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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

UNQUIET SLUMBERS, PART 1

Unquiet Slumbers

Andrew Logan Montgomery



I lingered round them…listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”


-Emily Bronte; Wuthering Heights


Maria had always said the mountain was dangerous in winter.

We never called her "grandma." She wouldn't allow it. She was the kind of woman who insisted she was sixty-eight well into her ninties, as if iron will could hold back time. Until the very end she dyed her hair jet black and flirted with all the local farmers, more Scarlett O'Hara than Vivian Leigh had ever dreamed of being. Mountain Hollow was her "Tara," three hundred acres of empty woodlands and fallow fields that in her mind was some fairy kingdom, a Promised Land that God had led her to. She had spent every summer of her life there for more than forty years, lingering until the last of the leaves had fallen from the trees. Then, that last winter, she lingered too long, and the first snows caught up with her. The doctors said it was a stroke. Later I learned the truth.

Denise resisted the idea at first, but I think she saw the city was slowly killing me. It was her world, not mine. I remember the moment clearly when she gave in, the way women give in when in reality they are just giving you permission. No surrender was involved. We were lying in Maria's old featherbed, all the windows open. Cool mountain air washed over our naked bodies. I remember the frogs singing from the pond behind the barn, their chorus carried in on the breeze. It was one of those moments--moments that never came in Manhattan--where I felt completely at peace. Tranquility had settled over every nerve, and my mind floated serenely on the glassy surface of sleep.

My arm was around her, my fingers twined up in her hair. "We don't make love like that in the city," she murmured, her cheek resting against my breastbone.

I smiled in the dark. "It's the mountain air."

I could feel her smiling too, but only for a moment. "No, it's you. You're happier whenever we are up here."

I chewed on this awhile in silence, listening to the sounds coming in from the dark. There was a part of me here, left behind like old luggage long before, suitcases packed with memories. I was only really complete when I came back here. Outside, the frogs had been joined by an owl. I think it lived in the barn, terrorizing the field mice that nested in the hay.

"Your childhood is here. You spent every weekend of every summer here. Whenever we come up here, you become young again."

Memories turned over in my mind. I can't remember if I smiled or frowned in the dark. "My mom had always hated it, always hated getting torn away from the social scene. But Dad--Dad was the dutiful son. His mother held court here every summer, and he could never say 'no' to her."

"But you loved it."

"Yeah, I did. I do." I thought about all the times I had trudged around through the woods, or slept out in one of the fields under the stars. There had always been a kind of magic in this place for me, and there was hardly any place I could go here were I didn't cross paths with the ghost of my childhood self, or--for that matter--the ghosts of Maria and my parents. Maybe in the end, that was the part of me that was really lived here...all the dead Mountain Hollow had consumed.

We both lay there quiet for a long while, and Manhattan was a million miles away. Outside, on the lawn, stealthy shadows were passing. The deer were coming for the apples again.

"I know I've been pretty adamant about it," Denise began, "but I've been thinking a lot about it. There's really no reason why I can't move my office and set it up here."

Stunned, I rolled over and propped myself up on my elbow. "But could you actually do that? Leave the city?"

She shrugged. "It's not like it's going anywhere. If I wanted to visit, I could always drive down there."

"But you love the city."

"And I love you." She tapped my chest. "But I know that you are miserable down there. You've got too much of your grandmother in you. Your heart is here."

I think one of the deer had stopped outside to listen to us, hearing our low voices out on the lawn. I could feel eyes watching me from out in the dark, inhuman eyes, silent and breathless.

"I've never spent the winter here though.” I felt a twinge then, a soundless, insubstantial dark like a cloud passing across the moon. “Maria always used to say that the mountain was dangerous in the winter."

Denise sighed. "That was before the county paved the road. You said yourself it was impassable all winter long. But since the Conkleys moved in down the hill the county plows in the winter, or at least up to their place. If we moved in, the county could just plow the rest of the way up."

I nodded. "Yeah, but the house could be cold. It's old."

Denise laughed. "Why are you fighting me on this? You can't tell me that you haven't dreamed of moving up here for years."

"You know I have."

"So stop fighting me and let me graciously sacrifice living in the city for you. I'm trying to make a grand gesture here."

I said nothing, but could see possibilities unfolded in my mind.

"Besides, you've been toying with the idea for awhile now. Last year you installed the new wood stove in the living room and had the attic insulated. I'm not blind, you know."

I kissed her. "No one has ever accused you of that."

"So…?"

"So…?"

"So let's give it a shot. If it's too cold, or if I decide I can't stand living in the middle of nowhere any longer, we can go back."

"You're really serious about this, aren't you."

"What part of what I am saying don't you get?" She flashed me one of her devious smiles. "Besides, you've always said the city is no place to raise a kid, and maybe it's time we started thinking seriously about a family."

"A ha!" I laughed. "Now I see where this is going."

Denise shrugged. "We've put it off too long."

I raised my eyebrow. "You're serious?"

"About which?"

"About both."

"Yes…very serious."

Gently, I rolled her over on her back, her skin velvety against mine. We lay belly to belly in the dark, a very familiar heat building between us. "When were you planning on getting started with this?"

