Alone by Necessity

It’s kind of cliche for scholars to talk about post-modernity’s effect on the discipline of hermeneutics, that is, reading what other people wrote down and understanding them correctly. Although it seems like it ought to be something more or less restricted to obscure university departments and periodicals subscribed to by laughably few, the hermeneutic problem got picked up and expanded during the culture wars of the late 90’s-2010’s. The ordinary person could care less if we can perfectly understand what someone else meant in any particular writing, but for evangelical Christians from a more or less fundamentalist background it meant that people either could or could not understand what God’s word meant. If we’re necessarily precluded from understanding it perfectly, that kind of puts us in a precarious place for dogmatic statements about what God meant by it. Not only that, but if no person – divine or otherwise – can perfectly communicate to another person, this seems to put limits on God’s ability to speak or “breathe” scripture.

On a much more ordinary level, the result of the new hermeneutical frame trickled into much more solipsistic problems. Consider, for example, the lyrics of one of the central songs Jon Brion composed for Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, NY:

See there’s just one story, and everyone’s the star
And it goes like this
No one will ever love you for everything you are

And so you build up layers of deception
And you leave out things to alter the perceptions
Of the ones you love, who would never love you back
If they knew all about you, every solitary fact
And the sadness of your life is built upon this lack
Of really knowing anyone or having them know you
It’s the sadness of the world, there’s nothing left to do

To put it in a less poetic way, E.M. Forster explained in Aspects of the Novel that “we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion.” This isn’t exactly a problem where jokers like Derrida want to point out how fluid meaning can be and how faulty text is as a method of communication, it’s more like a logical problem. In David Foster Wallace’s Good Old Neon, his narrator puts it thus:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, and they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. … What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. … yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

He follows that, saying “of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t?” Wallace’s narrator concludes, “The fact is that we’re all lonely, of course. Everyone knows this, it’s almost a cliche.” So the constraints of writing, language, reading, and our available modes of communication itself all preclude intimate knowledge between people. In a sense, contra John Donne, every man is in some respect an island. We can send out beacons and flashes of light to each other – we can yell across misty channels between our chunks of land but never really bridge the gaps. There will always be this gap between you and whomever you want to know that simply cannot be crossed.

Even on this little island of ours, do we know ourselves? Much of Jacques Maritain’s sort of neo-Thomist philosophy is a bit beyond me maybe, but I grasped at least one meditation of his from his Existence and the Existent. In that book Maritain analyzes what subjectivity is like – that is, what the experience of being a knowing subject is. Ultimately, our own subjectivity is something of a mystery to us because we can never reach a vantage point where we perceive ourselves either absolutely as objects or completely as subjects. To consider ourselves completely as objects would be to obliterate our vantage point, to mentally disappear. To consider ourselves wholly as subjects dissolves the reality we exist in, we absorb into ourselves everything but have no relationships by which to define ourselves. Given the necessity of this middle-state of perceiving ourselves as partly mysterious “me” and partly alien “this person among other persons that I am” we find that our own actions are confusing. Maritain says that “our own acts are tolerable to ourselves only because our consciousness of them is immersed in the obscure experience of subjectivity.” That is, we’re crushed by “our own acts when, forgotten and then one day evoked by somem relic of past time, they pass to the state of objects, separated from the living waters of subjectivity.” I think a lot of people would disagree with this concept just given that our natural inclination is to say “no, no – I may make dumb decisions, but I at least know myself.” Truthfully though, if you’ve ever gone back and read old journals or a lone message sent on some social media that you don’t recall or something of the sort, you might think the same way I do: “who was I? Why did I do that? What was I thinking?” I have a hard time pinning down my own motivations in the present, much less in the distant past.

Our situation: we don’t really know or understand ourselves outside (and maybe even including) the present moment, alienated from our own island by constantly shifting sands. We don’t really understand other people, given first our own faulty knowledge of ourselves and the unbridgeable waters and between us and others that we toss language at like driftwood, hoping it will be sturdy enough to walk across. Wallace’s narrator was right: the fact is we’re all lonely.

Is there a way out of this? Maybe. Maybe not. I think there’s three ways to think about our problem that doesn’t leave us just resigned to loneliness.

First, we can consider what kinds of things could bridge the gap between our experience and others. On the one hand you have hermeneuticists like Hans-Georg Gadamer who acknowledged the impossibility of a perfect reading of any text but held out hope for a “fusion of horizons” where we get closer and closer to having our own limits of understanding meet the limit of expression of the original author. To use our metaphor, just because our islands can’t connect doesn’t mean we can’t swim out and at least talk to one another – it doesn’t mean there’s no communication just because it’s faulty. That doesn’t offer much comfort to the would-be scriptural dogmatist, but it means that if we really work at it (read: study, contextualize, study more) we can at least grasp what one human being wrote to another across gaps of ages and place well enough to have received at least their general intention. The horizons get close enough that (for example) when Jesus tells me to care for widows and orphans I receive that moral imperative, I receive the duty I can’t interpret away as something lost to time and place. Wallace himself didn’t meet a happy end (for complicated reasons), but Lipsky’s comment in the conclusion of End of the Tour was poignant: “Wallace thought books existed to stop you from feeling lonely.” Forster’s acknowledgement of the problem had a limited solution: homo fictus. Fictional characters are the only people about whom we know everything, because we are both their audience and their creator. The goal of literature isn’t to cross Gadamer’s horizons, but to perfectly unite us with characters that aren’t real that we can actually know and by analogy know something about their creators. Forster’s grave had the phrase “ONLY CONNECT” chiseled into it, and this is the goal we instinctively know we need to pursue.

Second, we can question some of the assumptions that make our situation seem so desperate. One of the fundamental problems here is based around the problem of phenomenology, that is, that we only really know things as they appear to us. Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian philosopher summed up the problem in one of his dialogues between a “Philosopher” and a personified wisdom/beauty named “Sophia.” Sophia says, “You no doubt know me as a phenomenon, that is, insofar as I exist for you or in my external manifestation. You cannot know me as I am in myself, that is, my thoughts and intimate feelings as they are in me and for me.” The philosopher responds, “And yet, when I look into the deep azure of your eyes, when I hear the music of your voice, is it outward phenomena of sight and sound that I perceive? My God! I know your thoughts and feelings, and, by your thoughts and feelings, I know your inner being.” He argues that the “arbitrary separation” of phenomena and knowing things in themselves is false. His Sophia claims that “to pretend that you can know a being-in-itself other than by its manifestation is the same thing as pretending to perceive colors other than through vision, and sound other than through hearing. It is impossible, not because of an imperfection or limits in the knowing subject, but because of the absurdity of it.” The philosopher realizes that “those brave people who so vaunt their principle that one cannot know being-in-itself are doing nothing more than stating a tautology, as if they were saying that to be in oneself is to be in oneself.” So here we arrive at something that isn’t a bridge, but something that realizes the absurdity of the whole metaphor: if we say that to know another person means to be another person, of course two knowing subjects can’t know one another by any means – to do so would destroy the difference between them we desire to bridge! This isn’t totally unfamiliar to the much-thrown-around-little-understood concepts of Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian famous for his concept of an “I-Thou” relationship being the fundamental reality of properly dualistic monotheism v. a sort of advaita monistic theism, at least I think so.

