Thursday, February 22, 2024

Book review: "The Passenger" and "Stella Maris" by Cormac McCarthy- Guest essay from Lasken's Log


You may have heard in the news last week that toxic saliva from a gila monster bite killed someone and that it's not the first time. All I can say is, that's not been my experience with Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster (keep reading for more on this eccentric creature) unless you count mental bites, and Robert's are usually instructive. The other day he called me over the desert airwaves to ask if I'd read Cormac McCarthy's final two novels. "Yes," I thought back. "Were they not outstanding?" Robert signalled, and I couldn't disagree. In fact I've been discussing the books with my altered-ego D.L.. He intended to review them on his blog, Lasken's Log (https://laskenlog.blogspot.com/), but Robert and I convinced him to post the review here, as a service to my readers who, if they are not already McCarthy fans, certainly might be. Hope you enjoy! Best, Harry

Book review: "The Passenger" and "Stella Maris" by Cormac McCarthy

Guest post from Lasken's Log

The next great war won't arrive until everyone who remembers the last one is dead.
Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy

The two novels, published in 2022, one year before McCarthy died at age 89, were his first in 16 years, since Blood Meridian in 2006. They are companion pieces, one book each for a brother and his younger sister, Bobby and Alicia Western, whose father (a fictional character) worked closely with a real person (Robert Oppenheimer) on the atom bomb in the Manhattan Project.

There is crossover, but The Passenger deals mostly with Bobby, and Stella Maris mostly with Alicia.

The books have in common an uncompromising embrace of darkness as the overriding principal of human life if not the universe. McCarthy was known for a dark view of things, and for the violence of his visions. The force of these last two novels seems to have built up in him for 16 years, coming out, at least for me, unexpectedly intense and pointed, as if McCarthy wanted us to know that the wisdom he sought in his youth to counter the darkness seems even more a pipedream now that he nears his final- supposedly visionary- moments.

The narratives differ the way the siblings differ. In The Passenger Bobby's physical self throbs across the pages. As a refugee hunted by CIA types (their identity is never confirmed) he builds habitats out of refuse in wastelands, skinning, cooking and eating carrion, reading physics by the fire at night and thinking about his sister, his father and the bomb. Before he was on the run (and after being injured in a Formula 2 race car crash) Bobby worked in deep sea salvage. One day he and his co-workers get a call that leads them to a private plane underwater with 12 drowned passengers. Afterwards, two "Feds," as Bobby's friends call them, interrogate Bobby, telling him there was a 13th passenger on the plane who is missing. The incident is not reported in the papers. Bobby and his crew come to realize that someone made a mistake and they were not supposed to have seen the wreck. The men who saw it begin to die in unexplained ways, and Bobby flees. In the succeeding chapters, McCarthy is a wizard of diversion, writing about the intrigue over the missing passenger only incidentally, as a sub-plot (Spoiler alert: This sub-plot is never concluded or explained). Most of the narrative involves stories of how Bobby left university and a promising career in physics to flower as an anti-hero, an extraordinary chunk of physical manhood and genius who refuses to accept an organized, nihilistic state- such as the one that created The Bomb- as his master and model.

In spite of or maybe because of Bobby's gifts, the expressions of darkness in this book are constant. When they're not unsettling they can be almost funny. Try this from one of Bobby's roughneck drinking buddies: "The world's truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise."

Except for his sister, whom he adored and with whom he was obsessed, Bobby saw women as one more expression of the world's terrifying visions, ready to satisfy his manly need to penetrate but ready as well to skewer his brain with magic cords of slavery. When his sister aims those chords at him his world shatters.

"Stella Maris" is the name of a mental institution where Alicia has committed herself. The novel is composed of Alicia's conversations with her state appointed therapist. I found the force of this novel somewhat dangerous to my peace of mind, like The Passenger but more so. Alicia is unrelentingly brilliant, seducing the reader with engaging theories, for instance that the reason animals don't appear to experience mental illness on anything like the scale of humans is that they don't have language, that language is a "parasite" that infected early humans, dominating their "unconscious" and driving them mad enough to destroy the living world. Or her observation that the young of non-humans do not screech after birth as human babies do because that would draw predators. Her theory is that the loud wailing of human babies is driven by an "uncontrollable rage at something essentially wrong with the newly revealed world."

