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
I am not really given to writing about tabloid news items. They are generally worthless. And current events require time to be digested. But recently the appeal trial of Amanda Knox caught my attention. I didn’t really get enticed by the speculation of whether she was innocent or guilty. What interested me more was the way that her case was a metonym for a generation. Or rather that her story shows a gaping hole in the understanding of the world for those coming of age in early 21st Century America.
Amanda Knox was extremely typical of her generation prior to the events surrounding the brutal murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia Italy in 2007. Raised in a Roman Catholic Home, with a Catholic education, yet also, in the casual syncretism of the times, a student of Yoga, enough so to demonstrate the namaste gesture on several occasions. ( And like many in her generation I would doubt that the mixture of Christian belief and Hindu practice would even register in any way as inconsistent to her.) (Yeah I realize I’m treading on perilous ground even pointing this out.) Yet also in the same flux of the current American climate she wasn’t exactly setting a spiritual tone with any consistency. Her defense for what she was doing that night was smoking hash and having sex with her then boyfriend. And so she was utterly typical in that regard as well even down to watching television later that night. Likewise she posted silly photos of herself on her social networking sites and wrote things for public consumption that should have been private journal entries. Again standard fare. When she found herself embroiled in what was to come, she acted with pretty much the same naivete and groundless positivity that are also the hallmarks of our times in our land. In other words, how many American souls under thirty would have been caught in a similar way by their misunderstanding of the fact that world is still actually a very large place with contrary rules in different places and that there is enough darkness to go around several times over?
And so in the confusion of the original investigation and trial Amanda Knox acted in wildly inappropriate and culturally naïve ways. In America high school and college age girls just plop down on a floor or rug anywhere. They’ve been doing this since the culture radically loosened up in the Sixties. Then comes the yoga and the cartwheels. Actually according to the most astute observers what Amanda was trying to do was to relax, to get her mind off things, a little stretching, various positions. Unfortunately in her simplistic American mode, where therapy is the number one choice for all problems, she misidentified her problem. Feeling better about herself wasn’t the answer to her dilemma. Relieving her own stress wasn’t going to impress the Italian officials scrutinizing her. And if she ever thought People and Us magazines were tacky, she obviously did not ken to the carnivorous nature of the European tabloid beast. Photos of her during her original trial are filled with smiles, funny faces, funky grimaces. It’s almost as if she imagined she were immune and the American consulate would eventually just rescue her from this absurd situation. And so perhaps she acted like the usual entitled American student. Nothing to get hung about, strawberry fields forever. And the full reality of her situation didn’t start to seep in until around the same time she was declared guilty of murder. (At least that’s the perception.)
I didn’t really pay much attention to the court proceedings the first time round. Pretty American girl gets caught in weird Italian murder scene. So? The world is filled with much crazier and darker things. Then a month or so ago I started to notice a few of the photos being released through the various news agencies. I was arrested by the change in Amanda’s expressions. Suddenly she was no longer the average goofy US college student. It wasn’t just the weight loss or skin broken out with worry. It wasn’t merely the dark eyes with the sleepless blue tinge beneath them. The expression had completely altered in some less definable way. I knew what it was. She had been broken.
In 21st Century America brokenness is a state to be avoided at all costs. It suggests losing one’s identity or even one’s mental stability. We prescribe drugs to avoid anything resembling brokenness. The fellow travelers of brokenness, sorrow, depression, grief, et cetera, are to be shunned like a blackening case of bubonic plague. (We have pills for that sort of thing.) There certainly are circumstances where being broken is a terrible thing. Torture, for instance, breaks and doesn’t heal. However, it does not follow that all instances of brokenness are bad. And in fact I would like to suggest that in our feelgood positive American dreamscape, where the disappointments of life are relegated to political rantings, real brokenness is a much needed antidote to the casual oblivion of our hydra-headed selfishness. We are encouraged endlessly to be empowered to follow our dreams, our desires, our hearts. Yet we never seem to recall that power corrupts, that dreams are unreal, our desires can easily be poisonous and our hearts desperately tortuous and impossible to fully know or trust.
