Monday, October 30, 2017

Blame Theopompus for Herostratus!

The National Geographic History magazine always provides engaging perspective, as in The Temple Of Wonder by Francisco Javier Murcia (Nov/Dec/'17), which relates that the legendary Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (in Asia Minor), one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, was burned to the ground in 356 B.C., not by an enemy religion or empire, but by one man named Herostratus.  Murcia writes that Herostratus "confessed under torture that he had only started the fire because he wanted his name to be known across the world for having destroyed this most famous of buildings."

Herostratus is a familiar type today: a man (they are mostly men) so desperate to be noticed that all other considerations - such as the grief and pain of others- are dismissed.  

The need to be noticed, however, is not the motive we look for in today's mass vandals and killers.  The motive we look for is hatred. That is why we have been unable to figure out, for instance, the motive of the man who killed 58 people in Las Vegas on October 1. There were no online hate rantings in his internet record, no obvious incidents in his life that expressed particular types of rage.  It might be that rage was not the dominant motivator for this man.  Could his motive have been the same as Herostratus'? Did he anticipate a posthumous world in which his name would be broadcast to humanity for weeks and weeks, then recorded with his deed for posterity?

The Ephesians recognized the problem and, unsuccessfully, attempted a solution:

The Ephesians tried to punish [Herostratus] by publishing a decree that his name be wiped from all records.  But their efforts were in vain. Theopompus, a historian of the time, wrote down the story of Herostratus and helped preserve his name to this day.

Theopompus should be the patron saint of journalism.  In its pursuit of ratings, the media gives today's Herostratus's exactly what they want. No one is too undeserving to be transformed into a notorious icon. Consider the pastor of a small church in Florida, who in 2010 burned a Koran.  His action was filmed by reporters (whom he had summoned) and broadcast to every country in the world, repeatedly, for weeks- a grossly disproportionate response to the event, considering the discord it generated.

At this point I must apologize to the reader for an abrupt change of tone, following a visit from my companion Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster (his show-name) who trudged into my study a few minutes ago and started a telepathic conversation:

Harry, I think you should extend your discussion of media induced violence to include manipulation from third parties who want to start wars.  The media didn't promote the Koran burner just to bump ratings.

Robert, you were reading my thoughts outside my house before you came in. You know I don't like that.

Sorry, I can't help it.  Gilas consider it impolite to bar other gilas from their thoughts.

Don't you have any secrets?

What kind of question is that?  I'm supposed to say we have no secrets?  If I had a secret, I certainly wouldn't tell you.

Robert can be exhausting, but I felt he had a point about my thesis. Media portrayal of international relations is critical for every nation's foreign policy.  We should be as sensitive to third party influence on media as we are to elected officials taking bribes. 

I had an idea.

Robert, in the interest of cross-species understanding, I'm inviting you to collaborate with me on the ending of this piece.  Do you think I have enough supporting evidence for my thesis, which is that media promotes mass murder by making the perpetrators famous?

I thought the thesis was that every time someone builds a temple, someone else wants to tear it down.

That's a related thesis.

Must every element in the piece relate to one thesis?


The human race has OCD!

Robert, I'm just asking you how you think I should end this piece.

End it?  You've boxed yourself in with typical human juvenilia like "thesis," "beginning, middle and end," and all that.  Why must a collection of thoughts end,
and why must it stay focused on one "thesis"? What a waste.  In gila communication, every segment of thought is its own thesis. Every thesis relates to every other thesis. Maybe I'd understand your way if gilas communicated in writing, but we're not interested in it.  We find your writing, and in fact your human language, unnecessarily complex and circuitous.  

That's really nice, Robert.  I'm happy for you and all the wise gilas.  I am writing in human style though, so I'm not just going to conclude with some random idea.

That's another thing, continued Robert, tenacious as ever, Why does your concept of "random" have a negative connotation?  Every event is random. The universe is random.  What's the point of the concept?

Ok, ok, we'll try it your way!  As a trans-conscious experiment, I will end on a gila inspired random note.  How about a quotation?

Go for it.  

I thought for a while, googled on my computer, then found what I thought was a suitably random quote from French novelist Michel Houellebecq:  

Good binds while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit.

I gave Robert a look.

Is that random enough for you, Robert?