"No time like the present."

And we started making a baby.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

WRITERS, SHAMANS, AND FOOLS


master shaman, i have come

with my dolly from the shadow side

with a demon and an englishman


Tori Amos, "Sister Janet"


Once upon a time, long ago, I knew this strange kid. His family moved around every year, and he was perpetually the "new kid" in school, reluctant to make strong attachments he knew would be broken before the end of the year. Despite this, he was never really lonely. He had friends no one else could see.


He would wander, often, into the desert; there amidst the scorpions and rattlesnakes the dust would whisper to him, and he heard voices in the wind. The ghosts of long dead Native peoples would tell him their stories. The sun and stars sang to him tales of long ago. A little bit older, his family resettled back east, and the wooded landscape of rural New York was so very different from the one he had grown up in. Still, he would often disappear for hours to wander lost in the mountains, returning from such meanderings starry-eyed, dazed, and slightly out of it. But it wasn't chemicals secretly getting him high. He was just out talking to the trees.


Then of course his family did the worst possible thing you could do with a kid like that. They gave him an old manual typewriter. And parents--let this be a warning to you. If you are concerned about your children dabbling in occult forces, don't worry about the ouija board or the Tarot cards. Whatever you do, keep them away from pens and paper and keyboards. Take away their paint brushes and their clay. Because after they gave the boy his keyboard, he no longer went out to the spirits.


The spirits now came to him.


I have often felt, when I sit down to write, that I should be beating a medicine drum, drawing chalk circles, or chanting invocations. Like any shaman, I am preparing for an out-of-body experience, a journey to the Otherside. My spirit leaves my body and flows through the clicking of the keyboard, channeled to some nether realm where the voices come and tell me their stories. I can lose hours, skip meals, forget to sleep. Screw heroin, alcohol, or sex. No one fully understands addiction the way people compelled to create do.


At times I feel certain there must be some grand celestial waiting room out there, where all the unwritten songs, the unimagined paintings, and the untold tales are all lined up waiting for some poor fool to pick up a pencil and let them out. They are there, whispering, scratching at the walls of reality, waiting to be born. "Come get me. Let me out." Because inasmuch as people concerned with commercial success will tell you something inane like "write what you know," the best stories--the real stories--just come through. They almost seem to be using you as a passage into the world. I won a playwright's competition when I was 17, and I remember the director asking me if I had personally experienced the events in the tale. I hadn't. I didn't know anyone who had. And I had no flipping clue where it came from. All I knew was that an English teacher knew I liked to write, challenged me to enter the competition, and I sat down to knock off a story. There was no plotting. No scripting. No laying out scenes. The voices just started whispering.


I am not a writer. I am a secretary who takes dictation from the ghosts in his head. And thus it is rather difficult for me to be lonely, or to even imagine what lonely feels like. Like any medium, I am not looking to fill the silence, but instead looking for silence where and when I can.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

THE DOCTOR


Doctor Who is often—and quite erroneously—explained to Americans as “the British Star Trek.” The problem with such a comparison is that, for all the fervor of its enthusiasts, Star Trek has always been peripheral to the mainstream American experience. Due perhaps to that stubborn old streak of American anti-intellectualism, Star Trek is generally watched by “geeks” and not spoken of in polite company. Doctor Who, however, has always been a family program, and the percentage of the British population glued to the screens to watch it is far greater than the percentage of American Star Trek fans. Who is, according to Guinness, the most successful science fiction series in history, both in terms of longevity and profitability. It is also, one could argue, only very nominally “science fiction.”


True, it is about an alien. When we first met the titular character in the November 23rd, 1963 episode “An Unearthly Child,” he was hiding in a junkyard, his remarkable alien ship disgused as an ordinary London police box. That first episode is dark, weird, and quite eerie, the story revolving around two teachers who cannot make sense of the mysterious new girl at school. A genius in mathematics, science, and history, the girl is befuddled and ignorant when it comes to the most basic things (in flashback, she mistakenly refers to British currency as a decimal system, and when the teacher corrects her, the girl responds that she had forgotten the British hadn’t moved to a decimal system yet). The teachers feel compelled to investigate, and follow her to her home address (the junkyard) where she apprently lives in a police box with her grandfather. Forcing their way in, they discover the truth; the girl and her grandfather are aliens, not only from another world but another time. We are told nothing else about them; not the name of their planet, their people, or why they are on the run from them. We are not even told their own names (the girl’s, “Susan Foreman,” is clearly an alias and her grandfather is called simply “the Doctor,” begging the question that gives the show its title).