Alicia is stunningly beautiful, but she has no interest in any man other than her brother, whom she wants to have sex with and marry. Before declaring herself "unbalanced" and committing herself to Stella Maris she had done university work in mathematics and is brilliant in any subject you can name, reading 4-5 books a day and memorizing them (she can do crossword puzzles in her head and recite them back).

Alicia, like Bobby, is fascinated by her father's work on the atom bomb, seeing the creation of this weapon as a final "psychosis" of mankind, "the most important event in history" in the sense that it threatens the end of history.

As noted, I found the one-two punch of the books somewhat dangerous, that is, somewhat convincing. We humans can't reach any moral conclusions by staring into the voids of space or quantum theory. We are limited to the immediate people around us for a sense of "how things are." In answer to that question, I'd say that Alicia and Bobby are right, the atom bomb was the most important and the most psychotic invention in human history. As argued in this blog (see "Kissinger's nuclear war" at the link above), and as McCarthy expected, nuclear weapons probably will be used. There will be superficial meanings attached to this use, such as "One country is fighting another country," along with deeper meanings, including perhaps that there is a unified goal from an emerging technocracy whose interest is to use nuclear war and whatever other terrors are at hand to subdue and corral current humanity- now discounted as last year's species- into a confused mass that won't be able to resist the up and downgrades of an end-game karma.

Alicia commits suicide (as revealed in the beginning of both books) and Bobby drifts off to Spain, hiding from the "Feds" and mourning his sister for the rest of his life. It's not a happy ending. Should we conclude, as I think McCarthy did, that darkness prevails? I'm going to hold off a bit, just to see if some new, maybe saner language can take hold, so for instance one might turn on the network news and hear the anchor say, "In their continued effort to distract us from the creation of new humans and machines to replace us, leaders fan the flames of war to create the illusion of human agency."

That might be a bit much to expect, but some acknowledgement in the public sphere of what's happening to us would be a breath of fresh air.

Note to readers: Apologies for the irregular paragraphing above. I tried to rectify it but Google Editor, long forgotten by its creators, resisted.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

COP-out 28

As regular readers know, I'm a former nightclub performer headlined Clairvoyant Harry. Telepathy is not an acceptable trait, so when I used to read audience members' minds I had to walk a tightrope between appearing both telepathic (which I am) and a clever fake (which I may also be). I won't bore readers with a re-hash of the forces that drove me to leave show biz, reject human society at large and maroon myself in the Mojave Desert (near Pearblossom). Let's just say I got tired of understanding everything.

I expected my isolation in the desert to bring both biblical clarity and near lethal loneliness, but I met a creature the likes of whom I had not known shared the earth with us: Robert, a telepathic gila monster. As I found within 30 seconds after encountering him on his favorite rock (about a quarter mile from my shack), Robert is not only telepathic and in complete mastery of the English language, but, like me, he's starved for company. We hit it off fast. In these pages you'll find accounts of our many strange and often illuminating adventures.

Anyway, I hadn't seen him for a while so this morning I set out for Robert's favorite rock, where he sat waiting for me.

Robert: Harry, how's tricks?

Me: Can't complain, Robert. Well, I could, but what good would it do?

Robert: Harry, if you came out here to cheer me up, don't bother. My mood has already been set by this morning's L.A. Times.

As you gather, Robert is conversant with our culture and in fact can "read" the online world through his lizard mind.

Me: I don't recall anything that wasn't the same as yesterday's news.

Robert: Check again, Harry. The headline reads, "COP28 has become a sham, but can the world afford to walk out?"

Me: I saw that, but how is it news? Did you actually expect the world powers to quit fossil fuel?

Robert: The outcome is not news. Everyone knows at this point that you're not quitting fossil fuel. The new element is the strategy.

Me: What strategy? The message seems fairly up-front. They are saying they won't change for a bunch of agnostics who don't believe there's a god who wants Armageddon.

Robert: But Harry, who are "they"? Who is this power that insists you continue using fossil fuel?