Imagine if Amanda Knox had been entangled in a similar mess in a culture even more distant from us than Italy’s. Let’s just move the peg one notch over to Russia. There, sitting on the ground is positively considered unhealthy, especially for women. There American smiles are seen, as they are in France, as extremely suspicious and evidence of a shallow character. And how does their judicial system work??? Any clue whatsoever? And if someone is sent to jail there will we ever see them again? I often talk with twenty-something friends who go traveling to places as distant culturally as Guatemala, Thailand or Vietnam. They come back with wonderful stories. One gets the feeling that the world is their playground to explore. Yet they rarely know anything about these countries before they go. And not much more when they return.
Young Americans frighten me for their ignorance about the customs of the world beyond their borders. They scare me for the collective assumption that as long as you have a little digital electronic device you can just contact home. But you know what? 6,000 miles away is still six thousand miles away. It costs real money to cross that divide. And although that other culture may have Facebook access, beneath it’s 21st Century gloss, it’s still other and deserves real respect. And really, before you go to China you’d better pick a few books and do some serious reading.
But when I looked into the stark images of Amanda Knox during her retrial as she faced being put away for a long, long time I could see a change. The game was over. Life was no longer about the parties and chilling. It was not about trips to mall or about having fun, whatever that means. Living was no longer an entitlement. Suddenly something much more serious was happening. The brokenness was producing the very thing that Dostoevsky said we humans lacked the most: gratitude. I certainly won’t claim to know what really happened in Italy. But I do know this. No psychopath could’ve given her closing statement. But she was wrong in one major degree. She said she was the same person that she was before the trial started. I’m sure she was trying to tell the court that she was the same innocent girl as when she first started. But in fact she was quite far from ever being that naïve American girl again. When the verdict was read there was a momentary confusion of language. Then it became clear that she had indeed been acquitted. And at that moment she broke completely. But the breaking was filled with gratitude. Amanda Knox had been given the possiblity of a new beginning.
I wish that kind of breaking upon all of the confused positive folk of our fearful generation.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, after ten years in the gulag and five more in exile, said it best:
It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation:
“Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”
From the Gulag Archipelago
Part IV, Chapter I; Vol. II The Ascent
“Jungle”, the word, became somewhat suspect sometime back in the late Eighties when the words “tropical rainforest” seemed destined to replace that old, dark, colonial, savage infested, Tarzanian tract of lovable, nurturing, sustainable ecosystem that is indeed at risk of being clear cut. Jungles should be hacked through; tropical rainforests should be saved. Of course, the vast majority of those who get weepy-eyed about tropical rainforests would soon perish if left stranded in one. And they would rediscover the definition that older word, jungle, pronto.
Jungle is too useful a word to really ever get replaced. It comes from the old Hindi word for forest jangal and from a similar Sanskrit word before that. Jungle is a tactile word that awakens almost atavistic fears of dank, overgrown, insect and snake filled, dampness. It suggests a feverish confusion and profusion of plant, swamp and life. And there most certainly are places like this left on earth, approximately 10% of the planet. They have hardly all been cannibalized for their lumber yet. There are certainly vast tracts of jungle in South America, Africa, the Malay Archipelago, Southeast Asia and other zones still as ferociously wild as they ever have been. This is not to minimize the danger to these zones from reckless despoliation. Nor do I wish to romanticize either.
