Feb 27, 2009

The enabling virtue

"How do you examine yourself? What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin to call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin, then, to become a different kind of person? The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage in a way William Butler Yeats used to say it takes more courage to examine the dark corners or your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield. Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for any human being, I think, in the end: Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope."

-- Cornel West, The Examined Life

Feb 25, 2009

Words on that Wednesday

Because he was bored with the crosses, the priest wrote words with the ashes that Wednesday. He was bored by the cross, with its frozen pose of Jesus, and tired of the crosses, which were all the same anyway, always smudge-smudge the same. It was stupid. He was tired of it. So he did it different. Instead of always in the same shape of a cross, he wrote out what he wanted to say. On the foreheads of the parishinors he put letters, smudging them on in the ashes of burnt palms and oil.

On the head of the first old lady, he put a big T. On the second, a small woman with wide eyes and loose skin, he put an H. A chubby child got an E, a man an R, a young woman an E, and he did this to all of them, all the penitent, that Wednesday at the beginning of Lent.

Of course they noticed. There's no mistaking the dash-dash of a cross shape pushed into the skin above your eyes. The wrinkled Carmalite couldn't tell it was a P the priest was putting over her eyebrows, but she knew it didn't feel like a cross. The mechanic, still in his work clothes and feeling the gritty mechanic soap in the lines of his elbows, didn't know and couldn't know it was G he received from the priest, but he knew it wasn't normal. And then, of course, everyone saw their own foreheads later, looking in the mirror in the bathroom or in the car, driving away. Looking at the smudges that looked like shapes they wondered, was it just the old man's shaky hand or was that really -- didn't it look like a P, an E, an N, a G?

But none of them knew what it meant. Or if it meant anything. Each was alone with a letter, and even if they had asked each other, they wouldn't have known if this was madness or meaningful code, silliness, insanity, blasphemy or prayer. They wouldn't know, couldn't, even if they'd compared their foreheads, they could've never arranged themselves in the random arrangement of filing down the aisle. But they didn't ask each other. Each one was alone with a letter, a smudge. They were each a piece of something bigger than themselves, and they hoped it was meaningful, moving, maybe even inspiring and a great example of something, like how everyone was important to God. But each was alone with a letter, their letters lost and disassembled into anonymity, left with a longing and listless worry.

But even if they had known, even if they'd just asked the secretly chuckling priest and he'd told them, they would still have been confused. It wasn't a prayer, or didn't seem to be. But it also wasn't clear blasphemy. It wasn't meaningless, not exactly, but it wasn't really full of meaning either. It was just a joke, smudged out on the foreheads of the people. Letter by letter, what the priest wrote was a joke he'd heard from a kid. It went like this:

There were these two penguins sitting on an ice floe. And one penguin says to the other one, You look like you're wearing a tuxedo. Then the other penguin says, Well, how do you know I'm not?
And as the bullets pierced
He looked at her so sincere
Before he fell
Because he loved his woman

And they shot him down
They thought he was a monster
But he was the King

Who killed the monkey
'Twas beauty that killed the beast

They shot him down
They shot him down
They thought he was a monster
But he was the King

-- Daniel Johnston, King Kong

Feb 23, 2009

Opening sky
Memorial mandate

Remember, she says, and she screams it, scaring all the birds away. Remember. Remember she says, though we don't know what she's saying or what this means. Remember. She shouts it, this mandate to make memorial, remember!, you must must remember.

As she hacks and cackles she sways, rolling her eyes in a shutter, a spasm, a spirit coming and taking away, and her sing-song voice breaks and frays, falling into a crackly chorus inquiring, remember? remember? remember? But we don't know what this means. She seems deranged. She seems like she's lost, her long white hair hanging in tangles, her nightgown dragging in the dirty snow.

Remember? we wonder, remember how?

Remember she says, and she moans, moving her fingers to make some sign in the air, reaching out like there's something there. But there's nothing. And we don't know how this means.

The snow falls in flutters and in fury on the open fields laying fallow in Dachau.

