Well I have been busy on my new YouTube channel The Anadromist with a lot of ideas that I just didn’t have time for here. Especially my thoughts on Time and how to live in it instead of against it. We live in a culture that positively reeks in its hatred of the effects of Time. We want everything to happen now. Instantly without waiting. And the more I have thought about our defective relationship to Time the more central a role I have seen it play it the insane dysfunctions of the 21st Century: the politics, the propaganda, the efficiency of technology, the environment, the waste, the virtual worlds we choose to inhabit, the surrender of our imaginations to the grinding gears of commerce, the imitation worlds we create for tourism, the sense of entitlement, the dullness of work. Not that these things have a simple one answer fits all panacea, rather they are all issues exacerbated by the desire have the convenient instant life, or in other words to live as though Time were an enemy that must be vanquished at all costs.
I started to see our faulty relationship to Time as a problem in the early 90s. I gave a lecture on the subject at Swiss L’Abri in 1993. I have been mulling it over ever since. In many ways this is connected to many of my other ideas about Texture, Beauty, Images and many other subjects. But these thoughts about Time are at the center of my view of the dilemma of life as it is now lived. Feel free to disagree. After you’ve spent time listening to what I have to say.
Now after delaying long enough I’ve decided to get my ideas about Time out there in some form that might be of use to someone else. I have tried to the best of my ability to live by these ideas since I formulated them back in 1993. If you do the math that’s over 25 years of practical outworking. And the one thing I have seen clearly, when you add the effects of Time to life it gets much deeper and richer.
I am not saying that we are allowed to do this at all points. Au contraire. Just in transportation alone it is nearly impossible to live within a human sense of the meaning of time. We are required to move too fast to stay sane. Still one can, for instance, still apply these principles to the planning stages of a journey. To stay longer in places, rather than just passing through. That’s a simple way of incorporating Time into the hustle of the tourism industry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway there are four video discussions now. And if you are thinking that ideas about Time are probably going to be dreadfully boring, then these talks really are for You. So you can start at the beginning or jump around. The argument builds, but necessarily in a straightforward direction.
(And I’ll keep adding the videos here until the series is finished.)
Well I need to get back to my life in Tbilisi Georgia. Oh and by the way there will soon be a channel on my Georgian life so stick around.
Keep swimming against the stream
Hey! People who are contributing to my sites are getting extra content not available online. They are also keeping me alive in Georgia. I must honestly say without the gifts given to me thus far this experiment would have collapsed a while ago. No much keeps me going for a while. So give through PayPal. $10 a month or a one time gift of the equivalent of $50 US. Gets you another 15 hours worth of lectures.
And so since I began writing these Georgian Lessons, and until very recently, I had no idea that I might find myself moving there. And yet that is exactly what is going to happen. (The whole story can be found at Gravity From Above.) By the end of 2018 I will be back in Tbilisi to stay. I will finish up the editing of Gravity From Above there and then just stay to start work on a puppet and doll museum. Friends back in Alaska knew I was going back to work on my documentary last year. A few asked me if I was planning on moving to Europe. And what I would tell them, in all honestly, was that I wasn’t planning on it. But then I would add that I wasn’t planning on not moving there either. I just didn’t know. Life in Alaska seemed to be changing for me. I was open to possibilities. For a short while France appeared as a possibility. My French is passable and I have a few friends there. And in all truth I will always have France as a place to return to for certain things I can find nowhere else. But I somewhat suspected it might be Georgia calling me.
When I first arrived in Georgia at the end of December 2017 I was a little puzzled. I had thought I might be invited to experience more of the holiday season with some of my Georgian friends. But that didn’t really materialize. (I didn’t even know how they celebrated their holidays.) And so I found myself in a very different situation than in my first journey to Tbilisi in 2016. I was keeping myself busy. Yet I felt isolated by the very holidays I had half hoped to experience. But I need not have worried. Georgia isn’t like America that welcomes you with wide open arms immediately, only to forget about you later. It is slower sense of acceptance. And then it feels much more solid. So whether with my hosts who rented me my three month apartment in the Saburtalo area. Or my friends in puppetry. Or the many singers, dancers, and musicians of Erisioni. In each case I realized that a slower approach would work better. At Erisioni I was content to remain in the background quite a while, hardly moving, eventually becoming more and more a part of the troupe until at the end I definitely felt accepted in a fairly deep way, even though most of the members didn’t speak much English.
But where I could speak English I soon discovered levels of conversation I had rarely seen in America since I was young. For you see Georgians, even the hippest of them, haven’t really been very influenced by postmodernism yet. Modernism? Yes. That desire to pull things apart, to reinvent things from zero? Yes. In a way. That’s there and in some of it’s darker forms. But the irony of postmodernism? Hardly at all. And so my conversations were all quite earnest. And with depth. Even though big budget Hollywood films, video games, electronic dance music are all there I didn’t have one conversation that could be construed as postmodern. No snarky references to traditional culture, no geeky discussions about Marvel superheroes or Star Wars, no obsessive gamers. I mean I’m guessing that just given the nature of these beasts they must be there somewhere. Maybe I just got lucky. But they just seemed to take these forms as just that cultural artifacts. But they didn’t seem to live in them. At least not yet. And I certainly wasn’t going to encourage them to do so.
The truth is that except for the youngest generation most Georgians have reminders of the serious side of life within their living memories. Older folks remember communism, people in their thirties and forties remember the civil wars of the 90’s. Nearly everyone remembers the five day war with Russia in 2008. And most still remember the electricity being very undependable. And even now there are still many problems. Reality has a way of chasing away the fluff. The West has had it so good for so long that our interests and problems reflect the strange unrealities of our lives.
Conversations in Tbilisi among my new friends reminded me of conversations I had had in the 1970’s when I was much younger. That was the last period I remember when people seemed open to dialogue with people of any sort. People would try to prove their points to each other. Which I’ve always taken as a sign of openness and care even when the disagreements were strong. The way conversation has developed in America and Western Europe after that period has led to more and more division, with the internet finally separating people from each other in near totality. Leading to our current stalemate. Not that Georgia doesn’t have people with radically different ideas. And not that those ideas are all healthy or wise. Rather I felt a kind of humility to discuss things in a way that sadly is almost impossible further west.
One new friend grilled me about my ideas. And seriously. She was looking to poke holes in my arguments about the meaning of life. She was coming from a science background and had begun to adopt what I felt were premature conclusions based on neuroscience. I elaborated my thoughts as best as possible. Finally after several lengthy discussions she turned to me and said “I can’t find a problem with what you believe. You prove yourself very well.” Even among my very good friends in America who often agree with me on a foundational level I rarely find that kind of remark. (Not that I am wanting everyone to agree with me.) That is mostly because they don’t chase my rabbit all the way back to its hole. I’ve noticed that when Americans find a point of disagreement, which is inevitable, they are not willing to continue the discussion too much farther. They’ve gone over the years from a we-just-disagree sort of fatalism to an immediate ‘unfriended’ mentality. Which I do feel is a shame. Because as I have said I do remember those all night long discussions when I was younger. I remember endless conversations while working. But now say the wrong thing and that can become the end of the relationship. (There are fortunately a few exceptions to this in America. You know who you are.) And I have seen that too many times in my life. It’s a definite lack of courage. And compassion all round.
I’m not saying every discussion was deep. Nor am I saying Georgians have no sense of ironic humor. One of the traits I saw that really touched me was the Georgian tendency to say what they feel profoundly. When I was invited to a supra, the traditional ritual meal, I watched the toasts carefully, because I knew it would be my time to add to them soon. And Georgians take toasting at a meal seriously. And so when my turn came around several times I spoke, and was translated, giving my most thoughtful observations and hopes. I was told by the father of the friend who invited me over, that I toasted like a Georgian. And I took that as a very high compliment. Another friend musicologist John Graham told me that he had brought a couple of British men to a supra. They were incapable of speaking without irony or from the heart. And the Georgians notice things like that.
My discussions covered a wide range of subject matter. We spoke of the art of filmmaking, puppetry as an art, music from so many different perspectives, issues related to architecture, the meaning of emotions in Georgia, the effects of communism, the traditions of art, the problem of pollution, religious devotion pro and con. And it went on and on. And I felt at home. I could stretch out enjoying the serious possibilities of conversation that I have always thrived on.
It’s not that my American friends can’t talk. But there is often a distinct lack of reality, of historical understanding. Georgians are still trained to know their history quite well. Americans in these days often stop short because they can’t enter in much deeper than the surfaces. Because that is what we are trained to do in order to get along. Whenever people tell you those three things you are not supposed to talk about in American society I feel the immense poverty of our discourse. And we are happy enough when any event feels good. We are not willing to take it further to that sense of profound emotion. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. There are deep Americans and shallow Georgians.
The conversations I had in Georgia convinced me to consider living there before I was ever offered the job which I couldn’t refuse. And I understand something very clearly in this life. Something serious in life can be accomplished by a relative handful of people who can commit themselves to a task. As opposed to the American condition that more and more resembles everyone going solo. I believe serious (and imperfect) commitments can be found in Georgia yet held with a lightness and humor while holding onto the understanding that life is very difficult. I didn’t meet one person in three months relentlessly trying to be positive. And that is an excellent thing. Not that everyone I meet will be like what I am describing. But if just a few are like that, which is what my observations show me, then I will not be spinning my wheels in the mud. And that is why I can commit myself to living in Georgia. It is hardly a perfect place. But there still is courage on a very humble level. When Georgians say hello to each other they do not say ‘Hello!’, they say ‘Gamarjoba!’ which literally translates into ‘Victory!’ And what I understand by this constant greeting is that life is hard, we’ve been through many many difficulties, including war and death, but somehow we will fight on. That attitude meshes with my own.
We’ll end our Georgian Lessons here. For now.
(Eventually I’ll have a separate site for my Georgian observations.)
And remember you can help support me in this endeavor through PayPal if you wish.
You can start the Georgian Lessons series here:
And you can find my original Georgia series here:
And don’t forget to look up my travels in Georgia over at Gravity From Above:
Propaganda must be total. – Jacques Ellul
And so after throwing the word propaganda out there we still need a some way of defining it so that the word doesn’t descend into the cruder sense of ‘their lies, our truths’.
As I mentioned earlier I have based much of my thinking on French sociologist Jacques Ellul and particularly his 1961 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.
Let’s pull out a few quotes to give you a taste of his thinking here.
Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing him in both his private and his public life. It furnishes him with a complete system for explaining the world, and provides immediate incentives to action. We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person. Through the myth it creates, propaganda imposes a complete range of intuitive knowledge, susceptible of only one interpretation, unique and one-sided, and precluding any divergence. This myth becomes so powerful that it invades every arena of consciousness, leaving no faculty or motivation intact. It stimulates in the individual a feeling of exclusiveness, and produces a biased attitude.
Propaganda must be total. The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal — the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing. Modern propaganda must utilize all of these media. There is no propaganda as long as one makes use, in sporadic fashion and at random, of a newspaper article here, a poster or a radio program there, organizes a few meetings and lectures, writes a few slogans on walls: that is not propaganda.
The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action.
Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.
That’s enough for now.
So Propaganda is an encircling totality. It is the place we live where we gather all our information, our entertainment, our education. We must surround ourselves within it. We speak in propaganda as we share our factoids. We cut ourselves off from those who have a different worldview. Or when we do venture into enemy territory, we look at their propaganda, always an exaggeration of beliefs and meanings, something easily mocked and scorned. And that’s another aspect Ellul points out. There must always be an US versus THEM. And they are always wrong, suspect, stupid, dangerous, or evil. The 2016 election cycle in America became a farcical, unreal, and disturbing battle of Propagandas.
And Propaganda must always be unbending and all encompassing. You can’t give ground to those ideas, otherwise you are starting to become them. So it’s not enough to make up your own mind about abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, transphobia, animal cruelty, feminism, global warming, racism, capital punishment, globalism, immigration and the rest. Once your side adopts a posture you must keep in line with the whole program. Heaven forbid a leftish person would opt out of the proper stance on reproductive rights, while holding the rest of checklist in order. Or that a right wing soul would be favor of gun control while holding most of the other appropriate positions. It’s pretty much all or nothing… Or at least that’s how we are made to feel. If you question one tenet you are in danger of questioning it all.