Me: The spokesperson at Cop28 was some oil sultan...Oh wait, there's a conflict of interest, if that's what you mean.

Robert: Sultan Al Jaber, head of Abu Dhabi's national oil company, and host of COP28.

Me: Ok, clearly a conflict of interest, but the information is not new- it was reported three days ago.

Robert: The new news is in my head. I realized that the whole thing is a trick. This sultan, he's a plant, and the U.S., Europe, Russia, China- everyone is in on it. His purpose is to supply you with an exterior force to blame. When you go to your politicians now and ask, "Why haven't you pushed harder for our country to quit fossil fuel?", they can answer, "We wanted to but Sultan Al Jaber stopped us."

I stared for a few moments at Robert, trying to process his idea, which he took as denial.

Robert: Come on Harry, the "civilized world," as you call yourselves, is not going to quit fossil fuel. You are not able to.

My continued silence encouraged Robert to go on.

Robert: You can't do it because the people you call "powerful" have little power, they're just reflections of popular opinion and wishful thinking. Imagine if your president and Congress together decreed an end to use of fossil fuel, and the immediate retooling of all auto plants to electric rail and solar panels.

Me: What do you think would happen?

Robert: If the effort to quit fossil fuels could not be stopped politically, your government would likely be overthrown and replaced by a fascist technocracy.

Me: And what about the general population? Under the technocracy, how would people function without cars?

Robert: There would be fuel left for a few years. Have you seen the Mad Max movies? They have the right idea. The technocracy hoards the remaining gas, distributing any excess to wild motorcyle gangs who rule the ruins of your cities, including Pearblossom.

I was quiet for a while, pondering the scorn I would endure if I rejoined society with stories of how much I had learned from a telepathic gila monster. Finally I sought closure.

Me: Ok, so what is your conclusion from this?

Robert: I already told you: When you ask your politicians why you can't avoid a Mad Max world, now they can say, "Because Sultan Al Jaber won't let us."

I searched my brain for something of interest to counter Robert's domination of the conversation. Finding a near blank, I made a polite goodbye and headed back to my shack, freed for now from the social bond I have with a reptile who forces me to care about the world's bullshit.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Hoober-Boober highway to hell

I'm a bit at odds with the world's current tilt towards World War Three, or Four, depending how you look at it (I count everything from the end of World War Two to now as World War Three- check Robert's alternate classification below). You know the feeling, don't you, when all the optimism of your youth, all the ideology and philosophy, the cosmic agreements that allowed you to survive and sometimes flourish, unravel in a hiccup?

I've longed to share my thoughts with someone, but my options are limited due to self-induced isolation in the Mojave Desert. So this morning, although we've been estranged of late, I reached out to my iconoclastic companion, Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster.

As usual Robert was not hard to find. I just headed out my back door into the desert, walked about fifteen minutes, and there he was on his favorite rock.


Harry, you soggy old human, he thought (he's telepathic, as I am). What can I do you for?

I just need a little distraction, Robert. I came upon you deep in thought. What were you thinking about?

Sorry, Harry, my "MindGuard" was on; normally we don't let humans engage with us on a thought level- you're the exception.

I'm honored.

You should be.

[Author's note: In the text below the indentation, paragraph separation and italics have been corrupted by what I suspect are spy-bots from The Manifest, my latest term for The Master Program, that resist correction. I beg the reader to persevere against this sabotage and march forth with me and Robert!]

Robert is an avid student of human culture. [New paragraph] Harry, in answer to your question of what I was thinking about, you may recall Dr. Seuss' "Hoober-Boober Highway"? I thought you might from your years teaching elementary school.

I do indeed, and I marvelled that the school district allowed teaching such an open and questioning book about humanity's place in the cosmos.

Yes (Robert continued), so you'll recall that it's a story about autonomous pre-destination, in which the souls of people soon to be born (though not yet combined with sperm and egg elements) are offerred a conference with the Hoober-Boob, an angel of sorts who converses with the preborn souls about human life, offering them some choice about being born human, as well as where and when they will be born, finally determining to which coordinates they will be delivered via the Hoober-Boober Highway, a designated wormhole that opens into the mother's birth canal. Could such options possibly be available to humans? Imagine your soul before you were born looking at the timeline of humanity and choosing to be born now...who would do that? Your species is about to launch its so called "Third World War," which in reality is a single war that never stops, having learned exactly nothing from earlier non-stop war, except maybe that human civilization hasn't happened yet. You're still in the kill-or-be-killed stage.