Feb 20, 2009

Choosing between darknesses

In that game of children, that gothic game of "choose!: deaf, blind or mute?" I selected silence. I couldn't stand the thought of not taking things in, of not absorbing the world as it went on, and was willing, suddenly and passionately willing, to cut off my participation, if that's what it took. Like a fox willing to lose his leg, a penitent willing to do self castration, I was willing to be seen and not heard, silent forever. In the choice between darknesses, I wanted to see and hear, even if everything I observed was always going to be trapped in loops in my mind, like a isolated city of cars trapped in the tangle of freeways strangling around and looping around forever. I'd always be silent, my mouth closed and my tongue sitting still. I said "mute," chose "mute" and in my mind I was an old man sitting silent at a window, still saying nothing.

And that was OK.

I started to write right after that.
Our still life

Feb 18, 2009

Where the world seemed green

We are here again. We are here where the ground is green with edible weeds, again, where the world is wet with salad dew, where crisper drops top miners lettuce, dripping off in heavy drops that catch the light and contain whole worlds of micro-life and reflections of us, upsidedown in miniature and green.

We are here again, on the hill below the small house where we lived without welcome, but without anything else either. We are here, where I put down my book and came outside to see the sun shine green, where the sun shines for a moment between trees and rains and there's the church, down below by the road, painted brown to blur in with the woods. We are here again, and I can hear the utopians talking, the ones who once lived here and the ones who live here now, and I listen, and I can hear how they all thought and think this is the place where the world would be made new. I can hear how it was here, they thought, they thought with exaltation and that tangy taste of euphoria, here where the millennium could be made and would be made with their minds. The river runs by us, forking and falling under the bridge by the road.

We are here again, and you were about to say something but the church opened up all the sudden and someone was shouting and then there was singing, a salvation song to say we're separate from all the other sorry sons of Abel slain, and you were about to say something. But you stopped. You were about to speak, you were, when we were here.

Well here we are again, and I wonder what it was. Do you remember what it was? It was going to strip all this away. You were going to say something, something I should have heard.
Ben Blank, who was an innovator of television graphics, finding new ways of presenting information visually, using five seconds and six words, who pioneered the use of TV logos in newscasts and who once looped a shot of a golf ball connected to a turntable with coat hanger turning it in an orbit around a mini globe, creating what is thought to be the first newscast graphic, died on Feb. 3 at the age of 87.

May he rest in peace.
"SHE scooped up the cat and swung him on to her shoulder. He perched there with the balance of a bird, his paws tangled in her hair as if it were knitting yarn; and yet, despite these amiable antics, it was a grim cat with a pirate's cut-throat face; one eye was gluey-blind, the other sparkled with dark deeds."

-- Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's

Feb 16, 2009

Protest in red

A desert highway, and an eccentric group of monastic botanists
3,000 workers cars abandoned in Dubai
Saving New Deal architecture
Parks from above
Prestige projects canceled
Hyperlocalizing hydrology (Portland's greenstreet project)
Cheney pal pleads to Nigerian bribe conspiracy
Penn. juvie judges were bribed
Israeli elections ads
The use and misuse of Zyprexa
Mexico drug gangs hijack police radio for threats
Flowers from Gaza
Obama should stop the “state secrets” defense
Senators & taxes
Escape from North Korea
Blame these 25 for financial crisis
International weapons dealer (now dead): graft cash came in pizza boxes
The Unquiet American – Dale Stoffel’s story
A Tom Joad sheriff
How medical marijuana changes the pot industry
Math, invented or discovered?
What’s more sacred than peanut butter?
Bibliophilia, religion and Sotheby’s
Of food and sex
Alain Badiou on the uses of the word 'Jew'
Lincoln & Darwin, “Angels & Ages”
Lincoln and the laws of war
“Our” Lincoln
On Darwin's On the Origins of Species
A guide to the flood of Lincoln books
Lincoln's death revisited
Evolution in literature
Shephard Fairey arrested outside his museum exhibit
Shephard Fairey is a sell-out and I hate him
Virginia Woolfe and servants
Howard Kanovitz, pioneer of photorealism, dies at 79. May he rest in peace.
Ron Silliman loses his virginity, frees Lee Harvey Oswald and leaps tall buildings in a single bound
Zadie Smith: Speaking in (English) tongues
T.C. Boyle continues with "egomaniacs of the 20th century"
T.C. Boyle continues his distrust of gurus
Art's always better imagined
Pulling Puskin from the sofa
Kafka, the alienation artist
"Why I became an artist" -- a pulp cover collection.
Paintings @ the White House

Feb 13, 2009

Notes on basement rooms

1. "Hey," she yelled, and I was silent, down below, hoping hopelessly she didn't mean me. "Hey!" she yelled from the top of the stairs, down into the dark of the basement where I had a room without windows. "Hey Daniel, you need to be quiet."