Third, we can rely on a tertium quid – within a worldview that accepts some concept of the distinction between subject and object we can ask what a thing would be that transcended those kinds of distinctions. Maritain’s understanding of the problem posited this: that God knows us not as objects, but as subjects. This means that “to know that I am known as subject in all the dimensions of my being is not only to know that my truth is known, and that in this knowledge justice is done me, it is also to know that I am understood.”  You’ll recall Maritain’s explanation of the problem was that we could neither be wholly subjects or wholly objects – but what he saw as a way out was a different anchor of reality rather than our subjective selves or objective non-selves. God, “Who knows all these in their subjectivity, in the nakedness of their wounds and their secret evil, must know also the secret beauty of that nature which He has bestowed upon them, the slightest sparks of good and liberty they give forth, all the travail and the impulses of good-will that they drag from the womb to the grave, the recesses of goodness of which they themselves have no notion.” Our participation in God’s graceful knowing lets us commune with others in truth; “by love, finally, is shattered the impossibility of knowing another except as object.”



Making Peace With the Trees

This essay is revised from a form submitted to Amor Fati & Ampersand’s ‘zine.

Get up away from your desk right now and go surfing, take a trip to Berlin, leave a note and hop a train and get off where the wind feels wilder. Buy a room stocked with candy and kayaking equipment and the XBOX One that you deserve. Finally go back to school to get your Poli-Sci degree. Actually, scrap that – start paying your bills on time, be there for family dinner every night. Buy a house that is a reasonable distance from work that you can pay for on a monthly basis without emptying cartoon pockets with moths and start recycling. Knuckle-down and work for that .5% increase you should have read about in your contract in the fine print just above the etceteras ad nauseum.

What exactly is adulthood anymore? It’s hard to say whether anything is different, but us “adults” circa 30 seem to have two competing paradigms. At the end of a long launch program of education, training, and coloring inside the lines this is our chance to jettison the fuel tanks of rules and finally do exactly what we want to do. Consider this relevant xkcd:

I think the eponymous Roger Greenberg of the movie Greenberg summed it up in one of his phone conversations where he advised his friend to remain unattached, saying, “It’s the harder, more painful decision to stay free but that’s what adulthood is.” We’re only slowly recovering (maybe?) from a generation where divorce was something in the atmosphere, like smog, and all those sorts of connections between people that made them miserable seem totally distasteful to us. We’re the new enlightened ones who aren’t foolish enough to settle and make the misery-inducing decisions that our parents made. We’re not going to burn fossil fuels until we have embarrassing rot beneath the surface. We don’t even have to know exactly where we’re going, the best choices are simply the ones that lead to the most choices, or maybe the most fun. For some people there is not a hint of irony in these statements – there is a reason that “ball and chain” is an english idiom.

On the other hand, maybe this is when the training wheels finally buckle and fall off and we’re the only thing keeping ourselves from toppling over onto the hard cement of reality. Maybe now we’re supposed to take responsibility: now is when adulthood makes demands of us (see, for example, the new insults of “man-child” and “basement-dweller”). It’s only the free-spirits who realize too late that the closing 30’s are a precarious age for childbearing. It’s only the perennially hedonistic that finds out spending all that money on credit cards to buy booze or mountain-climbing gear eventually catches up with you. We, the self-aware and civic-minded have known these things and prepared for adult life over the last decade. Thomas Merton, one of my favorite writers, opined that “free will is not given to us merely as a firework to be shot off into the air. There are some men who seem to think their acts are freer in proportion as they are without purpose, as if a rational purpose imposed some kind of limitation on us.”*

It could be that our situation at present is new. With the advent of cellphone technology and Facebook, we’re too connected to other people to have any insulation from the futures we didn’t choose. It was probably always difficult to do on some level, but now it’s as if our own pseudo-superego ghost haunts us and poltergeists our emotional furniture around. There’s a never-ending reel of travel, kids, nightclubs and bedroom sets stretching in front of our eyes on a beaming screen every day – and not just strangers doing or owning, these are our friends. So which is it? What kind of adulthood is actually going to make me the most happy™ on a day-to-day basis?

Realistically, who could even give us advice on something like this anymore? I’m not sure, but as I’ve been noodling on these different perspectives two of my favorite sources of wisdom seemed pertinent. In his travelogue aboard a cruise line, David Foster Wallace wrote:

I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable – if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.+

The best colloquial image I can come up with to represent this truth is a “decision tree” diagram. You make choices which lead down branches, each one itself branching out to possible outcomes that are evaluated before a decision is made. There’s no going back though, and there’s no staying still. Heraclitus said that “all flows, nothing stays,” and in this context that means that whatever you think you’re doing, you are moving through these various limbs whether you realize it or not. You can choose to simply fall like a plink-o ball whichever way chance takes you or you can direct your motion outwards from the trunk how you see fit – but you can’t stay perched undecided. Your married friends with children will be difficult to arrange fun with – they have opted to choose reliable parental presence over spontaneity. Your single friends will find you boring, they have opted to have less anchors and pre-filled calendars. No matter which paradigm of adulthood you adopt, things will change. As Merton put it:

If we live with possibilities we are exiles from the present which is given us by God to be our own, homeless and displaced in a future or a past which are not ours because they are always beyond our reach … A man is a free being who is always changing into himself.**


So we have to make choices, but do we really have to choose one overriding paradigm of adulthood? I would argue that we do not – and adulthood is neither wholly undisciplined libertinism or embracing grim responsibility. Adulthood is simply choosing which freedoms we permit ourselves to accomplish our goals and being able to live with the things we’ve settled for ourselves. The weakness in us will want to resign our legitimate freedoms and let the tree we’ve chosen wither (e.g. adults with children can have friends, single nomads can still have bank accounts). Likewise it means not being surprised ala mid-life crisis when certain things are plainly beyond us now. Sometimes our branching leads to building a life that is noble, accomplished, meaningful by some kind of external consensus. Wallace urged people to understand that sometimes freedom feels very subjective, sometimes simply means being able to embrace some level of self-abnegation for love.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

That is real freedom.***

I’m contending that adulthood is about accepting what is settled. It may or may not be interesting to you, the reader, that the philosopher/theologian Leibniz wrote some letters to his friend Arnauld where he defended both freedom and necessity in reference to God (yes, necessity does apply to God). One of his most compelling points was that even God, in his divine superlative freedom, cannot leave things undecided. The very nature of reality means that free or not, for things to actually happen some decisions have to made and enter into crystallization as settled events. How do we cope with this, though? The Stoics provided some of my favorite practical philosophy for simple concepts like admitting which things are under our control and which are not and only concerning ourselves with what is under our control. The Stoics demanded constancy as a virtue in submission to what is settled, and what is settled for us “adults” is the decisions we’ve already made. Constancy is the habit of having a consistent attitude towards things beyond our control, the habit of making peace with the decision trees we’ve moved through, the art of consistently using the freedoms we’ve chosen well. Adulthood isn’t deciphering the cultural symbols and tropes to discover exactly what “true” adulthood means, there is no perfect and ideal happy life we have to distill from all our options. Merton believed that “a true and mature identity does not consist in the ability to give a final solution to everything – as if the ‘mature person’ were one for whom there were no longer any mysteries or any scandals. We discover our identity when we accept our place and our way in the midst of persons and things, in a historical situation, that we do not have to completely understand. We simply see that it is our own place and decide to live in it, for better or for worse.” ****

*Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
+ David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing
**Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 220
***David Foster Wallace, This is Water, 119-121
****Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, 52


Authentically Cool

I’ve had two significant moments of clarity in my life regarding authenticity. “Authenticity” itself is kind of a buzz word now, and I don’t think I had that word in mind when these two independent moments occurred, but it changed the way I think about people and things quite a bit.