Which is of course the crux of Doctor Who’s charm. There is no techno-babble here. Where similar science fiction programs struggle to explain the mechanics of things, Doctor Who veils everything in mystery. The show embraces Clarke’s assertion that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus, while Star Trek tech is from just a few centuries in the future and therefore expected to be somewhat comprehensible to us, the Doctor points out, his people had mastered all time and space when humanity was struggling with the wheel. Even if he tried to explain the workings of his science we wouldn’t be equipped to understand. His mysterious ship can therefore be physically larger on the inside than the outside, can change its appearance at whim, travel througout all of time and space simply by vanishing and re-appearing, and to some degree sentient, without us needing to know “how.” And the Doctor himself conveniently “regenerates” when seriously injured or an actor gets tired of playing him, changing both his physical features and to some extent his personality. Thus, eleven actors have played the Doctor in the series, but unlike the various James Bonds, they are all understood to be the same character in sequence. As the show unfolds it becomes clear that even the Doctor and his people have forgotten how everything “works.” They are so old they cannot even recall how their ancestors came up with the technology, and everything is veiled in ritual and evocative names (the black hole that somehow powers the whole time-travel thing is charmingly called “the Eye of Harmony”).


What this does is make room for stories, and oh...what great stories they have been. Doctor Who careens wildly between horror, historical drama, fantasy, action, comedy, and sci fi. And yet remarkably—impossibly—it follows a loose sort of story arc. When we first met the Doctor he was callous, self-absorbed, and utterly contemptuous of humanity. He abducts the two teachers who learn his secret and seems to spare them only at the urging of his grand daughter. He demonstrates over and over again cowardice and a lack of sympathy for the suffering of others. But it is through his travels, and his interactions with these human companions and others that follow, that the Doctor begins to evolve. He begins to care. In one of my favorite episodes of the program, The War Games (broadcast back in 1969), he even runs into a situation he realizes he cannot handle on his own and is forced to call his people. We learn a bit more about him here—he is a renegade being hunted by his own race, his ship stolen. But he risks capture and punishment to save other lives. It is a character-defining moment, splendidly acted, and the Doctor pays the ultimate price. His people help the human out and then punish the Doctor by exiling him to Earth, his vessel disabled, and in a weird form of capital punishment “kill” his current incarnation, forcing him to regenerate into a new actor (this matters only because we learn that the Doctor’s people ultimately only have 13 such lives in them).


From here the Doctor softens, working with the United Nations to defend Earth against alien attacks, doing his best to help the primitive humans learn and grow. When his ship is restored to him, he continues to act as a sort of crusader, righting wrongs whenever he can. As the series progresses, his schemes become grander, and darker elements of his past re-emerge. He becomes more ruthless in fighting for what he thinks is right, until finally destroying both his own home planet and its mortal enemies when the war they are fighting threatens the rest of the universe. After its 26-year run ended in 1989, the series returned in 2005 with the Doctor as the last of his race, a mythic figure so ancient and so far ahead of anyone else that he sees himself as the custodian of all creation. Despite his altruism, the Doctor’s old arrogance, his sense of absolute suoperiority, frequently rears its head, making him a very complex sort of hero. In what is arguably the single best episode of the revived series, the Doctor takes it upon himself to change history, saving the life of a woman whose death will actually inspire others to future greatness. Being the last of his kind, he boasts he no longer has to follow the rules. He is the “Time Lord Victorious” and can change history if he pleases. In the end, knowing what her destiny was supposed to be, the woman he saves commits suicide to restore the balance. It is brutal, deeply emotional, and highly philosophical all at once (not to mention a very clever inversion of the most praised Star Trek episode of all time, “City on the Edge of Forever”). It reminds us of what a previous human companion once said to him; he needed humans to travel with him because sometimes “you need someone to stop you.”


I have no doubt that the Doctor will make it to fifty. The revived series is going strong, and the Doctor Who brand sells better than ever. The premise is inexhaustible—stories anywhere in time, anywhere in space—and there are built in excuses to change lead actors and key sets. It continues to attract creative minds; Douglas Addams has written for Who,and last year the man behind Notting Hill and Love, Actually did a touching story about Vincent Van Gough. Now, Michael Moorcock—probably England’s greatest living fantasist—has written a Doctor Who novel and there is talk of him doing a script. Where the Time Lord will go from here is uncertain, but I will definitely be along for the ride.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

THELEMA AT A GLANCE


For roughly the last two decades, one of the philosophies that has most influenced my thoughts and actions has been "Thelema," formulated by the late Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). As a guy who majored in religious studies, I thought I would turn the microscope on Thelema for a brief summary.


Ontology:

Only two qualities exist, the Observer and the Observed. These entities are not independent of one another, but polarities of the same thing. The Observer is the active pole. It actively engages with the Observed and in doing so defines it. The Observed plays the passive role, being shaped and defined by the attention of the Observer. Thelema tends to associate the Observer with the integer +n, the individual human consciousness, and the center of a circle. The Observed is associated with -n, the infinite universe, and the circumference of the circle.


Theology:

“God” (and by this term we mean the sum total of all that was, is, or could ever possibly be) cannot be perceived or defined directly. To say “God” is male robs him of being “female,” and thus limits him. To say “God” is “spirit” removes the possibility of his being “matter,” etc. Thus, Thelema understands “God” by the integer 0. It neither exists not does not exist, and contains all opposites within it. Thus, the Thelemite focuses on two opposite faces of “God,” the personification of the Observer, Hadit, and the personification of the Observed, Nuit. Hadit is the Divine Within, the spark of consciousness in every human being. Nuit is the Divine Without, the universe that human consciousness reaches out to touch and merge with. Hadit is generally seen as a “god” and Nuit as a “goddess.” Again, Hadit would be represented by the center of the circle and the integer +n, while Nuit would be the circumference and -n. Their union, +n + -n, is equal to 0, the undefined and unknowable “God.”