And gilas are not?, I asked.

Gilas are incidental by human standards; we're just waiting around. And to clarify, I'm not saying humans don't have pockets of civilization, but the overall mood was summed up by Nietzshe: "To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering," and that's on a good day.

Again, how are gilas exempt from this?

Gilas are exempt from responsibility. If there is a Hoober-Boober Highway, Gilas, possibly because of their attitude, have not been invited, which is good because we can't be accused of choosing anything. But Harry, why would a human soul with such an option choose this moment to be born when your species, lost in the wilderness one year too many, finally collapses in mass insanity and suicide? I'm venturing that no one would choose it, and that no one did, because my theory is that your pre-birth souls were not guided here by some benign force, but were lost in the cosmos- probably after one of its frequent explosions- susceptible to passing vortices that whisked you into random Hoober-Boobian space, minus the Hoober Boob.

Robert, you have a knack for cheering me up.

Any time. The human goal, then, has been to overcome the random chaos of your birth and try to make sense of things. It's always hard to do that. Any species needs help, and yours especially. So before you adopt an adolescent video game of sadism and death and proclaim it your culture, you should find a way to connect the many people who are outside this game (or want to be) and together build an alternate game.

Thanks for the tip, Robert. I may have a chance to get to it next Tuesday.

I like to leave Robert on a sardonic note, but while trudging home I had to admit he had a point. Humans alive today have landed, by choice or not, at probably the most unlucky moment to be human in our 300,000 year history, at the climax of a long life-or-death struggle with our selves, our planet, maybe even with the whole universe. We seem to have limited options in this struggle, but every little bit helps. In my view it would be a big help if people talked openly about our isolation and impossible choices. To advance this concept, I've decided to stand along Highway 138 with a sign reading, "People of Earth: Compensate for the unfortunate accident of your birth with good conversation!"

I was going to stop by Pearblossom Hardware this morning for sign materials but then saw it will be 119 degrees on the highway today. Next week is supposed to be cooler. I'll keep readers posted on my new movement.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Kissinger revealed!

Whatever some readers may conclude, I don't consider myself "nihilistic" (Merriam-Webster: "Holding a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless," from Latin "nihil": "nothing."); I just report what I see. Readers who want a specific point to things might try my altered ego D.L., who fills in Henry Kissinger's incomplete obituary on Lasken's Log at https://laskenlog.blogspot.com/ 

Best, Harry

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Harold Pinter through the eyes of a gila monster

One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.  

Harold Pinter

It was supposed to be me time, away from my demanding day job resolving the discords of the universe- yes, time to exit my Mojave hut, tool out to the Lancaster Multiplex and watch National Theater Live's performance of Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" (1975).  The play and acting were superb, but my review was not supposed to have had this title, and the experience was other than anticipated.

It's my own fault for telling Robert, my gila monster comrade, how great Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet was at the last National Theater Live event (live in the sense that it was recorded before a living audience).   I should back up and explain to new readers that Robert, like me, is telepathic.  Gilas at large are telepathic, but only Robert will communicate with me.  Most importantly, Robert has just come through a rough period in which his local clan tried to kill him for opening up to a human (keep reading for more on that).

Anyway, I foolishly mentioned to Robert that I was going into town to see the Pinter play, and how much I like these rare flashes of culture that light up the desert night out here in nowheresville, and he begged me to take him along. He said the stress of being rejected by his own kind had increased his interest in portrayals of human alienation, which he finds- in daily reviews of human culture telepathically scanned from the Palmdale Public Library- to be the principal theme of our literature.  I told him that while this made sense, there were laws against taking gila monsters into theaters.  He argued that I could smuggle him in, and I pointed out the obvious logistical difficulties in doing that. But Robert was insistent, claiming it was a matter of his survival, that he needed to see beyond his diminishing horizon, so I relented and found myself in a long line outside the Lancaster Multiplex last Friday evening with a gila monster tucked into my jacket.