You can see what happens if you look at a subject that is not yet polarized but could conceivably become so one day. Let’s think about pets for a moment. Let’s say you’re talking with someone and they happen to mention that they think that having and feeding pets is a waste of resources and the time and effort would be better put into caring for humans who have so many problems that to distract from that might not be such a good idea. Then that person responds by telling you that you aren’t seeing the whole picture. That dogs and cats, though a cost to raise and a responsibility that perhaps some people don’t have time for, bring much joy into the owners’ lives. And that if you care about human beings then part of the health of being a human in the world is to interact, and closely, with its animal life. Now since that’s just two people discussing a subject that hasn’t yet been given the full propaganda treatment the conversation might go in any number of directions. Although if you listen closely you can already hear subjects creeping into the mix that are from very heavily propagandized terrain.
Now suddenly there is a movement that evolves out of the animal rights and ecological systems that begins to seriously question whether a human, just another species of animal after all, has the right to own another. This isn’t far fetched and is already circling our society as I write waiting to land. And so then what happens is we get two sides. Owning pets would obviously then become an individual rights issue with deep traditional roots. And now you have two sides. But how shall we label them.
‘Anti-pet’ obviously isn’t going very far, though that will be what the opposition calls them. So what about ,’pro=human’ or ‘pro-world’, since this will be considered an ecological issue? And maybe ‘pro-care’ or ‘pets rights’ for the other side. Don’t get too hung up on what to use right now. The new brand names just have to be non-negative. And that’s another serious propaganda point, in this age everything has to cloaked in positive language. Then there will be documentaries made. The pro-human folks will show the enormous waste of food resources, the brutality of certain owners, dog fights, cats in the cemeteries of Paris, old folks living on pet food, etc. The pro-care folks will have to counter that our pets love us, they will show psychological studies showing how pets affect humans for the better (no dog attack or cat parasite news whatsoever), interviews will be made with people who say that their only companion is an unselfish pet. You get the idea. There will be websites dedicated to these positions, TV stations, newspapers will array them along side of other ‘obvious’ issues of the day. And then when our two friends meet again to discuss the subject they won’t be able to believe that anyone could be so cruel, regressive, idiotic or whatnot to believe the lies that they have been spoon-fed by their respective media.
The difference between a discussion among friends who disagree on some topic and a propagandized discussion perhaps involving the same two people is that in the first there are personal reflections and thoughts. The ideas are unique and quirky. And in the second, the responses completely conditioned by ones of each propaganda web, which will want to keep out anything from another propaganda system. So I can very well imagine two friends discussing the origins of life on earth. One says there must be a creator the other doubts that and they present ideas to each other. What about this? Well what about that? Well you make an interesting point that I’ll have to reconsider. I think I understand why you feel the way you do but I still disagree. Now the same topic among the propagandized. God made the world in seven days and that’s all there is to it. No I’m sorry that’s pure unscientific bullshit. Then how do you explain the fact that there is meaning in the world? There isn’t, everyone just makes their own meaning. And so it goes ad nauseum. They can’t communicate because everything they say provokes a knee-jerk reaction in the other.
Ellul also points out that listening two different propagandas doesn’t help either. For in getting both sides of an issue what you really get is slugged from both sides and feeling woozy and beaten up in the middle.
Now how did this happen? And I have seen this my whole life. People I have known who once had their own opinions come to ape the media they ingest. I’m talking about people who really should know better. How does it happen? What makes us succumb? And I include myself. For I have certainly caught myself in those very situations as I look at my life.
Jacques Ellul points out one key ingredient. We find ourselves alone in the mass. And that is what mass media, mass communication does to us.
But let’s really dissect what happens. Next week!
“The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment.” Propaganda – Jacques Ellul
Things are getting weird out there. Although maybe by ‘out there’ I mean ‘in here’, in that moment when a reader slides eyes across these digital screens and then following that comes a reaction. And yet what happens in this cyber world (Does anyone use the word ‘cyber’ anymore? Or ‘virtual’? Has it all started to seem like actuality now?) has serious ramifications across the real globe. (But is it a globe anymore? Maybe the flatness of our screens has finally created what we mistakenly believed about the ancient people, that they, the ignoramuses!, actually believed the world was flat. But for us it is! This map of contextual geographies is now blindly being accepted for reality. But whose?) So yes, things are getting weird in here, and in turn out there. And people seem to be walking around in a concussed daze. And everyone has their pet theories as to whom is the culprit, which group, what viewpoint, which Weltanschauung, which bunch of absolute evil idiots is responsible for the state of this exhausted mind-numbing gut-wrenching time we live in.
Now if you’ve been following my words at all for the last few years you’ll realize that I rarely touch directly upon what be could construed as political topics. This isn’t an accident. I certainly have opinions on many issues. Some may even be correct on some level. But it is not my wish to add to the chaos of noise emanating from the glow of these screens. I also believe that most what passes for political opinion in these days is not politics in any good sense of the word. If I don’t think all of the hot topic issues of the day aren’t by and large politics then what do I think all of this palaver is? That, my friends, is the what I am intending to write about here, to try to elucidate. If possible, and mostly it is not. What passes for political opinions these days is predominantly Propaganda. And I am not using that phrase in its standard usage, which comes across as “The lies they tell, versus the truths we know.” I have other fish to fry. In fact were going to cook up the whole lot. Let’s make a meal out of them. Not only the lies they tell but also the ‘truths’ we believe, whomever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are. So I warn you if it seems like I’m coming after your beliefs it’s because I am.
Now before I get started with this subject, and so that you don’t suspect that what I’m really trying to do is some clever form inverted propaganda to subvert your ideas while pumping up mine, let me put my own cards on the table so that you know where I stand and you can see when I’m going after my own folk.
First of all I am a Christian. What kind? Neither fundamentalist nor liberal. Hopefully a Christian in line with the historical faith and brain intact. Next… politically? Extremely independent. I can safely say no party represents my thinking. I wouldn’t mind if there were. But I’m not going to put a checklist here of hot topics and where I fit in. But trust me I’m all over the map. Yet even that is a complete oversimplification. If I ever write directly about some pet subject you’ll know. And who knows maybe I’ll spill a few mung beans here and see if they sprout. I generally shy away from any party politics and the demonization of ‘them’. Which of course is the point of this whole series on propaganda.
I’ve lived in Hawaii as a child, in California in the San Francisco Bay Area as a teen, in New York City during my 20s and 30s and finally in Alaska for my 40s and 50s. Plus I’ve spent quality time in Europe from England and France through Switzerland, Poland and all the way to Georgia. And so my view point is shaped by all of these environments. Plus I’ve been researching popular music and film culture since the 70s. I’ve hung out with Jesus people, hippies, punks, vets, pomo-hipsters, conservative Christians, Asians, Europeans, etc. etc. Needless to say I do not have simplistic opinions. I’m not saying that to brag. I’m saying it so that you, the reader, know that I am not going to have an obvious set of dogmas to respond with if you wish to ask questions.
So let’s get down to business here.
The first thing we have to get is a working definition of Propaganda. As I mentioned above, the standard way people seem to think about propaganda is as the ‘lies they tell versus the truths we know’. I have a CD of the influential Noam Chomsky talking seriously about propaganda, corporate propaganda, big biz manipulation. Somewhat accurate as far as he goes. But he doesn’t go nearly far enough. For instance he doesn’t for one second acknowledge the fact that he too is in danger of making propaganda every bit as encircling as that made by states and corporations. And by NOT making that clear he actually becomes without a doubt a very serious propagandist. In other words there is not one moment when he scrutinizes his own side for Propaganda. Thus he isn’t really exposing propaganda he is talking about ‘us and them’, which is the essence of Propaganda. But not the definition of Propaganda. (To be clear I am capitalizing the word propaganda when I refer to the thing not when I refer to the practice.)
Before I attempt that working definition of Propaganda let me give you a few sources for my own thinking. Source ‘A’ Number One is the French thinker Jacques Ellul. Around 1982 I first read his 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (first published in French in 1961 as Propagandes). And frankly even though I was around 27 then I wondered why I hadn’t read his book much earlier. Few experiences in my life have been so illuminating. It was as though someone had simply unblindfolded me. I had been wondering why so much in our society had been moving the way it did and here was a solid chunk of the answer. We all in our advanced technological society had been pickled in Propaganda for years. So much so that we could hardly distinguish the contours of our prison distracted as we had become. How good is his book? Well let’s put it this way, read from one perspective the book could be seen a propaganda manual. One could easily take the principles he uncovers and become a successful propagandist. But, of course, that is not his aim. His aim is to expose the beast as nakedly as possible. It is not an easy read. But once you wrestle with it you can no longer plead ignorance. The panoply of techniques for adjusting us to our milieu are staggering. And there is no way I can do justice to his work, which remains as valuable today as when it was written, though it requires some historical knowledge to really make it come alive. That was also just as true the day it was published. But I will dip into his ideas freely as I write.
Other folks who have in one way or another contributed to my thinking on the subject include: C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and a few other scattered essays. Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. The works of French thinker Paul Virilio. Marshall McLuhan’s writings on the nature of media. Anthony Rhodes’ Propaganda, The Art of Persuasion: World War II. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. And various works by many other writers, Susan Sontag’s On Photography was helpful, likewise Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam, though here as with the whole Adbusters mentality, like Chomsky, we enter upon Propaganda disguised as anti-propaganda. And I have also of course studied the real Propaganda itself. Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, Communist propagandas from various eras and countries. (I highly recommend the documentary East Side Story about Communist musicals.) And of course there is American, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Advertising, Pop Music, Feminist, NRA, LGBTQ, Alt-Right, etc ad nauseum. Everyone makes propaganda these days. The real issue is who doesn’t?
But that still doesn’t answer the question: What is this thing? Propaganda. And then there is another question lurking in what I’ve already said. If everyone is already making it maybe it’s not so bad. Why even bother?
A quick answer to the second question first, which we will return to in more depth later. I do not believe I am alone in feeling the viciousness of the divisions of the present age. More than one soul has pointed out the fact that we all seem to be shouting, nay screaming, at each other in this time of polarization. Whether in scorn or fear people are walking around separated and isolated from those holding divergent opinions. (Or is it that Propaganda has actually isolated all of us from each other?) And it is NOT going to get better in the continuing course of events. Nor through anything that might call itself a Revolution. There are a few, very few, good signs, and they do not at present constitute any remotely optimistic forecast for the future.
Because as long as we remain pickled in our Propaganda marinade we shall continue our downward slide.
But I haven’t defined this Propaganda thing yet? What am I really talking about?
Well I’ve run out of space… You’ll have to visit again for our next essay, A Working Definition of Propaganda.
Swim Against the Stream
I have been writing mostly about what I saw in Tbilisi Georgia in March and April 2016. And in these observations I have been mostly noting what challenged my perceptions. These ‘Georgian Lessons’ have been primarily about what I learned. But now I’m going to flip the rules inside out and write a little something about what the Georgians might be able to learn from an outsider, a representative of a world that they both aspire to and wonder about. These will not be sweet little tidbits of practical knowledge. And some of these observations will be sharp. Again I am not romantic about the country. Since much of what I say deals with Georgia moving into the future it might be tempting to treat the country as a quaint land of happy peasants with their folk dances and songs with a desire to keep them as folksy as possible. But you’d be wrong. I want them to face the future squarely, but also to realize the many tragic errors that have already been made in the name of hypermodernity. I do not set myself as an expert on geopolitics, economics, legal reform et cetera. These are predominately cultural observations from one who has spent a good healthy chunk of his life weighing the nature of the cultural changes of our times. And mostly it friendly concern, for what I still find in the uniqueness of Georgian culture far outweighs its problems. Consider it advice that can be applied if it is found useful.
First a speck of history, Georgia as a country was buried in Russia, then the Soviet Union, for nearly two centuries. Many Western Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the like, still consider it a Russian speaking country. Georgia for them is more obscure than Barbados, Vietnam or Fiji. Georgia was only released from its Russian servitude in 1991, which was then followed in quick succession by a corrupt government, a civil war or two, a revolution and finally, in 2008, a five day war with Russia. And most of that is also as unknown to outsiders as the 20th Century conflicts in Laos or Angola. But the main point is this. Georgia didn’t really opened up to the non-Russian world until very recently. And this is reflected in two main areas: First in the Georgians’, particularly the younger Georgians’, desire to be like other Europeans and Americans culturally. And secondly in the looming discovery of Georgia by the outside world, which will result in the descending vulture of tourism, with its truck-fulls of tempting hard cash.
