Monday, April 28, 2014

On the Horrors of Ecclesiastes

What follows was originally intended to be the companion essay to an earlier post (see On the Concept of Expertise).  You should probably not read this article if you are fresh out of school and just beginning your career—you need to stay energetic and focused on your goals!  The future, your future, is ahead of you. 

Of course, a powerful antidote to an idolatrous zeal for work and career—forgivable in the young—can be found in certain books of the Old Testament.  For example, there is nothing quite as effective as a passage or two out of the book of Ecclesiastes for taking the wind out of one’s sails:

“For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it…What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless.”—Ecclesiastes 2:21-23

(And this is a much abridged version of the section.)

Often there is an imperfect fit between an individual and his or her work.  Either the boss is a jerk, or the employee is, or the issue, whatever it may be, lies somewhere in between.  That ‘hell is other people’ as Sartre has suggested, seems easily demonstrated, at least in the office. Work, though full of the potential to achieve a meaningful good in the world, is often frustrating and dismaying.  Employees often experience a huge distance between what is the ideal, and what is the actual result of their daily work.  Which distance requires considerable irony and cynicism to cross.  Perhaps a cynical joke or two banishes whimpering, at least for awhile.

Many of us who began our careers in the mid to late eighties were comforted by the work of a renowned expert in mythology and comparative religion, Joseph Campbell.  In his famous The Power of Myth (1988) and in other books, Campbell encouraged readers to follow their “bliss”, to do those activities which, when completed, left people themselves with an experience of psychological and spiritual completeness.  Though never precisely defining what he meant by bliss, Campbell compared it to being at the hub of the “wheel of fortune”, and not on the rim where one may be carried up or down by success or misfortune.  He suggested that “invisible hands” guide the individual and support him or her while they are focused on the unique tasks that bring about a feeling of bliss.

Being able to discern these tasks, which amount to doing what your really want to do in life and what you are uniquely developed to do, is an intuitive process.  Life provides experiences that allow the perceptive among us to determine out of the universe of occupations and pastimes those which lead to bliss.  Not only that, but engaging in these unique activities creates an altered state of consciousness:  concentration is empowered, the awareness of time fades away, and the person experiences great energy and clarity of thought.  There is a feeling of oneness when the individual and the activity merge, producing a kind of holiness because of the rightness of fit.  An echo of this experience may be found in the notion of a special or religious calling, as well as in Maslow’s principle of self-actualization and the Jungian notion of a “transcendent function”.

But anything approaching “bliss” is difficult to pull off in the average office.  It may be impossible in the cubicles where 60% of us office workers are employed.  So the rest of us must somehow muddle through, living our work lives of quiet desperation instead of collectively following our bliss.  (By the way, an excellent history and sociology of cubicle life is Nikil Saval’s book Cubed, published this year.)   On the other hand, who will make the coffee, sweep the floor, wash the dishes, and deliver the pizzas—if everyone is off following their bliss?  So it seems that socio-economic status has an impact on the hope for self-actualization, at least in the world of work, as it has for centuries.

It seems that the ultimate oppression, in terms of economics, politics, religion and social expectations, lies in preventing individuals from becoming whole—becoming their truer selves.  In the end, this is what evil is: the lack of goodness, of unity, of wholeness, that might otherwise have been in the world, and in the individual life.  And the lack of time in which to pursue this.   

The first book of the Bible is not comforting either about the potential of finding fulfilling, self-actualizing work:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”—Genesis 3: 17-19


And yet, Ecclesiastes, “the Teacher”, could at least offer this:

“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This, too, I see is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”  (2: 24-25)

And this:

“Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”  (11: 6)

And finally:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them…” (12:1)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Swan Song of the Satanist

Because of its ability to evoke unaussprechlichen thoughts, feelings and memories, music is often an important element in horror entertainments.  It is a central focus in two stories written in the 1920s and the 1930s by two of the more famous pulp fiction authors.  H.P. Lovecraft published his beloved The Music of Erich Zann in the March issue of The National Amateur, in 1922.  This story was discussed in an earlier post, (see A Musical Nightmare ), and is generally well known to readers of Lovecraft.