The first moment occurred while I was taking a class in high school called “Introduction to Media Literacy.” Frankly, I don’t recall much of what the actual course work was in that class, but most of that proved irrelevant to the actual lesson I learned. Our teacher, the delightful Matt “Martdawg” Martello, went out of his way to offer extra credit (I don’t think I even needed it?) for things like staying after school and watching The Yellow Submarine, projects included playing a song for the class and explaining why you liked it – he had posters of things like Bogart movies, playbills, and band posters on his walls. As a person he actually introduced his class to liking things that were popular without taking it for granted that we liked them and without particularly caring if we didn’t. At an age when students are still trying to distance themselves from their parents’ tastes in things, he made it feel like it was okay to like things that are monuments of pop culture without feeling like we inherited them along with our pajamas and lunch box. I was so used to teachers trying to be as sterile as possible and late 90’s early 00’s teens trying to like things so deliberately non-mainstream that it was a novelty just to have someone say something as banal as “I really like the Beatles.” It wasn’t really banal though – it was just the truth: he really liked the Beatles. I mean, not so long ago basically everyone did – and maybe everyone did while I was growing up too and we were all just too contrarian to appreciate things that were universally loved.

Whatever the case, a few friends and I sat in his classroom after hours with the new school building’s crisp understated carpeting and watched The Yellow Submarine. Even though it doesn’t exactly make a good after-school special, it was a coming-of-age moment where we could agree that despite being popular or obvious, we also loved the Beatles. I guess you could say we quit trying so hard to read secret alphabets and became the tiniest bit media literate after all.

Later in life I was reading some Chuck Klosterman books because they had edgy sounding titles and I like the essay as a literary form. Now, one really difficult thing I want to address before I get any further is that Klosterman spends a lot of time in some of his books discussing the concept of what is “cool.” As I previously mentioned, we like to use the word “authentic” now. The real difficulty here is that really, what is “authentic” is what is “cool” now, and things are only “cool” if they are “authentic.” We’ve anchored something that used to be wholly superficial to a word that is by definition non-superficial – so we can’t even think straight anymore about what “coolness” is.

I’m getting ahead of myself though.

The second epiphany I had was reading one of Klosterman’s books – I think it must have been in Killing Yourself to Live since I can’t find the passage I remember in any of the books of his I still have on my shelf (I lost that one). He had an extended discussion of M.A.S.H. and its enormous popularity, and he was at pains to point out that a part of the pleasure of enjoying things is that other people share them with you. At the time that seemed kind of obvious to me. The insidious point that Klosterman was making, though, was that sometimes enjoying things just because other people like them is worthwhile. It’s not really initially about whether or not said thing is any good, it’s just the point that sharing a thing, good or not, gives something value and interest by itself. Sometimes this is kind of obvious. Imagine you refused to watch Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings – all 3 franchises. Now, regardless of the merits or faults of any of those series, a certain part of the pleasure of these movies is just sharing in some of the major pop-culture stories of this generation. If you didn’t watch them are you some kind of social outcast? Do you have bad taste? Don’t be ridiculous – but I wouldn’t say you’re not missing out on anything.

The first experience with my teacher had taught me a lesson about counter-culture. I think it’s pretty illustrative that Kurt Cobain (the retrospective poster boy for 90’s counter culture) would in one interview talk about how the music on the radio was garbage, and then in private call radio stations to request his song or drop off tapes himself. I think this was a self-defeating ethos that grew out of the birth pangs of the transition from “coolness” to “authenticity.”  After reading that passage about the cultural value of M.A.S.H. it opened up a new perspective – I quit caring quite so much about whether things had intrinsic value aesthetically or artistically or whatever and started caring about the relationship people have with things.

You may be asking at this point “so what?” That’s a good question. So far I’ve talked about “authentic” and “cool” a little bit, but there’s another term that’s practically a slur that gets tossed around a lot now: “hipster.” Now, some people are fanatical about not being labeled hipsters – some people don’t care, some people name anything “hipster” that they don’t like. What does it really mean though? To say someone is a “hipster” might mean that they pick up on things that are “cool” without being “authentic.” It might mean that they pick up on things that are authentic, but somehow still not cool (e.g. is a handlebar mustache really cool/appropriate right now?) There was a book that came out a few years ago by Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity, that examined some of this in church culture. I don’t really think his book contains tons of industrial grade insight, but I thought it provided a nice counterpoint to Chuck Klosterman.

To illustrate some of the sort of considerations someone like me who is neurotic about being authentic and interested in cool things, here’s a graphic of some different thought processes. Keep in mind the idea is to see whether you authentically like something specific: it doesn’t work for abstractions like “organic goods” – “organic” is instead a property that some particular thing could have.



To be actual people we have to have things we like and things we don’t like. I can’t make a lot of universal declarations, but personally I don’t care for liking things ironically because it short-circuits the whole authenticity = cool paradigm I’ve been trying to push. If we decide that liking things ironically isn’t really liking them, then all the hipster name-calling degenerates into something like people just constantly calling each other liars – and that’s what it is. “I don’t believe you really like this thing” is what you must mean when you call someone a hipster. I think the key is understanding that there is a difference between liking things that are trendy and liking things because they are trendy. I still use the word “hipster” from time to time – but I don’t mean it as a slur. I’m not calling people unauthentic, I’m just acknowledging that they like things that are counter-culturally popular.

On a certain level, real honesty and genuineness is difficult and requires self-examination. For example, I know that I don’t like country music. For a while, it might have even been a knee-jerk hipster dislike – with an equally knee-jerk maintenance of the appreciation of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams as a counterbalance. The truth of it is though, no matter how much I try to screen my tastes for affectation I still just don’t care that much for country as a genre. I admit that I like my lyrics cryptic, my aesthetics either urbane, pretentious, or utterly stupid. To try to enjoy country music simply because I think it’s often more genuine and relatable despite my (apparently?) natural dislike of it would be silly – the same way that I’ve decided it’s silly not to buy things because they’re marketed to me, or to not watch things because I’m clearly in the middle of the demographic. The point: it is equally dishonest to try to like things you don’t really like just because you think they’re more authentic as it is to try to dislike things because you think they’re not authentic. I still like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. If I were to try to stop liking them or like other country bands simply for the sake of not being cliche, that is itself dishonest.