I used to keep the light on above the stove, the little one that switched on above the electric burners, just to keep the room from collapsing completely into the dark. It was on then, and my one bag of groceries was under it, tipped over like a building built on a bad foundation.

"Did I make a noise?" I said.

"You slammed that door," she said.

"Oh," I said, and I let the word wait until it was weighted down with the darkness that came from the corners, and I hoped she would go away. I couldn't see her, where she stood at the top of the stairs. I could feel her seething, despising me.

"You slammed that door," she said. "You have to be quiet."

"I'm sorry," I said, still standing in the gut of the dark, in the basement with the washing machine and the unused weights, the boxed clutter, the deep freezer full of pizza and the stationary bike. "I'm sorry," I said, and my voice was monotone.

"You have to be quiet," she said. "I can't have you making noise down there."

2. After all this time, after two decades or so, it's still there, smiling and saying "hi."

"Hi!," says the little graffiti, which she penciled on the paneling when she was young. "Hi!" it says, and it smiles with exclamations for eyes.

No one's erased it, though that would have been easy, so the silly mark greets me every time I come through the door: friendly, wild with welcome, and it's always a little ridiculous.

3. The room rattled and whistled, clinked and went tink!, boiled and burped and broke into orchestra. It had my name on the door, this basement room, on a sign on a white sheet of paper, but it was really rather like a cartoon factory. Like a factory for sound effects by Seuss.

The room made the sounds of silly monsters, with made-up names and funny dispositions. The room made the sounds of coyotes falling and anvils catching heads with crashes. It made the sound of a smart rabbit laughing and outsmarted sputtering, the sound of a gold-weaver wheel fluttering and flapping, animated side-slapping and tin whistle triumphs. It tittered and whooshed, swished and snapped snap!, entertaining itself like a band playing bottle caps.

Before it was my room it was the boiler room, and when I fell asleep each night it went back to being as wild as what it always was. The boiler kicked on by my feet with a clatter, some wick lighting shick and then the heater for the water went BOOOOhhhhhhRR with rumbling RHHHOAR! RrrrhhhhhOARHHHH! RRRHHHoooar! Some soprano pipe started pink plinking, like a quarter 'gainst glass, and the beat held steady, 12-per minute and pass. The tiles on the wall each said their name, one syllable each and in a circle, all the same. The other pipes pitched in their pitches, at each thump down the scale, and the big one, the big-as-a-whale one opened upaaaAAAAAAAHHHH and aaaaaaAAAAAAAHHHHH, like a prep for a sneeze. The red gauge clicked and twitched, and the vent went plea? pleeee? pleaaaaaaaase?

It muttered and uttered in sputters, my room, it farted and flushed and more. But I just snored, dreaming the racket was really music, that the sounds matched some hilarious score, and my bed was way down, down inside the belly of a giant-piped organ in the middle of one fantastic wheeze.

What is it, she says, with you and basements? You always end up living in basements.

I don't know, I say, even though I do know and always did, but it's not like they're all the same.
Water lion

Feb 11, 2009

What this hyphen hath joined

What this hyphen hath joined ...

Individual tears

We board the bus in Lustnau, waiting by the sign for the stop by the house with the wall. I stand right under the sign, reading the schedule for all the buses, and she stands a little ways away, looking the other way, and then when the bus comes we board and she sits next to me and she cries. Her make-up runs as she cries. Mascara mixes with salt and her chin quivers, and she cries. She tries to take deep breaths and tries to smile, attempting something stoic or maybe just cynical, but it doesn’t work. She cries and she keeps crying.