The line was long, not for No Man's Land, but because also showing that night was an apocalyptic disaster film full of brilliant CGI renditions of mega-sized urban infrastructure collapses with attendant human death tolls. The theater was packed with teenagers who had come to see the world destroyed, presumably so they could rebuild it.  From behind my lapel Robert sniffed the air suspiciously, then muttered (telepathically):

Jesus, what is it with humans?  Why do your children crave movies showing your civilization wiped out?  Has your species lost the allegiance of its young?

That's a harsh way to put it.  Let's just say we're overbuilt and the young are restless for their arena.

I managed to get Robert through the teenage lines and down the hall, where an older, smaller, more sedate crowd walked through narrow doors to see Pinter, their thoughts and expectations, though psychologically akin to the landscape fracturing images next door, subdued and translated into the staid symbolism of the mature mind.  I felt accepting of this audience because I knew they would be quiet during the film, their attention interrupted only by scattered, plaintive chomping on buttered pop-corn.

I was ready for an unparalleled theatergoing experience, and that it was.  I had not realized how much on edge Robert was after his internecine struggle.  As I look back he might have been experiencing a sort of PTSD. I should have known.

Trouble started right away during the introductory sequence, in which the main actors, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, talk about how much they support local theater, because they had attended local theater in their youth and saw greats like John Gielgud and were inspired to become actors.

I was content to listen to this innocuous conversation, but a pulsing force within my half-zipped jacket began biting at my chest and voicing its growing discontent.

Harry, what is this shit?  I want the play.  Did you pay for this too?

What's the problem? 

I don't want to hear this, ok?  Gilas don't waste time 'talking'- they get to the good parts fast.

Why are you at a human play if you don't like talking?

I had said this out loud, so distracted had I become with Robert.  Several heads turned in anger; one lady "shushed" me.  

Robert, calm down please, I resumed in thought, What is so bad about talking about your feelings?

Robert eyed me.  What if someone sent you the feeling , 'I love you.'  Would you like that?

Hypothetically, yes.

Well, what if after sending the 'I love you' feeling they pontificated endlessly about love? During that time you would not possess the actual love in question. QED

Robert, shut up now, I'm trying to listen!  This part's almost over.

Robert lapsed into silent stillness, but there was a tension in his muscles that did not relent until we were well into the play, which he found fascinating and intense.  At times I felt his heart rate go up rapidly.  During one such episode he sent me this thought:

You crazy motherfuckers!  You are so lonely, so unable to figure out where you are or what you are supposed to do that you have gone insane and are about to commit species-wide suicide.  You sad motherfuckers!

I lashed back:

If you don't shut up I will take you out of here and come back tomorrow by myself!

He was silent for the rest of the play.  During the credits he was almost genial.

God what a terrifying play, he thought, an intimate peek into the ultimate loneliness of the male human mind.

Yes, Robert, that's perceptive: there are four males in the play, and no females.  The males, though they are rivals, band together to help each other get through the ordeals that await all men.

All human men, you mean.  Gilas of any gender keep each other company just by existing. We don't have to be 'compatible', whatever that is.

Yes, gilas are so great.  Now if you don't mind, Robert, I'd like to watch the after-show discussion with the actors.

Four sets of sharp claws dug into my ribs and I leaped up.  As the after-show discussion began, heads turned towards my muffled shout.  I did the only thing I could- I grabbed Robert around the throat and said,

I will strangle you on the spot if you don't calm down!  

Ok, I'm calm, Harry! 

his body then as still as a plaster cast.  He breathed slowly for a while, then asked, 

Why do you need to watch this part?

Why do you need to not watch it?

It's criticism, that's why.  I hate criticism.  I told you, I like the thing, not talking about it.

Fine, but why do you care so much you're risking euthanasia over it?

Look who's talking, and Robert actually poked his head out of my jacket (more stares, now with force and alarm),  I read your blog, Harry!  I know you were an English major in college.

So what?