My meeting with younger Georgians revealed a kind of wide-eyed fascination with the results of pop culture and technology. And this is only to be expected. The Soviet system certainly brought in certain kinds of modernity. Georgia is a very educated country as far as scholarly standards go. What is not realized though is just what this postmodern tide will bring along with it. Take the Smartphone, nearly ubiquitous in Tbilisi. The Smartphone may connect you all the time and everywhere. Yet it completely changes the habits of its users. Riding the Metro one did not see much in the way of reading anymore. But one did see the usual scrying into the palms, the games being played, the neurotic gazing at email and Facebook, the endless selfies. In other words though the Georgians have some cultural features, more conversation, even musicians playing for friends on the train, that help to fight against this particular curse, they still aren’t that strong. Because no one is. The Smartphone is stronger than those that use it, without exceptional choice.
Likewise when it comes to one of the prime features of Georgian culture, its music and dance, that hasn’t really stopped the arrival of the dance club. A short British documentary on the subject celebrates the electronica being produced in Georgia as a step towards cultural liberation. Which I find about as honest a thought as recommending cages to tigers. As a former sixteen year resident of New York City I think I can safely say that the dark deafening pulsing womb of club life has never led to freedom, unless your idea of freedom is to shake off the past and bath only in a perpetual now. Yes indeed the discos, raves, parties and clubs will make you more like the Europeans. But is that a worthy goal? The night life produces alienation first and foremost. Yes you can experiment sexually. You can add various chemicals to the mix. You can flee from the philosophies of the Orthodox Church. But where will you end up? It ends with people having atomized relations all round. They no longer sing together except as a joke. They live alone. There is no meaning to anything. Along the way there is a lot of laughter and fun. As well as a lot of hurt and emptiness. No matter what it seems like now, the club life, which late rising Georgians are quite tempted by, will end in a void. I am reminded of a song from Italy in the 1980s and a big American hit for Laura Branigan in 1984: Self Control. The chorus went like this. “I, I live among the creatures of the night, I haven’t got the will to try and fight, Against a new tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just believe it, That tomorrow never comes.” And that sums up that world perfectly. 1984. That’s how long we have understood the problem. The electronica and DJs may seem new and cool, underground, rebellious. But it is a well-paved overused road. It doesn’t have a gram of the integrity of real Georgian music and dance. But I understand. I really do.
There are many other ways in which Georgians are encouraged to seek parity with their Western cousins. Most damaging of all are postmodern cultural and philosophical choices and institutions, which if taken straight would drain the soul from the rich fountain of Georgian traditions. And one of the most threatening of those institutions is Tourism. And the eye of tourism is slowly turning its gaze upon this most unusual of countries. Georgia is still quite underdeveloped for tourism. I would say as of 2016 they still haven’t developed a real structure to support the kind of industrial tourism that feeds many corners of the world now. And I’m not against people coming to Georgia to visit. Not at all. Right now Georgia is getting many thoughtful tourists, the people who are more adventurous. (I don’t know if this assessment applies to the Russians who have been visiting for centuries and are still the most common tourists.)
But here is the problem: As the Germans, English, Australians, even a few Americans go home they spread the word to others. So far so good. And so more folks come, as they have been in the last six years. Then more hotels are built. Fancier hotels. (I hear Radisson Red is on its way, after the success of the Radisson Blu.) More infrastructure changes. A massive chunk of Tbilisi was being polished and renovated as I visited, at the expense of the people who used to live on that street.) That’s where Georgia is now. They are still a bit out of the loop. (Try mailing a postcard home? Nearly impossible.) Transportation is still quite a pain. And these are the kinds of things that keep foreigners happy when they come. But here is what the Georgians may not understand yet. When tourism as a postmodern entity finally arrives in full. Great pieces of Georgian culture will become imitations of what they once were. Everywhere that industrial postmodern tourism shows up it turns whatever remains of traditional culture into simulacra of what they once were. People want to see Georgian dancing and hear Georgian singing. And so shows will be set up just for them. (This has happened in Alaska with Native American culture and the Russian culture of the past.) This effect is nearly universal. And when you combine that with the youth exodus towards postmodern pop dance culture. The past becomes a bad museum. And the present is trapped in the sensations of this eternal moment The Big Wow.
Now I don’t think that it will happen that way in Georgia for a variety of reasons. But I give you my friendly concern as one who has the watched the process replicate itself over and over. At the moment Tbilisi is where Prague was in 1991. Tourists are coming. But the infrastructure still won’t hold them efficiently. TripAdvisor just recommended Tbilisi for hot new destinations for 2017. My dear Georgian friends do you know what that means? Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Next time, to wrap things up, I will be returning to the lessons that I learned from the Georgians I met on my travels. And why I really have to get back again.
Yes I know, it’s audacious of me to proclaim that I know ‘True Christmas Albums’. And yet when I scan for ‘Christmas Albums’ through the usual digital means 99% of the time what is found are anything but actual music about Christmas. Most of what is considered to be the top, the best, the greatest Christmas songs and albums of ‘all time’, the lists made by magazines, and YouTubers and the clickbaiters, even the ‘Christ-centered’ pablum, is predominantly just commercial holiday music. There is almost a conspiracy to keep anyone searching for real Christmas music from ever finding it. And rarely has a genre been so loaded with pure unadulterated crap as what is called ‘Christmas Music’. And so much continues to made year after year that it gags the gullet as if someone had jammed a fat red and white candy cane down your overstuffed larynx and then asked ‘What do you think of Christmas now?’ In fact so much cheesy, tawdry, over produced sentimental holiday (Is it really a holy day when you play this aural dung?) music has been made since the mid-point of the 20th Century that anti-Christmas music now exists as a separate micro-genre within this holiday fetish as a reaction against the infestation. And yet what does that accomplish? It’s really just the same thing for nihilists and cynics. And what good does it do to add cynicism to the commercial terror?
War on Christmas? Talk about coming late to the party? Christmas as a public festival was over by the time Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was accepted as a holiday ditty having anything to do with the event called Christmas. Christmas as Christmas was through when it was seen a fun children’s day complete with ‘Baby Jesus’ and cute little elves as Santa’s helpers helping to prepare for the balancing of the books of would eventually become a murderous Black Friday. Christmas now is a time to watch fantasy movies. Yes Christmas means Willie Wonka and Disney flicks. When it was discovered back in the 90’s that several Asian countries had mixed up the Christian imagery with the fantastic, as in Mary, Joseph, sweet little ‘Baby Jesus’ and the Seven Dwarves or, more tellingly, a Crucified Santa Claus, they weren’t getting it wrong. That is what we were selling. And so we have people who no longer recognize real Christmas carols and consider Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer to be a classic.
The foamy tide of ‘classic holiday albums’, I forbear to list them, is endless. They drone on and on in the background of retail establishments fed by satellite radio. They poison the air. They drain the life from anything resembling a festivity. And I include the many worthy rock and pop albums (I own many of them.) that clog the lists of the demiurges who find the tabulation of media favorites their last moral refuge. But rarely is an album of true Christmas music mentioned in any of these neurotically calculated lists.
And since for years I have helped supply my friends with the real thing I have decided to at least make one list that few people will ever read. I toss the meat out to the internet dogs. It is nearly Christmastime after all. Time even the dogs ate well. So here’s the Christmas T-bone steak Fido.
This list is not in ascending or descending order. The music is not necessarily easy to find. I will not be including lots of links or videos. You’ll need to hunt them down for yourself. If you find the standard pop/rock/jazz holiday music to be filled with enough good cheer and nostalgia to warm your heart during the Christmas season you probably won’t find these albums very clever or interesting. However if Christmas as either the old European winter festival (notice I did not say ‘pagan’, an overused poorly understood word) and/or as the Christian remembrance of Christ’s birth is meaningful to you, then I suspect these albums and the music contained therein will help you to find something extra at Christmastime.
The Twelve Albums
Christmas with Roger Wagner Chorale
This is basically the definition of a classic Christmas album. Choirs and classical orchestra. No extra production mojo. No extra electronic cinnamon and nutmeg. Just the classics done purely. Just Christmas and the real thing. This was made in the 60s. It hasn’t aged at all because it is timeless. Their version of O Come O Come Emmanuel is the gold standard along with the rest of this album.
Jesličky, staré nové písničky (also called Old Czech Carols) – Ritornello
Okay now it’s time to get seriously obscure. Ritornello is a Czech group who recreate Baroque era folk dances and celebrations. And this is one of my eternal favorites. Period. I found it when I first showed up at Prague in December 2000 surprised by actually finding myself in Prague to begin with. I had come looking for puppets and then as I entered the Old Town Square, my first evening there, as the winter market was open and I had no idea where I was, I looked around at the spires lit up in the night winter skies then suddenly I realized that I was actually in PRAGUE!!! And for me this music sums up my Prague perfectly. Jovial, serious, antique, mysterious European Christmas. The instrumentation is sheer perfection. Not a sentimental note to found. The singing is in Czech and sometimes Latin. The music is gutsy not flabby. It makes one want to ring in the season with a hefty glass of pivo. How ironic that one of the most sincere Christian Christmas albums on earth would come from the most atheist land imaginable. But it makes perfect sense to me. Jan Hus would understand.
Christmas From a Golden Age – Various Opera Singers
This is the true spirit of Christmas as seen through the angel throngs of 78rpm scratches, digitally restored, of various opera singers from the first half of the 20th Century. Some of these songs just sound creaky. But most of them sound utterly haunted in the Dickensian sense by the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Coventry Carol by Elisabeth Schumann is absolutely chilling. And Cantique De Noel (The original French version of O Holy Night) by Georges Thill is reverentially majestic.
John Roberts and Tony Barrand – The Second Nowell
This is the second of three ‘Nowell’ albums from these Christmas jesters. They are all excellent, but this one gets to the point for me. With rollicking accordion, reedy voices, hail and hardy harmonies and true Christmas mirth these Englishmen marooned in the colonies deliver the groceries. Whether sharing out the spare ribs of the highly symbolic wren or restoring the dance to the old time Christmas carol there isn’t a false moment. And it’s a recording you want to crank up and sing along with at the top of your lungs. You only think you know the old carols. Rediscover Christmas here!
A Medieval Christmas – Boston Camerata
And excellent demonstration of why Christmas, properly celebrated, is actually our portion of the Middle Ages still surviving. While stately, and profound, there is joy to spare with authentic Medieval instrumentation. It’s also a much needed respite from the 21st Century.
Traditional and Modern Carols – Paul Hillier
Another great choral album. This would be more obscurely researched than the Roger Wagner album with an emphasis upon antique Americana as well as an assembly of classics. This Is Jesus’ Birthday opens the album and is as far from a contemporary notion of singing Happy Birthday to Jesus as you can imagine. It’s all very well done.
The Christmas Story – The Waverly Consort
Another Medieval Christmas album, but this time things get much more serious as the Waverly Consort interprets the Christmas story in it’s entirety complete with horns announcing the angel Gabriel and ending with a ferocious dance piece for the Massacre of the Innocents. Excellent, profound, thrilling music all round.
Noëls Celtiques – Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde
A exquisitely beautiful album of choral music from the mysteriously named Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde (Choral Ensemble from the End of the World). This Celtic Christmas album has the lilt, bagpipes and tunes of the Celts. While also being filled with the organ and breathtaking choral approach of the French. Truly sublime.
Mont-Joia: Noëls Provençaux, Nautrei Siam Tres Bomians
Meanwhile down in the lower regions of France in another zone where the older language struggles to be heard this folk revival group from the 80s provides darker rhythmic minor keys, yet no less joyous, as an acoustic band strum and and harmonize their way to Noël bliss. There is another Provencal Christmas album of more recent vintage with many of the same songs which is also worthy. La Bela Naissença – Les noels Provencaux (Christmas carols from Provence). It’ll do in a pinch.
To Drive The Cold Winter Away – St. George’s Canzona
Here’s an interesting and truly recondite work. And one of my favorites. Here the old Baroque European winter festival mingles with the Christian story perfectly in Chestertonian fashion. The mixture of Playford dances with seasonal cheer is sheer perfection. I am captivated utterly by their version of the Playford dance The Dressed Ship. But the entirety of this is merry and festive in the deepest sense.
Noel We Sing – Boston Camerata
This is the Boston Camerata’s English and early American Christmas album. It’s just as researched and just as authentic. I like it even better than the Medieval Christmas. Highly recommended.
The New Possibility – John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album
And finally the closest I’m going to get to pop music… which is to say not at all. This is psychedelic folk guitarist John Fahey’s 1968 version of Christmas classics and obscurities. It’s ‘simple’ guitar music without echoey production values or anything else to clutter up his strangely sincere version of these old carols. He later rerecorded these in the 80s. He probably needed the money. The two Christmas albums from that period are good. But this version is much quirkier and ‘simple’ in the best sense.
A few more:
To Wish You A Merry Christmas – Harry Belafonte
No this is as close to pop as I get. There is something very real in Harry’s folk pop Caribbean Christmas music. He manages to find the heart of it even through the RCA production line.
