Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The volcano and the crater…

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A volcano is simply a mountain with a dynamic crater in it. If it lacked its crater, it would simply be a mountain. Thus, the dynamic emptiness––or, insubstantial fullness––of the crater allows the mountain to be more than it is: to be a force of nature, to be a living mountain rather than a static landmark. This is the conceit behind this tiny essay.

It is often argued that religion unfairly benefits from social organization without having to pay taxes. The "Church", thus, is seen as a freeloader on the state. If the Church were a viable, valid dimension of the State, it is argued, it would be subject to taxation just like every other branch on the social tree.

But it dawned on me that the State itself is never taxed. Only the discrete elements of the State are taxed by the State; the State itself, as a whole functioning social organism, is exempt from taxation, as is the Church.

The reason the Church cannot be subsumed under the state––even apart from certain key objections to secular autonomy inherent in Christianity––because it is, like the State, its own kind of whole organism. The Church, and particularly the Catholic Church, is like a society within society, not a mere branch on the tree. Relations between the Church and the State, then, are more like relations between two geographically conjoined nation-states. Any legislation the Church submits to, including taxation, is up to the Church, until the State forcibly imposes its own order on the Church. This is very much how a colonial power tolerates a measure of local autonomy while imposing its own hegemony.

The reason the Church is not subject to the State is similar to the reason the crater is not subject to the shape of the mountain. The crater is not a void in the otherwise whole structure of the mountain, but is the very thing that makes the mountain more, by making it less. The Church is quite literally "not there" for the State to grasp, just as the crater of a volcano is "not there" for mountain engineers to reshape or build upon. The Church is the scandalous gaping wound in society that indicates not only the fundamental contingency and incompleteness of the human order, but also the eruptive heart that energizes and opens that order to a power and atmosphere greater and higher than it. The crater, the hole, is actually the essence, the whole. Likewise, the Church embodies, in its scandalous remove from the facile grasp of fallen man, the dynamic gaping heart of human life as it is opened upwards, Godwards.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Batman bandwagon…

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Normally I dislike adding to the "buzz" so much that I usually don't say anything. This is why, for example, nearly all of my reviews of books at Amazon.com are of obscure or out-of-date books. The "latest" books are already churning with orgies of praise and criticism, so I consider my own musings either redundant or motivated by intellectual envy, at which point I left them unstated. Even though Batman is all the rage these days, and is being talked to death, I realized that I have such an attachment to the Batman mythos that my meager considerations, below, deserve their own place in the digital son, if for no other reason than that love unexpressed is not really love. It was only after seeing The Dark Knight last week, and then having a number of conversations about it since then with various friends, that I recalled just how much of a Batboy I was. Tim Burton's Batman came out in 1989. I was about ten at the time. I can still recall how I nearly wept as I stood in the dim carpeted hallway outside the theater, catching only a glimpse of the opening credits as other people watched it and I had to wait another few days before I could see it. I wanted to see the film so badly it nearly made me sick. And then, if memory serves, I did end up seeing it with my brother, father, grandmother, and uncle, a rare group-viewing experience for my family. Then I recall the paraphernalia I asked for, and was given, for my birthday that year (or, in time, acquired for myself): black Converse sneakers studded with yellow Batman logos, a gray and blue analog wall clock, a model of the Batmobile, at least one official movie poster, trading cards, Batman on laser disc, etc. I was a Batnut, all right.

I think the reason I like the Batman mythos more than nearly any other superhero is because it is, for me, the most believable saga.* What I find most compelling about Batman is how the whole story is an ornate, shifting constellation of plausible human contradictions and tensions. Batman, ideally, I say, tells the tale of people with powers they are not necessarily born with or stung (or bitten) by, but enter by stages. Batman is full of characters beset by a perpetual madness, or a perpetual hope––a dream of any shade to which they always find themselves waking. This is how our own life is: not a sudden transformation from one page to the next but a steady, complex growth towards some goal or vision, or, perhaps, Dantean descent from them. Batman reflects actual human life, while dramatizing it, as a constellation of slow, organic becoming, or becoming undone. Without these tensions, as a drop of water without surface tension, Batman collapses. The tensions in Superman or Batman are much reduced, or at least, much more one-dimensional. Superman does not struggle with a dark side; Clark Kent goes from being good to being supergood. Peter Parker, likewise, only struggles with his love for Mary Jane, not with his own commitment to justice, mercy, and a balanced, upright life as a "nice young man".