Briefly, in Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann, an impoverished student of metaphysics befriends a secretive old musician named Erich Zann.  The man is a very accomplished player of an instrument that resembles a cello.  He plays his instrument near an open window, overlooking the city.  There is an eerie sense that the old man that is actually playing a duo and not a solo, and there is a nightmarish end to his last performance.

Robert E. Howard’s Casonetto’s Last Song is probably less well known, but shares some similarities with The Music of Erich Zann.  One wonders if the earlier story was the inspiration for Howard’s work.  Casonetto’s Last Song was published posthumously in 1973 in Etchings and Odysseys #1, but must have been written sometime before 1936, the year that Howard died. 

Although Erich Zann played live for the narrator of Lovecraft’s story, the late—because recently executed—Casonetto appears in Howard’s tale only as a gramophone recording of his last vocal performance.  (Disc shaped records like the one depicted in the story came into vogue by the early 1920s.) And what a performance!  The deceased opera singer nearly accomplishes a unique form of revenge through the power of his song. 

The helpful chart below summarizes some of the similarities and differences between these interesting stories.

The Music of Erich Zann
Casonetto’s Last Song
Instrument played
Male operatic voice
Musical Composition
Invocation from the Black Mass
Cheap orchestral gigs
Renowned opera singer; high priest of demonic cult
Type of performance
Live performance, including duo with a guest musician
High fidelity gramophone recording
Intent of musical composition
Ward off entity from another dimension
Accompaniment to sacrifice of human virgins when invoking Satan
Effect on audience
Cosmic fear
Psychic re-enactment of a black mass ending in ritual murder
“Where are they now?”
Erich Zann died of fright during his last performance, but kept on playing even while dead.
Casanetto was arrested and executed for human sacrifice.  He made an unsuccessful, posthumous attempt at revenge against his accuser.  He is in Hell now.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On the Fistic Horizon

Robert E. Howard’s The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux was originally published in the magazine Ghost Stories in April of 1929.  This is an interesting story combining several of the author’s favorite subjects:  fighting, race relations, supernatural beings, and idolatry.  (When it first appeared it was under the title The Apparition in the Prize Ring, which tends to give much of the story away.) 

Fans of politically correct speech will likely blanch at the occasional N-word and the depiction of one of the characters as a “son of the black jungle…ape-like, primordial—the very spirit of that morass of barbarism from which mankind has so tortuously climbed…”—this is the bad guy, by the way.  The hero of the story—actually, there are two—is also of African origin.   

Unfortunately, the author has the good guy, Ace Jessel, speak in an archaic dialect more akin to that spoken by Jim, Huck’s enslaved friend in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It may be that this was the model Howard used to make his character sound authentic.  Readers will want to keep in mind that Robert E. Howard wrote this story nearly four decades before the first diversity training class was taught.

Political correctness may also conceal some of the important nuance here.  Both Ace Jessel and the evil Mankiller Gomez, (real name: Balanga Guma, “a born killer” from Senegal), routinely defeat their white challengers through skill and talent, and are international stars on the fighting circuit.  John Taverel, the narrator of the tale, is Jessel’s manager, and his relationship is one of intense respect and sympathy for the struggles of the fighter.  In the end, Taverel helps make Jessel’s victory possible.   Their interaction is very similar to that of Howard’s character of Solomon Kane and his sidekick, the African witchdoctor, N’Longa.

The racism encountered in early 20th Century pulp fiction—and there is admittedly quite a lot—is not monolithic or homogenous across authors of the time period.  Compare Robert E. Howard’s treatment of race to the venomous descriptions that H.P. Lovecraft writes for anyone who is not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  For yet another perspective, look also at Francis Steven’s perception of ethnicity in her Unseen—Unfeared (1919).  If one looks carefully, what appears superficially as racial stereotyping actually contains evidence of changing attitudes and perceptions towards ‘the other’, even in the 1920s and 1930s.  (But one has to look especially hard for this in H.P. Lovecraft’s work.)