In sum, besides the initial lessons I learned in life to temper the urge for elitism or being a contrarian, there are a few decent maxims I’ve decided to live by.

One of my favorite little anecdotes about Diogenes is one where he sees a clique of affluent students wearing fancy clothes, earrings, etc. arrive at a banquet and he shouts, “Affectation!” Later, some much more austere Pythogorean monks arrive wearing shabby cloaks, clearly emaciated from harsh self-discipline and Diogenes shouts “More affectation!”

Both excess and conspicuous anti-excess are affectation.

Balthasar Gracian wrote a neat book on worldly wisdom, and he advised that we “don’t profess to be satisfied with nothing; it is a foolish extreme, more odious if from affectation than if from character.” (§65 p.37) Likewise, Voltaire’s Candide had a neat little exchange:

Martin: “…It was an observation of Plato, long since, that those are not the best stomachs that reject, without distinction, all sorts of food.”

“True,” said Candide, “but still there must certainly be a pleasure in criticizing everything, and in perceiving faults where others think they see beauties.”

“That is,” replied Martin, “there is a pleasure in having no pleasure.”

The impulse to criticize everything and enjoy as little as possible is usually a character flaw, not a sign of good taste.

I once went to a men’s retreat with some guys from my church in Denver. As usual, I brought along a satchel with some books for reading while I was there, and included in it was a book by Donald Fairbairn, Augustine’s City of God, and the complete works of Pseudo-Dionysius. Mind you, I have a very genuine interest in all three – but reading the Pseudo-Dionysius has a certain mystique attached to it that is undeniable. People asked, in passing, what I was browsing through and I would answer them. My good friend and sometimes shepherd Ken Robertson was talking with me later on in the evening and I confessed that I’d probably brought Dionysius with me more as an affectation than because I really needed to re-examine neo-platonist Christian theology. I thought I was being genuine when I packed it, it’s interesting reading, but I can’t honestly say that it was wholly without contriving that that was an interesting thing to be found reading. This isn’t to say no one can ever read Pseudo-Dionysius without being a hipster – but some things by their very nature require careful self-examination concerning authenticity.

Sinful pride is always trying to take genuine likes and turn them into affectation.

There are few things I find more endearing than guileless enthusiasm. This is what I strive for, above all else.


Being There

I’ve had a few momentary flashes lately of what I would call a sense of drifting melancholy. For instance, yesterday I was taking my daughter along grocery shopping and she wanted to look at the fish. I was trying to get back at a certain time from shopping, but I estimated we had a few minutes for her to stand and look at them. She’s still very small and very adorable, and as I watched her point and kneel and look and say “fischies!” I could only smile. At the same time as she was pointing, however, I saw a black moor drifting in the water, flapping its fins just often enough to stay stationary against the filter’s current. Both adrift and stationary, I stared at that fish and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that this little moment was already ending even as it was happening.

il_fullxfull.553422271_2j4bAdults don’t often stare at the fish tanks. We’ve seen fish, we’ve eaten fish – maybe some hobbyists keep them at home, but the ordinary person finds fish a spent pleasure. Here is my daughter though, excited, pointing and cooing at them. A part of me wants, as a jaded but compassionate adult, to humor her and feign excitement. Another part of me realizes how deeply incorrect I am – she’s right, fish are exciting. I forgot due to familiarity, but the newness of young life reminds us that the idea of novelty is just a rationalization of our own boredom with things that are intrinsically beautiful and delightful. She constantly reminds me how thrilling it is to be alive. Augustine said in the Confessions that “…it was your gift to me that I exist.” I suppose authentic existence is a perpetual sense of novelty, pursuing an infinite God with no terminus of the new and beautiful.

Even as I tried to take hold of the moment in my attention and commit it to memory without being absent, that sense of melancholy seeped back in, almost spoiling it. I thought, “this moment will be gone soon – she will grow up, I will grow old, and eventually the joy of being here with the fish will be rendered into dust.” I had had a similar experience a week ago or so, although I forget the context, but there was a small comfort offered to me from Plutarch, who said:

“When our eyes now are dazzled by things too bright, we turn them away and ease them by looking at fresh green grass, but our minds we keep strained over painful things, and compel them to brood on unhappy ideas, wrenching them by force away from what is pleasanter. … like small children … we, when fortune robs us of a treasure, wail and mourn and treat everything else as worthless to us.”

I was staring into the painful reality of time passing, to the point where it was clouding my eye, it was wrenching my mind from the present – that is – from the joy of the moment with my daughter. I was mourning like a small child over the utterly mundane fact of time’s passage, treating as worthless the happiness I in fact had. There is no deep philosophical or theological point to be made here I suppose. I think the Buddhists call this kind of attempt to be mentally present and engaged in particular moments “mindfulness.” I recalled, just now, that one Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote something to the effect of considering the present moment to be a sacrament. As an Anglican and someone accustomed to sacramental thinking (but also with an eye towards not using the term too loosely) I should like to read de Caussade, maybe to help me consecrate and live inside these moments as fully as I can.

In the meantime, Plutarch’s advice is a continual reminder to behave as an adult – not in considering fish boring – but in treating what I do have, fleeting though it may be, as the true treasure and sacrament.



Black Star

I was reading Doggett’s book on Bowie that I got for Christmas, just starting to digest Black Star when I heard that Bowie had died. I was kind of surprised, of course. I thought I’d take a look at the lyrics and images of the title track for his new album for a while. Bear in mind, of course, that all these interpretations and connections are pure speculation.

It would take a long, long time to analyze every symbol in the video. I really have no clue what some of it is even in reference to, if anything. I’ll just examine some of the things I suspect I at least have a clue about.

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
Your eyes

The only reference to anything I’ve seen anywhere is that “Ormen” is apparently Swedish for “snake.”

Bowie has several characters in this video – the dour looking preacher, the man with button-eyes on a bandage, and it’s possible the skeleton/spaceman at the beginning is a reference to any of his 70’s era spaceman personas (Ziggy, Major Tom, etc.)




Notably, it’s the same theme that Space Oddity had: the astronaut isn’t exactly a hero figure, he’s drifting off into space. Poignantly, considering his impending death, the spaceman is a skeleton (sans skull) floating towards a black hole. The skull of the spaceman is decorated – which could maybe be a reference to kapala skulls (Bowie was infatuated with Buddhism at one time) with a double-reference to his own postmortem status as a decorated reliquary piece, both in his characters and as a real person.


It’s obviously pretty significant that this same skull shows up in his video for Lazarus (as does the button-eyed-man), and it rests on the desk where Bowie (in a biblical Lazarus-esque character) writes on his desk.



In a sense, I think this is another double-referent. If the skull is something of a symbol for masks and impending death, Bowie sings he’ll be free just as his character (himself as a muse?) starts writing. The transcendence provided by the characters he embodied will outlast him. The same woman who crawls under the writing desk in Lazarus kneels before the skull in Black Star – death worships artifice. At the same time that death is bowing to artifice, death beckons at the button-eyed Bowie in bed and forces the muse into remission.