But I think Batman presents much more complex scenarios. Publicly Bruce Wayne is an effete billionaire, but privately he is a man austerely obsessed with avenging his parents as symbols of all innocent victims. His eccentricity is always tinged with a subliminal anger and grief. Batman, the alter ego he creates, is no less contradictory. To the people of Gotham he is seen as both a menace and a hero. Wayne decides to become "the batman" precisely because he thinks the best way to fight crime is with fear, and bats are potent symbols of fearful things above lurking, lunging, and bumping in the night. His "hero", then, is, from the outset, intentionally steeped in menace. He is a knight, yes, but a knight in shady armor. The Joker, in turn, is both a clown and a demon. He somehow makes crime seem like fun, and, by doing so, ironically tries to depict Batman as a thick-headed, humorless, stick in the mud on behalf of a doomed society. Harvey Dent, of course, archly typifies the theme of internal tension in the Batman mythos, insofar as his personality is both that of a lawman and a bouncer, and, then as Two Face, is both perfect pardoner and implacable punisher. The meta-structure of Batman as a world of human tension should, then, be mimicked in each character.

In light of all this, despite all the hype working for Heath Ledger, I believe that Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's Batman is vastly superior to Ledger's in The Dark Knight. I know it is not about "comparing" and "hating, but I believe people are getting so carried away with the sheer lethal bizarreness of Ledger's Joker and the cultic status of Ledger as a cinematic martyr, or some mix of both feelings, that they are losing sight of just whom Ledger was portraying. I think Ledger gave a tremendous performance as an arch-villain––but not a tremendous depiction of the Joker. Rather, he portrayed a wildly cunning man bent on shattering the sacred cows of both organized crime and organized society. But watching such a malevolent nutjob is one thing; accepting him as "the Joker" is something else entirely. He was just too unhinged and vicious for me to take him seriously as the Joker. Or, rather, I should say: he was too unhinged for me to take him funnily.

How, then, could Ledger be so good as Batman's cackling nemesis and yet so bad as the Joker? The reason is simple: Ledger's Joker was not funny. He was witty in that "yuck yuck, ya get it" sort of contrived way, and he was "funny" as in creative, but he was not actually, viscerally, believably funny. Even the supposedly "hilarious" scene in which he is in drag as a nurse was much too grotesque and tense to be really funny. Not once in the whole movie theater, except maybe in the early scene where he made the pencil "disappear" did I hear from anyone anything like a giggle, chuckle, or laugh––no one laughed at the Joker for two-and-a-half hours! Jack Nicholson's Joker, by contrast, was simply hilarious. He forced the contradiction the Joker––that of funny brutality, that of the evil we should not laugh at but can't help laughing at––not just upon you as a cinematic formality but onto your own mouth as a spontaneous reaction. You honestly did not know whether to grimace or laugh at the antics Jack's Joker pulled in Burton's Batman (mainly because you usually do both while watching him). The problem is that an unfunny Joker is simply not the Joker, no more than an overly compliant, chivalrous Batman is the Batman.** Ledger's Joker was deranged and "strange" but not once did he make me laugh. He sickened me without ever trying to win me over despite myself, which is exactly what makes the Joker such a compelling villain. He was all seething rage and implausibly deft plotting. Because he was so possessed by his own madness, rather than the witty possessor of it for ill, he was more like one of the hapless inmates of Arkham that the Joker would conscript than the actual Joker. He was so insane and chaotic, in fact, that I couldn't simultaneously believe he was a force of pure chaos and the mastermind of highly coordinated "gag" after "gag" he pulled as the film progressed. Jack Nicholson's Joker could only exist in the world of Batman; Ledger's Joker, by contrast, could be placed in any thriller as either a "clown killer" or even a crude copycat of the Joker for ironic effect.