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux is about an epic prize fight between Ace Jessel and Mankiller Gomez, as told by Jessel’s manager, John Taverel.  Typical of a Howard Story, every round of the fight is lovingly depicted—blood, broken ribs, dwindling consciousness, hysterical crowd—as are the distinctive styles and personalities of the two fighters.  The narrative reads like a newspaper story, an actual blow by blow account, creating a feeling of intense action and immediacy.  This is clearly one of Howard’s strengths when compared to his pulp fiction colleagues: his ability to vividly convey the action and violence that drives the plots of his stories.

And smack in the middle of all this amplified realism is a supernatural manifestation, a kind of sports fan idolatry taken to its weirdly logical extreme.  Readers learn early on that Jessel’s idol—literally—was a famous African American fighter named Tom Molyneaux, who died in Ireland a century earlier.  Ace has a portrait of the fighter that he has repeatedly consulted as some might talk to the statue of a saint.  His manager makes effective use of this fact.  The portrait of the deceased fighter gives the author an opportunity to expound upon the power of images when used to invoke the spirits of the dead.  The religiosity implicit in The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux—good and evil physically duking it out in front of us—makes this a memorable fight story.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Planet You Can Believe In

The tiny Saturnian moon of Enceladus was in the news a few weeks ago.  Data sent back from  the Cassini spacecraft indicated the possibility of a subsurface body of water the size of Lake Superior, lying about 20 to 25 miles beneath the moon’s icy face.  No one has actually observed this underground sea, though geysers of ice crystals have been detected at the moon’s south pole.  There is no direct evidence, only a series of inferences based on analysis of the satellite’s gravitational field.  Discrepancies in the strength of the gravitational field at the south pole have been measured; this has led some to speculate that only liquid water would have sufficient density to account for these differences. Thus, there must be an enormous underground body of liquid water near the south pole.

A variety of life forms have adapted to living in the eternal darkness of Earth’s underground rivers and lakes—and have thrived in even more extreme environments.  Why not deep within Enceladus, at the bottom of its silent subterranean sea, kept warm by the intense gravitational pulls of Saturn and its sister moons?  This possibility makes Enceladus a fourth candidate among worlds in our solar system that may harbor life. The others are Mars, Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Titan, another moon of Saturn.

Pretty slim pickings.

However, the now decrepit Kepler telescope, which so far has confirmed the presence of 962 exoplanets, has provided data identifying “the first validated, Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star,” according to Dr. Quintana of the SETI Institute and Ames Research Center.  (It has conveniently accomplished this just as the Kepler planet-finding mission came to an end last year.)  

The planet is called Kepler 186f.  Some researchers suspect that, like Earth, the exoplanet is made up largely of iron, rock, ice and liquid water, probably has a rocky surface, and experiences a gravitational field similar to that of our world.  But in the absence of any data about the planet’s mass, the only thing known with any certainty is its relative size—small—and its distance from the sun it orbits.

Kepler 186f shares its star with four other inner planets.  Its sun is not like ours at all and is classified as a red dwarf—not nearly as young or as bright or as warm as ours.  One scientist remarked that Kepler 186f would receive less light than the planet Mars receives from our sun.  It would seem to be a dim, cold place, mostly frozen unless it possesses an insulating atmosphere.  The year on Kepler 186f is only 130 days long.  Keplerians, if they exist, must file income taxes about every 4 months.

Replication of these results, ordinarily expected of scientific research, will not be likely.  Kepler 186f is 500 light years away—so a visit there will not be possible in this millennium.  It is too far out in space for serious scientific study, yet just distant enough to inspire imaginative speculation and fervent exobiological faith.

Several scientists are calling a mission to Enceladus though, which relatively speaking, is right in our back yard.  If samples of ice crystals from its southern geysers can be brought back to earth, they might be found to contain extraterrestrial microbes—or worse.  Mars has been a bust—not even the exhalations of microbes can be found there.  But science has demonstrated again and again, conclusively, without a doubt, without need for replication, that wondrous energetic life exists on just one planet in the entire universe—ours, of course.  Life was created and placed here, long ago.  Its purpose is to spread far beyond its home planet, and bring color, noise and movement to all the dark silent worlds that surround us.   

(For related discussions, see also Enceladus! and How Many Extraterrestrials Are There?)