09/13/13

Empire of Illusion and the End of Literacy


Empire of IllusionI don’t know whether to feel vindicated, delighted, frightened or depressed as I read through Chris Hedges’s book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Much of what he says reflects many of my own observations and opinions. I started reading this book in part as research for my upcoming conference speech on social media, but it has kept me mesmerized, like seeing a train wreck before your eyes, something you can’t quite turn away from.

I suppose we like to read books that reinforce our world view (those of us who read, that is – literacy in Canada is declining)*, but it’s sometimes uncomfortable to have those nagging doubts about the decay of society made public by someone else. Having another say it or write it seems to confirm our darkest nightmares. We all sometimes think we’re the only ones who recognize the issues, who see the fly in the ointment, but Hedges makes it clear we’re not alone.

And, yes, our wildest fears are true: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or at least that’s the way Hedges plays it, to my cynical and jaded eyes.

It’s hard not to agree with his argument. He thinks our culture is dying, driven from its heights to an abyss of reality TV, celebrity watching, contrived spectacle, self-exposure, self-indulgence, corporate greed, gossip, the lack of critical thinking, and crass self-interest.** He is a modern Virgil, guiding us through the Inferno of Western culture towards the inevitable Ninth Circle of moral, economic and political collapse.

Hedges writes,

The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.

Cheery stuff. But hard to slough off as mere pessimism. Just turn on the TV. The schedule for the “Discovery Channel” – a channel ostensibly about science and technology but instead is crammed with “reality” show, anti-intellectual dreck – is a good example of the extreme dumbing-down and trivialization of TV.

Or read the comments on any national news website. Or a local blog. Our sense of entitlement makes us believe that everyone has the right to comment, that every opinion is valuable – and technology gives all opinions the same apparent value and weight, even when many are simply digital noise that confounds, rather than contributes to, the conversation. No wonder we see the rise of superstition, pseudoscience, emotion and gawking over fact, science, respect and common sense. The wheat and chaff are irrevocably mixed online.

Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality.

This doom-and-gloom is hardly new. The imminent implosion of modern culture has been described and predicted at least since Socrates, who griped, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

My parents lamented my generation’s irrevocable slide into a moral and social morass when they heard Bill Haley and the Comets. It was confirmed when they heard the Beatles. Their parents fretted over Rudy Vallee and Ruth Etting, then over talking pictures. In part this is the natural gap between generations, the difference between youth and middle age, between the new and the old.

Civilization did not collapse, despite the dire warnings from each subsequent generation. But that was then, this is now. Things have changed, and changed so rapidly, so deeply that society has not had the time to adapt effectively. We’re on a rollercoaster now, not a walk in the cultural park.

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08/3/13

The Thousand and One Nights


Arabian NightsI had no idea it was this sexy. The Thousand Nights and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights, aka The Thousand and One Nights – it’s really wonderful, steamy stuff. Every tale is a cliffhanger and you keep wanting to read just one more to see how it turns out. Of course, that was the point of the collection.*

The backstory is rather complicated, but to simplify it: the Sultan beds a virgin one night, then kills her the next day. When  Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks for her sister to be able to say good bye. Then she begins to tell her sister a story. It doesn’t end that night, so the Sultan keeps her alive another night to hear the ending. But that story leads to another, and another, and so on. So for three years she keeps up a series of interwoven, intricate tales. In the end, he lets her live.

It’s like the 10th-century version of the TV series, 24. Sex, violence, evil, cunning, violence, murder, betrayal, seduction, magic, demons… it’s all there. In written form, of course, not video.

Yeah, and it’s violent, misogynistic and full of superstition and the supernatural. But you have to give it some laxity: some of it dates back from the 8th century CE. And it’s from a culture that, even today, is remarkably, embarrassingly misogynist. But then, Shakespeare wrote in an age of similar misogyny – although he managed to soar above it, by creating strong, intelligent and witty female characters. The Arabian nights has a few of them, too, albeit not usually in the forefront (and not like Shakespeare’s women).

You probably think you know some of the stories because you’ve seen a Disney cartoon or some Hollywood movie: Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Aladdin and His Lamp. Sorry, but they were added to the collection by later European translators. They’re good stories, mind you, just not part of the original collection.**

I know, that disappointed me at first, too. But after a few pages into Powys Mather’s four-volume translation, I was hooked. The tales are curious, intriguing and compelling. No wonder the Sultan wanted to hear the next part.

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08/2/13

Hell 2.3


IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
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07/27/13

Hell 2.1, a small update


Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

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07/19/13

What in Hell…?


DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

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07/5/13

Reading, Writing and Memory


Read more books than blogs“Memory,” he read the headline as he settled into the armchair, resting his elbows on the wide arms to expand the National Post paper to its fullest, “declines much slower in people who read, write throughout life.”

Ah. Interesting. He peered closer.

“Reading books, writing letters and working on crossword puzzles throughout life may help preserve the brain’s memory faculties and fend off Alzheimer’s disease and early-onset dementia, according to a recent U.S. study published in the the journal Neurology.”

Hmmm. Well, of course. We knew that, he chuffed to himself. Coming from a family of avid readers who lived long lives, and remained pin-sharp into their final years, you notice these things. His mother, for example, well into her 90s, could still remember clearly events from her youth. Names, faces, no problem recalling them.

She learned to use a computer only a few years ago. Had her own laptop, on wireless, no less. Used a cell phone, too and sent text messages to grandchildren, snapped photos for family. Sharp old lady, no flies on her.

Of course, she was still reading voraciously even today, although perhaps not as much as when she was younger. Fewer choices of books, in a nursing home. Too dependent on donations and leftovers. Castoffs, many of them, yard sale titles with bent corners and cracked spines. But still reading. Doggedly reading what was at hand.

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