That, I suppose, is both the glory and the shame of Nolan's Batman movies: they are such good movies that they could actually work without any reference to the specific mythos of Batman. The Dark Knight is a dark, heavy, intelligent, grueling meditation on human goodness and evil––oh, and, by the way, it is quite often about Batman.

* I must make it clear, however, that the absolute top hero in my book is Wolverine. His tale is not only just as gritty and believable for me, but also a source of intense personal support during my adolescence. But anyway.

** This is the problem I had with Bale's Batman, by the way, although I have never seen a sufficiently conflicted Batman onscreen.


Having said all that, let me post as an addendum a script proposal I want to send to director Nolan for the third, possible installment of his Batman movies.

If the Riddler is the villain, I suggest accounting for his compulsion to use riddles by making him slightly autistic. Mr. Nolan had indicated he wants to make his portrayal of Batman more real-world than other versions. Hence, for example, we have a plausible explanation for just where Batman gets his gadgets. Likewise, the plausibility of Nolan's Batman inclines him away from the Penguin as something too hard to "realize".

In light of Nolan's directorial aims, I think making the Riddler autistic would aid the story in two key ways. First, it would make the story more complex by gilding the Riddler's wickedness with a pitiable medical condition. Just as we had to wrestle with a faint urge to pity the (abused? betrayed? abandoned?) Joker in The Dark Knight, while at the same time, loathing what he stood for, so we should have reason both to pity and fear the Riddler.

Second, a mildly autistic Riddler would provide a realistic psychological mechanism his crimes. Since he was a child, he has been baffled by normal social interaction (cf. Baron-Cohen's Mindblindness) and has found a sort of refuge in the dramatic superiority of his memory. He is not so autistic that he can't interact with people or grasp things like envy, status, etc., but he has had to learn them all like a foreign language in order to function well in society (cf. the case of ** in the same book by Baron-Cohen). At the same time, because he has a photographic memory, computer-like computation abilities, and a vast supply of trivia (historical, scientific, mathematical, literary, biographical, etc. facts), he is able to intimidate others by challenging them with obscure, complex riddles. He simply can't help but see the world in complex but socially irrelevant patterns and form arcane associations between anything he perceives. It is from this thesaurus of arcana that the Riddler is able to generate the puzzles he makes; and it is from this awkwardly socialized isolation that he finds the motive to do so.

This would make the portrayal of the Riddler something like a mix of Hoffman's Rainman, Ferrel's Crick, Crowe's Nash, and Carrey's vengeful, slighted Edward Nashton. His mind is constantly working the associative angles and he constantly feels paranoid other people are plotting against him, since, at bottom, he finds normal social interaction threateningly inscrutable. His riddles are his method for expanding his own private, compulsive, fact-laden world to subsume the complex, subtle social world of people he sees as mentally inferior, and as a way of finding his own peace of mind within. He literally lives in the world of his trivia and over time develops a sociopathic urge to make the rest of the world inhabit it too. If the world is hamstrung by riddles only he has the cognitive capacity or patience to crack, then he really is supreme, if nowhere else than in his own mind. It is only because he couples this private megalomania with such dangerous threats (bombs, poison, etc.) that the world must heed his compulsive cruelty. He would be a pitiful force for obscure complexity that hounds him like a swarm of bees just as the Joker is a wounded force for the inner chaos he cannot escape from.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sprachkundig...

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So why do they all speak differently?

Well, the French have always had a bit (or a more than a bit) of their fine red wine, so they tend to slush their words together in that romantic nasal way.

The Spanish and Italians have are always talking between cups of coffee, which is why they rattle on like machine guns under Mussolini with the fury of Franco.

