetry will be written in blood,” he illustrates the fact that change is inevitable and Blake’s former life is no longer relevant. The irony of this case of mistaken identities becomes even more significant when looking at the poem “Auguries of Innocence” written by the historical William Blake frequently quoted by Nobody. Consider the last lines of Blake’s poem:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some are Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro' the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Here, Blake is discontent with the wickedness of humanity. Because man is wicked, he is a creature of the night, Cole and Nobody are both equal in this aspect. What separates them, however, is Nobody’s piety and Cole’s lack there of. This illustrates that everyone’s choices ultimately lead them to death but those with faith become souls who dwell in the day.

At this point it is helpful to turn to the historical William Blake, a painter/poet/printer known for his religious fury, argues that man’s corruption causes all suffering. This belief, shown best in his interpretation of “The Book of Job,” illustrates Blake’s indignation for his country and among other things religion. Blake believes that Job, for example, was not innocent and just. He feels that Job was punished for being too indulgent and greedy. In his painting “All of His Children were Eating and Drinking”, Blake shows Satan destroying Job’s family who chose pleasure over the love of God. The transitory life should give way to the religious life of faith in God and the world to come. In “Dead Man”, Blake is a man who indulges in sex and alcohol while lusting for money, qualities that ultimately kill him. His poetry is different than that of William Blake the poet because his is literally written in blood. Poetry for Depp’s Blake shine through as his character’s body count rises and he has thus damned his soul to Hell. This Hell is the one he has created through the sins that Blake criticizes. Our lives are a series of choices that we must live with which are echoed in Blake’s lines “It is right it should be so;/ Man was made for Joy & Woe;/ And when this we rightly know/ Thro' the World we safely go.”

Now that Blake is starting to let go of his former life, he begins to let his attachments drift away slowly fading into the universe. Death is approaching but now is almost ready to accept it but pride still attempts to end the quest. For example, finding a dead baby deer, Blake rubs its blood on his face. This strange sequence is meant to show the viewer that Blake is readying himself for his being one with the universe culminating in death. As he lies with the deer, spooning it, he looks up at the sky signifying his being in the world and his relationship to nature. He is preparing himself while at the same time blending into that spiritual world that he catches glimpses of in the sky. This is followed by a beautiful scene where Blake and nobody travel by horseback through dense forest of trees that are much older than America itself setting the journey in a timeless realm. In the past, present, and future these trees have stood, it is difficult to see the mighty sequoia in any other way than as a metaphor for infinity. Their lifespan, which can reach several hundred years passed the two millennia mark, until only in the last 50 years was thought to be the longest of any organism on the planet and the species still remains the dominate metaphor in nature for eternity.

Following this leg of the journey, Nobody tells Blake that he will be taking him to “the bridge made of waters, the mirror. Then you will be taken up to the next level of the world, the place where William Blake is from, where his spirit belongs. I must make sure that you pass back through the mirror at the place where the sea meets the sky.” Now he is almost ready to finish the journey and little more is need to prepare Blake for the end. He has all but let go of the world as we see in the episode where Nobody takes Blake’s eyeglasses. Even though Blake says “I can’t see anything without them,” he does so jokingly without much desire. This becomes even clearly when Nobody warmly replies “perhaps you will see more clearly without them.” His possessions no longer matter to him, the only thing that does is the quest.

In the trading post scene, the audience sees how far Blake has diverged from his old life. As he walks into the post, the man behind the counter is a religious figure who dresses like a monk. The monk blesses him on his journey and as he is choosing ammunition he tells him that the bullets were “blessed by the archbishop of Detroit.” When Nobody walks into the general store, the owner says “now Lord Jesus Christ, wash this earth with his Holy light, then purge its darkest places from heathens and Philistines.” Nobody, referencing William Blake’s poem “The Everlasting Gospel,” retorts “the vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision’s greatest enemy.” With clear racial tensions present within the scene, Nobody asks to buy tobacco but is told that they are out, he is then offered beads or a blanket. These items, it has just explained, are deliberately contaminated with the small pox virus in order to infect “his people.” After this blatant disrespect, William Blake asks for some tobacco to which he is given a few “twists,” he explains, out of his own personal stash for only personal friends. Because of the wanted posters that are literally everywhere (posters with his likeness are found in the depths of the forest where very few are likely travel, they almost cover a building, and occasional are seen blowing in the wind) Blake is recognized as the fugitive on the run. For a moment the situation becomes tense as the audience and Blake believe the man is going to pull out a weapon in order to collect the hefty sum of money offered for his capture, however, the man pulls out a pen so Blake may sign one of them like a celebrity would sign an autograph. Instead of signing, Blake stabs the man in the hand with the quill. While this particular scene in the film marks another instance where Blake embraces the pilgrimage and its necessary responsibilities, the truly important image here is that of the monk/shop owner. Like Sally Jenko before him, this figure is another allegorical figure of religious hypocrisy. The monk, however, transcends Jenko’s bigotry because he actually understands the scripture yet uses it to justify the part he plays in the genocide of the native people.