You hated literary criticism so much you wrote a furious essay for your Augustan Lit professor, saying you wanted to study Jonathan Swift, not critics of Swift.

Robert, shut your reptilian face! I didn't come here to discuss the fruitless impulses of my youth!  I am sitting down now and listening to the after-show discussion.  I bought the ticket; you did not.

And with that I sat down- staring heads be damned- which was a mistake because Robert went berserk, tore himself out of my jacket- in the process slicing my shirt and flesh- jumped down to the aisle and dragged himself towards the front of the theater with surprising speed (gilas can't run), accompanied by shouts of shock and horror on either side. He clawed his way onto the narrow stage, turned once to spit disdainfully at the audience, then turned to the screen and began furiously scratching it, sending waves across its surface that distorted the actors' faces. I raced down the aisle, grabbed Robert by the tail and ran through the exit to the left of the stage.

Thankfully my car was nearby in the back lot.  I threw Robert in the trunk, slammed down the lid and told him to calm down or he would stay in there. As I drove to the nearest emergency room to tend to my cuts, we deconstructed the evening via the mental airwaves.

Ok, Robert, you're right, I did rebel against literary criticism: the way it canonized writers, dissected them as if they were timelines of historical labels instead of sentient observers, outside of time. You should feel an affinity with me.

No, you are used up, over!  The zest I thought I'd found in your intellect was a remnant from your past.

I suppose I should be more like you: an exiled lizard throwing a tantrum in another species' movie theater?

Gilas don't fear what they are.

Maybe they should.

I made Robert wait in the trunk for two hours while I searched for things to say to the exhausted ER staff, other than that you should never take a gila monster to a Harold Pinter play.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Bad words

Below is a guest essay from my altered-ego D.L. For more, go to Lasken's Log at https://laskenlog.blogspot.com/ All the best, Harry

Isn’t it odd that a word can be bad? Odd, that is, that the word itself is bad, not its referent. And odd that there’s no clear logic behind the bad word’s badness. For instance, “murder” and “torture” refer, in most people’s minds, to bad things, but the words are not bad. The word “fuck,” however, is bad, though it doesn’t refer to anything bad in an absolute sense.

"Fuck" is probably the most bad of the bad words, though, as noted, its referent, expressed acceptably in Latin as "copulate," ("couple together") is morally neutral.  Why is "fuck" bad and "copulate" is not?

History demonstrates the agonized process.  Christian Konrad Sprengel, 18th century German naturalist, was the first academician to suggest that flowers are sexual organs. For his pains he was hounded out of polite society and his work vilified. Today it is common knowledge that wholly female flowers are types of vaginas, that male-only flowers are types of penises, and hermaphroditic flowers are cocks with pussies attached that fuck themselves.

The point being that Sprengel turned “flower” into a bad word.

"Badness," apparently, is sexuality. That's a tough call when sexuality supports the imperative to reproduce. If sexuality is designated bad, does that make reproduction bad?

The ban against the English word for excrement is a separate puzzle. If we already abhor shit, why do we need to reinforce the abhorrence with language bans?

Teachers are expected to figure out such psychological and philosophical questions on their own, without a word of guidance from credential programs or staff development. As an elementary and high school teacher I spent a lot of time and energy in pursuit of what I thought was a societal goal: dissuading children from saying bad words that denote sexual organs, various sex acts and/or excrement. In this essay I ponder what I was trying to accomplish, and what our culture is trying to accomplish by designating certain words "bad."

I’m a crossover person who remembers bygone eras. In 1955 my family went to see the movie “Picnic” because we’d heard that William Holden said “damn." A hushed, almost worshipful audience awaited the big moment, and when the word was uttered a gasp in unison pervaded the theater. The movie producer’s gamble had paid off: box office dividends from a bad word. Few at that time realized that the dam was about to burst (sorry).

Fast forward to San Francisco State, 1969- my Chaucer professor charges breathlessly into the classroom. Instead of giving us a page number to find, he asks if we’ve heard what’s going on at U.C. Berkeley. A student named Mario Savio and an army of dedicated young people have taken a stand for free speech, he informs us. We can say “fuck” if we want to!  Add cable TV and the rest is history.