Cosmology:

The Universe (Nuit) is understood as being infinite. In such a situation, any single position (Hadit) within the body of the infinite would be the center. Thus both Nuit and Hadit are infinite qualities. Anything that exists in the body of Nuit can be understood as a “point-event,” a position and phenomenon in time and space. Nuit is imagined as being space, with Hadit as the stars that fill space. In all other respects, Thelema embraces all the realities embraced by the physical sciences; atomic particles, the four fundamental forces, etc. It is a strict rule in Thelemic philosophy that nothing in it must contradict logic and observation. Where Thelema differs slightly from modern materialistic science is in the notion that our ideas and thoughts are just as “real” as external, observable phenomena. These mental or “psychic” point-events are simply of a different character than the physical ones. Thus Thelema would allow for the existence of all sorts of gods, demons, angels, and thought-forms as a certain class of being, distinct from animals and plants.


Anthropology:

Thelemic anthropology divides the human being into roughly three layers of being. There is the “divine” level, or “Hadit.” This might be understood as pure consciousness. It would be the pronoun “I” in an English sentence, stripped of defining characteristics like actions or attributes. In such a case, each individual “I” is indistinct from every other, points whose only distinction is where they exist in time and space. At the next level, which we might call “angelic,” is the human's sense of individuality and self, the “I am I and not you” level. This is also the center of our True Will (see below). Finally, there is the “animal” level, the human being as a flesh and blood creature with instincts, needs, and drives.


Epistemology:

On one hand, Thelema would insist that reason, observation, and above all else, direct experience, are the only viable means of gaining Knowledge. On the other, there is a core belief that all Knowledge is essentially false, being the product of the Observer interacting with (and therefore shaping) the Observed. Like all things, Thelema prefers to tackle Knowledge in levels. For example, on one level a table can be proven to be a table. But on another, a table is just a physical object (“tableness” being a human concept imposed upon it). On another, the table is just an arrangement of chemical components, on yet another, atomic forces, etc. Thus the Thelemite is urged to used objective reason as the base of his understanding, but to simultaneously explore altered states of consciousness in the search for the experience of infinite nothing that the Buddhists would call “nirvana” (and the Thelemites, “crossing the Abyss”).


Special Qualities

  1. Magick

      Thelema defines Magick as "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will". In short, any time the Observer defines the Observed as a self-willed action, it is Magick. Acting is Magickal, reacting is not. Thelema vigorously strives to remove notions of the supernatural from Magick. Brushing your teeth, writing a sonnet, and balancing your checkbook are all Magickal acts. So, however, is conjuring a spirit to “visible appearance” (essentially causing yourself to see and interact with a thought-form). Everyone does Magick all the time. The only difference is that some are better than others at shaping the world in accordance with their Wills.

  2. True Will

      Central to Thelema is the notion of True Will, and the highest law is do what thou wilt. It must be clearly understood that this is NOT synonymous with “do as you please.” For the Thelemite, every individual is his or her own god, a sovereign being, a sun in his or her own solar system. However, even gods and suns possess defining characteristics and functions. Your True Will is essentially your role and place in the universe. It is “who you are” and what you are “meant to do.” True Will is the result of genetic, social, and other factors, the trajectory given to you when you manifested as a point-event in space. Discovering your True Will is essential to any Thelemite. Further, it is felt that the only sin is to interfere with the True Will of another (see Liber OZ for expansion on this).

Further reading; http://www.thelemapedia.org/index.php/Thelema

LIFE AMONGST THE SPIRITS

"...An excellent man of great intelligence, a learned Qabalist, once amazed (me) by stating that the Tree of Life was the framework of the Universe. It was as if someone seriously maintained that a cat was a creature constructed by placing the letters C.A.T. in that order. It is no wonder that Magick has excited the ridicule of the unintelligent, since even its educated students can be so guilty of so gross a violation of the first principles of common sense..."


- Aleister Crowley, Magick: In Theory and Practice


For the last 25 years or so, on a fairly regular basis, I have had dealings with spirits.

Mind you, I am hardly alone in this. Any Catholic who prays to Mary or the Saints, any Hindu who communes with the gods, any child delighted by Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny has done much the same. Of course, in such cases the communication is usually one sided; we talk, and the spirits listen. But my involvement with them is a bit more active. When I talk, they talk back. I see them, hear them, invite them over to my place and occasionally drop in at theirs.

Magick is a tricky business. Unlike religion, it asks you to "do" rather than "believe." For example, billions of Muslims throughout history have believed that the prophet Mohammad spoke with the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) in a cave. If Mohammad had been a Magician, rather than a prophet, instead of handing over the Qur'an he would have instructed his disciples how to call Gabriel themselves. In this way, Magick is like a science, because it depends on a series of techniques that theoretically anyone can use to achieve similar results. Where it breaks with science, however, is that these results are internal and difficult to share. Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) summed it up in his Confessions;


"I admit that my visions can never mean to other men as much as they do to me. I do not regret this. All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle."