A Renaissance Christmas – Boston Camerata
See Medieval Christmas above and add the word Renaissance.
A Baroque Christmas- Boston Camerata
See Medieval Christmas above and add the word Baroque.
The Christmas Revels – John Langstaff & Co.
This is a classic which later became the Revels industry. This is close in spirit to the Roberts/Barrand Nowell albums mentioned above. But you can tell it’s a show, where Roberts, Barrand and company sound like they are actually celebrating Christmas. And later that aspect of the performances and albums would stand out more and more. Nevertheless you can always find a few gems here and there.
Angels and Kings – The Mediaeval Baebes
There are two wintry themed Mediaeval Baebes albums, the other is Mistletoe and Wine. And there are some real gems on them. The only problem I occasionally have with them is that they do like to conflate the modern interpretation of paganism onto the older Christian past. But then again maybe turnabout is fair play since that is the opposite of what the Christians did… except they did it genuine old school paganism, which was a much different beast than what we imagine in our fantasy worlds today. Nevertheless their Gaudete is amazing, especially the first version on Mistletoe and Wine. But for a more purely Christmas album go with Angels and Kings.
Handel’s Messiah – Robert Shaw Chorale
The first version of Messiah that I know to bring to life the older, smaller, quicker, livelier Baroque version back to the present. I hesitate to call this a Christmas album though, since fully half of it has nothing to do with Christmastime. But the part that does? Are you noticing a Baroque trend anywhere here? It’s no accident.
So that’s it. Look for any of these if you want to get closer to the spirit of Christmas.
And if you don’t? Might I recommend A Mutated Christmas, Christmas at Luke’s Sex Shop or anything that’s really well produced in the last 30 years.
Get away from the noise
Have a meaningful Christmas
(We’ll get back to Georgia very soon.)
Tbilisi, as I mentioned in my Gravity From Above diary, was a rude shock to my American system at first. It just seemed like pure chaos on some level that I had never encountered before. Travelers to India, Africa, certain parts of South America will I’m sure bring back even more intense observations than mine. Nevertheless I have traveled most of America, much of Canada, maybe two thirds of Europe, as far as Romania, and to Juarez, Mexico. I’ve seen things that gave me a sense of culture shock before, but nothing on the level of Tbilisi, Georgia.
It was swirling blooming confusion of signs and cars, cats, people on the streets and a certain casualness that I didn’t get at first. The spoken language was not related to anything else outside of the Caucasus Mountains. (For those unaware Georgian is not Russian at all.) But not only that the actual alphabet just seems like hooks and squiggles. (I’ll do an addendum on signs and the language later.)
Then there is traffic. I don’t know where to begin. It seems like normal traffic at first glance. But then you slowly begin to realize that there is no traffic control. It a city of one million and one hundred thousand I counted maybe four or five stoplights. The police rarely seem to stop anyone. Yet you hear the barking of squad car loudspeakers all the time: A sound that, for these American ears, means pull over immediately. (Subtext: We’ve got guns and your license plate number and you’ll never get away.) But here? I was told they were just giving instructions. Hey you!!! Turn left!! ??? At least twice my life was in peril looking for a way to get across speeding highway traffic. Later I was told I should have used the underground passages. Which I would have used if I had seen anything like a sign I could read. Mothers with families, old ladies, giggling teen girls, men who looked unconcerned, all just simply walked in front of cars and they stopped. The key I realized was to see where the car was. Judge your luck. And go! But do NOT look the driver in the eye. If they think you see them they won’t stop. (Which I discovered was the opposite of France where eye contact stops the oncoming traffic.) I eventually learned to walk between moving cars, putting my best New York City moves to good use. And as I did my ballet around the vehicles I thought half-jokingly “Maybe this is why Georgians are such good dancers?”
Another thing that leapt out at me like the swipe of a bear’s claws was the street life. You see everything in Tbilisi on the streets, the good and the bad. People sell food. I don’t just mean vendors. I mean if a old man from the edge of the city in a village has a dozen extra eggs he’ll come down to the streets with his twelve eggs and wait as people walk by. And he’ll sell them one at a time if he has to. I saw a woman day after day with freshly plucked chickens selling them on the street, no refrigeration needed evidently. People sell fruit, vegetables, odds and ends. Booksellers seem to crop up everywhere, with Georgian books, Russian books and the occasional English title. And don’t even get me started on the huge swap meet at The Dry Bridge near the river. I couldn’t even begin to describe it, except to say that THAT was reason enough to visit Tbilisi all by itself. (I made a video of it that takes nearly a half hour to watch as a strait walk through.)
But back to the streets. Another thing that was quite common to see was older folks, mostly women, begging on the streets. And since my own elderly mother recently passed on this hit me strongly. A sign of obvious trouble with social welfare systems. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you are on in the USA. This is something you don’t want to see. In fact in America we have large industries dedicated to taking care of the aged. Or is it keeping them out of sight? The more I looked at these folks on the street the more I adjusted my eyes. It never became a good thing to me, as it isn’t to the Georgians. Yet there was something about seeing everything on the streets. There was less shame about it. And people did contribute to these people. It didn’t take too much money to fulfill ones daily needs. I reckoned that if I was really desperate I could live on less than five dollars a day for food easily. And stay full. The more I saw these old women, the more I realized that they tended to occupy one area regularly and they had people who would give to them regularly. Which was similar to the homeless in New York City. The difference is that in New York you rarely saw people who reminded you of your mother or grandmother on the streets.
Other things: Construction was going on everywhere. And ancient buildings sat in habitable decay everywhere. (See the photo at the top.) And there were nice stores all over. And one street might seem fashionable and next to it might seem like the end of the world. The sidewalks were uneven. Stores sprouted from holes in the wall. Traffic never stopped swirling. I only mastered about half of the alphabet while I was there, but there was Latin script in enough places to figure out how to navigate. The metro made sense. The buses were almost impossible. And I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.
But here’s what I began to see, and this meshed with my observations about Orthodox culture, my American culture is far more organized than I ever realized before. No one seems to collect taxes on these street vendors that I can see, yet they can make extra money for themselves. We have rules for absolutely everything: Protecting consumers, traffic flow, jaywalking, safety, even our children live in an age appropriate world. Even the most laissez faire anarcho-whatever in North America has never experienced anything like this. We all want a net to catch us when we fall. And yet I looked at this and realized that on some level this was more human. There was a net actually. The government provided some amenities and was learning to do more. But the net, the real net, was a thing called family, extended family, and a network of acquaintances. And I was actively beginning to appreciate this chaos. Because the more I looked at it the more I could see a different kind of order, almost invisible to the outsider, holding up the structure of Georgian society.
Now there many troubles in Georgia. As you can see I’m not romantic about the country. And there are many deeper and darker layers of problems I am not qualified to address. But there is one area I can discuss. As Georgia enters the contemporary world it will, and has already begun to, experience the problems of a highly technocratic postmodern age. I’ll deal with that next time.
But let me say this about my time in Tbilisi. I walked down dark streets at night. Houses all turned away from the road sequestered in courtyards. In all of my wanderings I never ever felt endangered. Never once felt that someone was watching me in a predatory fashion. Bucharest, Prague, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, London, New York, Seattle, even Juneau here in Alaska all have given me more of a shiver of unease than anything I experienced in Tbilisi walking through the dark streets at night. Our order seems a bit like a mirage when I consider it. We live in a society where we thrive on rights. And while rights and the law are crucial to living, I can’t help feeling that often we only have rights left. And if you step on them, then comes the crush of the rules, of the law. Everyone wants what’s theirs. Maybe in Georgia they are a little less concerned with getting everything due to them. Maybe after their extremely rocky history many are glad to simply be here.
Come back again soon.
November 23rd 2016
And so in late April I returned from Georgia, the country not the state. And if you’ve been following The Anadromous Life for a few years you know that I’ve been thinking about Georgia since 2012 as an unusual place culturally that might have a few helpful clues as to how to live in these media soaked, excessively technological times. The big question I had was this, Was Georgia the place I was imaging it to be from my perch up in Alaska half a world away? Music and dance everywhere? Everyone inviting you to supras (the big elaborate meal with toasting, music and too much wine). The answer proved to be ‘yes’ and of course ‘no’ and yet verily ‘yes’ and then some. The view from the internet, from Facebook, from YouTube proved helpful. Ultimately though reality is always different. Always. And yet…
So what did I see? What did I learn? What are the Georgians like? Do they have anything for us? Or are they caught in the same traps we are? (You can read my actual Georgian tour diaries over Gravity From Above, which I highly recommend if you feel like you are getting bit by the Caucasian bug.)
First of all, no, Georgians may sing a lot, but I wasn’t greeted by songs when I landed at the Tbilisi airport at 5am. No one was dancing at the baggage claim. My first few days in Tbilisi were quite frankly bewildering. The air in late March was already muggy. The traffic insanely unregulated. I estimate in a population of 1,100,000 people I only saw four traffic lights. Crossing the street required serious nimbleness. Maybe that’s why they breed such fine dancers. Georgians weren’t exactly what an American would describe as open and friendly. But then again I’ve been convinced for quite a while that American ideal of niceness is often a façade. And I was firmly apprised of the fact that the vaunted and legendary Georgian hospitality isn’t a happy mask. In fact Georgians seem to be very low-key, low-maintenance people on the whole. It isn’t until you actually begin to talk with them that you notice something different.
But in many ways they were like any other people with access to technology. I saw plenty of Georgians staring down into their hands in the now universal gesture of smartphone addiction. Georgians have no secret immunization against television, computers or video games. And yet they do have something that seems points them down a different path. As I began to survey the culture from the capital Tbilisi I began to put a few things together. I purposely didn’t go wandering into the Caucasus Mountains, which I felt I could best save for another trip. I’ve long been suspicious of tourists who have to see everything. Quantity does not matter to me as much as quality. And since I was here to understand the culture, especially its music, dance and puppetry, it was much more important to me to spend time in one place, a place I could begin to understand, Tbilisi, rather than spend a few days here and a few days there. Understanding comes through time. And my goal was to meet Georgians who were involved in their artistic endeavors. And so staying in one place was the way to do that. And since Tbilisi was where much of that happened why go into the mountains too soon? Besides when I showed a few photos of my Alaskan backyard to some Georgians one of them said “I can see why you don’t need to see the mountains.” Indeed I do have mountains to gaze at here in Haines, Alaska.
And then there is this question: What does a person get out of such a place who just spends a few days here? Now I’m a good traveler. I do my homework. I read an awful lot before arriving in Georgia. I bought every DVD I could find on the travel, the culture and history of Georgia. I downloaded every possible relevant documentary on Georgia. I listened to lectures by Donald Rayfield, the longtime expert in Georgians studies and by others. I bought books. I connected with a few Georgians through social media. I wasn’t arriving as casual tourist. And yet I would say this; my first few days their were truly baffling, trying to make sense of the Georgian alphabet, trying to figure out how to get around, attempting to make some sense of things. And I was largely doing basic tourism level events. And so I can’t imagine how a visitor who does little homework could get much at all, except a bit of exoticism, out of a quick experience here. Georgia requires study. There is a touristic zone. But even that isn’t nearly as tourist friendly as say the same much larger zone would be in Paris or Prague. In Tbilisi it’s just one street of about seven blocks and it’s local environs. Not very big at all. The rest of the city is much more about living and working in Tbilisi.
So ‘no’ Tbilisi didn’t extend a warm friendly vibe, at least not as Americans reckon ‘warm and friendly’, which usually means lots of convenient amenities laid out in such a manner that a child could make sense of them. And that was, I found, a good thing. In my entire three weeks in Georgia I overheard American and British English about ten times. But I did hear lots of Russian! And I did overhear a few words of English from what turned out to be Iranian women. Fascinating. I had an informative little conversation with them. I hope that when more Americans do discover Georgia, and given the insatiable needs of distraction in our world they/we eventually will, I hope it’s more like the Rick Steves crowd than the cruise ship industry. Unfortunately it’ll probably be the younger post-hippies, who’ll inevitably bring the spores of contemporary alienation along like fleas. Meanwhile the relative incomprehensibility of Georgia will keep the most obnoxious folks away for a while. Which means that right now it is perfect for the traveler more than the tourist.