The Germans are so anxious about the outbreak of another war, they tend to grit their teeth in that officiously winsome way, speaking slowly and clearly, lest their be any miss-oonda-shtending. Vee mean no hahm.

The Portuguese feel so left out in the cold from the rest of Europe that they decided to just put Spanish into Pig Latin and head for Brazil.

The Polish have been, for centuries, covertly subsidized by the Russians to speak something even more sibilant and polyphonic than Russian, just to scare out would-be Napoleons and Hitlers. The program is still in the pilot phase.

The English, meanwhile, have listened to all this across the strait, with no lack of colonial concern, and taken up cool, measured, legal tones to determine how to carve up Europa Nova better than India Antiqua once the Continentals finally have it out once and for all. Quite.

And the Americans? They are always just trying to sell you something, which is why they talk with the buttery charm of the French, the stupefying technicality of the English, and dizzying speed of the Spanish.

Don't ask me for references. Just nod and apply when abroad.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The anti-Zorba…

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[Sure, it would help if you have read either Zorba the Greek or Pnin, or both, but even so, have a gander and consider how important nationalism and the actual soil of your home is to you, or, these days, to anyone. That's the angle I want to take with this piece, expanding it so I can submit it to a magazine (since amateur reviews of half-century old books are not too high in demand): a reflection on the fragmentation and marginalization of flesh and blood nationalism in favor of technotopic tribalism. Notice, for example, the metastasizing hipness of "groups" on Inyourfacebook.]

That is my tentative description of Timofey Pnin, based on having, at last!, read Nabokov's Pnin. I love Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek, and the most indelible part of it was the one time, if memory serves, he spoke of the "Zorbatic" universe that Zorba both inhabited and wrought. In a similar way, Nabokov's, admittedly much more frequent, use of Pnin'sche Wörter such as Pninian and Pninize, is an indelible element in the book. I see Pnin as the anti-Zorba because, while both as ostensibly hearty, eccentric figures, Pnin's bulk and fire are much less substantial than Zorba's. Pnin has fled his homeland and is deeply, if not seamlessly, rooted in his new American habitat. Zorba, by contrast, had left his beloved Crete, lived and loved in Russia, but returned, with a vengeance, you might say, in order to, almost literally, bury himself in the soil of his homeland. Zorba dances his way through town scheming and dreaming and, in fact, rabble-rousing; Pnin, by contrast, floats to and from campus, changing domiciles every semester or so, constantly being gossiped about and mocked by his colleagues. Zorba is the heartbreaker; Pnin is the heartbroken. Zorba is earthy and anti-intellectual; Pnin is mock-refined and dreamily intellectual.

The contrasts between Zorba and Pnin seem so obvious and radical that it may beg the question why I should link them in the first place. I see a link between them because of the imaginative polarization they generate in my mind. They are so vivid, and so quintessential in themselves, that they represent for me quasi-paradigms for how to write characters. Plus, both figures are based on actual humans the authors knew. Zorba was actually a wild, vivacious Cretan from whom Kazantzakis learned much, just as his book's narrator learned from Zorba. Pnin is, I am convinced, the subjective characterization of Nabokov himself as both immigrant, literatus, and unwitting iconoclast. (Pnin was born in St. Petersburg in 1898 and emigrated to Germany and France before coming to the USA; Nabokov was born in the same city one year later and followed the same course as Pnin, mutatis mutandis.) A more fundamental link between Zorba and Pnin is how they embody the legacy––specifically, the legacy of suffering and exile––of their respective authors' motherlands, both Greece and Russia being predominantly Eastern Orthodox. Zorba is so Zorbatic precisely in order to sublimate the suffering of all Cretans with the crude but invincible implements of blood, sweat, voice, soil, music, food, and the like. Pnin is so pitifully, heroically Pninian––with his "unnecessarily robust shoulders" (p. 61) as symbols of the grief-swollen heart below them––because he bears within him the collective suffering of Russians of Nabokov's generation. He teaches Russian, frequently diverging from the textbook to poetic and historical excursions that usually go over the heads of his students (cf. p. 68), not because he has any great skill at it (cf. p. 10), but because it is the one way for him to assert and preserve his Pninian roots. Both Pnin and Zorba are clowns in their own ways. Zorba plays a vaudevillian mascot for Crete, while Pnin plays a deadpan shuffler for Mother Russia. We love them and fear for them at the same time, wondering how long the act can last. How soon before the earth reclaims them and the music box subtext snaps shut? How soon before history reclaims their antics as but one blurb in an otherwise oppressive monotony of dissolution, dissociation, rootlessness and ruthlessness?