Thus, the techniques of Magick, once practiced and mastered, consistently produce results. The problem is that these results are usually personal. This is not to say that they cannot have any validity for others, but rather that it is best if each and every individual experience the results for themselves and come to their own conclusions. And there is a danger even in that. Just as in religion, it is dangerous in Magick to ever conclude you have found all the "answers." As Crowley warned his students at the very beginning of their magickal studies;


"It is spoken of the Sephiroth, and the Paths, of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them."


In other words, in all his dealings with spirits and visions, the Magician must remain detached, skeptical, and objective. The ones who fail to do so usually end up as the nuts who give Magick a bad name.


I can look you straight in the eye and tell you I have conjured spirits to visible appearance, and that it was not simply a case of imagining them. Rather, the techniques of Magick have brought me to a point where I can willingly induce a sort of hallucination, or perhaps more accurately a waking dream. I am awake, alert, and fully conscious, but can see and hear and on occasion even smell the being or entity before me. Nor do i "tell myself" what the spirit looks like or control what it says and does. Whatever part of me the experience is coming from is separate from the conscious regions of my brain.


This is where many would-be Magicians stumble. During the period where you are interacting with the spirit, it must be just as real to you as your neighbor or co-worker. But once the spirit is gone, it absolutely must not be. Once the guest is gone and the lights come back on, it is best for you to pour a drink, go have a shag, take a shower, and put your sane, skeptical hat back on. You need to get back "into" the world. The people who get lost in the mazes of the occult are the ones who want to follow the spirits back into them.


"Thus, when we say that Nakhiel is the "Intelligence" of the Sun, we do not mean that he lives in the Sun, but only that he has a certain rank and character; and although we can invoke him, we do not necessarily mean that he exists in the same sense of the word in which our butcher does..."


- Aleister Crowley, Magick: In Theory and Practice


But just as I can say to you that I do not believe the spirits exist the same way my friends do, I can't tell you that I am "making them up." They do, indeed, behave as if they have an existence entirely separate from me. Further, they often seem capable of things I am not. This is why I have learned over the years not to pitch camp on either side of the "they exist" or "they don't exist" argument. In fact, I can see the merits of arguing from either side, and depending on my needs can assume either position. I suppose part of this was my graduate school experience, where I learned a convincing argument can be made for just about any position in the world. Politicians call this "spin."


But why do it? What is the point of any of it at all? Crowley would tell you;


"The advantages to be gained...are chiefly these: A) A widening of the horizon of the mind. B) An improvement of the control of the mind."


Speaking for myself, I can say that I have had intensely profound experiences which challenged my preconceptions, forced me to look at things from a different angle, and occasionally even initiated life-changing events. Because the one thing that Magick cannot fail to do is strip away the layers of your own character armor and expose you to yourself. Operations of this kind forced me to confront and accept my sexual identity, pointed me in the direction of my deepest wishes and desires, and even caused me to pack my bags and leave the land of my birth for Japan. At least in my life, I have always found that I am a better person when doing the Magicks then when I slack off them (as I had the last three years, with disastrous results).


I suppose that Magick has provided me with what religion gives others, minus the dogma. Through Magick, I have experienced wonders, seen mind-blowing things, and come to feel connected to a greater and larger reality. In times of stress or need, I have turned to the spirits rather than prayer, always with excellent results. Whether or not these things would have turned out the way they did without the Magick is immaterial; I have always felt that one of the most beneficial aspects of prayer is alleviating one's sense of helplessness in situations he or she cannot control. Though some Magicians will promise you health, wealth, love, and happiness in your dealings in spirits, the best ones don't. We aren't hawking The Secret here after all. But you will feel empowered.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"A" IS FOR "ART"

Rejecting the notion that people come with a predestined life purpose, Anton LaVey once said; “people don’t ‘find’ themselves, they ‘create’ themselves.” His corollary of course, might have been that if they don’t create themselves, someone else will do the creating for them. There is considerable truth in this. All human concepts and cultures are manufactured, pre-packaged, and sold to children who put them on and wear them as if they natural to the human condition. But most of the things we blindly assume are innate and natural are in fact inventions and fictions, no more or less valid than the inventions and fictions of other peoples. It is unfortunate that so few people realize this fact, because the first step towards enlightenment and liberation is the recognition that truth is entirely relative.

When you get right down to it, all Truth is Art, and I mean this in the most basic sense of the word, as something manufactured, “artifice” and “artificial.” Truth—to shamelessly paraphrase a wonderful line in True Blood--like “morality” and “money” exists only in the human brain. This is neither to say that it is worthless nor in some way not real. Rather, it hints at the great secret of the human condition. If we say with the 12th century Isma’ili mystic Hassan-i Sabbah, “nothing is true, everything is permitted,” we are not necessarily being nihilists as much as grasping the concept that each and every life is a completely blank slate, an unwritten book, an undiscovered country. The purpose of human existence, if there is such a thing, is Art; the process of imbuing experience and sensation with “meaning.”