You're getting there, he conceded.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The New Moon Club

Last night was new moon, and once again Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster showed up at my door to lead me into the desert, to our new discussion club, which we had named Trans-Consciousness Only, because we comprise a variety of conscious types. Our roster includes one plain human (me), one combination animal/deity (Betty the Coyote Creator Goddess), one combination human/deity (Jesus), one plain animal (Robert) and one fictional character (Gandalf from Lord of the Rings).  

Betty, our chair, brought us to order and read the minutes of the first meeting.  She asked for comments, and Robert said:

I think we need to change our name.  We did not discuss Trans-Conscious topics at all last time. 

I agree, Gandalf said.  Why don't we just call ourselves the New Moon Club?  Then we won't have to worry about what to talk about.

All voiced assent, including Betty, though she continued:

I'm fine with the new name, but ironically my topic for tonight is a trans-conscious one: The nature of the divine, as perceived by the not-divine. First, though, I'd like to ask Robert a question.

Fire away, said Robert.

Robert, dear, you appear to acknowledge that Jesus and I are deities, but do gila monsters employ the concept of deity?

Robert spat, thought a moment, then replied:

No, but they feel that they are part of a force, or forces, that extend beyond their bodies and lives, and that these forces may be akin to what humans perceive as "gods."

What's the difference? I asked.

The difference is that gilas are not cut off from these forces.  They feel part of a sustaining flow. Humans are cut off from their sustaining flow - they receive it indirectly. It is mediated before they derive its nourishment.  The mediators become gods, perceived as cosmic and mighty because of their key positions.  What they might be from other perspectives is almost entirely hidden from humans, in fact it is generally forbidden to know.  This explains your periodic confusion in our group, Harry.

I must say, I replied, I was rather surprised by the colloquial manner in which Betty and Jesus communicate with us.  Jesus and Betty,  do you have another aspect, an all powerful one- what our scriptures might call, in the archaic sense, "terrible"?

In my case, answered Jesus, it depends whom you ask.

I can be pretty terrible, answered Betty, depending on what I need to do.  This brings me back to my topic. Humans, in their fear and confusion at what life has dealt them, have conceived "gods"- their term for forces they can't understand or manipulate- as vastly powerful, a comforting idea for humans, as it removes their responsibility for anything.  The ancient Egyptians were among the earliest and most forceful in this effort.  However personal and accessible gods had been for prior humanity, the Egyptians turned them into monumental, distant forces, to whom an individual human would normally be a cipher.  An exception was made for the pharaoh and royal family, because they were demigods.

Pharaoh worship, one of the great human scams, a real pyramid scheme, added Robert, then turning to Jesus: Sorry, Jesus! I wasn't indicting all mortal/god combos!

Did I just hear Robert apologize for something? asked Betty.

No offense taken, Jesus said, There is no one left who believes that pharaohs were part god, so now they are not.  Lots of people believe in me, though, and that makes me real.

Same here! piped Gandalf.

Sorry, I dissented, I'm still not clear on the reality of fictional characters.  I don't even like the part in Peter Pan when everyone has to believe in Tinkerbell or she'll die. 

Why not? asked Betty, What if no one believed in you, Harry. Would you still believe in yourself? Would you continue to exist?

I confessed I was not entirely sure.

Betty continued:

On the subject of how humans perceive the divine,  I've been reading a fascinating book called "The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve," by the human Stephen Greenblatt, professor of history at Harvard.  Much of it concerns the Middle East, from the time of the Babylonian Captivity of the Hebrews, around 600 BCE, to the destruction of Israel and its Second Temple by the Romans, and the rise of Christianity. This was a period of general collapse of ancient religions. Greenblatt describes an environment where the old gods were battling for believers, for ratings, you might say.  

Betty, Robert interjected, I've been reading the book too.  Humans were waiting to be told which gods were speaking to them, and what the gods were saying.  They were waiting for humans to tell them these things. They were not, as their ancient ancestors often were, receiving divine communication directly.  

Yes, said Betty, It was the rise of the priesthood.

Gandalf added: I have studied human history as well and am also reading the Greenblatt book, and I can confirm Betty's and Robert's reports.  I was quite struck by Greenblatt's version of the birth of monotheism.  Betty, would you please review that?

Of course, Gandalf, Betty replied.  When the Babylonians conquered the Hebrews it was considered a triumph for their god, Marduk, because gods were commonly rated by how well their adherents waged war. It was a challenge for the Hebrews to depict their god, then called Yahweh, as a winner after the 70 years of Hebrew captivity, followed by their release as a gift from a new ruler, rather than the result of their own military force.  The Hebrews' answer was to re-define Yahweh as the only god, so that, for instance, Marduk would be a mere local incarnation.