I don’t know this woman and I don’t know why she’s crying. She’s just the tear-tumbled stranger sitting next to me and she could be anybody. I tell my fiancée about the crying girl, later, and she says she could have been that girl and I say that I could have been that girl too. She’s in her 30s, 32 or 33, and she’s wearing a fur coat and plush, crushed-velvet pants and a blue ski hat. She looks silly to be crying. She’s too old and she’s wearing the wrong clothes to be crying, but then I don’t know what outfits go well with tears. She’s dressed like someone who thought she was stylish, but then got out in the light of critical day and realized everything was wrong. She looks – no – she looks like someone who’s cold. She looks like someone who’s cold, colder than she’s ever been, and she put on everything she could think of that was warm, the pants the coat the hat, not caring about the combined effect. She looks like someone who thought she was safe, though, thought she could stay in and be warm and weirdly dressed and thought it would be OK, because she was safe, and now she’s on the bus from Lustnau, crying and forsaken.

She looked out the window. Above us the bus read out upcoming locations in its computerized enunciations, reading by rote the list like a litany. We pass the stops we always pass and we are silent, each of us alone under the voice, and the woman cries.

I don’t know who this woman is, who’s sitting next to me, and I don’t know why she’s crying. I imagine it’s loneliness, or that she just really wants to be left alone. I imagine someone doesn’t love her, or someone does and shouldn’t. I imagine someone has died, or said something or not said something, and I imagine she’s found something or lost something, learned something or remembered or forgotten. I imagine it could be any reason, but what reason could there be but the normal ones? Aren’t all our reasons sort of the same, running together like tears towards the chin, happening again and again, like the fights each couple repeats forever?

When I was a boy I stole my parents’ marriage counseling books to read the sections about sex. I wanted to know everything. (That was the same year, I think, that I looked up “sex” and “fuck” in the dictionary). So I stole the books, there were three I think, and I read the sections about sex and the rest of them too. There was a little information in there, but mostly I found accounts of people sitting in counselors’ offices, crying. It happened again and again, with different people in different accounts with different, made-up names, but everyone ended up making the same mistakes, everyone ended up destroying their life and their love without even knowing what they were doing, and they all ended up middle aged, overweight, emotionally wrecked and sitting in these seats, in this office, feeling despair in their stomachs. I was looking for the secret initiations of adulthood, and I found this horrible sadness, where everyone always felt bad and everything was banal. Now, about to be married, I’m reading these books again. I’m reading the one we’re assigned to read and the others too, the ones that collect around the betrothed like unwanted wedding traditions, and I’m surprised because these books are still the same. Everyone’s still making the same mistakes and still ending up in offices, in tears. Women are still not wanting sex and not understanding men’s needs and men are still not showing affection, and still falling asleep after forcing themselves on their wives. Everyone’s frustrated, in these books, and everyone’s trapped in this terrible loneliness, riding along with no knowledge as a pre-programmed voice reads out the names of the streets, as the bus goes the way it always goes.

It’s not even sordid, but just sort of sorry. All our foibles are so feeble and sad. Once, I wish, just once, someone in one of these books would do some sin that isn’t average, if only to show that we can be unique. Isn’t that the joke about the priest bored by confession? "No," he says, "I’m looking for an original sin, an original sin". Isn’t that what C.S. Lewis or somebody said about the angels, that they must be standing at the edge of heaven, watching human history, flabbergastingly bored? How is it, the angels ask, that God can tolerate this tedium?

But the angels and the priests, like all ideologues, are wrong. Every sin is an original sin and every woman crying on every bus is crying for her own reasons and for the very first time. This is what the books always got wrong, when I read them in secret and still when I read them now. They always assume people into classes and categories, and they take individuality away. They assume gender roles, bank on the probability of problems, and everyone is supposed to reprise pre-existing parts. But it doesn’t work. When the counselor goes home after counseling another anonymous couple with another case of textbook fights and failures, he too fights with his wife. He too gets cranky and raw, raises his voice and takes too-easy offense, but it’s different for him, because he’s writing the book on this and because he knows how this happens. But knowledge isn’t power, and his helplessness is just harder. And he feels it like he’s falling, and as he falls he’s alone, no more a class or categorized type but just alone, forsaken, and falling. He doesn’t need someone to say what he already knows but just someone to say, “hey, fuck it, I love you anyway.”