Nevertheless when I did manage to find an information office I was met by some of the truly friendliest people I could meet. And here’s where things began to change in my experience in Tbilisi, and it’s the reason why a person should visit. It’s in actually meeting Georgians that you find the real gold in the country. It’s when you begin to cross the line into human connections that you start to find something radically different. The standard tourist experience will produce little except fond memories of the food, crazy moments to remember when you tried to bargain at the Dry Bridge for a soviet era relic, a few sights that might be tainted by the tourism industry. But once you connect to locals? All bets are off. Anything can happen. (Which also happens to be the name of a funny book by George Papashvily about a Georgian immigrant to America in the mid-20th Century.)
So to the adventurous and openhearted I say come. To the politically correct college students looking to reaffirm their rather calcified vision of the world and the tourists who need convenience before all else, I say there are many other places to travel; try Thailand, Amsterdam, Costa Rica. But for those looking for humanity Georgia is the place.
(Georgian Lesson #2 soon!)
You can read about my whole journey to Georgia at my Gravity From Above Site:
Next door to the teleological notion of Fun is another rather modern sacred cow. It’s something that crept in through the nursery as innocent as can be, yet has grown in the most bizarre ways to affect and influence our attitudes and behavior. And it’s the kind of thing that, if you point it out, makes people think there’s something wrong with you for even mentioning it. And folks will swear it’s an eternal notion, something ever present, and never questioned. And yet in the last hundred years it has been a serious source of smuggled concepts and ideas into lives that have no idea whatsoever that they are being infected. Postmodern hipsters cynically smile at it, while collecting its endlessly manufactured kitsch. It certainly has crossed international borders to become nearly universal. And it goes by such an innocuous name: Cute.
Cuteness is sometimes these days explained in purely biological terms: Big baby-like eyes, small chins, vulnerability. All of which is fine. But doesn’t really explain how we got to a place where these strange cartoonish images ,whether from Disney, Japan or baby animal porn, surround us in all sorts of strange locations. I descend into the basement of a church and find large posters of excruciatingly cute rodents and barnyard fowl having something to do with the Bible. Or I walk into my local post office in the depths the winter season to see an official USPS poster up on a window of a smiling big eyed cuddly snowman representing in some odd manner the federal government.
And I suppose there are people reading this who, already at this point, are starting to feel uncomfortable about my criticism of these images… which I can guarantee you is going to get a lot sharper before I’m done. I mean why am I attacking these Cute images? They’re Fun!! (If you’ve been reading this series you know exactly why this Fun defense is going survive about as long as a hamster, a cute cuddly baby hamster with saucer eyes, in a microwave.)
It comes down to the formulation of the idea that Cute is somehow baby-like. And violating a baby is unthinkable. So how can I critique the notion of the baby-like? And it is this big-eyed baby quality that is so seductive. And it is precisely because the Cute is beyond reproach that it then becomes the perfect vehicle for smuggling ideas. Disney understood that very well as Mickey Mouse morphed from rodent to round headed baby thing. The same can be said for certain styles of Japanese manga and anime. I mean Cream Lemon isn’t exactly the Seven Samurai. But beyond using cute imagery to import strange cargo into the geeky sectors of society the most pernicious result of these images is to give us the unassailable yet twisted conception of Cute itself.
Now before we get too far in this essay let me point out something that I shouldn’t have to say, yet I need to lest someone accuse me of it. I am not a misanthrope. At all. I love babies when they smile and giggle. I love kittens, puppies and bear cubs. And yes indeed they are cute with a small ‘c’. Anyone who knows me well knows I get along famously with children. No problem so far. But don’t ask me to like pictures on a wall with kittens and a silly bit of doggerel. That is way too far over the line.
And for that matter with today’s digital cameras and social networking just how many images of cute babies and kids do we have to look at? Yes I know. I know. Everyone is proud of their children. But the truth is this, in all honesty, those thousands of photos of our children do not mean as much to those outside of the immediate family as they do within. But the tyranny comes at this point for exactly the same reason. Who dares tell their friends to slow down with the reproductions of their young? It’s akin to attacking children. No one dares speak the truth.
Or let me put it another way. I have approximately ten photos of myself before the age of eight. And you know that seems just right. It makes my early life interesting. Poetic not prosaic. I have very strong recollections. Do we have any understanding of what we are doing to our children when they have hundreds, maybe thousands, of images of themselves available to gaze upon before they even have a functioning memory. Yes I appreciate having so much freedom to take endless shots. But Lord I miss the deliberation that film engendered.
Meanwhile back to our central subject! You know a culture creates images of things that have some sort of real meaning to them. They spend time making art that expresses the most important aspects of their society. Ancient Egyptians focused on death and the afterlife. The vast majority of their art was funerary. The classical Greeks sculpted their ideals. Look at their statues. During the Renaissance another ideal of a harmony between nature and the divine is evidenced. Look at Michelangelo or Botticelli. The Dutch during the Baroque Era sought to create a sense of the value of even the lowliest people in a very real world. Rembrandt and Vermeer come to mind. What does it therefore mean to see statues of Mickey Mouse, paintings of impossibly cute children, posters of weird big eyed cartoon characters? There has been a dark transformation here. These Cute things have replaced a well considered view of what it means to be human. They make us smile and laugh. Sometimes they are also used in inverted ways, see South Park, to elicit cynical variations of the same responses. “Oh My GOD! That is just so SICK!” (Translation “That’s just so Cute, but I’m far too cool to say it that way.”)
But the thing that keeps haunting me is this… How quickly these strange images have entered into our world and how protected they are. And so the serious question is this: Where did this new alien notion of the Cute come from? It was hardly here at all a hundred years ago. Now we are drowning in Cute detritus. It’s time to investigate a bit of Cutesy history.
Come back soon.
So imagine the following scene: A church decides to have an Easter sunrise service on a Sunday morning. One of the features of this event is to attach a cross, that looks suspiciously like a white frosted cake standing upright, to a cloud of helium filled balloons that will float off into the distance. There is some talk that maybe someone will find it. There are some printed words somewhere in the confection. And there is a prayer that it might be a mighty witness for the gospel as well as an offering of praise. I beheld this with my own eyes in the late 90s. The Gospel of Fun has indeed taken over the church.
Now if we are going to use our imaginations seriously let’s picture this: Present at the balloon offering there are a host of other Christians representing different traditions down through the ages; Martin Luther, the Reformer is there next to John Calvin, Augustine and Paul are looking on, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are standing near T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers. Frederick Douglass and Dostoevsky turn to each other. Saint Nino of Georgia, Thomas Aquinas, Jane Austen and Charles Finney are all in attendance. And finally Jesus himself is present. And what would such a cloud of witnesses make of this strange diminution of the truth of their faith into a pop spectacle. (And balloons do pop!) Could any of these believers from times passed not be disturbed, even deeply saddened, perhaps some even to the point of tears. And Jesus? Who suffered and bled and died for all of humanity? What would he think of balloons being offered in his name? I certainly can’t claim to know. But I do remember the story of the unworthy offering of Cain way back when.
And this strange image of balloons and sweet crosses flying into the sky is only the tiniest metaphor of the shape of a Christian faith now also tainted and deformed by the new universal Gospel of Fun.
The examples are legion… and I am thinking of the exorcism story in the Bible when I use the word legion. Where to start (because there is no end): What about Happy Birthday Jesus cakes for Christmas? Or Youth Bibles to make the Faith more Fun and Exciting? How about Catholic balloons? Speaking of balloons, what about hot air balloons shaped like Jesus? There are at least two. T-shirts featuring Pepsi or Coke graphics with ad slogans modified into a ‘Christian witness’? How about images of a laughing Jesus? Church music, like much contemporary religion, has turned into a blood bath of feel good commercialization. In the extremities we find such phenomena as the Toronto Blessing, where for over a decade congregants engaged in laughing, dancing, shaking, barking like dogs and entering trances all in the name of being ‘drunk in the Lord’. Sounds like Fun doesn’t it? And it is, with a capital F.
The Gospel of Fun and Positive Thinking (we’ll get to that down the road) have essentially taken over much of Western Christianity and beyond. And I can already hear many of my Christian friends saying ‘Hey no fair. We have to do whatever we can to reach out for Christ. Don’t be critical.” What’s really odd is that the general impression of the Western secular world that Christians are still all hellfire and brimstone. The media jumps on every weird ‘Christian’ they can find. Think Westboro Baptist Church. Think of the crazy Florida pastor who was going to burn copies of the Koran. Or the naïve folks in the Jesus Camp documentary. They leap at every utterance that any celebrity makes that suggests that they are still clinging on to some bigoted form of traditional morality. And in reality most churches in America have long ago converted to a feel good version of the Faith. Concepts like hell, heresy, judgement are nearly taboo in most Western churches. God is a therapeutic deity. The point is to be positive, whole, healed, happy and to have Fun.
That it’s impossible to find such a message in the Bible doesn’t seem to cause too many sleepless nights . The anti-intellectualism which had surfaced within Christian circles in the second half of the 19th Century has had the effect of making sure that the average congregant is no more worried about these contradictions than they are about eating a moist birthday cake.
Interestingly the word ‘fun’ does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Neither do any of its relatives; amusement, entertainment or diversion. Although one word does show up which is an elderly relation: merriment. And some folks try to shoehorn words like blessed, happy or joy under the Fun umbrella. But merriment is an interesting word. The word in the New Testament is a Greek word which can also be translated as ‘cheer’. And it is a good thing to be of good cheer. The prodigal son was certainly cheered up by his father’s celebration. But then there is this ominous passage in the twelfth chapter of Luke where Jesus tells the parable of the rich man who has worked all his life just to finally kick back and have some fun. His motto? ‘Take life easy; eat ,drink and be merry.’ And then next word out of God’s mouth is ‘You fool. Tonight your life will be required of you.’ It’s more complicated than that, but I think we can easily see that the philosophy of Fun gets no free ride from Jesus.
And in fact Fun with a capital F did not enter the Christian world until the 1950s. When in order to combat juvenile delinquency and a fear of Communism para-church organizations began to seriously create youth ministries who would lure kids into the fold with ‘funspiration’. These ministries continued into the Sixties and they hooked up with the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. This was a crucial time. These new Christian hippies moved away from the stale and boring traditional churches and into the charismatic world. They brought with them the new catchier praise songs, developed by the youth ministries during the folkie era. Catholics had guitar masses. They brought a looser, more casual, approach to the Faith. Jeans and T-shirts came into the church. And they also brought in the T-shirts with cute Jesus slogans. By the mid-eighties the transformation was fairly complete. The older culture of easy listening Christian crooners and televangelists had merged with the newer Christians and their peppy tunes and Christian market. Eventually New Agisms would be interlarded. And lashings of Positive Thinking culture.
There is an informative book called The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler (Eerdmans). In it he states that “Of course these changes came at some cost. White evangelicals invested heavily in young people and aggressively adapted to their preferences for an informal, entertaining, feel good faith. They ended up with their churches full of Christians who think that the purpose of God and the Christian faith is to help them feel better.”
And so for far too many folks the Gospel of Fun has superseded the Gospel of Christ, and they can’t even see it. It is identical to the aging hippie wearing high tech spandex biking gear. How can you explain it to them? Rational argumentation is dissed as judgmental. Everyone is supposed to smile. Check out their Facebook pages. (Of course there is a very dark side to all of this Fun and Positivity. Try to express a thoughtful dissenting opinion on internet sites like IMDb or in response to a newspaper editorial and just watch the knives come out.)
You know this might all be a bit of a downer… But if you look at it a different way it’s just so Cute.
I think we’ll have to continue this next time…
And then all hell broke loose.
But what am I saying? That the Sixties folks were a bunch of hell raisers? Hardly. Hell is exactly what they didn’t believe in anymore. When people were tripping out at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January of 1967 the concept was that the old corrupt society of war and repression and without a doubt religious notions of Judgment Day would be eliminated by good thoughts, by beatific visions, by sex and smiles and laughter and blissed out awareness of the sun and the music. The Fifties, it turns out, were the only the seedbed of new explosions of Fun. The psychedelic Gold Rush was on! LSD, grass, meditation, the Beatles, getting tuned in – it was all going to change the world.
And sadly it did.
The best ideas and ideals of the Sixties have long since been left in the cultural dust. The actual San Francisco Hippies weren’t nearly childlike as they wanted to be. They still clung to things like reading, like art, like Civil Rights, like Free Speech, like Art Films. They might get stoned and dance around like children but they were still reading Nietzsche and Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. They might be breaking down the sexual boundaries but they still tried to defend what they were doing to their parents with somewhat rational arguments. And though much of the intellectual content of what they were ingesting might have had a deeply Romantic post-Rousseau-noble-savage-anti-intellectualism to it nevertheless whether it was Gravity’s Rainbow, Frank Zappa or El Topo, the work from the late Sixties early Seventies still challenged one’s brain. But it proved to be nearly the last gasp of certain kind of Post-War educational boom time which would last into the early Punk Era and not much further. Ultimately the Fun loving philistines won the day.