True that, said Jesus.

Betty continued: 

The exaltation of God was so intense that the Hebrews felt a great anxiety when, on Yom Kippur, they stood in a conceptual confined space with God (as many Jews still do), believing that He could see every atom of their composition. 

Robert asked, Does the human worshipper probe God's composition as well? 

I'm not sure that's possible for a human, 
I answered.

Robert continued, From a gila perspective, it would be uncomfortable to be in a closed space with any conscious entity, god or otherwise, if your goal is to penetrate the soul of the "other."  Do we want to see too closely into anyone's soul?  

Indeed, said Betty, As above, so below.  Have we done with my topic?

I would just add, said Robert, how fascinating some of the contenders for Most Powerful Religion were during the period Greenblatt writes about.  

Yes, said Gandalf,  There was a version of Genesis in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with quite a few adherents- but suppressed by the thought police of the time- in which the God who expelled Adam and Eve from the garden is an intermediary, answerable to higher levels of divinity.  In one version, the serpent is Jesus, telling Adam and Eve that it is human destiny to attain knowledge of good and evil.  

Jesus, I asked, Which version is true?

You won't like my answer, Harry.  The version you believe is the one that is true.

Robert spat but said nothing.

I replied, How can that be?  Are you saying that reality is just according to what's in each person's head? That would mean that if I ask you, "Jesus, are you the serpent or not?", you would tell me that whatever I think about that is true?

No, I'm not saying that it's either inside or outside your head; I'm saying that if you believe it, it is true.

I stared blankly, not even pretending to understand.  

Betty said, Harry, remember in the book where Greenblatt writes about the early Christian scholar, Augustine, when he was fourteen years old and got an erection while standing naked in front of his parents?

Yes- I couldn't get that scene out of my head, and I tried.

Betty continued: 

His father was overjoyed that his son was a man, but his mother was grief stricken by the meaning of Augustine's erection: Her son would think with his dick, like all the other male dummies [Santa Monica, California is named after her, whatever that tells you].  Which parent expressed God's will, Harry, the father or the mother?

You're going to say it's the one I believe it is.

I wouldn't put it that way.

Why not?

Because it would upset you.  I need a way to phrase it that won't upset you.

Robert interrupted:  While you two are counting angels, let's not forget Greenblatt's account of Rabbi Eleazar, medieval Talmudic scholar, who postulated that before God and Adam could assess whether Adam needed a female human companion, Adam first had to have sex with each kind of animal just in case his true companion was already in the garden. The rest is history.

Silence enveloped the group.

All right, said Betty, Let's move on.  Who else has a topic?

After a moment of silence,  Gandalf spoke:  I'd like to discuss a bit of news gleaned from a newspaper covering nearby valleys.

You must mean the Los Angeles Daily News, I said.

Indeed, said Gandalf, unfolding the very paper, squinting at the page, This is from last Tuesday, again October 17, "The Universe Yields Stellar Secret."  Anyone know the story?

I do, said Robert, a human science buff, Apparently humans have actually seen, in a sort of second-hand vision, the collision of two neutron stars.  They did this by tracking gravitational waves as well as electromagnetic frequencies including visible light.

Yes, said Gandalf, It's quite a feat and very interesting.  I bring it up tonight because, interesting and exciting as it is, what, actually, is the point of this achievement for a human race that is watching itself go to hell in a handbasket?

Gandalf, I protested, surely you know the point!  What has been the point of millions of people reading and watching "Lord of the Rings"?, beyond entertainment- momentary diversion.  The story itself hasn't changed anything.  Although the retirement looks great, I have to say.

You're right about that, Harry, said Gandalf, And I will certainly accept the idea that watching two neutron stars collide offers a sort of balm for it all.

Gandalf is not into space travel, said Robert, since he's already got his "space" in Middle-earth [Gandalf nodded] I critique the human urge to colonize space. Humans see landing on Mars as a possible escape from earth. That's not the proper motivator. A gila monster would want to go to Mars as an extension of the bliss here.

Brilliantly put, Robert! said Betty,  I'm glad I haven't eaten you.  I think that does it for tonight, friends.  Until next new moon!

We trudged our separate ways over the desert.