Yes jungle as a word always carries a hint of real danger to it. Even its foreign origin paints it as other. This is especially true to those of European or Northern origin, whose forests are quite different. There are no jungles in Europe. When the European explorer landed in the Caribbean or the central western coast of Africa they were confronted landscapes so utterly alien that they became repositories for many of the darker fears of the explorers and later the traders and colonists. Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is the literary masterpiece here. Jonestown in Guyana is the reality of the situation. I can imagine that the opposite would be true as well. Had Amazonian tribes discovered the poles these bleak forbidding realms certainly would have likewise played upon their snowless psyches with mythic intensity. And so later the concept of the jungle morphed into a metaphor for our trackless urban confusions back in the concrete territories of Manhattan or Chicago in the early 20th Century. But I want to go back to those primitive rainforests in darkest Africa and beyond, back to the jungle as it plays on our dreams and fears.
First, a confession: I have never been to a jungle. The closest I have ever been is to live on the island of Oahu in Hawaii as a boy for a few years. There are a few junglelike areas there. (Lost was filmed there.) But that Hawaiian island doesn’t have much left that would be construed as jungle. The big island does and was used for several films as a stand in for jungles in other locales. Nor am I itching to go to one. My interest in the jungle is almost purely as a symbol of the imagination. Not that I wouldn’t mind going to any number of jungles, perhaps New Guinea garnering most of my interest. But on a list of personal travel priorities no jungle is near at the top of my list. In other words, I am not obsessed by jungles, (nor tropical places at all for that matter). I don’t have many books on the subject. But I do have a few key pieces of literature, many more films and quite a few ethnographic musical recordings of various tribes from the jungles of the world. In other words I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject. Yet over the years I’ve noticed a curiosity growing towards the subject. Maybe someday jungles may indeed interest me enough to start visiting them. But for now it is the mythic resonance that captivates me.
I am just as fascinated by what we imagine based on our notions of the jungle as I am by what is actually there. The tribe that worships at the ancient gate of the original 1933 King Kong, completely false as a real depiction of tribal life anywhere on earth, nevertheless stands for something quite strange in the interiority of our dream worlds. In one of the few improvements on the original, Peter Jackson’s 2005 vision of this degraded tribe is so striking the film that follows can scarcely bear the weight of the suggestions left behind. His King Kong is interesting, if over the top, and seems to be more about the look in Naomi Watt’s eyes towards her huge cuddly, erratic pet. But the jungle tribe he presents at the beginning is so stark that I wished he’d gone back and told exactly what in tarnation was going on. Or consider Francis Ford Coppola’s tribe of primitive souls at the end of Apocalypse Now: a mixture of Asians, renegade soldiers, aboriginal tribes all having experienced a return of the primitive, of “pagan idolatry”.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties some of the bleakest films ever made were lensed by strange Italian filmmakers like Ruggero Deodato with titles like Slave of the Cannibal God. In these exploitation films cynical Europeans or “Americans” (always dubbed Italian actors) inevitably find a cannibal tribe who guard secrets of some sort. Then our white emissaries make some genuinely boneheaded moves prompting the natives to track them and “Make them die slowly”. The only way to fight these savages is to ape them. (Pun certainly intended.) And usually no matter where the films are shot (the Philippines, Malaysia, South America) the natives always look exactly the same. Inexorably some living animal is carved open and consumed raw. (I guess you can say these films are not exactly animal friendly.) And there are strange sexual rites. These films would be pretty much worthless if they did not tap in to some darkness in human nature that the filmmakers themselves seem to have fallen prey to in jungle. And by exposing that primordial sin they reveal something within us that is uncovered in the impenetrable realms of the jungle.