I’m old enough to remember a conversation about morality in the mid-Seventies where Adolf Hitler was mentioned and a girl said to me, “Well I can’t get into that space personally but maybe if it was right for him who am I to judge?” An ill omen indeed. Disco, too, was a bad sign. But then again so was the slick commercial television of the Brady Bunch. Even Sesame Street did not provide for children the superior stimulation of an Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows or A Wrinkle in Time. Hallucinogens ceased to signify any sort of inner exploration of the mind, let alone the universe. Drugs instead became a recreational activity. So did nature. Though eventually the Rocky Mountain High allure of hiking and national parks would give way to cruise ships and extreme sports. Theme parks were becoming much more serious in delivering their services. Disney World in Florida and eventually the simulacra driven EPCOT Center opened. By the late Eighties Disney World had surpassed Niagara Falls, itself now a shabby theme park, as the number one honeymoon destination in America. How could a merely majestic waterfall compete with the tableaux of a faux pleasure dome? As the Seventies slipped into the Eighties Fun became a much more serious mantra.
Also somewhere along the way, in a thousand different compromises, the overly optimistic dreams of the counterculture began to blend into the teething techno-culture of the time, which created as well a new commercial culture inspired by illusions of Fun. The road from science fiction through Star Wars and E.T. towards the current digital landscape of pods and pads went from being an rarely used byway into the dominant highway of mainstream culture. Late 20th Century American society soon sloughed off the adult in favor of the adolescent and we have suffered profoundly ever since.
And people began to change their modes of behavior in accordance with their new belief structure. Fun being the number one hormone in a Youth fixated culture was reflected over and over in a great percentage of our activities. Clothing certainly reflected this change. For a while it looked as if rock music’s sassiness would predominate: Punk and Metal black leather and studs. Post-Deadhead jeans and hair. Yet a change was taking place in the Rap demimonde perhaps first of all – the emphasis on sports gear; A fad that would take over much of the clothing trade. Shiny long kilt-ish synthetic basketball shorts worn well below the place formerly reserved for belt loops. Running shoes of one stripe or another seem to have replaced any semblance of leather shoes. Post-Deadhead “hippies” now freely invest in the kind of shiny sports gear and outdoor wear that was once decried as plastic, artificial. New Age enthusiasts carry strange rubberoid yoga mats around. How much of our current society seems to dressed for some recreational activity? If one were a 1967 San Francisco hippie and were suddenly transported to this moment in time from 1967 to meet people who espoused a similar philosophy the words might sound familiar but the living style would seem completely hollow. One would be aghast at the amount of artificial materials worn and used by folks who claim to have the same ideals.
But of course those people are still with us. Many of them in their sixties and seventies. By golly it is a very quare sight in deed to pass a few aging organic hippie types on a road peddling their bikes garbed completely in plastic fabrics of one kind or another. They think they are living the same dream, with some modifications.
But really the sacred cow of Recreation cannot be questioned. It is in truth a species of the hydra-headed Fun. I remember when I first arrived in Alaska in the late 90s I was talking to a woman about the vast tracks of wilderness surrounding us. I said something like this: “It surprises me to realize how many people only see nature as a recreational opportunity.” She looked at me without blinking. My words had the faint aroma of blasphemy in her nostrils. She did not comprehend what I was saying at all. I was going to mentioned something about Tarkovsky and the vision of reality that bleeds through his films. Then I realized that I might as well be speaking Russian.
In this brave new world of Fun and Recreation there are no questions. Fun simply is the point. And yet you think there would be people who seriously questioned this idea. Perhaps those old stick in the mud Christians ,with their savior who bled and died for our sins (definitely No Fun), would challenge the new ideology of Fun? Many who aren’t Christian think that’s exactly what is happening in our times. Oh how deceived we all have been. No one has bit quite as deeply out of the candy-coated apple of Fun as modern American Christians.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
To understand why World War 1 is such a demarcation in the development of this new notion of fun with a capital ‘F’ we have to ask ourselves what happened to begin the change immediately before the war. And I find that turn-of-the-century era to be filled with many mysterious aspects. One of the most mysterious, and this will come back to haunt America in the Sixties, is why men began to shave their beards and to be clean shaven. This might sound like mere fashion, but no fashion is actually ‘mere’. All fashion reflects changes in thinking
Look at the Victorian Era. Beards were everywhere. Presidents had beards. Generals had beards. Writers had beards. Workers had beards. Not that every man had a beard mind you. Their were scraped jaws aplenty, sometimes accompanied by a bewildering variety of mustaches and sideburns. One of the ways in which this era of folks were freer than later supposedly less repressed generations was that there was no one style for men’s facial hair that reigned supreme.
Suddenly beards disappear.
But by the turn of the 20th Century something happened in the American mentality that indicated a seismic shift. The emphasis was now put on a youthful energetic appearance. A bicycle built for two. A similar shift can be seen in relationship to women; dress styles change radically from 1900 to World War 1. But in the case of women it becomes a bit more transparent. There is the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the new dances like the Cakewalk and the Castlewalk, and it was indeed under the influence of dance instructors Vernon and Irene Castle that women began to shed their corsets, leading to the new fashions of 20th Century.
But whence cometh this new emphasis on youthfulness, a fixation that has only intensified to nightmarish degrees in the 21st Century? Was it related to multiplicity of the new inventions? The automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, the radio, the motion picture, the telephone, the light bulb and on and on. Was it connected with the fact that America largely was unaffected by the Symbolist and Decadent Movement of Europe? Or maybe au contraire that it was in subliminal ways affected by some aspects of the new Decadence? Was it connected to economic prosperity? I’m sure there’s a serious reason, but at the moment it’s really hard to pinpoint why? (Serious historians of the times, do you have any clues?)
But nonetheless beards were slaughtered at the altar of youth and would remain so until the even more extreme youth movements of the late Sixties would make beards trendy again.
And so America in it’s optimistic prewar glory began to feel the hypodermic injection of energy and this new conception called Fun just as it found itself strangely involved in a war that killed thousands and left many more men both physically and emotionally crippled although the American soil was scarcely touched. The men returned home to a country that had no notion of what modern warfare had done to the troops. But it wanted to celebrate (or was it erase the immediate past) with a new burst of enthusiasm. While simultaneously shutting down the bars and distilleries and giving more independent women the right to vote. And thus Fun arrived in an explosion of contradictions in the Roaring Twenties.
F. Scott Fitzgerald looked back at the era with a mixture of nostalgia and regret in 1931 in an essay entitled “Echoes of the Jazz Age”. He wrote,
“Scarcely had the staider citizens of the republic caught their breaths when the wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight. This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste. May one offer in exhibit the year 1922! That was the peak of the younger generation, for though the Jazz Age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth.”
And then he points out how even the older generations were tainted by the insanity.
“The sequel was like a children’s party taken over by the elders, leaving the children puzzled and rather neglected and rather taken aback. By 1923 their elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began. The younger generation was starred no longer. A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure. “
If this sounds familiar it’s because this was but a rehearsal for the much larger funhouse called the Sixties. But back in the Twenties the considerable rural portions of the land weren’t quite as deeply affected by the new teleology of Fun as the urban zones had been. And this sexual revolution was suddenly halted in its place by the Great Depression, which, while not setting the clock back to before the war, had seriously curtailed the proceedings.
Fitzgerald continues, “But it was not to be. Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.
“It ended two years ago, because the utter confidence, which was its essential prop, received an enormous jolt and it didn’t take long for the flimsy structure to settle earthward. And after two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.”
The Depression Era and World War 2 were not exactly hot houses for Fun, but the happy-go-lucky beast would make a dramatic return once and for all after the Second World War.
(To be continued…)
Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend
Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
From Smiling Faces Sometimes
Written Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
(Classic versions: The Temptations or The Undisputed Truth)
Now, dare we assay the outline of a history of this modern notion of Fun as an organizing principle in life? I doubt I’m going to be cool in doing so. But allow me to produce a few salient moments in such a account.
First of all obviously fun in the sense of a temporary enjoyable sensation has been around as long as human beings have laughed over spilled food or missteps into a stream. It may not have been called ‘fun’ in the modern sense of the word, but it was certainly funny. But the notion that life is fun, or that fun is what determines the validity of an event is a much more recent concept.
If we go back a ways to say the paintings of Dutchman Frans Hals, with his smiling figures and publican hominess we might confuse that joyful bonhomie with our modern notion of ‘Fun’. But it would certainly be a mistake. For one thing he certainly did many other paintings which were serious by any standard. Next it’s clear that the enjoyment in the twinkling eyes of a Hals subject was not meant to be taken as an eternal condition. Likewise in Bruegel’s dancing peasants and the like. Life during the Renaissance and Baroque Eras was seen as a fairly serious affair, but certainly tempered with joy and lots of dancing. Nothing could be further from the postmodern notion of life as Fun.
Curiously the word ‘fun’ itself was not too far back a word of some suspicion. Back in the 1600s fun was a verb that meant something like to cheat or trick or to make a hoax of something. We still use the word in that way when we ‘make fun of someone’ or when we talk about ‘funny money’. And something funny is definitely going on in our contemporary reliance upon Fun as reason for action. Somehow our Fun is indeed a trick, a hoax. The old word is still buried in the new.
Another false step along the way to trying to find the origin of today’s notion of Fun with a capital F is too be found in the Declaration of Independence. You know what I’m talking about… “the Pursuit of Happiness”, which by our lights ends up being something like ‘do your own thing’ and of course ‘just have fun’! A very hedonistic concept. And how dare anyone suggest that someone could be in error for following their bliss?
And yet Thomas Jefferson seems to have borrowed the phrase from English philosopher John Locke who uses the phrase and relates it to ‘our greatest good’ which is certainly not the kind of whatever-turns-you-on mentality that people espouse today. It’s not about getting the most toys, the cheapest drugs or best sex you can find. “The pursuit of happiness” is something much deeper. And certainly NONE of the folks who founded America had the slightest notion of living for sensational Fun.
So where does this beast come from? Perhaps the carnival or the sideshow? No I don’t think so. First of all the carnival is never meant to be a permanent event. Secondly the carnival and the sideshow are much too dark in their implications. Though undoubtedly there are some would would love to live in an amusement park. And an amusement park is much closer to today’s idea of Fun.
One of the first permanent amusement parks was the Coney Island complex. (It was never one single entity.) And Coney Island’s history and heyday are to found at an interesting moment in time. There had been resorts and clam bars for years, but by the early 20th Century Coney Island became the place for New Yorkers to get away from the tough business of city life. And it is in that early 20th Century we begin to see a new type of person.
Look at a photograph from the 19th Century. You know the stoic flinty seemingly dour faces of the early age of photography. Now it has been posited that these people look so stern for various reasons, i.e. shutter speeds were slow, they thought they were posing for something like a painting, even that people had bad teeth. But whatever the reason, it’s quite clear that they lived in a very different world than we do now, ca. 2013. They did not see things through our postmodern fog; they took things seriously, including and especially their photographs. They thought that their images should be worthy of posterity.
(Oh and by the way there are plenty of photographs of smiling Victorians. They certainly did know how to laugh and have little ‘f ‘ fun. The point here is that they did not consider Fun the reason for living.)
Now look at our images. They scream of “Fun”. Smiles all round. Loopy posings. Shamelessly bad acting in “selfies”. Endlessly happy faced goofy grins in self-congratulatory group shots. I have met people who do not possess one serious photo of themselves. All they’ve got to prove their existence to the world are teeth and muggings. And, whatever else can be said about so many of our images, there seems to be a growing taboo about taking yourself and anything else too seriously. Because in the end it’s all about having Fun.
World War I turns out to be the real demarcation, the moment when the concept of Fun with a capital ‘F’ seems to suddenly have exploded into the American consciousness. The Roaring Twenties growls with this new sense of revelry. Flappers, bathtub gin, the automobile as a portable love nest all contributed to the notion. But why should that be the case. Why directly after a major war should this sense of absurd playfulness have broken out?
(To be continued…)
Yes let’s have some fun.
And if by fun you mean let’s enjoy a few pleasurable amusements, a game of hide-and-go-seek with flashlights in the dark, spitting watermelon seeds at a picnic, a roller coaster ride at a carnival, I say why not. I don’t mind gales of laughter, bad jokes told well or rolling down a slope covered in snow. But incorporated in this traditional idea of ‘fun’ is the notion that these are occasional temporal diversions. They are not a standard feature to be achieved in daily life. They are separate moments not representative of the whole. These little moments of pleasure are like the bubbles blown by children. One pinprick and they are are gone. Thus a phrase like “Life is fun.’ would be totally meaningless in almost any traditional view of human culture that you could summon up.