Because we are only ever individuals, and if there is to be such a thing as love, then it must be so obscene as to pick out an individual and reject everything else. If there’s going to be fidelity, and commitment beyond knowledge (and I take it as axiomatic that we can’t know), then I must love this one, and love her not as a type or an example, but as the one and the only one who matters. And the generalizations don’t work anyway. The categories don’t ever quite fit. I always end up scoring as a woman, talking too much and needing to touch, except I’m not frigid and not demanding babies. My fiancée doesn’t fight like a woman, or go through the day like a woman, but always only like herself. For in “forsaking all others,” I give up the general category of “women,” and instead know to this one, cling to this one, call this individual the one whom I love.

This woman, crying on the bus, she’s not a metaphor. She doesn’t mean anything or make any point. She just cries. Each tear is a new tear, slipping out of her eye and sliding down her face. Her lower lip tremors and she sniffs and her nose has started to run so she wipes it. She has a name, even if I don't know it. The bus says “Dorfakerstrasse,” and “Stuttgarterstrasse” and “Landhausstrasse” and she calms down and tries to smile. She looks like she might say she’s always known, she knew but didn’t want to know, but now she knows. But she is silent, sitting with me on the bus, but sitting alone. She fixes her make-up, looking at her reflection in the face of her cell phone. She smiles a sad smile and holds a used tissue in her lap.
SOME ant nests are so enormous that they are akin to the skeletons of whales.

-- Tim Flannery, reviewing "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies," by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson

Feb 9, 2009

Prayers of a bird and boy

On those mornings we whistled, the bird and I. He whistled and I whistled, he whistled and I. On those mornings I waited for my father and my brother, for the fullness of dawn and the day. I waited while breakfast was finished and while the sun rose sluggish and slow to meet the heat of summer. I waited by the work van under the tree, under the telephone pole, under the sky. The tree was a big red tree with thick red arms going up around the phone lines, and the sky was soft blue, broken down into odd shapes by the branches of the tree. I waited there, those mornings, that Texas summer, and that’s how I heard the bird.

He whistled two short notes, and then one long. He waited, and then did it again. The first note was slow, the second quick, and then the long one was left there, hanging there, long and lingering there.

Read the full essay @ Killing the Buddha
Te quiero mucho

The glory of creation: Eye-burrowing worms
Purdy: Faith is the sum of lost things
Considering Christian Socialism
Greg Bottoms "Fight Scenes"
Readings for the next Intifada
Obama and the godless
Dick Cheney needs a hug
Dear Dick Cheney, please go away
Supreme Court 'to let a kind of computer virus loose in the fourth amendment'
Helping the terrorists
White House Farmer?
The president should help us rethink food
The radical roots of vegetarianism
Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong
The George Wallace we forgot
News as voyeurism in Boston
Why fighting the press never works
Army suicides at record high
Progressive federalism?
The torture memos
Close torture school
Life is even less designed than Darwin thought
Save the Suburbs

Save the Suburbs II

The world without us
You believe in aliens
Criticizing the science in 'forensic science'
Writing really small
I stalked Updike
Further adventures in editing (@ Commentary)
Erich Kästner
Good ol' penmanship days
Aquarium phone boom
Watery landscapes
Shepard Fairey & Robert Crumb in Boston
Fairey vs. the AP and the lawyers
The frightening beauty of bunkers
Balono and the last evening on Earth
Jonathan Letham on Bolano

Feb 6, 2009

Self-purging conservatives

What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders, if they are to ascend to the status of disinterested statesmen, is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology. And the only ideology one can meaningfully renounce is one's own.

-- Sam Tanenhaus

The inaugural act of contemporary American conservatism was a purging. William F. Buckley's first moves in founding the modern movement were meant to eliminate some fellow rightists, cleaning them out of conservatism and pushing them permanently to the fringe. He had, for example, Whittaker Chambers write a review attacking and effectively getting rid of Ayn Rand. Oddly, at the same time Chambers was helping found a movement with this review-as-purge, he was pointedly refusing to join the movement, as Sam Tanenhaus describes, for practical reasons and also ethical, anti-ideological reasons.

