The book is one of the things I discussed with Jesus, Betty the Coyote Creator Goddess, Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster and a surprise guest at a new group I was invited to join: Trans-Consciousness Only, for those desiring to understand the subjective consciousness of beings alien to themselves for reasons other than to eat them.
It's been years since I've been invited to anything so exclusive, and I jumped at the chance. Robert came by last week to congratulate me on my acceptance and to inform me that the next meeting would be on new moon, which was last night.
Right on schedule, 9:00pm, Robert showed up at my shack and led me into the dark desert. We trudged among rocks, gullies and brush for about twenty minutes, when finally I spotted an orange glow flickering beyond a large boulder. Rounding the boulder I beheld the group, seated around a small but determined fire: there were Jesus, Betty and Robert, of course, and also a tall, lean figure, with a shock of white hair and a long white beard, holding a wooden staff across his lap as he studied me over the fire.
Jesus greeted me first: "Welcome, Harry!"
Betty showed her brilliant white teeth and Robert spat dismissively (gila saliva is toxic) into the fire.
Betty said, "Harry, I'd like to introduce you to Gandalf," gesturing to the gaunt and grizzled figure to her left.
In retrospect that was a rude question, but it's not every day you meet a fictional character. I stared at "Gandalf." He did indeed conjure up the beneficent and powerful wizard in J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Gandalf: the redemption of the old man.
He leaned forward and extended a long arm. We shook hands and the contact felt like I was reading about it in a book.
Gandalf spoke warmly, "Hello, Harry! I've been following your journey."
I took a seat to Gandalf's left. With Robert to my left, the circle was complete.
"I know what you're thinking, Harry," Gandalf said, staring into the fire, "You're thinking I'm fictional, so what is going on? By the way, I know I'm fictional, that my existence and all my attributes are made up and so are arguably not real."
"Harry," Betty interrupted, "What if I told you that, strictly speaking, you are not real either- you too are fictional?"
"Start with a fact you already know: Your conscious inner-world is an artifact of your brain, a fiction."
"Let me ask you this, Harry," said Jesus, "Aren't I fictional, or mythical if you will? You weren't bothered by that."
Gandalf laughed, "Harry, if you weren't a five-foot-nine human I'd call you Hobbit-like. You are so simple in your needs, you want everything to follow unbreakable rules...."
"Hey, " I asked, hoping to change the subject, "where is Maury the Anointed One? [see "Jesus in the desert" below]. Shouldn't he be here?"
Jesus answered, "He's not really the social type, Harry. It's awfully difficult to get anyone interested in being the Anointed One these day, by the way."
"You sure got a gem with Maury," Robert said, "I wouldn't anoint him with Vaseline."
Betty moved us forward, "OK, shall we begin? I should explain, Harry, that each of us picks topics we feel need to be discussed, either from the subjective world of humans, or others. Watch us for a while and perhaps you'll throw in a topic."
"I have a topic," said Robert, "The North Korean crisis, as Harry's mob calls it."
"Don't get me started," I said.
"Clearly you should start," Jesus said to me.
"Well, OK, sorry if I rant. The North Korean 'crisis,' as our media calls it...."
"Harry, if I could interrupt briefly," said Betty, "I'll just explain to Gandalf, on the subject of 'media,' that contemporary humans are extraordinarily isolated from each other, almost as if the species were evolving from individual thinkers in small groups to semi-aware hive workers under central control. Ancient humans were flush with their world, perceiving it directly and acting upon it directly. Today information about the world and human governance comes to most humans electronically from distant centralized sources. The flow of information is one-way; there is no interaction, no affecting of the world by the human recipient of 'the news.' Since humans don't deal with the world directly, they are cut off from each other."
Robert said, "Yes, and this is why few individual humans have any opportunity to influence the destiny of their species. Decisions are made by people no one sees who control the electronic information centers. The decisions are jump-started into public reality by actors playing leaders who recite lines that, while approaching the sorts of things that a voter might say, do not deliver the goods, or they deliver the wrong goods. Consider war, Harry, the inevitable outcome of humanity's perennial refusal to face reality and figure itself out. War will now be handed to you on a platter, as if you ordered it, by breathless politicians and news anchors, though you did not order it. I must say this sort of horror is absent from gila society, where any able individual can move the whole body."
My discomfort at Robert's chauvinistic outburst, typical of him, must have been apparent. Jesus said, "All right, Robert, let's give Harry a chance to talk about the Korean crisis."
All eyes were on me. I began, "The Korean 'crisis' typifies my species' loss of memory, its fall from consciousness. Hive workers, as Betty sees us, are designed to follow instructions and do not require institutional memory, hive memory. They need remember only the logistics of their immediate functions. Hive memory is useful, however, for management, which, in the case of bees, may emanate from the queen, or some other hive modality."
"Hive modality, ha!" Robert ejaculated, "I've been studying bees. The workers are termed 'imperfect females' because they can't lay eggs. Some of the males get to mate, but after a few blissful moments their abdomens rip open, their dicks fall off and they die."
"What is your point, Robert?" asked Betty.
"I'm just putting it out there."
Gandalf asked, "In the case of the current North Korean rockets, Harry, what are the majority of humans expected to forget, in their limited role as hive workers?"
"We are expected to forget that, for instance, in 2011 the North Koreans fired rockets (which, like the rockets fired by the North last week, carried no warheads) into the Pacific Ocean. That year I had a teaching job in South Korea. When the launches started, CNN blared canards night and day about the 'unprecedented threat' the rockets represented. The Los Angeles Times shrieked on its front page, 'N. Korean rockets could reach us!' Meanwhile no one in South Korea gave a damn (the common reply to my probing was 'We've heard it before'). Today's American consumer of news has no memory of this story, or of a number of other false alarms involving North Korean rockets. Because the populace has no memory, insidious things can be done. North Korea's main export to the West has become an enemy-on-demand service. When Trump makes a mess so bad it breaks the social contract even with his base, someone makes a call and, presto: North Korean enemy-on-demand!"