Yeah but who still holds a traditional view… Therein lies the sacred cow that I intend to roast. In a world pickled in ever changing technologies and rapidly evolving variations on narcissism and nihilism disguised as individualism, anything smacking of tradition is pretty much castigated and mocked as unevolved and, even more tellingly, as boring.
It’s curious to me how many times in my life I have heard people justify pretty much any activity in the name of ‘Fun’. Everything supposed to be Fun: Music is Fun. Food is Fun. Sports are Fun. Driving can be Fun. Sex, of course, is Fun. Flirting is Fun. Cheating is Fun. (Till the tears begin.) Dogs are Fun. Movies are Fun. Videos of bestiality are Fun. (This is not an exaggeration.) Boxing is Fun. Fighting is Fun. Drunk driving is Fun. (Until you wrap the car around tree.) Yoga is Fun. Christianity is Fun. Shouldn’t politics be Fun? Travel is Fun. Italy is Fun. Bosnia is now Fun. Fun is whatever you define as Fun. Everything is Fun!
Except things that are the antithesis of Fun. Things that are boring. Classical music? Ballet? Mid-20th Century art films? Boredom. Reading a long book about the history of the Gulag is just plain work. Heck picking up a physical book and lugging it around is is a lot more boring than watching YouTube videos of car crashes in Russia.
And over time I have heard any number of apologias for life’s meaning involving Fun with a capital ‘F’. “Don’t be so serious, let’s just have some Fun.”, “As long as everyone’s having Fun, right?”, “As long as you are having Fun, that’s the key.”, “You gotta have Fun.”, “As long as I’m having Fun, I’ll do it.” or as Heath Ledger once said “I only do this because I’m having fun. The day I stop having fun, I’ll just walk away.” And then he did.
But what is this new conception of Fun? It is indeed very illusive. It has become a state of being so wide as to incorporate our etiolated sense of meaning itself. If I translate the unfocused usage of my peers I come up with a something that is perhaps pleasant and largely free of pain, though even variations of stupid injury can be roped into this new idea of Fun. I think it has to do with laughing a lot, smiling, a kind of no risk low level ecstatic experience. Maybe we can just call it the Big Wow. A sensation filled existence without the tedium of logic or rehearsal. The entertainment industry is key here. And it most certainly is an anti-intellectual creature. You really can’t question it.
Yet it doesn’t take very long in considering this teleological concept of Fun to see the massive gaping holes in such a worldview. Both raising children and caring for the elderly are situations where things get a whole lot less than Fun very quickly. It takes a commitment that moves far beyond the laughter of a moment to get you through these relationships. In fact most of life takes a kind of tenacity to get beyond the pain, the repetitions, the fears, the misunderstandings, the endless practice it takes to be truly good at anything. Yet somehow this wireless dreamworld we call contemporary existence has deluded us that all of the traditions are invalid as we pay our tickets for our very own personalized fun houses.
How did we get here?
(To be continued…)
July 4th 2013
Please excuse me, I’ve been nice for a while now. The time has come to barbecue a few sacred cows.
Which might lead someone to say OMG! Are you really trying to offend Hindus?!
And which is precisely why I’m writing…
Bizarrely, after years of scorched earth counter-cultural products that have suggested all manner of nihilistic rebellions, we are left, not with black garbed existentialists crying over the alienation of humanity, but with an almost infantile culture of folks deliriously caught in a fast food playplace for endlessly emerging adults, who tend to see the world in fun, cuddly, positive terms as they giggle (LOL) through the endless global mall while texting extraordinarily blank verse into the universe.
I recently took a trip through Europe to investigate the meaning of puppetry, how perhaps, there might lurk in the humble realm of the puppet something real, something tangible that might aid humanity in its virtual addictions. And I did indeed find much that heartened me. The European puppet folk of my acquaintance were, in general, quite aware of what puppetry might be able to mean in such a high-tech age. The puppets themselves were inspiring as individual one-of-kind handmade artworks. Those learning the art of puppetry seemed to have a leg up on those in other fields of learning. And yet…
I remember more than one moment where I said to myself aloud, maybe its too late already. I remember the sinking feeling I had in Poland as I wandered through the massive seven story mall next to the Warszawa Centralna train station. And Poland is a country I love. Yet here was a perfect replica of what had once been a California styled shopping mall. And everyone seemed happy to wander through this emporium of material delight. Here were endless chain stores and franchise food services. Here were the big hollywood movies and the brand name off the rack clothes. Here was that same sense of credit emptying glut and spent detumescence. Here were the blank souls wandering lost and hopeless. And to think that the Poles gave up the tyranny of communism for this mindless 21st Century Woodstock of the Złote Tarasy (Gold Terraces).
Or then there was the moment in Hallstatt, Austria, when I found myself alone beneath a glowing full moon on All Hallow’s Eve wandering through the most haunted graveyard I’d ever experienced under the freshly frosted medieval town on a mirrored lake as the other guests in my pension stayed indoors because “there was nothing to do” and they would rather live scrunching their fingers over and staring into handheld digital screens. And I thought to myself, how can the real world compete with these pointless and distracting virtual gadgets? Actually what I said to myself is this… Is there any hope left?
Dude chill. It’s not that bad. There’s a lot of serious fun to be had. Lighten up! Get a life. If you see snow get a snowboard. You rocked that midnight medieval stroll scene. Don’t worry about those other peeps. They’re just hanging out. They’ll come out and play eventually. As long as everyone’s having fun, right?
Absolutely wrong. When did fun become some sort of foundational reason for living? Blessed are the funseekers because they shall rule!
And fun is not alone in this brave new world that has such people in it. Cute is another strange little sacred calf that has been slicing the rational portions of our culture away in more recent times. I mean if cute means something comparable to ‘baby-like’ how can anyone critique something that is like a baby! Heavens to Betsy!
And to critique, that just sounds so judgmental. Criticism doesn’t really help anyone. Don’t be so left-brained. Be positive. Try to get along with people. Do not hurt anyone’s feelings… ever. Certainly not by implying anything negative about them. Don’t tell them you disagree, even when you do. In fact you think all sorts of people are wrong. But you don’t have to hang with them because they aren’t fully… well one doesn’t really want to say human… but you know. Yet among the people, the real people, your online friends, do not criticize their beliefs. It’s just so wrong. Remain positive.
Positively… I hear the loudest most ominous holy moo coming from this direction.
But before we get there let’s have some Fun with a capital F first.
(to be continued…)
Addendum to The Original American Gothic Series
While I’m getting myself in gear to write more. Here is a sampling of music that I would categorize as American Gothic. Remember American Gothic is neither strictly Americana nor Goth. It takes roots music in its darker form along with other emphases like circus or carnival music, late 19th Century immigrant strains, and certainly even Minstrel style is buried deep within as well. American Gothic Music, like other arts mutated through the American Gothic vision is music that is connected to the darker roots of American culture, with less of a European sensibility. (See our original essay on American Gothic Music.)
None of these songs could be considered American Gothic as such. But they certainly are the kinds of music that make up the bedrock of influences within the musical spectrum.
Chain Gang Songs – Old Alabama, Murderer’s Home, Grizzely Bear, We Need Another Witness (These are the real thing, songs sung by actual prisoners. They are as frightening and strange as can be.)
Tommy Johnson – Cool Drink of Water Blues (Perhaps the most haunted song in American music history)
Blind Willie Johnson – Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed, God Moves On the Water (There is something quite mysterious about the Christian songs of Mr. Johnson. These songs sum it up.)
Blind Lemon Jefferson – See That My Grave is Kept Clean, Black Snake Moan, Wartime Blues (Also check out Nick Cave’s tribute song.)
Washington Phillips – Train Your Child (A creaky instrumental that gets into your soul.)
Charley Patton – Moon Going Down (Scratchy voiced and scratchy recording!)
The Spirit of Memphis Quartet – The Day is Passed and Gone (Beauty, terror, death and life all in one stark song.)
Marion Williams – The Day is Passed and Gone (The same tune radically altered. It would be hard to imagine something more chilling.)
Robert Johnson – Cross Road Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Me And The Devil Blues (How could you have a list of dark American music without Mr. Johnson?)
Son House – John the Revelator, Death Letter Blues, Preachin’ Blues, Grinnin’ In Your Face (Blood curdling stuff.)
Howlin’ Wolf – I Asked Her For Water, Smokestack Lightning, How Many More years, No Place to Go, Ain’t Superstitious, Somebody Walkin’ In My House (Wolf moans quite low and means every word.)
Hank Williams – Lost Highway, Ramblin’ Man (Lonesome and dark.)
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell on You, Voices (It’s Halloween and truly weird all together.)
These are the artists that first delineated the style.
Bob Dylan – Desolation Row, Tombstone Blues, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,This Wheel’s on Fire, John Wesley Harding, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, The Wicked Messenger, Three Angels, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Yeah Dylan pretty much invented the mode, like so many other things.)
The Doors – The End, People Are Strange (Musically more European, even Hindu, but thematically Morrison was swimming in dark American nightmares.)
Link Wray – Shawnee Tribe, Waterboy, Right or Wrong (You Lose), Rumble (The Beans and Fat Back LP is a real milestone. The equivalent of finding an indian burial ground. Rumble is here but could be an Ancestor as well.)
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Walk on the Water, I Put A Spell On You, Tombstone Shadow, Born on the Bayou, Bad Moon Rising, Effigy, Graveyard Train, Ramble Tamble, Run through the Jungle (In my essay I forgot to mention CCR. Big omission. Fogerty and crew fairly reek of decay in the swamp. Seminal.)
Canned Heat – On the Road Again (This song is a real milestone in the style. Rootsy blues, but where is this sound really from? It’s not found in the original song. It’s not really John Lee Hooker. It’s as haunted as it’s soon to be dead singer’s eerie voice.)
The Eagles – Hotel California (Somewhere down on the border. There is a ghost of a dream here.)
Ry Cooder – Soundtracks: Paris Texas, Southern Comfort, The Border (When Ry Cooder lets his slide drone on… creepy.)
Tom Waits – 16 Shells from a 30.6, Earth Died Screaming, Jesus Gonna Be Here, Lucky Day Overture, What’s He Building? (Waits Gothic American sound has all of the mystery of a hog hanging up in the barn.)
Nick Cave – Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rye Whisky, City of Refuge, The Folk Singer, Saint Huck, Tupelo, Stagger Lee (He only claims to be from Australia. His heart is firmly interred behind the tent at the carnival.)
Violent Femmes – Country Death Song (Gordon Gano was quite instrumental in reinterpreting the old American themes.)
16 Horsepower – American Wheeze, Low Estate, Hang My Teeth On Your Door, Heel On the Shovel, Coal Black Horse, Bad Moon Risin’ (These guys really defined the new era of American Gothic Music.
Calexico – Black Heart, Frontera, Dub Latina, Circo (Somewhere South near the Border in Cormac McCarthy territory.)
Contemporary American Gothic Musicians
These are people actively working in the present era, when there has been a proliferation of the American Gothic style in several arts. (See our series of essays on the subject here.) Go search them out explore the zone.
Nicole Atkins – The Tower, You Were The Devil
The Black Heart Procession – A Truth Quietly Told
The Blind Willies – Last Drop of Midnight, Don’t Let the Devil Steal Your Joy
The Born Again Floozies – Dirt Cheap Suit, Street Music
The Whiskey Folk Ramblers – My Rolling Wino,Pies of Old Kylene, Into That Slide
Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons – How Long, Diana?, Hard Time in a Terrible Land, Teenage Wasteland
Harmonious Wail – I Like To Feel My Bones
Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Moonstruck, Gone in Two Seconds
O’Death – Adelita, Down To Rest, Gas Can Row
Reverend Glasseye – 17 Lashes, King of Men, Sweet Sweet Countrymen, Black River Falls, Midnight Cabaret
Liz Tormes – Fall Silent, Black Luck
Part Two – Music and Dance…
(To listen to and watch the musicians of Georgia
please click on the blue letters below.)
English Composer Gavin Bryars recently wrote that “The Georgians are probably the most musical people on earth… The division between professional and amateur becomes meaningless; such is the commitment of the professional, and the skill of the amateur… Everywhere there is the staggeringly beautiful three-part vocal polyphony – whether it is a wedding song, lullaby, or richly dissonant religious chant.”