In light of these subliminal questions, we see how, despite their clownishness, intentional or unwitting as it may be from scene to scene, both Zorba and Pnin are pitiful, if not in fact tragic, figures. Zorba can never find his home in this world, since it inherently resists the Zorbatic apokatastasis he is campaigning for. Crete is a metonym for the Zorbatic Elysians fields, while Turkey is a metonym for the byzantine imperialism of entropic history. The Buddha––that unmoving icon of dehistoricized bliss––may be killed (by Zorba's narrator) but he will always come back, imposing on Zorba an all new odyssey of hedonistic deconstruction to fulfill. Because his aims are so much loftier, or perhaps, so much more chthonic, than Jason's, he will never make his way home, while Jason does. Pnin, for his part, may seem perfectly content in his new position as a winsome scholar at a small college in the quiet remove of American suburbia, but deep within, in the unfathomable vastness of his barrel chest––a chest which is frequently plagued by heart murmurs and "a shadow behind the heart"*, as his doctors put it (p. 126)––no place is quiet enough for him (cf. p. 63). Hampered by his broken English, we hear his past as a fragmentary litany of dates, battles, upheavals, migrations, and cities (cf. pp. 33–34), but that fragmented path is the course of his own odyssey. The only place quiet enough for Pnin, the only place truly homelike, is the past he bears within him, since it cannot be corrupted by language or further political change. His migratory isolation is his alone, and thus himself, alone, but intact.

* Interestingly, squirrels are a recurring image in Pnin. Nabokov notes how 'squirrel', in Greek, means 'shadow-tail'. Since squirrels seem to shadow, as it were, Pnin on the campus, I suspect both Pnin and squirrels having a 'shadow behind [the heart]' is no coincidence. What, after all, do Pnin and squirrels have in common, if not the habit of hoarding into their inflated cheeks (or chests) and quiet tree hollows (or rented rooms) fallen fruits (of the past) to be stored up for harsher times ahead?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Still unstill…

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Consider how acute is the verbal contradiction when people assure, or, perhaps, justify, that they are 'still' doing this or that. The contradiction gets a pass because it is perfectly normal English grammar. Nonetheless, at its moral core, the present continuous frame of mind creates a profound cleft in the speaker's psyche. The moral, and poetic, connotation of still is stillness, placidity, constancy; by contrast, the poetic connotation of a present participle is flux, progress, incompletion. Thus, saying you are 'still Ving' is much like saying you are 'permanently unarrived', or 'perfectly incomplete', or 'maximally unsatisfied'. In one breath I say I am still, but in the next, I am unstill. Rank verbal recklessness. I both AM and AMing.

If I were a theologian, I would scour the Fathers and canons for indications in the Tradition that such talk is but the outpouring of man's hubris to BE like God, whilst BEing about too many idle pursuits. As Democritus said in Peace of Mind, "If you want to enjoy peace of mind, do not get involved in too many activities" (Diels-Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, II 8.132). Or, as The Shepherd of Hermas adapted this maxim centuries later: "Abstain from many activities and thou wilt never go astray. For those who engage in many activities also make many mistakes, and drawn to their various activities they do not serve their [L]ord" (Hermae Pastor, Sim. IV.5).