That came home to me recently after reading Ingrid Betancourt’s remarkable book, Even Silence Has an End, her account of spending more than six years in the Columbian jungle as hostage of the FARC guerrillas. This is a book I highly recommend as testament to the cruelty of humanity in its proximity to the jungle. She is held along with several others as political bargaining chips. The book practically sweats as you read it. You itch as the bugs crawl through. You fester as the foliage scrapes and bruises your dirty skin. Wounds become infected. Diseases weaken your mind and bowels. The guards, leftist peasants with little hope but the demeaning work of drug runners and slave masters, change before your eyes in the jungle heat from sympathetic to brutal with sad regularity as newer recruits replace them. And the hostages are no saints. Even Ingrid seems tainted by the sweltering stew of petty and venal humanity. The guerrillas keep everyone else ensnared in their own limited views of their situation as a means of dividing and poisoning the minds of the hostages against each other. Escape attempts lead straight into the jungle, into the anaconda filled Amazon tributaries, into a land of killer ants, into inevitable failures. The escapees are then punished. Ingrid Betancourt seemed to spend several years chained with a leather strap around her neck. And every time the Columbian helicopters or soldiers seem to get closer to the makeshift concentration camps the guerrillas pack up would move further and further into the endless green hell. And the rain of the rainforest is no friend.
But if cruelty, both of nature and humanity, were the only message of the book I would not tell you to hunt it down and read it. But the jungle did something for Ingrid Betancourt similar to what the gulags did for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It started the process of redemption and the purification of the heart. Ingrid begins to read the Bible and to find the meaning of faith even as her life, at one point, is draining away. She writes:
“I had made my peace with God. I felt there was a sort of lull in my suffering, because I’d accepted what had happened to me. … Because I had already accepted that I could die. My entire life I had believed I was eternal. My eternity had stopped here, in this rotten hole, and the presence of imminent death filled me with a peace of mind that I savored. I no longer needed anything; there was nothing I desired. My soul was stripped bare. I was no longer afraid…
“Having lost all my freedom and, with it, everything that mattered to me—my children, my mom, my life and my dreams—with my neck chained to a tree—not able to move around, to talk, to eat and to drink, to carry out my most basic bodily needs—subjected to constant humiliation, I still had the most important freedom of all. No one could take it away from me. That was the freedom to choose what kind of person I wanted to be.”
And that gives me hope.
In the darkness of the jungle, and it’s fearful revelations of the human heart, with which Ingrid Betancourt’s story abounds, one can choose: not craven survival, but the courage to be who God meant us to be.
(There is much more to be said about the jungle and its meanings.)
It’s a Russian word, samizdat. Sam = “self, by oneself” and izdat is from, izdatel’stvo, = “publishing house”, so roughly samizdat means “self-published.”
Writings prohibited by the all seeing eye of the Soviet state were clandestinely passed around often at great risk to the copyists and readers. Those taking on the task of reproduction worked without reward in a laborious fashion. They typed whole books out with perhaps a sheet of carbon paper for duplications. Sometimes whole manuscripts were copied by hand! There were no copy machines in the 1950’s, no faxes, no one was cutting and pasting. It was done for one reason alone: Someone else has to read this! The truth has to be told. This forbidden poetry (poetry was highly suspect) must be seen. This novel is worth reading. That’s how Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was read. That’s how Bulgakov and Brodsky found an audience. That’s how foreign works were smuggled into the country. Eventually slightly more sophisticated methods were used: surreptitious printing machinery, copy machines and even computers were used for duplication by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
There is another interesting category of samizdat: magnitizdat, things copied onto magnetic tape, which would include lectures, poetry and above all music. And actually this proved to be a bit of an Achilles heel to the vast Soviet state. The Communists cracked down hard on any means of paper reproduction with stiff penalties. But since every citizen could own a reel-to-reel tape recorder much was passed around this way; especially all of that rock music being churned out by the decadent West. And Russians could be ingenious about how they smuggled in their music. Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello, talks of “music on the bones”, recordings transferred from magnitizdat to plastic x-ray plates with holes punched in the center to play on record players. The legendary Vladimir Vysotsky’s gravel soaked voice was disseminated mostly by cassette. Although he is considered the greatest Russian singer/songwriter of the late communist era he was never allowed by the Melodiya machine to make a full-length album in his lifetime. Yet when he died in Moscow in 1980 his funeral was a major event. People left the Moscow Olympics to attend his funeral. An older Russian man in New York City once told me of the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets such to get a view of his coffin. Not bad for a man who had to wait until the Gorbachev years to get an album released in the U.S.S.R. A similar even more haunting tale surrounds folk punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, who died tragically at the age of 23 in the 1991, the last second of the old Soviet Union, leaving behind a small, poorly recorded body of work that puts to shame much of the music spit out by the world music industry since then. (I’m going to devote much more time to Yanka in the near future.)