And that is a good place to set out to really even attempt to dig into the riches of Georgia’s music. Most scholarship puts their polyphonic tradition as far back as we can estimate. Certainly the earliest Georgian Orthodox liturgy that we know of is polyphonic (many voiced, interweaving tunes). In all likelihood Georgian liturgy was polyphonic at least a millennium before Western Europe hit upon the same notion. And perhaps, though it is difficult to prove, there is even a connection between the two. I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence. The Christian philosophical underpinnings stress a triune God, who is interwoven in ways that are beyond human grasp. Polyphony, whether of Bach or of Sakartvelo, stresses these things. And polyphony may be the closest means of understanding such a concept that humanity has ever discovered.
But it isn’t simply Georgia’s religious, hence classical, tradition that shows the complexities of polyphony. It is indeed found in the work chants up in the mountains. It is found in the simplest of everyday ballads, wherever two or three are are gathered.
But did I say simple ballads. Yes this music is very direct, shooting straight to the heart, but simple? Hardly. Georgian melodies have a basic major minor modality. If you hear their dance tunes you immediately notice commonalities with Russian and other Eastern European styles. A tune by itself might sound Greek or even Italian. And yet there are real differences. There will also be something else as well. A serious touch of the Middle East with it’s bittersweet melodies. But unlike the music of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and the entire Arab World there are harmonies. And it is in these harmonies that the secret of Georgian music begins to reveal itself. There is definitely a connection to the music of Armenia, also a lone Christian neighbor in a sea of Islamic musicality. And yet to these ears Armenian music has much more in common with the Middle East, except for its liturgy. But Armenia and Georgia share a few instruments like the duduk, a haunting reed instrument played more for contemplation in Armenia and more rhythmically in Georgia. But Georgian music is a world apart.
When musicologists first began to pay attention to Georgia in the 19th Century they were really baffled. Music from other corners of the world seemed much more comprehensible. Pentatonic scales, blue notes, microtones all seemed a lot easier to classify than what was going on in the more European Georgia. So here were major and minor scales, some Middle Eastern modalities and then something else again, a startling dissonance which might suddenly raise its head from seemingly nowhere. But unlike the dissonant music of the early Modernist era, there seemed to be a real code to how this dissonance was added in order to also preserve tonality. Igor Stravinsky in an interview late in his life was asked what music was important to him. He answered, “One of my greatest impressions, is of a recording of Georgian polyphonic folk singing from mountain villages near Tbilisi. This tradition of active musical performance, which goes back to antiquity, is a wonderful treasure that can give more for performance than all the attainments of new music.” And he was referring to Modernist classical music.
Choirs like the famous Rustavi Ensemble or the Gori Women demonstrate both the earthy and unearthly sounds of the Georgian voice in a disciplined setting. On the album Archaica the Gori Women sing at moments of such vocal dissonance to make even György Ligeti blush. You can immediately understand why Stravinsky was so entranced. And yet the overall feeling of the Gori Women’s Choir is not of dissonance but of rich harmonic beauty. There are also great recordings of the wilder untamed forms of vocal music found back in the mountain villages.
What has also been attracting my attention lately is the modern dance music of Georgia based on traditional themes. One recording I stumbled upon is called Georgian Dance Music by Chabuka Amiranashvili (ჭაბუკა ამირანაშვილი). If a person loved the music of say The Ukrainians or of Gogol Bordello I would point them very firmly in this direction. I can’t explain it except to say it starts off like some sort Eastern European melody played by manic double accordions and then suddenly a modern bass kicks in followed by wild Middle Eastern percussion which then carouses between tunes jump started from inside one another. Positively addictive. And, as I found out later, these tunes are mostly eminent folk instrumentals that everybody knows and more importantly knows the dance steps for.
At the mention of dancing I think we come fairly close to the heart of the Georgian life. Many cultures have forms of folk dancing. And many more have lost their own unique dance forms in the face of hyper-modernity. Do Americans, English, French, Germans, Dutch, Japanese, Koreans or Swiss still have living folk dances? One thing is for certain… the Georgians sure do. And they are not just a few simple steps like in a square dance. Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili makes the case that the Georgians are good at ballet because essentially their entire culture is steeped in dancing. And these dances are liable to breakout at a wedding, at a supra (a very common yet important traditional feast), at a casual get together or among teens in a parking lot. Children in Georgia often take two extra hours of dance classes after school everyday. And it shows…
Latin American cultures keep their dancing very much alive too. But these are often contemporary dances: salsa, merengue, etc. Georgians are keeping dances alive that in many cases are hundreds of years old, if not much more ancient. They are using their bodies to keep alive the memories of their culture. And though naturally they are exposed to the same barrage of pop culture as the rest of us, and while they might even occasionally attempt a bit of imitation of what is seen on videos, they do not do it at the expense of their traditions. Because they know that once they stop singing and dancing they will basically cease to be Georgians.
And when they decided to put together a show, as the group Erisioni (ერისიონი) did in 2000, when they traveled to France and beyond to perform with a large contingent singers, musicians and dancers to perform in large auditoriums what essentially was a highly polished version of what every Georgian knows by heart, jaws dropped with mathematical regularity. Women floated across the stage in some of the most beautiful traditional clothing imaginable, the men’s choir hit with volley of sounds unknown in the West, young boys beat the time on the doli, duduk players raced in a bewildering competition, the girls pranced and the men jumped higher than horses and landed on their knees and toes only to spin up and do it again and the profound joy of Georgian culture left the onlookers speechless and celebratory.
And yet back at home teenaged girls still sang together in the backs of vans. Or in houses. Or on the steps of an apartment building. One girl, Ani Chincharauli, is given a microphone at a special event. She strums the panduri, a three string lute like instrument with roots back to ancient Sumeria. As she plays she is seemingly ignored by everyone… until the moment her clarion voice starts to sing. But I’m convinced, as startling a voice as she has, that Gavin Bryars is right. The distinctions between amateur and professional are almost non-existent here. It isn’t the voice that is really the signal for joy. It is the song itself. It is the fact that everyone knows it. It is the fact that the poetry of the language still resonates in a way in which poetry no longer does in the virtual world of the quotidian workaday technophages we have all become out here in the tame nowhere. The Georgians are not singing to be heard by us. They are still singing and dancing for each other.
(To be concluded)
For further research:
Check out the Rustavi Ensemble
Just trust me and buy Chabuka Amiranashvili’s Georgian Dance Music after you sample it a bit.
The Gori’s Women’s Choir can still be found inexpensively.
And finally one last simple Ani Chincharauli song.
Part One – A Truly Obscure and Blessed Land…
Okay let’s play a game. Quick think of three things you know about Georgia? No, not that Georgia! Not the US state. I mean the country in the Caucasus Mountains: The one that had been swallowed by Russia and the USSR for nearly 200 years and was only recently spit back out into the world.
Now stop reading and think about it for a moment…
If you are like many people I’ve spoken to lately you are probably drawing something of a blank. A few people get one point or another. Didn’t they have a war with Russia or something? Or, more ominously, wasn’t Stalin a Georgian? And then I notice a kind of plague of poor information. Isn’t that next to Romania? Isn’t that one of the Stans? Isn’t that a small Muslim country? All completely wrong.
But one thing is for certain, except for people who are Georgians, or who have been lucky enough to run into some aspect of Georgian culture Georgia is currently, and undeservedly, one truly obscure culture. People know more about Myanmar, Nepal, Colombia, Serbia, the Ivory Coast, most of the Middle East than they do about Georgia.
But let’s rectify that now. First of all Georgia is a country about the same size as Austria with mountains higher than the Alps AND they grow oranges there. The oldest evidence of the fermentation and cultivation of wine is to be found in Georgia. They have their own language which is unrelated to anything else outside of the Caucasians. And they have their own alphabet, which looks like a lot of hooks and squiggles. And having said that the name of the country isn’t even Georgia really. They call it Sakartvelo or საქართველო. They are the Kartli. Tbilisi the capital is built on warm springs, which is what the name means. There are about four and a half million people that live there. About 83 percent of them are various types of ethnic Georgians. Then there are Armenians, Turks, Russians, Ajeris, Jews and others.
Okay I could go on but you can look all this up for yourself. I’m not trying to interest you in the country as a tourist destination.
I have something else on my mind. As the most observant of you might notice this series of essays is entitled The Anadromous Life. I’m using the word ‘anadromous’ the word to describe certain fish that swim against the stream as the Pacific Salmon do. And by analogy I have pointed out that life today must be lived against the stream, which threatens to take everything downstream with it. I hope that over time I have also made a point that the obvious forms of rebellion are usually exactly the dead things that will just float downstream.
Having said that… finding the truly living things that swim against the current is no easy task. But I think I have something interesting here; a country that often goes against the grain in some of the best ways. And that country is საქართველო.
I have only recently, within the last six months, discovered this country with it’s anadromous culture. Finding Georgia is like discovering a hidden world, a lost civilization, that wasn’t really ever lost. It was just staring at you the whole time, patiently waiting to be noticed. And when you finally look at this culture you find that it is remarkably intact and complete. Yes of course Georgians have been influenced by the modern world. But they stubbornly refuse to give up certain antique traits that set them in a kind of odd stance vis-à-vis the larger world.
First of all to understand this country you have to understand that it goes back perhaps further than any other European land on earth. Some of the oldest post-African fossils were found exactly here. So naturally there was a Georgian or perhaps we should say Caucasian style dating way before written language… anywhere. Then again there was that wine. A sure sign of civilization if there ever was one. Of course there were Gods and Goddesses in a pantheon that was loosely connected to the ancient Greek world. Jason and his Argonauts found the Golden Fleece here. And there was such a thing! And Medea is the first historical woman we know anything about from what was then Colchis now Georgia… but she would not be the last.
Christianity was firmly introduced to Georgia by Saint Nino (წმინდა ნინო) a Christian slave of the royal house who performed several miracles and created the Georgian cross by tying a lock of her own hair around the bent dried wood of a grapevine. Then came Saint Shushanik (შუშანიკისი ) an Armenian woman martyred by her Georgian husband defending the right to believe in Christ. Her story is also the earliest surviving piece of early Georgian writing in the Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik. And there was also the Georgian golden age under the reign of Tamar (თამარი) the Great in the 12th Century. And it was under her reign that the eerily beautiful book The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი) was written by Shota Rustaveli .
Now I have emphasized the female aspects of Georgia for a reason. As countries go Sakartvelo is a predominantly masculine mountain culture of warriors that stretches back into the mists of history. Yet interestingly from pagan times and especially since the introduction of Christianity, by a woman, Georgia has had an unusual emphasis upon its women to a degree that many others could stand to learn from. Not that Georgia is in line with contemporary standards of politically correct feminist ideology. Au contraire. Yet it is has long been a country that promotes the development of the creative gifts of its women. And so looking today one finds intelligent artistic women under every mountainous rock.
A few women I could point to off the top of my head would be the Prima Ballerina Assoluta Nina Ananiashvili (ნინო ანანიაშვილი), actress Lika Kavjaradze (ლიკა ქავჟარაძე) and photographer Mariam Sitchnava (მარიამ სიჭინავა).
Nina Ananiashvili is now the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia. She claims that the Georgian approach to ballet has some unique features. We will investigate this later. But let’s just say that her own work in ballet is astounding and beyond graceful.
Lika Kavjaradze first made her name in Tengiz Abuladze’s masterwork The Wishing Tree (ნატვრის ხე) from 1976. In that film she portrays a pure village girl, a virgin Mary in transcendence, the embodiment of the philosophical questions related to the existence of beauty in the world and an allegory for the nation of Georgia itself, which is revealed when one man calls her Tamar. And the glory of it is that Lika is actually up to this monumental task with ease, from her first smile to her final mud-soaked procession.
And if you are starting to also get the picture that Georgian women also have a singular essence you need look no farther than the photographs of Mariam Sitchinava to be haunted by the female character in Georgia. She started by photographing what appears to just be friends, friends who later were discovered to become some of the most sublime models ever. Yet only Mariam can actually get to the ethereal heart of her subject.
And then there is music! Where to even begin…
Even totally amateurish videos of teenagers singing together give you goosebumps. And it isn’t being done in a self-conscious postmodern look-at-me-I-want-to-be-a-star kind of thing. In Georgia people still sing together unselfconsciously. And what a miraculous thing it is too.
(To be continued)
On Travel to Georgia:http://www.lonelyplanet.com/georgia
News From Georgia:http://www.georgiatoday.ge/index.php
On Nina Ananiashvili:http://www.ananiashvili.com/
On Mariam Sitchinava:http://mariam.ge/