Since I am not a theologian, only a mere scribbler, I will spare myself the erudite scouring and just say it: the careless misuse of 'still' is a measure of man's fallenness, and a subtle release valve for the pressure we endure in light of the crumbling inconstancy of our existence before HE WHO IS. At some level, perhaps, we feel that if our fleshly tongue can predicate at least the word 'still' of ourselves, then, at some level, our fleshy nature can actually enjoy it. Wrong. Still wrong.

A strong claim, I agree, and perhaps not something worth getting worked up about, you suggest. I suppose 'still' just rubbed me the wrong way today. Is it s necessary word? If not completely eradicable, is it a very useful word? Why not simply speak of current states of activity? Why inflate the appearance of constancy with a word that should be reserved for tranquility? Make 'still' implicit in the unchanging pattern of your life. Only by your actions, the sages pronounce, will your desires come forth. And only in the constant expansion of your desires will your actions bespeak any peace. Only in a constant stream of positive action will observers, in their reckless way, be inclined to say, "I see this is truly what he desires, for he is still doing it! This is someone that has found peace." As it stands, 'still' is just a verbal bromide we dispense to ourselves to assure us the welter of action in our life is rooted in a deeper, hidden, esoteric strength, which, if only it weren't for our inconstancy, the world would herald with trumpets.

I have claimed, or at least agreed with Fakespeare and St. Augustine for quite some time that 'need' is the most overused word in any language. Perhaps 'still' is not far behind. A need is simply an unimpeded desire. You only need what you desire and can actually get. I may need Miss O'Fallon's companionship to get by, but once she is dead or radically off limits, I can not need her anymore. Needing an unattainable is like having enough money for a non-existent product. How many of our needs are just desires we can't face are beyond us, or, what is worse for some, behind us?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Puppy People

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The following comprises the first draft of the first three paragraphs of my latest story, tentatively titled "Puppy People" (or "Penny Penny Penny"). I am committed to writing 500 words a day for this story, until I reach some kind of ending. Then comes the brutal task of revising and rewriting.

I was kept awake at dawn last Sunday morning by this tale; I began typing it on July 15 and it now totals just over 3600 words, which makes for about 600 words a day. God be with me in persevering. The tale is an exercise in prophetic moral hyperbole. It depicts a path I think our world needs to see, if for no other reason than that we are already well along it.

The faintest of valleys, lit by the faintest morning light, filled her eyes as they opened to a new day with Penny. A new day with little Penny. Penny, that little angel, between whose two tender areolae the faintest of valleys stood in sharper and sharper relief as the sun rose higher and higher. The same sun, yet always different, for eons and on. That tiny, virgin valley abutting the mottled pink belly rising and sinking in tranquil respiration––that now well-lit valley on this now well-awoken morning was a sign of Penny's perpetual innocence. For unlike her own chest, Penny's areolae would never rise and swell. That faint valley would never form into cliffs of flesh, and, much better, would never sag under the merciless caress of gravity and entropy. No. Penny's precious chest would forever stay oh so faintly ridged, and oh so fragilely encasing her thumb-sized heart of how many months now. Forever young. Forever, that is, of course, until she needed replacing.

As the light imperceptibly brightened, and brightened, through her paper-thin eyelids, and began agitating Penny's infant brain to wake up, she twitched her arms like a wind-up cymbal-clashing monkey, followed by a frog kick against nothing. Oh, how many times had she seen that little ritual happen! How many mornings had she watched those arms twitch and those pudgy, creased legs kick! How many mornings had she relished the maternal bliss of seeing her little darling grow up!