We see, then, at the very genesis of the movements' own myth of origins (and even ignoring the harsher versions attributing conservatism's paternity to Joe McCarthy, probably accurately) that the best impulses, the ones against inflexible ideology and unbending arrogance, were already entangled with the worst tactics -- purity tests, purges, perpetual divisiveness and permanent fear.

The history of American, post-war conservatism can be told as, I think, a history of purges and counter-purges. The movement has a history of trying to clean up the history by "writing out" red-baiters, segregationists and assorted other crazies, and also often attempts to protect itself from the consequences of current policies by saying they're apostate, having strayed from the true conservative ideal. There's also a continual culling and counter-culling, so that any conversation among conservatives and any attempted "self-examination" involves trying to get some group evicted from the movement.

The purging is almost so pervasive as to be definitive. It's more than just the normal struggle to name a movement and mark those lines. Conservatives have been as committed to purging as Stalinists and bulimics.

It is easy and wrong to see to collapse of conservatism and the failures of conservatism as due to the interlopers: The neo-cons or the evangelicals, the ex-Marxists or the RINOs or the talk-radio hosts. It's easy and wrong and really leads to a complete misassessment of everything, because the bad was entangled with the good from the beginning.

Tanenhaus' piece on the death of American conservatism may be the best I've read on the subject. It's good precisely because it finds the flaws of conservatism, the tensions and the viruses, existing at every point. Pure conservatism, or this idea of the political philosophy unsullied, doesn't exist, Tenenhaus talks about the mess of "good" and "bad" conservatism that was there in Russell Kirk's big book on conservatism, and he finds that same mess in Ronald Reagan and Buckley and Barry Goldwater and on down. The problem, as Tanenhaus has it, is always internal, though conservatism has always believed it needed to defend against some invasion or other.

The question that has been asked is how we went from point A to B. How did conservatism careen from Kirk, where where "conservative" meant anti-ideology and rule-by-doubt, to Sarah Palin, where ideology was purified to the point of prizing clownish certainty and dehabilitating denseness. How did conservatism go from the first issue of National Review, claiming the mission to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so," to the more recent issues, where the unquestioning continuation of "enhanced interrogation" is taken as a sine qua non test of true conservatism?

The temptation -- surrendered to seemingly everywhere -- is to find the interlopers, the false conservatives, hunt them down and eliminate them. The temptation is to find traitors and purge them. The temptation is to find a way to separate the good from the bad, even if, as in Andrew Sullivan's effort, the distinction is an admitted fiction, entirely theoretical and ahistorical.

Tanenhaus's piece is right precisely to the point it finds the strains of conservatism's sickness present from the very beginning. He's right to find it in every part of the history, all along, so even the original, pure opposition to ideology is wrapped up in the divisive drive to purge those who are too ideological. It's right to find not a fall, a descent from the pure eden of A to the putrid stupidity of B, but to find both the good and the bad as completely, complicatedly tangled. The question ought not to be how conservatism went from one sort of conservatism to another, but what is the relationship between the best and the worst? How are they connected and where is the line? It doesn't seem like conservatives will have even a hope sorting out what happened -- much less moving to reclaim the best of the tradition -- until the dividing line between the good and the bad is seen to run not between factions, but right through the very heart of the thing.

For a movement so obsessed with invasions and infiltrations, purity and purges, so firmly founded on inerrant accuracy and unflinching execution, I don't know that I have much hope for self-critical examination. I have yet to see a single conservative claim responsibility for what's wrong with the movement, making the Republicans sort of seem like the "part of other people's personal responsibility." A start, thought, might just be a mantra-like paraphrase of William Shakespeare: The fault, dear conservatives, is somewhere in true conservatism itself.
Bullhorn man

Feb 4, 2009

The true extent of the tangle

No Thursdays at the County Hospital for Mr Jules Amthor. Cash on the line for his. Rich bitches who had to be dunned for their milk bills would pay him right now.

A fakeloo artist, a hoopla spreader, and a lad who had his card rolled up inside sticks of tea, found on a dead man.

This was going to be good.