On the day of execution, on the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile, ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all
Your eyes, your eyes


In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
Your eyes

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

This could mean literally anything – but to me it sounds a lot like a gnostic account of Jesus’s death – either that Simon took his place, or that Jesus otherwise evacuated his spirit from his body and watched (and laughed). This seemed like kind of a stretch when I first made the connection, but Elaine Pagels’ “The Gnostic Gospels” is on Bowie’s 100 favorite books list. Some have even speculated that some of these odd texts found their way to the middle east and informed Muhammed’s understanding of Jesus. That would place Bowie’s character(s) here in the role of the false messiah impostor. The following words from that same source seemed eerily accurate for Bowie’s disposition and history:

And I subjected all their powers. For as I came downward, no one saw me. For I was altering my shapes, changing from form to form. And therefore, when I was at their gates, I assumed their likeness. For I passed them by quietly, and I was viewing the places, and I was not afraid nor ashamed, for I was undefiled. And I was speaking with them, mingling with them through those who are mine, and trampling on those who are harsh to them with zeal, and quenching the flame. And I was doing all these things because of my desire to accomplish what I desired by the will of the Father above.”

That might all be totally unrelated to his intentions, but given the somewhat heavy-handed symbolism of the three scarecrows on the crosses it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to speculate that Bowie’s character is posturing as either the impostor or the real (gnostic) Christ. It would make sense if he were on the cross here, but I don’t think any one of the three is Bowie.


Following that, there’s only one scriptural reference to scarecrows that really sticks out for me, and that’s from Jeremiah. It says in chapter 10 of false idols:

“Such idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field.
They cannot talk.
They must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them
because they cannot hurt you.
And they do not have any power to help you.”

Is Bowie referencing the false-messianic role here to point out that idols like this can’t help you? I mean, I don’t think he has any discernibly explicit Christian streak in his art, but to say one doesn’t have answers doesn’t require that.

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

Here Bowie starts referencing another interesting theme – fallen angels, and their fate. There aren’t a ton of really direct references to that sort of thing in scripture, but the most poignant one seems like Jude to me:”And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” 
I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)

I’m a blackstar, way up, on money, I’ve got game
I see right, so wide, so open-hearted pain
I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar)

I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangstar)
But I can tell you how (I’m not a film star)
We were born upside-down (I’m a star’s star)
Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)
(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar
I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Here’s the interesting bit (for me) – claiming he’s not a “wandering star” (like in the Portishead song) might be a reference to Jude 1:13, “wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” Those “wandering stars,” according to Jude, are apparently false Christians. That coincidence combined with the reference to fallen angels makes this seem a little bit less like speculation. Certainly the skeleton drifting towards a black hole sounds like it would fit this kind of judgment.


In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle
Ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, your eyes
On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile
Ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes

In some form of conclusion – I think it’s kind of a mixed bag. I don’t think there’s supposed to be some kind of one to one allegory here, but rich symbolism rarely works that way. It seems to me like Black Star is meant to be a companion piece to Lazarus (Lazarus being a bit more transparently autobiographical, Black Star being more like a death knell to artifice). I could be way off on what I think some of these references are – but as a retrospective it sums up a lot of Bowie’s life and art. Bowie spacemen masks (skull) are being laid to rest, but also held up as idols. Bowie hints that they’re empty as objects of worship, comparing them to the gnostic myth of an impostor messiah. The blinded (button-eyed) preacher slides into the bed in Lazarus, and as he levitates and dies Bowie’s muse and transcendence-vehicle ceases writing and returns to the closet, to darkness, to death. Lazarus’ upbeat lyrics about being free make the drifting remains around the blackhole seem a bit less morbid, but overall it seems like a farewell that stays consistent with the best of Bowie’s work: cryptic, bombastic, and mysterious.

Rick and Morty and Meaning Part 2

What is it like to live like that? In Season 1 Episode 11, one of Rick’s old alien friends talks with Morty.

Bird Person: Morty, do you know what “wubba lubba dub dub” means?

Morty: Oh, that’s just Rick’s stupid nonsense catchphrase.

Bird Person: It’s not nonsense at all. In my people’s tongue, it means, “I am in great pain. Please help me.”

Morty: Well, I got news for ya — he’s saying it ironically.

Bird Person: No, Morty. Your grandfather is indeed in very deep pain. That is why he must numb himself.

There’s speculation that something as abstract as “life is meaningless” isn’t really the reference here, that Rick must have some kind of tear-jerking backstory that will get filled in as the series goes on. The conclusion of season 2 suggests that at least Rick’s life consists of more than ironic despair. All the same, I think the writers are also dealing with more basic existential problems here that most dramas couldn’t handle and most comedies wouldn’t find funny. These issues are at least real sincere problems with life as we experience it: the insolubles. Questions like “why am I here?” or “what does anything mean?” Unsatisfying answers meant despair for the tinyverse creator and the butter robot. Unfulfillable purpose made the Meseeks go insane. What is Morty’s solution? Watch TV. What is Rick’s solution? Focus on science.

Now, for myself, an essay from Thomas Nagel on Camus and “The Absurd” shed some light on at least some aspects of the problem.

First, recognizing a limited purpose (i.e. to pass butter, to power a battery, to improve someone’s golf game) does not satisfy the need for meaning:

“If we learned that we were being raised to provide food for other creatures fond of human flesh, who planned to turn us into cutlets before we got too stringy-even if we learned that the human race had been developed by animal breeders precisely fort his purpose – that would still not give our lives meaning, for two reasons. First,we would still be in the dark as to the significance of the lives of those other beings; second, although we might acknowledge that this culinary role would make our lives meaningful to them, it is not clear how it would make them meaningful to us.“

Second, recognizing a limited size or lifespan does not actually make something meaningless:

“What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time: we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe;our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)?“

In a sense, I wanted to return to that first note from the pilot. “There is no God – gotta rip that bandaid off.” Theism is treated as a band-aid for reality, to which the proper response is this, according to Nagel: “It need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is where Rick is at right now, and maybe Morty is right when he tells Bird Person that even despair has to be ironic in the postmodern context.

First, if we accept Nagel’s point that size, longevity etc. really has no bearing on whether or not life is meaningless (either it is or it isn’t, apart from these metrics) the problem becomes rather more intimate. Does my life have meaning right here right now for as long as it lasts at exactly the size and breadth that it is? One of the popular conceptions of religious responses to questions like this is that they are crutches – a contrived way of avoiding the question and pursuing some kind of collective purpose we invent for ourselves. In reality, there have been lots of Christians who didn’t avoid the question at all, but embraced it. Thomas Merton says in his little book on contemplative prayer that “The monk…experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the ‘lostness’ of modern man, but he experiences all this in an altogether different and deeper way than does man in the modern world, to whom this disconcerting awareness of himself and of his world comes rather as an experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation.” Kierkegaard insisted  in Fear and Trembling that the first movement of faith was infinite resignation, the admission that one had to resign everything apparent to futility. In Paul Tillich’s Courage to Be, he says that any kind of courage to authentically exist must “accept, as its precondition, the state of meaninglessness.” In a sense, religious answers actually engage much more fully with meaninglessness by  avoiding half-measures that are the actual crutches of dealing with despair, even ironic despair.