The group lapsed into silence. Finally Jesus looked up and asked, "Who else has a topic?"
"I do," said Betty, "I've been reading Hillary Clinton's new book. What strikes me is how stunned she was by her loss. She had made plans for an extravagant inaugural under a symbolic glass ceiling, and she still expected those plans to be carried out as late as election eve. When Trump won it felt to her like being hit by a truck, with a concomitant lack of comprehension."
"Speak English, please, Betty," said Robert.
Betty looked benignly at the rest of us. "Robert, I bet you taste good. Of course, to deal with your needs I'll rephrase. Clinton does not understand why she lost. She is quite candid at least about that, and the admission strikes me as unusual."
Robert spoke again: "It is unusual for a public figure (as humans call the few of their species whose opinions are supposed to matter) to admit to not understanding something. My question is, why actually did she lose?"
Jesus said, "Here's what I see: Clinton promoted an agenda of liberal policy, of legislation allowing abortion and gay marriage, a more generous welfare state, etc. What she saw in her opponent was an antithetical agenda that valorized selfishness and long- suppressed anti-social emotion. That agenda, according to the polls, was adhered to by about 30% of the electorate, so Trump should have lost. What Clinton lacked, however, was understanding that the beneficiaries of the liberal agenda do not comprise everyone. She did not know that millions of people feel neglected and abused in spite of the liberal agenda. Hillary Clinton did not know that the liberal agenda, by itself, is no more able to solve the current American malaise than the conservative agenda."
"Then what kind of agenda would help the American malaise?" asked Betty.
I answered: "An agenda about things that are actually happening, like the AI and bioengineering revolutions that threaten to drive humans extinct."
Silence reigned again at the campfire as we drifted into personal thoughts.
Finally Gandalf spoke, "On the subject of war, I find it ironic that, especially in the 1960's, the anti-war population made up much of the fan base of Lord of the Rings, which is, of course, a war story, among the most violent you'll ever read."
"How do you account for that, Gandalf," asked Betty.
"I walked down Telegraph Avenue in 1969 one summer day (it's remarkable easy for fictional characters to pass as real in Berkeley), and I heard people say they liked Lord of the Rings because you can tell the good guys from the bad guys. You certainly can! Tolkien's bad guys are twisted and sadistic. His good guys, emphatically presented in the movies, are beautiful and virtuous beyond words. Who would follow a grotesque fiend into battle when you've got elven lords and transcendent fairy queens (not to mention my humble contribution). Poor humanity! Outside your fiction, you have to follow the most avaricious and deceptive of your kind, while potentially wise leaders scurry for cover."
Again we became quiet, staring into the fire and exploring our thoughts. After a while Betty asked, "Has anyone seen a movie lately?"
As it happens," I said, "Robert and I saw a movie at the Lancaster Cineplex last week [I hide Robert in my jacket when we go to movies]. We usually watch high brow stuff like National Theater Live, but we were restless and decided to see a 'chick flick': Home Again, starring Reese Witherspoon."
"Excuse me, Harry, " said Jesus, "Please define 'chick flick.'"
"A chick-flick is a movie designed to entertain women. Men often do not like them for that reason: they cater to women at the expense of the male view."
"The movie demonstrated a world of dysfunction," Robert added.
"I would have to agree," I said.
Betty said, "Harry, tell us about the movie."
"Sure. The Witherspoon character, Alice, is a forty year old mother who can't stand her older husband, a successful filmmaker, because he is stuck on himself and an asshole. She moves with her children to L.A. where she lives in her father's upscale house (he is a successful movie director living in New York who, as her father, was also stuck on himself and an asshole). A chance encounter in a bar leads to four young and handsome guys, budding filmmakers, living for free in Alice's guest house. In return, one of them makes love to her and the other three cook and take care of her kids. Thus, 'chick flick.'"
"Amen," said Jesus.
"The poignant part," I continued, "is the treatment of Alice's ex, who shows up at the house unexpectedly, desiring to reconcile with her. Although, true to chick flick requirements, his overall presence suggests a selfish asshole, there are glimpses of empathy when he seriously tries to figure out what to do, how to love. In the end, though, he's an asshole and loses. She wins, banishing the ex and keeping the four boys for sex and child rearing duties. Your heart will soar...my ass."
It felt strange to be spilling my guts like this in front of Jesus. I looked at him, wondering what he thought of modern gender travails.
Jesus returned my look and said, "Do you know why Joseph was so tired?"
Silence greeted this riddle.
"Give up? Because Mary rode his ass all the way to Bethlehem."
Sustained laughter fed the fire. Only Robert held back.
"I couldn't stand the movie," he said.
"He sure couldn't," I confirmed, "I thought Robert was having a seizure. He doubled up and wouldn't speak until we were in the car. He took the film as the final indictment of human gender relations."
"How so, Robert," asked Betty.
Robert looked us over. "Humans avoid reality, so they lack rational norms for heterosexual concepts. When I want to mate with a gila female, I go into a frenzy of passion; I forget my own mind and can think of nothing but sticking something into something, but then it's over. I don't have to figure out the 'other,' thank god. I can go back to sticking other things into things, like sticking lizards and birds' eggs into my mouth."
Betty, the only female present, flashed her white teeth. Jesus adjusted his sandals. Gandalf poked the fire with his staff. Robert spat.
Silent minutes passed. Finally Betty said, "If there are no more topics then, shall we call it a night until next new moon?"