Fast forward to 1983, when, as a new elementary school teacher in south L.A., I face a demure little black girl who, standing before my desk, has just said, “fuck.” There is no context, just the word hanging understated in the air. I track down the mother’s work number and call. The mother’s response: “Let me get this straight. You called me at work to tell me my daughter said ‘fuck’?”

“Er…yes…” I stammer, and realize I need a zeitgeist upgrade.

Fast forward a few years and I'm a high school English teacher, listening all day to kids speak in linguistic abandon.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Thank you Mario!

Like everything else in our society, our language protocols are in a state of flux.  At times of head-spinning change, it's helpful to ponder history.  The Norman invasion of England in 1066 gives needed background. The Normans lived in France and spoke French, but they were only two generations removed from their Viking ancestry. In England they imposed their new language on the indigenous Anglo-Saxons. The Normans looked down on Anglo-Saxons for being Germanic, members of a tribe that had been the most resistant to Rome, marauding around Europe's forests like savages instead of paving roads through them. The Normans despised Anglo-Saxons beyond words, especially four letter words. The Anglo-Saxons said things like “fuck” and “shit,” scum that they were, while the Normans, heirs to Latin through French, could say copuler and defequer. The ex-Vikings may have heard a guttural sexuality in Anglo-Saxon that reminded them of the lowly language of their grandparents. Their dream was to abandon the primative Viking culture (itself Germanic) and become Latinized aristocrats. To this end they needed to speak in multisyllabic words built of phonemes that are not evocative of animals rutting.

Thus Savio's battle continued the thousand-year struggle to free the Anglo-Saxon mother tongue.

The "four-letter" words do of course have another property: they carry emotion.  Compare these two sentences:

 There are dog feces on the mat.

There's dog shit on the fucking mat!

The first sentence is devoid of emotion, an expression of information only; the second, identical to the first except for two bad words, a contraction and an exclamation mark, explodes with emotion.   It is their prohibition that has attached emotional power to the bad words. They are forbidden... special.  The process has given us useful words that express levels of emotion other words cannot.

Once the prohibition has been gone long enough, the words' power will diminish.

In the high school portion of my teaching career I formulated a policy on the goodness or badness of words based on their usefulness.  Plethora I identified as a bad word because it’s ugly and show-offy, making its common synonyms more useful.  When we read an Anglo-Saxon bad word in literature, I encouraged students to assess the word's usefulness in its context.  Words are either useful or they're not. They are useful if they carry meaning and force; they are not useful if they don’t. If I have to hear “motherfucker” all fucking day, that phrase is not useful. If it's only once in a while, well….



Saturday, June 24, 2023

Programmed amnesia

[This is a guest essay by my young associate Gregory, leader of the revolutionary group Mantis, also known as the Army of the Young. To read our exclusive story about the 2044 U.S. presidential election, go to http://www.gregorysarmyoftheyoung.com/ Best, Harry]

No one remembers being in the womb, even though research indicates that fetuses have memory.  The selective amnesia seems hard-wired, suggesting that evolutionary pressure made it advantageous not to remember gestation.  

In a second programmed amnesia, no one remembers being a baby, though all the evidence indicates that babies have memory. Why are no baby memories saved?  

Could the transitions from womb to babyhood and from babyhood to toddler jump chasms too wide to translate?  Do we protect ourselves from memory? A Darwinian might surmise that proto-humans who remembered the womb went mad from grief and confusion, and toddlers who remembered babyhood did the same.  The "fittest" were those who forgot.

Researchers have discovered a third programmed amnesia at age seven, when a child's brain undergoes a culling of the previous six years of memory.  Unlike the total blockades of memory before birth and between birth and age one, this third event deletes some memory but not all.  No one knows the criteria for remembering or forgetting, why the amnesia occurs at age seven or what its purpose is.

Humanity practices adult-driven amnesia as well, spread via social groups often with conscious intent.  For example, when one culture dominates and/or destroys another, the remaining culture usually doesn't want to remember the culture that was destroyed, at least not in uncensored versions.  The state helps by programing amnesia.  In Stalinist Russia people were not allowed to tour the tsars' palaces.  They needed to forget those palaces and a culture that often dazzled.  One of the Dutch party that first explored Manhattan Island reported that the native population were clean, healthy and sane, not filthy, sick, and crazy like people the reporter had seen in European cities (Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898; Edwin G. Burrows/Mike Wallace). That report has gone missing in other U.S. histories.  No one wants to remember it.