Let us consider, for just a moment though, why this kind of problem of meaninglessness is really only beginning to inject itself into cartoons and ordinary media. Tolstoy says in his Law of Love and Law of Violence that “this is what people are saying today, as if suggesting that religious consciousness, or faith, is a condition unnatural to man, as if it is something exceptional that must be taught and instilled in him. But this is only said by people who, as a result of a particular condition of the Christian world, are temporarily lacking in the most essential and natural condition of human life: faith.” If Tolstoy is right, it’s actually only because we’re starting to enter into a society where the religious answers to questions of meaning have finally started to disappear from popular consciousness.

Tolstoy’s engagement on this issue has been one of perennial significance for me. He goes on, saying “Just as work is not something artificial, contrived and ordained by man, but is something unavoidable, without which man cannot live, the same is true of faith, that is to say the awareness of one’s relationship to the Infinite, and the guidance for conduct that results from it. … it is the most natural feature of human nature, without which man, like a bird without wings, has never, and could never, live.” Tolstoy’s criticism fits the problem of Rick’s recommendation that Morty transcends and focuses on science, the idea “that we need absolutely nothing because science, by virtue of its very aim of investigating all that exists, can give no guidance to human life.” This is not to say we adopt faith for some kind of ulterior motive, consciously adopting a crutch to give us direction. On the contrary, “a religious believer behaves in a certain way, not because he believes in things unseen, or expects rewards for his conduct, but because once he has defined his position in the world it is natural for him to act according to this position.” This is the position defined is that “the essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me?” This is where finitude – where we as finite beings – must find solid ground. We find it in something infinite that affirms itself, something that exists in itself necessarily and isn’t contingent on anything, something that grants meaning because it does not exist by chance and is not subject to change. As Tillich puts it, “the divine self-affirmation is the power that makes the self-affirmation of the finite being, the courage to be, possible.” Popular dismissals of religion will spend most of their time discussing textual details or trying to reason out how some particular doctrine fits with another one or how any of that matches something scientifically demonstrable – but here is the real crux that Tolstoy was aware of: “answers given by faith … had the advantage of introducing to every answer a relationship between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.”

The few times when Rick gets humanized in the series its usually in relation to his grandchildren. In Season 1 episode 10, Rick is hooked up to some kind of memory scanning device, and he actually tears up when remembering picking up baby Morty. At the end of season 1, he says he has a new catchphrase, “I love my grandkids.” Each time he says he’s just kidding, but this is the thin strand that anchors Rick to caring about anything – something he writes off elsewhere as nothing but a biochemical bi-product of the drive to breed. On some fundamental level, Rick cares about his family for reasons he can’t rationalize. His basic intuition is to love – but he can’t give an explanation for it and so he suppresses it. Tolstoy again: “you are a randomly united lump of something. This lump decomposes and the fermentation is called your life. The lump will disintigrate and the fermentation will end, together with all your questions. This is the answer given by the exact side of knowledge, and if it adheres strictly to its principles, it cannot answer otherwise.” This seems to be the exact type of thing Rick is contemplating in, for example, the end of Season 2 Episode 3 – or when he informs his grandchildren that they are both demonstrably pieces of shit (Season 2, Episode 1). This is the answer to questions of value when we attempt to answer them via scientific method. As the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. explained, “…there are no innate, intrinsic differences among a human being, a baboon or a grain of sand.” I think Rick and Morty repeatedly demonstrates that this fact makes Rick unhappy. Tolstoy responds, “…and if you are unhappy – and I know that you are unhappy – remember that what has been suggested here was not invented by me, but is the fruit of the spiritual works of all the best and loftiest minds and hearts of mankind, and is the only means of deliverance from your unhappiness, providing the greatest well-being man can attain in this life.”


Rick and Morty and Meaning Part I

Rick and Morty was recommended to me by multiple friends on multiple occasions until finally I gave in and watched it. At first, I described it as “improv episodes of American Dad with Aqua Teen Hunger Force randomness and none of the overbearing personality of Seth McFarlane.” I’ve since revised my position on that, but at first glance that seemed apt. You can also read the wikipedia article with rapt attention, but you’ll find that it’s basically a parody of Back to the Future that grew into something worthwhile. The essential “plot” is that an estranged mad-scientist grandfather, Rick, reunites with his daughter’s family, lives in their house, and goes on wacky trans-dimensional adventures through space and time and reality with his grandson, Morty. A lot of this is just joke-fodder, but there are a few consistent themes in the cartoon that haven’t been touched on very much in any television series, much less an animated comedy.

Before getting too far into it – one of the major conceits of the series is that there are multiple worlds. In a sense, this is the manifestation of a popular level acceptance of Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” theory. I’m not particularly smart, but what I understand of it I gathered from a documentary  on the man who came up with it. Essentially, this is one way of explaining the discrepancy between quantum mechanics and macro-mechanics. When experiments suggest that quantum particles must exist in more than one place at one time, the Copenhagen Interpretation has been that by observing these particles forces them to resolve into fixed reality – macro-mechanics measured results. The famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment was designed to show that if anything larger were made to be dependent on quantum states, it results in something absurd. That is, by tying a poison mechanism to a trigger set off by radioactive particles (i.e. something governed by quantum physics) it results in an unobserved cat being both dead and alive – itself in a quantum superposition. This is explicitly addressed in Rick and Morty Season 2, Episode 1 where the characters find themselves stuck in a state of uncertainty. To resolve this kind of problem, Hugh Everett denied the Copenhagen Interpretation (i.e. quantum states resolve into fixed reality) by claiming that the existence of quantum particles in multiple states at once actually extended into macro-mechanics. This would mean that in his mathematically consistent system, a situation like that of Schrodinger’s cat actually doesn’t resolve into one reality, but branches into multiple real worlds existing simultaneously. This is whence Rick and Morty in Season 1 Episode 6 find that their reality has been effectively reduced to chaos and can simply jettison it for another branched world. That does, of course, mean that in these two episodes (s02e01 and s01e06) there are different interpretations of quantum mechanics in the same fictional world.

What is the consequence of the multiple dimensions? Thematically, it adds to the dimension of scale. There is not only an enormous universe to explore, but that universe itself has infinite dimensions of branching realities. The result is that anything with a mind ought to realize how utterly insignificantly small, short, common, and fragile it is. Furthermore, that very sense of nauseating scale makes existence seem utterly pointless. Not only does the nature of reality make us insignificant and result in a kind of ironic nihilism, but the creatures that inhabit it wherever they seem big or powerful enough to transcend that insignificance results in something more like Lovecraft’s cosmicism.

I wanted to make a short survey of some of the jokes on that subject:

Season 1 Episode 1 (clip)





In the pilot, Rick very early points out in passing that there is no God. Now, depending on what you’re about that may or may not mean nihilism, cosmicism or whatever.




Season 1 Episode 5



“Meseeks are not born into this world fumbling for meaning, Jerry – we are created to serve a singular purpose for which we will go to any lengths to fulfill. Existence is pain to a Meseeks, Jerry – and we will do anything to alleviate that pain.”