This is as natural to people as breathing. Consider children lying on their backs looking up at a summer sky. In the clouds they see horses and elephants, great castles and leering faces. What they are doing in fact is taking an experience—in this case, a mass of water vapor—and given it meaning and definition. This is the human condition in a nutshell. The world around us may in fact be a swirling cloud of minute particles, but we ourselves shape it into trees, and mountains, and microwave dinners.

To my mind, the key difference between science and tradition is that the former understands this fact and the latter denies it. Science is well aware that its truths are artificial and temporary, which is why when new data or experiences come along it is able to revise itself and change. Tradition—and I include religion in this category—makes the mistake of assuming the truths it clings to have any intrinsic reality, weight, or value. They may of course be meaningful or beautiful to the individual, but they are not half as universal as one might wish to believe.

Take for example the notion that women are subservient to men, and that their place is in the home, raising children. For countless generations this was assumed as fact, but all along, of course, it was merely “fashion,” like thin neckties or disco. But where disco, despite all of ABBA’s best efforts, was never forced upon children as Truth, the inequality of the sexes was. And this is especially apt when it comes to religion. The differences between Christ, Allah, the Buddha, or Krishna are all of the same character as those between jazz, hip-hop, the blues, and classical music. The only difference being that the parents do not raise children to believe 70s Easy Listening is the One True Music.

I can think of nothing more profound or important as this fact. That humans create their gods, taboos, laws, rules, and fashions, that all these things are transitory and artificial, is the single most powerful notion any person can grasp. Where traditionalists may see this as nihilism, I see it rather as license to create ex nihilo. By recognizing the essential meaninglessness of existence, one is given permission to create meaning that has real value for them. It is to be given the conscious choice of being the artist or the consumer, rather than simply being forced into the latter category.

BARNABAS RISING
























I am not, generally speaking, a big fan of the good guy vampire meme. Only in the post-modern world could a creature that personifies disease, rape, and cannibalism become an international sex symbol. In a world overcrowded with glamorous Hollywood vamps, from True Blood and The Vampire Diaries to that godforsaken mess known as Twilight, it is always nice when someone comes along to remind us that the vampire is a man-eating ambulatory corpse. A zombie with fashion sense. Most recently that man has been Tim Burton, whose Dark Shadows closes a forty-six-year-old circle. By choosing to portray vampiric leading character Barnabas Collins as a pale, cadaverous ghoul with a Max Shreck manicure, Burton and Depp have succeeded in making the very vamp who started the whole "new school good guy bloodsucker" old school again.

You probably know the story. In 1966 Dan Curtis launched a gothic daytime soap that was basically "Maine Eyre," Charlotte Bronte transported to the Pine Tree State. A young orphaned governess arrives at a decaying family estate inhabited by the last scions of the proud Collins dynasty, each of whom harbors grim secrets. Various soap opera shenanigans follow. But eight months later the ratings were flagging and Curtis decided to spice things up by going completely off the deep end. He introduced a vampire into the plot. Ancestor of the modern Collins family Barnabas wakes up after having been chained in a coffin for two hundred years and immediately begins a killing spree while also pursuing the woman who looks suspiciously like his lost love. Canadian actor Jonathan Frid was hired to play the role for thirteen weeks, but the ratings took off like a rocket and Frid's Barnabas was an unexpected sex symbol. He was subsequently provided a compelling back story and evolved into the protagonist of the series.

It was the kind of thing that only could have gone down in the sixties, the kind of stereotype busting that gave us an African woman as a starship officer and a cute blonde housewife who was a witch. Barnabas Collins marks the arrival of the vampire as leading man, a figure we identify with and cheer for rather than a monster to be destroyed. Without Barnabas, we don't have Lestat, Saint Germain, Angel, Bill Compton, or Edward Cullen (whose surname even reminds us of Mr. Collins). Barnabas was the mutation that started a whole new strain.

But he was not some awful sparkly James Dean wannabe. Barnabas entered the show as a monster, and even though he evolved into a sympathetic one, he was still basically an American Dracula (ironically, since Dark Shadows even Stoker's inhuman Count has gotten the good guy treatment). One of the things that pleased me about Burton's Shadows was that it was very up front about Barnabas' monstrous nature, far more so than the glamorous Ben Cross Barnabas of the 1991 mini-series. Depp's version of the character looked like the love child of Jonathan Frid and Count Orlock.

The movie has received mixed reviews, but all in all I was pleased with it. Condensing 1225 half-hour episodes of storyline into a two-hour film was no easy task, but even with the added doses of farce and satire it was still recognizably Dark Shadows. Fans of the original no doubt were amused by the Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters amalgamation and Caroline's microphone query about her missing father. Danny Elfman even did a fair job or recalling the original TV score. But what will stay with me is Depp's rather complex Barnabas, who shifts between 30 Days of Night mass-murdering construction workers and hippies to devoted family man. If you want one scene that summed up the ambiguity of this Barnabas, it has to be when Barnabas is concerned for the welfare of neglected nine-year-old David Collins, but in looking after him casually uses mind controlling hypnosis on the boy as if it were nothing at all. I couldn't tell if it was touching or creepy. I settled on both.