It sounds a bit like the Punk idea of Do-It-Yourself. And while there are several crucial similarities I would point out some very serious differences. Samizdat functioned as a means to hear forbidden truth. The government was actively involved in squashing the literature involved and at times the music.
The work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a good case in point. After an accidental breach of the Stalinist wall during Khrushchev’s all too brief thaw, that allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in 1961, the book was quickly allowed to go out of print. It then was strictly a samizdat production as were the rest of his novels. So fearful were the Soviets of Solzhenitsyn that anyone merely possessing a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, his massive literary expose of the gulag system, was guilty of a grave offense. Only Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize saved him from another lengthy nightmare in the camps, but not from being booted out of the country. As Walker Percy once remarked, modern Western writers would kill to have their literature taken that seriously.
The D.I.Y. aesthetic of Punk and the Alternative culture of the late 80’s and early 90’s never produced anything so perceptive or piercing. The D.I.Y. scenesters were desperate to have their obsessions and fixations cause some kind of upheaval. But, no matter the provocation, the rants and raves of the alternative world did not cause the commercial and political authorities to tremble. They either ignored them or co-opted them. Interestingly many of the current crops of cutting edge television series are now being written by screenwriters who spent much of the early 90’s pickled in the alternative scene. In the late 80’s early 90’s zines and alternative comics flourished.For a little while there was a modicum of inquisitive life through these channels. Yet what seemed transgressive then now seems commercial. The crude little cut and paste zine featuring badly photocopied photos of rock bands or serial killers has now turn into a stale looking website. The countercultural dream has largely dissipated and isn’t coming back.
And yet it seems that in this postmillennial culture, so addicted to the virtual, some kind of samizdat is required. It is quite clear by now, however, that the old countercultural line running from the Beats through Techno Raves, including pretty much every anti-mainstream trend since the 60’s, has truly failed. But that doesn’t mean that that no counterculture can now exist. It just means that the moribund ingredients that caused the failure of those movements need to be placed in the sociological coroner’s office and dissected to note the pathological elements.
Certain features stand out immediately and certainly should be examined in much more detail later. Top of list is the entire emphasis on intuition and instinct; usually most cheaply stated in the idea to follow your heart, be yourself, follow your dreams. The number of songs and movies containing these sentiments and their kin are legion, innumerable. This road leads straight into the maw of the commercial establishment. This is an underlying tendency that dooms every anti-authoritarian movement to end up as the consumer software to the hardware of mainstream culture. This first occurred to me when I visited a Sex Pistols exhibit in a small New York City museum about 1990 or later the Gap ads featuring Jack Kerouac or the way any death metal song can be used as background music for promos advertising Monday Night Football.
If there is to be a new samizdat that goes against the current in a truly anadromous fashion it can’t be anti-intellectual. Brains have to start working again. Real dialogue has to be reengaged. In order to interrogate the coming society it won’t do to make a big loud angry noise. Noise is the nature of the beast. But it will certainly be essential to understand the chaotic sounds of our recent past. It will also be much more imperative to study history; learn a foreign language; to recognize how propaganda works; to use the aspects of past cultures and countercultures that can be applied in a wise manner. (Wisdom; now there’s a word you don’t here in popular culture much anymore.)
We can understand then what a samizdat for our spewing dervish of an age might be if we go back to the samizdat of that antique Iron Curtain. There are lessons there. Might I suggest thumbing through a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the chapter called The Ascent and starting there?
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…a small unuprooted corner of evil.”