Sometimes we rewrite society's memories of events from the recent past, giving them a spin, while individuals having the original, unspun memories are still alive.  This causes controversy among those who remember the original events, as people with different spins grapple with each other to control the rewriting of the memory narrative. Such memory battles occur, for instance, when national leaders die. We can see such battles in history, for instance there is now a post-mortem investigation of the moral standing of the Roman Emperor Caligula, who is generally presented as an insane sadist and profligate, but may have been painted that way by factions trying (unsuccessfully) to restore the Roman Republic. We can expect such memory battles as current leaders die.   

There are cycles of amnesia in our long-term evolution as well.  We have forgotten what human life was like before we adopted agriculture, only 10,000 years ago.  If it weren't for a few fragments of bone and clay, and some vague myths, we wouldn't know we had lived in small tribes as hunter gatherers.  While we've figured out some of the basics, we cannot remember what it felt like to be human for those hundreds of thousands of years.

We can watch the process today as we drift away from life before the current machine age, when there were no cars, phones, planes, TV, internet or AI. We are forgetting what it was like to be a person then.  

Our penultimate brush with amnesia occurs at what we euphemistically call "retirement." My colleague D.L., in his 77th year, says he has impulses towards "purposeful forgetting," which he consceives as defense of the comfortable "Old Man Ville" he's been able to construct. There are aches and pains around the edges, leading beyond to great voids of incomprehensible silence, but within the bounds of Old Man Ville there is comfort, with sufficient energy- even in some areas seeming, at times, more empowered than in his youth. But through the comfort he feels pressure from the memory bank in Old Man Ville's basement, which holds all his memories stretching back to the earliest, blurry ones- enough data to fill a thousand Libraries of Alexandria. He says, "Delete that shit!," in semi-humor, and continues, "I do want to keep my awareness of identities, mine and important others, but why do I need to use and maintain all that storage space? Just to recall the time in 8th grade when a substitute teacher threw me down a flight of steps, or how much I hated bananas? Who cares?"

Do D.L.'s thoughts arise from natural reasoning, or is he exemplifying yet another programmed amnesia designed to keep us from longing for a state from which, through biological design, we've largely withdrawn?   

The final programmed amnesia, of course, is the one that happens either at death or in the period leading to death. For days, weeks or months, or for a quarter-second, we will be conscious without knowing who or what we are or were. We will literally know nothing. The purpose of this final forgetting could be to disolve any remorse about departing whatever it is we're departing, and entering whatever it is we're entering.

Back to the big picture, humanity is about to undergo its first species-wide amnesia since the one induced by agriculture.  In a century or so there probably won't be more than a handful of people in the world who've heard of Shakespeare or George Washington, or any of today's nation-states, unless that data has been coded into their brain implants.  It could be the "end of history" we've been hearing about.  Genetic engineering, AI and machine/human interface will create a new humanity that will not understand much about the old one, except that it was primitive and should be discarded and forgotten.  

Today, as if to expedite the process, we are working on drugs to delete "traumatic" memories, in a bid perhaps to keep pace with our bionic offspring, whose memories will be tailored for maximum efficiency.  The current flooding of quasi-legal marijuana into all levels of Western society seems part of the trend, as the latest research on THC, the active ingredient, suggests that it acts in part by limiting short-term memory (if further research on marijuana is pursued, it should ponder why limiting short-term memory produces a "high").

How should we react to the coming mass amnesia?  We might as well fight it, don't you think?  By "fight it" I don't mean keep it from happening.  I mean let's inject some memory into the future while we can.  

That is the basic mission of my group, Mantis, a.k.a The Army of the Young.  Much thanks to Harry the Human for giving me this platform.   For more of my essays keep reading this blog. To read our report from the future on the 2044 U.S. presidential election, go to: http://www.gregorysarmyoftheyoung.com/.