Season 1 Episode 6 (clip)


 Morty’s parents are fighting about their marriage, and Rick interjects: “Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people calls ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are gonna do it. Break the cycle, Morty. Rise above. Focus on science.”






Season 1 Episode 8 (clip)


In a scene where Morty is explaining to his sister how they they utterly botched their own world and retreated to replace themselves in another one, he tries to console about her own frustration with feeling unwanted by saying, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. …Come watch TV?”






Season 1 Episode 9 (clip)

butterFrom wikiquote:

Butter Robot: What is my purpose?

Rick: Pass the butter. [The robot does] Thank you.


Butter Robot: What is my purpose?

Rick: You pass butter.

Butter Robot: [looks at his hands; his shoulders sag] Oh my god.

Rick: Yeah, welcome to the club, pal.



Season 2 Episode 6


Rick’s car battery turns out to be powered by an entire world of sentient creatures. The creatures find a new way to generate power by creating their own

“miniverse” – and inside that another scientist is making a “tinyverse” in an infinite recursion. The scientist in the miniverse begins to unravel the situation saying, “So he made a universe, and that guy is from that universe, and that guy made a universe, and that’s the universe where I was born? Where my father died – where I couldn’t make time for his funeral because I was working on … my universe.” That scientist realizes his purpose, his existence is solely to function as a battery for a slightly larger “miniverse” and promptly commits suicide.






Season 2 Episode 7




“Grandpa, I think that when you put your mind into this body’s young brain, it did what young brains do—it shoved the bad thoughts into the back and put a large wall around them. But those bad thoughts are the real Rick. The fact that you’re old, the fact that we’re all going to die one day, the fact that the universe is so big, nothing in it matters—those facts are who you are!”






I’m sure there’s other examples of this, but that’s a few prominent ones just to establish the theme. The next part will deal with how Rick copes with his perception of reality, and offer some responses or alternatives to that view.


The Diamond Age Review

The Diamond Age

I spent some time listening to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer over the last month or so. Apparently Stephenson wanted to write a novel that dealt both with culture and technology without penning another cyberpunk fiction, and I think he succeeded. Much of the book was fairytale prose translucent to a grim reality near Shanghai. Ostensibly set in the same world as Snow Crash, Stephenson brilliantly hints at how cultures have progressed and morphed with new nano-technology. Essentially, the fragmented national landscape developed in such a way that ethnic groups and synthetic ethnic groups very deliberately create or adopt value structures in the wake of the balkanization of the previous centuries. Confucianism makes a comeback, victorians subscribe to absolute values (religion is only indirectly addressed), some groups use self-devised rituals to foment solidarity. There are times when it feels like Stephenson is being a bit didactic, teaching us through the fairytales how computers (turing machines) work and hints at the vast difference between the best artificial intelligence, deemed “pseudo-intelligence,” and human capabilities. There’s even some speculative ideas about semantic data processing in a clever illustration of how a bot net works using human beings as processors, kind of like the original Matrix concept.


One of my favorite little passages – this hits some of the themes of the novel. Order, and the way we choose to impose or interpret order as generating meaning.


Besides the illustrations of how computers work, there’s also a background story involving one Judge Fang and the rise of Confucianism in this future China. Essentially, people without any real system of jurisprudence adopt Confucianism as a way to order both the law and the people, and Fang himself “rebuilt his own life after his career as a hoodlum” on Confucian principles. Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Confucian China is growing stronger all the time and starting to absorb and eradicate it’s neighbors with no cohesive governing principles. Just like Stephenson’s efforts to make the interactions with technology post-cyberpunk, where Snow Crash reveled in postmodern corporate and fragmented society Diamond Age hints at what might come next: a return to value structures.

Overall, I think the book was a success. The fairytale elements are good storytelling, and the real thought experiments being done were new experiences for me as a reader. The few actual action scenes were violent and panicked, but the book really rests on understanding how deliberate design and social engineering affects human cultures. The conclusion felt a bit abrupt and left some lingering insolubles, but overall the story ended on a trajectory that you could imagine more complete endings to.




So, on the advice of a friend I recently read John Gardner’s Grendel. Having never been forced to read Beowulf by sadistic english teachers or antiquarian fetishists, I read some summaries before reading this and that was it. All things considered, the central theme of the necessity of death is a connecting thread between the two, and some of the events later in Beowulf are foreshadowed in Grendel. Ultimately, I think they can be read as completely separate works.

My first impression of Grendel is that it was like having Holden Caulfield narrate an ancient nordic/germanic version of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The narrator, the eponymous Grendel, is an important aspect of the story I think. It’s not like stories where the narrator is unreliable – in this case the narrator is literally a monster. In other words, if the narrator seems unpleasant, maybe he’s supposed to. Gardner wanted to touch on all sorts of subjects throughout this work – and pretty well all of them from a modern viewpoint. An early middle ages monster who’s an existentialist grappling with the nihilistic fatalism expressed by a dragon seems odd given the actual historical context of the poem. Not just that, either – there’s also a little discourse on power games that sounds like something out of Machiavelli, a speech about the ground of rationality which I admit could have come from the likes of Eriugena, some discussion of free will that would have fit in Boethius or Abelard. It’s really just an odd collection of ideas gathered together in a self-consciously revisionist version of a myth. This book is how I imagine things could have gone wrong if Disney’s recent Maleficent had tried to insert little comments on social theory, naturalism, and heroism in the face of death.

Is the point that heroes and myth survive despite the reality of death? If not, is it about defeating Camusian nihilism by being a hero? Is the conclusion of this work actually what Grendel’s is – that all things are just accidents? I’m not sure what the point of any of the writing really was, there are no definitive statements. I don’t know if Gardner was deliberately opening up subjects just to keep skipping like a dilettante, but the book raised lots of modern questions and scattered a few remnants of historical suggestions for answers and generally just petered out.

It’s not so much that I didn’t enjoy the book – I did – but I felt like it needed footnotes for all the themes and subjects touched on. The fatalism discussed by the dragon is Aristotle’s “sea battle” argument discussed through the early middle ages and into the present. The priest’s diatribe about the king of the Gods is middle ages Neo-Platonism. It’s more that the reader comes across all of these sort of erudite subjects and receives them with Grendel’s shrug and uneasy nihilism and the story sort of chugs on with flourishes about mountains and streams and mead halls and such and never stops to really examine any of the things the book is apparently about.


Get Into Gary


Sometimes there are major recording artists you just haven’t paid much attention to. Just recently, I’ve gotten super into Gary Numan, and I’m going to enthuse for a bit on why he’s amazing. I first came across him (besides hearing the ubiquitous Cars) when Noel Fielding/Vince Noir gushed about him in The Mighty Boosh and conducted a pretty charming interview with him on radio. In short, in my estimation Gary Numan was doing with New Wave music what needed to be done – embracing the novelty and coldness of synth instruments to express (in some songs) the sci-fi dystopian themes that never quite congealed in Bowie. Where Bowie never really ejected from the trappings of rock music, Numan and New Wave did some of the dark-room experiments that needed to be done. Gary Numan is like the lost Bowie character that the Thin White Duke never quite transitioned into after drowning in cocaine and absconding to Berlin.