Shot again outside of the trading post, Blake is now a magnate for “white man’s metal.” But the two continue on their path now abandoning their horses as they float down the river of forgetfulness leaving that world behind. Blake asks “is this the boat that will take me across, into the mirror of water?” Acceptance has almost come for Blake but he still must go further which Nobody illustrates when he answers “this boat is not strong enough for that William Blake.”
As they follow the current into the unknown, Nobody witnesses signs of destruction to the homes of his people. Teepees and canoes are burning just off the river’s edge, but he also sees signs of hope in nature and also in a totem pole which stands tall as a reminder of faith. It is again important to remember that this quest is not only Blake’s but also Nobody’s. While Nobody had his own spiritual breakthrough long ago, he still finds himself on the course being called to fulfill a greater destiny. Even though he has already reached a destination of sorts, the spiritual quest never really ends. It is like the fish that swims toward the great shore which it can never reach but swims on anyway. It can only end in death.

With the journey coming to an end, the two happen upon an Indian village. Here he is accepted and finally belongs. However, due to his own desires he is still searching for acceptance in the temporary world which in the framework of the film is only a short-term-solution. In his clouded, faltering mind he begins to realize this and has visions leading to a kind of peace. He is finally ready to let go, he is ready to die.

After drifting in and out of consciousness, Blake finds himself on the canoe that will end his journey. The fact that this lake is called a mirror by Nobody is also significant because mirrors are an alternate reality. They are fixed and empty yet show an infinite world that one cannot cross over. Recall Blake’s lines “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour,” these lines illustrate the significance of death that one cannot comprehend while holding on to life. It is impossible to comprehend Infinity and Eternity because of our limited understanding just as it is impossible to crossover without death. The mirror of water is a strange motif in another way. When looking down at water, one sees the reflection of him or her self, but, if this person were to become submerged then the mirror is not what it appeared to be and our perceptions have been fooled.

Just before setting him out to sea, Nobody assures him “it is time for you to leave now William Blake, time for you to go back to where you came from.” In a darkly humorous moment, clearly on the brink of death, Blake asks “you mean Cleveland?” But he understands that the venture is coming to its close and the spirit is finally separating from the flesh that has taken him so far. Nobody confirms the ultimate, saying “back to the place where all the spirits came from and where all the spirits return. This world will no longer concern you.” After pushing Blake’s canoe into the unknown, Nobody encounters Cole (thus pride) who even to the very end attempts to hinder Blake’s progression. The scene haunts the audience in part because of the contrast between Nobody and Cole. Totally opposing forces, one represents piety and the other the destruction of religion and the soul. Nobody practices his religion and respects his fellow man while Cole is a despicable character that does nothing outside of his own self-interests. In the end these two characters cancel each other out. Blake, however, has already been set free by this time. Not only does evil lack any power over him but his guide as well is of no more use to him illustrated by the two shooting and killing each other in a final showdown. Barely looking up, his final attachments have been removed.

While everyone’s journey in this world leads to death, the journey does not end there for Blake the poet or the character. Depp’s Blake is in Hell and it is not until he lets go and accept his death that he is able to end his suffering. For Blake the poet, this world is one that is corrupt and filled with suffering. It is only the peace of death that ends suffering for all.

[1] To further this argument it should also be noted that Benmont wouldn’t give Blake any beans even though he clearly had a surplus.