In the end, the best thing about 2012's Dark Shadows is that it indicates there is still some life in the old gothic vampire yet. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A BRIEF WORD FROM TOLKIEN


Children (and adults) are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed. (Tolkien "On Fairy-Stories")

HATS OFF TO DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS


Once upon a time, in the magical land of Wisconsin, a pair of men printed out a thousand or so copies of a game. It was amateurish and badly-edited, a Frankenstein’s monster of historical war-gaming (where grown men use miniature soldiers to re-enact battles like Thermopylae and Waterloo), world mythology, J. R. R. Tolkien, pulp fiction, and fairy tales. In my mind’s eye I like to imagine its creators wearing white scientist smocks, in a ruined castle or dungeon, bringing it to life during a thunderstorm. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder, did Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson know, could they have ever even imagined, that their little folio-sized game was about to change the world?

Mere hyperbole? No. That game, Dungeons & Dragons, not only went one to earn more than a billion dollars in sales over the years, it also helped generate hundreds of billions more in video games and online gaming like World of Warcraft. You could not have played WoW, or something like Fable or Final Fantasy, if Dungeons & Dragons had never existed; the stamp of D&D is on almost every aspect of such games. And then there is publishing. D&D practically reinvented the fantasy genre, which prior to the game had been lumped in with somewhat better received sibling science fiction. Inasmuch as most fantasy series are bad recyclings of The Lord of the Rings, most also show the hand of D&D, which has produced hundreds of novels tied-in to the game and its settings.

But let’s back up a second for the non-geeks in the audience (and if you stuck around this long, more power to you). Dungeons & Dragons, aka D&D, is a “role-playing game.” In fact, it invented the role-playing game, a pursuit that might best be described as “improvisational radio theater.” In D&D, one person takes on the role of creating a story, with a setting, characters, and very open-ended plot. The others each create a single character, to act as their alter-egos or personae in the game. In effect, they are each responsible for a protagonist in a story, while the fellow running the game sets the scenes and plays the role of the antagonists. There are of course rules, and numbers, and dice, and these define what a character is capable of doing. For example, all characters had have attributes like “Strength” and “Intelligence.” These come with a numerical value, so a character with Strength 16 is stronger than one with Strength 9, while one with Intelligence 12 is brighter than Intelligence 7. All this should be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever even been near a computer RPG. But unlike a computer game, the action is described verbally, and takes place more or less in everyone’s heads. It is a social experience that focuses on cooperation, communication skills, imagination, and math. All of which in my humble opinion makes it an infinitely superior experience to sitting in front of the video screen.

I owe my introduction to D&D to my elementary school, and to Ms. Virginia Nyahay. My mother had suggested the game to me before, after seeing an advertisement for it in Boys Life magazine. But my real introduction came later. Brought into the school’s “Gifted and Talented Education” program (and really, don’t those words just describe me perfectly?), G.A.T.E. coordinator Ms. Nyahay (who I learned recently went on to become a school principal) gave us a set of the 1977 revised D&D “Basic” rules, revised and edited by neurology Professor and child development expert John Eric Holmes. This was just before the D&D backlash, when grieving mother Patricia Pulling, understandably struggling to come to grips with her son’s suicide, decided to very publically blame the game for his death. It was also before the Christian Right started accusing it of teaching witchcraft (the way the same idiots blame Harry Potter today). No, in those days, it was seen as a good thing for kids, pretty much for all the reasons I mentioned above. Because of my interest in telling stories (or running my mouth and making up things, if you prefer), I took on the job of “mastering” the game. It was the dawn of a life-long love affair.

Aficiandados will of course know that the game has undergone several revisions and changes over the last 36 years, and that there are quite literally hundreds (if not thousands) of similar games produced by other companies. The internet is filled with long and often heated debates between fans of one incarnation or another arguing the inadequacies of all other versions. For my part, I will be the first to admit that I have played and preferred many other role-playing games to D&D, but this does nothing to dilute my affection and respect for the game. The latest version, the very badly named “4th Edition” (there have been at least 8 or 9 major versions, not 4) has been sharply criticized for making several changes to the game, and wildly cheered for the same reason. Playing it last year, however, was like being ten years old again, a heady whiff of nostalgia. No matter how much she has changed, the old girl is still at the core the same.

I mention all this now for a reason. Some time back I returned the favor Ms. Nyahay did for me all those years ago by starting a D&D club at my school. Dungeons & Dragons is, after more than three decades, still going strong enough that the latest version always gets translated into Japanese, and I thought it would be a good way to shift kids’ interests from PlayStation and Nintendo into something a bit more educational. The mother of one club member bumped into me in the hall this morning and ended up thanking me. Her son, who had always been ostracized and a loner, prefering to stay in his room with the computer, now has friends. They come over to play D&D. She says it has completely changed him. He laughs, jokes, has fun with them. He used to dread coming to school but now looks forward to it. I suspect that for every Patricia Pulling, there are a hundred other mothers with stories like the one today.