These were not entirely rhetorical questions. There were official records of just how many mornings Penny had been with them. Those records were on her mind, since by now, she was becoming empirical. Certainly the unreflective joy of caring for Penny still endured, and returned afresh every couple years, but by now she couldn't help more analytical musings from arising. She had dabbled in neuroscience and neonatal cognitive development, but still had a very basic understanding of just what happened inside Penny as the months passed. Neurolinguistics, for example, was hardly her cup of tea, but, still, she couldn't help but wonder what neural alchemy was underway as that first word gradually approached its deadline. Moreover, what accounted for that deadline? She would have to check the records to see precisely how long it took, but she was certainly aware Penny had not always spoken her first word after the same amount of time. It was at Christmas three, no, four years ago that she had said "Penny". A couple years before that it was already around Valentine's Day she had said "Mama". And this time? Only time would tell.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

No such animal…

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[This title refers to the Maine farmer who, upon seeing a giraffe at the Boston zoo, on his first trip to Beantown, in fact, simply insisted, "There ain't no such animal."]

Run-down mobile home in a run-down suburban cul de sac. A man, ERNIUS, is on his side on his couch watching TV, drinking beer, basically atrophying with a grin. Then the front door opens and in walks his roommate, BERTUS, wringing his hands, visibly anxious.

ERNIUS: Yo.

BERTUS: Oh, hey, yes, hello.

ERNIUS: The hell's wrong with you? You doin' the pee-pee dance?

BERTUS: Uh, no, well, I brought your car back.

ERNIUS: Cool. Did you park it under the tree?

BERTUS: Uh, ya. It's out there. I think––

ERNIUS: Sit down. Springer's on. It's about midget gangs in Winsconsin. I think it's a rerun. They seem taller than the last time I remember.

BERTUS: What?

ERNIUS: That was a joke. Try to keep up.

BERTUS: Yes. Look, man, you need to come outside. I'm sorry.

ERNIUS: What are you talking about? It's hot out there.

BERTUS: But it's about your car. I'm sorry.

ERNIUS: What happened? What did you do?

BERTUS: I was being careful. I thought you said you have insurance.

ERNIUS: I do, but I also still want my car.

ERNIUS downs his beer, shuts off the TV and stands up to put on his T-shirt. BERTUS keeps looking back outside, as if expecting something to explode. ERNIUS walks past BERTUS in a huff.

BERTUS: It still drives, don't worry, it's mostly just the chassis.

ERNIUS: Holy s––t! What happened?

BERTUS: Don't be so loud!

ERNIUS: Is that blood?

BERTUS: … Yes. I didn't have anything to wipe it off with. I just… I just wanted to get off that road and get back here.

ERNIUS: What did you hit? My hood is all pink… and what are all these fuzzy balls on the windshield?

BERTUS: I… It… It happened so fast. I was coming around the hill, out near the lake, and just as I looked it was crossing the road.

ERNIUS: WHAT was it?!

BERTUS: I… I hit a gay deer.

ERNIUS: Oh, great! Do you know how rare those are?

BERTUS: Well, no, I mean I saw a few others at the side of the road.

ERNIUS: I don't have insurance for gay deers, Bertus. This is gonna cost me an arm and a leg to get cleaned up. And look at the windshield. That was from the antlers, right?

BERTUS: Well, actually, he was swinging a baton when he was crossing. That's why he didn't see me, I think. And those pink fluffy things were from his boots.

ERNIUS: Bertus––

BERTUS: Look, he was wearing all that fish net, he blended right into the woods. I mean, granted, they were pink boots… and he had a golden bra on… but I thought it was just the sun coming through the trees.

ERNIUS: Great, just great. What if the marshal finds out about this? I could go to jail. Now I'm gonna have Greenpeace after me AND the ACLU!

BERTUS: No, no, I think it's okay now, except for your car, I mean. The one I hit went back into the forest. I got out of the car to help it, but it was already hobbling back to the others. They all headed to some rave music I heard deeper in the woods.

ERNIUS: Well, at least you didn't hit a bear.

Rimshot!

Man walks into a bar…

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…and shouts in pain.

But seriously.

A rabbi walks into a bar, and shouts in pain, "That was worst than my second circumcision. … I imagine. I mean, that youngster just kept howling. Nothing like the first."

But seriously.