                  – Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

Of course the psychic is a scam man. In the noir world, anybody who believes anything needs to take a drink, and anybody who leads other people to believe is pulling a scam. There are no believers in Raymond Chandler’s world. There is no faith found in any investigation. Religion is a fiction used as a cover. Everything’s sort of psychologically simple, in noir, and everyone’s economically motivated, even in their appearances of faith. It’s like the world was designed by insurance salesmen.

We normally talk about the despairing detective, when talking about the noir world, but reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, I noticed the psychic who, of course, is up to something. I don’t have a particularly high regard for psychics either, but it seems key, to me, that Chandler’s world doesn’t have anything better to offer, in the way of religion, than a “fakeloo artist.” Jules Amthor might as well be the Pope or the Dali Llama, because this is the extent of belief found in noir. Men are never motivated by anything but money and self-preservation, which they pursue with booze and an all-protective bitterness. This is obvious, and this is familiar, but it seems still startling to me that no one believes. It seems startling the world can be presented as that flat. Life is more tangled than that.

In this noir, religion and anything beyond “just the facts” is sort of conceived the way a New Atheist would conceive it: “Belief” belongs to idiots and those with something to gain. Both the noirists and the New Atheists make the same mistake of making the world seem flatter than it actually is. Before there can be any argument about the content of belief, it seems like it has to be acknowledged that there really is belief – and not just stupid or conniving belief, but also thoughtful belief, cautious and carefully considered belief, deep and life altering belief.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target, the religious character, a new age sort of guru who promotes the sun god, is always assumed by everyone to be involved in a scam. No one ever thinks he might believe. The only question is which scam he’s involved in and how many angles he’s playing. The character is pretty minor, but got himself a place on the cover art with sunglasses and a jew-fro, and he earned the book a reputation of delving into the weird world of freaky new religions, counter cultures, and faith-crazed kooks. But the religion, for the guru, is never anything more than a little make-up covering the criminal activity. Even the followers aren’t fooled, but are really just thugs playacting at devotion as disguise. In the depicted world, though, it’s not much of a disguise, because there’s no such thing as the real thing. All religion is faked. To pantomime the practices of faith, in noir, isn’t to imitate the devout, but to copy the pantomimes and imitations of pantomimes and imitations. Religion, here, is like a faux Indian accent ripped off of black and white westerns shown on afternoon TV. There is no real belief, but only fakes.

I guess this would be perfect for Zizek on belief or Baudrillard on simulacra, but I want to make the point that this noir understanding of belief isn’t even right when it comes to scams masked as belief. It isn’t accurate in describing even the precise thing it thinks it’s describing. The world is full of religious-looking con men – from Ted Haggart to Creflo Dollar, from David Koresh to Warren Jeffs – and I’ve even known some of them, and the thing is, they are never crass enough for faith to be just a disguise. Even they believe. They are tangled up in their belief, with their appetites informing their pieties and their pieties making space for their appetites, with their personal predilections and psychological problems feeding their faith and their faith feeding their egos, the way an old woman feeds that cats that will eat her when she dies. It’s never simple and it’s never about money. Even when it is about money, that’s not what it’s really about, with money just standing in for other holes in the souls of the charismatic characters. I understand why there are religious con men in these books, but the noirists seem to misunderstand the relationship between the religious con man and their religion. It’s not a mask. It’s not a disguise. It’s at least as complicated as the relationship between the Columbine killers and their guns, with the guns giving them a way to fulfill their fantasies and the guns informing their fantasies too (though never in a way that’s causally clear).

It’s not like I wanted to find a faithful family of evangelicals regularly attending church in Farewell, My Lovely. My complaint isn’t that the noirists present the religious in a negative way, but that the religious in noir are not nearly perverted enough. They’ve been flattened and untangled. They’ve been made sort of safe, in being simple. In order to be accurate and, even more than that, in order to be even approximately as interesting as the real thing, we have to allow depth, complication and confused motivation. We have to allow for the true extent of the tangle, for the weirdness and wildness, for the full depravity of devotion.

Feb 2, 2009

Punk haus
"The glare of the red neon sign spread farther and farther across the ceiling. I sat up on the bed and put my feet on the floor and rubbed the back of my neck.

"I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room."

-- Raymond Chandler, in Farewell, My Lovely