Influences & Machines

Gary Numan (real name Gary Anthony James Webb) was the frontman for a late 70’s band called Tubeway Army. They released a self-titled debut album in 1979, but later that year they changed direction a bit and released Replicas, a new wave album that would be the first of a three part arc of Gary Numan’s Machine era (Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, and Telekon). Numan’s music during the machine era echoed some of the tracks on Bowie’s Low and had parallels in artists like the John Foxx led Ultravox, and I would argue, The Human League.


Apparently in the early 80’s people were beset with illuminated geometry.

Many people considered Numan’s work to be derivative of Bowie’s work with Low, prefigured by Station to Station and the aesthetics of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Dylan Jones of GQ magazine observed disapprovingly in 2011, saying “the early Eighties were full of young men and women either pretending to be David Bowie or using one of his many characters as a blueprint for their own tawdry space-faces, but few copied so poorly as Numan.  Both reference William S. Burroughs as an influence, and in an interview with Melody Maker magazine in 1979, Numan mentioned that “It was Bowie who got me into [William S.] Burroughs. There was so much talk about him that I read him to see what all the fuss was about. And it was good. I could see why Bowie relies on him a lot…well, I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t. I think Bowie relies on him for actual technique, whereas I rely on him more for words and structures.” Numan almost directly quoted Burroughs’ “Astronaut’s Return” in his single “Down In The Park” (the defining alternative-discography track) when he questions his own memory about whether he was in a car accident or a war. Besides Burroughs, Numan makes pretty direct references to Phillip K. Dick (even anticipating Ridley Scott’s coining “replicants” for Bladerunner) and more oblique references to J. G. Ballard. The Internet Review of Science Fiction ‘zine notes that “Numan was clearly doing his homework, and doing it thoroughly: where Bowie made use of big names like Kubrick and Orwell, Numan was going for the lesser-known but more authentic works of Philip K. Dick and [Michael G.] Coney.” Bowie even seemed to be making a snipe at Numan in his 1980 song “Teenage Wildlife” – and they’ve had something like an uneasy mutual respect since.

Industrial & Electroclash

I’ve never been much for new wave music in general, having grown up in the 90’s when New Wave felt kind of effete, tired, and too poppy. In the 1970’s the concept of Industrial music was being developed by figures like Genesis P’Orridge, which in my opinion came to fruition in the early 90’s with artists like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. During the 10 years after the Machine albums, Numan was trying to do what Ultravoxx, Bowie, and Prince were doing combining electronic elements with R&B, Jazz and rock. Prince is even quoted in “Prince in the Studio” by Jake Brown with this little exchange: “‘do you like gary numan’ ?…prince asked him…’you know, his album replicas never left my turntable…there are people still trying to work out what a genius he was’ ….”Gary never quite succeeded in this direction, even in his own opinion. Where electronic music was getting warmer with Techno and Rave and the kids were taking MDMA, Numan found his voice again in the alternative darkness of Industrial with a string of albums starting with Sacrifice that had tracks (if not whole albums) that could stand toe-to-toe with Trent Reznor’s.

As Nine Inch Nails became recognized as one of the enduring voices of Industrial music, it’s interesting that both Bowie and Numan collaborated with them. On Bowie’s Earthling, there’s a track produced by Nine Inch Nails and Photek called “I’m Afraid of Americans” – the video for which features Trent Reznor stalking Bowie through New York City.  Bowie toured with NIN co-headlining the Outside Tour in 1995, and performing among other songs NIN’s concert-favorite “Reptile” off of The Downward Spiral. Numan has himself worked and performed extensively with Nine Inch Nails. Reznor himself claims to have listened to Telekon every day while working on Pretty Hate Machine. In their perhaps brashly named “Wave Goodbye Tour” Nine Inch Nails played Numan’s Cars and Down in the Park, and in 2013 Numan took Bowie’s place performing Reptile.


Bowie and Numan, respectively, playing “Reptile” with Nine Inch Nails on tour.

If I could recommend one track from Numan’s Industrial music, I’d probably pick A Prayer For the Unborn – an expression of Numan’s atheistic streak that illustrates one profound element of his late career: this is not inauthentic. In the wake of real lived tragedy, a series of miscarriages, this is a protest against the divine fit for the lips of Job but with the final rejection of hope that Job had. Dark stuff.

In the late 90’s there there was a movement called electroclash that took the best of New Wave back to the discotheque. If this sounds unfamiliar, Soulwax’s 2 Many DJ’s / Radio Soulwax series is an indispensable introduction. Electroclash included bands like Ladyhawke, Little Boots, Peaches, Fischerspooner et al. There are lots of electroclash aesthetics prefigured in Numan’s music and stage persona, here’s just a couple examples:



Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash penetrates to the heart of the new aesthetic – the rejection of “wholesome authenticity in favor of all things synthetic and fake.” (Energy Flash, 484) In drug terms, this means “removing the Ecstasy vibe” and circling back to the old disco drugs, “..the pre-E era when clubbing was all about cliquishness and ‘the beautiful people’: an aristocracy of larger than life characters…” What may have eventually made Electroclash spend itself was being “trapped by its tongue-in-chic-irony.” (Energy Flash, 487) Being numb, alienated, neurotic, and isolated now feels too much like a prolonged Xanax or Prozac treatment – because there are drugs for it the music seems empty as an expression of the non-feeling. Irony works well for criticism, but it’s hard to build something lasting from it.

Following the Electroclash movement there was later another 80’s revival – still going on – affectionately described as “synthwave” or sometimes “nu wave.” In a sense, synthwave has come full-circle, returning to the sci-fi roots of new wave with bands like Kavinsky, Anoraak, movies like Tron: Legacy and books like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Numan has been vindicated: if his Machine trilogy seemed ahead of its time, the aesthetic was developed through cyberpunk fiction and movies, and that work is on the cusp of a renaissance.

Numan himself, though, has just released albums that reflect feel of his Crawl single – revitalized Industrial. Consider three songs Numan has been a guest on in the last 5 years:

Gary Numan & Ade Fenton – Healing || Battles – My Machines ||  South Central – Crawl

numan_ade_fenton numan_battles numan_south_central

Whatever your estimation of this new work is, it doesn’t sound particularly like his 80’s material. Since the Machine era, Numan’s songs from that series have been sampled extensively* and covered and covered well by tons of groups.** It’s curious that Gary himself doesn’t really value the nostalgia of it. He says in a 2013 interview in Electronic Musician that “I just don’t feel like going back to that. If I did, I don’t think I would find them particularly exciting; it would feel like a step backward. It might be a chip on my shoulder that I have about nostalgia and retro. I got into electronic music because it was so forward looking.” The thing is, the songs Gary made back then have become new wave standards the way we used to think about folk standards. His songs are among the source material for artists picking up synthesizers and looking to play something that’s a cultural touchstone. Whatever Numan makes now can be a meaningful contribution to a second or third wave Industrial canon, but his best work has already become a legacy – a reference point for electronica that can’t be recreated.

*See, for example Basement Jaxx’s use of ME **See, for example: The Foo Fighters – Down In The Park, The Dead Weather – Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, Nine Inch Nails – Metal