A man rushes to his office to pick up his paycheck, only to find the doors locked and the building empty. He recalls his boss had said today would be an early day. Late again. So much for painting the town red tonight with Debra.

Dejected, he walks away, passing a convenient store right next to his employer's office. Whether from disappointment or from having just run a few blocks, he feels a tickle in his throat and steps in for a refreshing beverage. As he is walking out he notices an envelope taped to the automatic sliding glass door. His name is written on the envelope. He take a sip, looks around, and then pulls the envelope down. It is unsealed. Inside is his paycheck, already signed and endorsed with his digital signature.

The man is outraged. How could his boss leave his entire salary just hanging up in a convenient store! He puts his drink on the counter and dials his boss's cell phone. Herman, Mr. Boss Man, picks up.

"Excuse me, sir," says the man, trying to contain himself, "but why is my check on the door of this store?"

"Well," answers Herman, matter of factly, "you said you needed it today."

"Yes, but…," he interjects feebly.

"And now you have it. They don't call it a convenient store for nothing!"

"But, sir, with all due respect, it's a little crazy!"

"I know! Just look at their prices!"

But seriously.

[This is intended to be an Ernius and Bertus sketch, but I don't have the time right now to format; I just want to get it out there. And I think you would agree it is very much out there.]

Orange was the color of her dress…

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…then red.*

Well, not actually. But I did just see a woman crossing the street in a black and white dress, carrying nothing less august than a black and white umbrella, bearing words no less stunning than the following: "Break a thing to pieces! Smash them! Crush!"

I don't think she noticed me cowering, so I was able to make it through the red light.

Ah, Taiwan.

*(If Elvis is not dead, then neither should Mingus be!)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A perfectly moral man…

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Who doesn't even know it.

This is the tale of a man, a sort of Pepé Lapieu of ethics, who consistently does the right thing by sheer accident. In situations throughout his whole life, he happens to be the right man at the right time. He is the human equivalent of a falling icicle that pierces an encroaching murderer. Or a gust of wind that extinguishes a fire while Baby Jones sleeps. And so forth. In one case, he is jostled by a crowd of passengers and diverts a distraught woman from throwing herself onto the tracks. He is in this case, as in all such cases, lauded as a hero. And it becomes him, since he is so guilelessly and genuinely meek about his feats. The way he manages to reconcile his clueless heroism with his nagging sense of heroic meaninglessness, is by unconsciously generating movie-like recollections of the events. He has never actually felt like a hero, since his heroism always catches him off guard, but he has seen countless heroes on TV and the big screen. So he is able to fabricate what he thinks is the proper sense of his feats based on those viewings.

Another important corollary of his 'vacuous virtue' is his equal lack of a sense of evil. He is certainly aware of pain and loss and passing desires to strike back, etc., but throughout his entire life, he has never had adequate experiences to fathom what freely choosing evil over good is like, much less actually having done so. The objects of his lust, greed, hatred, or potential deceit have always been preempted, removed, by some other, often impersonal, means, whereupon he has had no chance to execute a wrong deed. Everyone who knows him agree they have never been wrong by him or seen him wrong others. This sentiment stands out all the more in light of his spotless record of heroism, generosity, etc.

Only in the final scene of the story––perhaps a civic award ceremony in his honor––which is also the end of his moral impeccability, does he at last grasp what it would mean to do something intrinsically evil. He is presented with the simplest temptation, free from witnesses, and he finally seizes the hitherto shrouded fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. His misdeed is a trifle, in terms of its objective consequences. And yet, there it is: the only difference between his action as an objectively harmless transaction and as a moral offense is his newfound inner sense of intention toward good or evil.

This story came to me as a philosophical thought experiment––Could someone be good without ever desiring to do good or avoid evil, yet never actually commits an evil action and can only pull off good? I realized it would be much more entertaining, and perhaps more illuminating, as fiction than as a straight essay in moral philosophy.

For the record, I deny that our protagonist is virtuous; and this, because I deny physicalism and its variously attendant utilitarianisms and consequentialisms.