For me, I remain convinced that D&D helped strengthen my communication skills, and by running all those games and teaching others to play, the ease with which I can walk into a classroom and get kids to learn things I owe in part to the game. I also wonder if I ever would have gotten a Master’s in the field of religions and mythologies if not for D&D and its cousins. Nor do I think I am alone. Heather Burton, who has become a remarkable artist, told me playing D&D all those years ago helped spark her imagination. And I know a lot of other people reading this will have similar accounts (feel free to share).

And so I say, three cheers to the grand old game.

MIRIAM AND ME

I was just reading online that MGM is planning a remake of one of my all-time favorite movies, the 1983 thriller, The Hunger.

I hesitate to call it a "vampire" movie; after all, the "V" word never appears once in the film, there are no coffins or crucifixes, and the protagonists seem obsessed with seeing themselves in mirrors. But then again, if you were David Bowie and French national treasure Catherine Deneuve, why wouldn't you be gazing at your reflections all the time?

Proving "Bela Lugosi's Dead," Bowie and Deneuve reinvent the vampire

Bowie and Deneuve play John and Miriam Blaylock, an ultra-wealthy Manhattan couple who own a brownstone in Sutton Place, collect thousand-year-old antiques, and give classical music lessons to the spoiled rich girl next door. But like most beautiful people, John and Miriam have an eating disorder; once a week they go trolling in goth clubs and bars picking up young couples to slit their throats and drink their blood (no fangs for the Blaylocks...they carry little ankh-shaped knives on pendants around their necks). Miriam, we learn, has memories as far back as ancient Egypt. John she picked up in England about three hundred years ago, offering him the chance to live for ever.

Smoke and Mirrors: Deneuve lights up "The Hunger"

Miriam, however, lies. While she goes on ageless century after century, the lovers she cons into becoming like her only endure a few centuries before--in the space of just days--their internal clocks speed up and they age centuries. Problem is, they can't die. These poor bastards turn into weak, living mummies which Miriam keeps locked up in boxes in her attic.

John in the Box

If you want to know the rest, rent the DVD. Rounding out the cast, however, is a young Susan Sarandon.

Don't expect the movie to explain why Miriam gets to live forever while all her lovers wither; the Whitley Streiber book it is based upon--which is really more science fiction than horror--explains that Miriam is one of the last survivors of a parallel, blood-drinking species. Transfusing humans can help them live longer, but not indefinitely like her. The movie throws all the boring science out the window and replaces it with what REALLY matters; billowing curtains, superb classical music, and the lesbian love scene to end all lesbian love scenes.

F$@k Twilight. Like the Swedish Let the Right One In, The Hunger is vampire cinema for adults. Granted, it hit me like a ton of bricks when I was all of 15, but it has lost none of its power in the hundred or so times I have seen it since then.

The only thing that has changed for me since then is my understanding of the metaphor at the heart of the film. As a kid, I thought it was about the horror of getting old (watching David Bowie go from 30 to 110 in a few short days is horrifying cinema indeed, and the best age make-up ever put on film). Today, I suspect it is about relationships. I know how Miriam feels. There are the yummy people that you pick up and devour in clubs (tossing the empties into the incinerator you keep in your basement), and there are the ones you fall for. You tell them (like Miriam) "forever and ever," but then they end up getting old and stale. Sure, you keep them tucked away in the attic, and go up to whisper to them sometimes in the dark (classic Miriam line, talking to her mummified exes, "I love you, I love you all"), but you are already out there looking for the replacement.

I used to feel sorry for John. Now i identify with Miriam.

WICCA....THE OTHER WHITE MEAT


I ran into a witch the other day. Not the broom-stick riding, cauldron-stirring, poison-apple kind; she was the Goddess-worshipping, matriarchy, earth-power variety. In short, a Wiccan.

I’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship with Wicca, a modern religion with somewhat nebulous ties to traditional witchcraft. My affection is based on its core assumption, that each of us possesses the power “…to initiate change. This recognition of ‘power within’ moves us from mass passivity to personal responsible action. We are co-creators and must act with knowledge and responsibility…” (Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, Foreward, The Grimoire of Lady Sheba But this notion is common in most so-called occult traditions, which in general prefer magic (the concept that ritual action can allow the individual to affect the outcome of events) to prayer (the concept that ritual action can beseech higher powers to intervene in events). Wicca is hardly unique, therefore, in shifting focus from priests, ministers, and prophets to the individual person. But where my affection for Wicca ends is in its constant attempts to gain mainstream acceptance, forcing it to adopt more and more traits of conventional religions like Christianity or Judaism, and to “tone down” elements that might make the suburban middle class uncomfortable.

In its early stages, from its emergence in the 50s up until its explosion in the 80s, Wicca was charmingly loopy, making absurb claims and littered with a colorful cast of characters. It was more likely to just call itself Witchcraft in those days, and as a new faith worked overtime to suggest it was in fact an ancient tradition handed down in secret from ancient times. But we can hardly fault Wicca for this; all religions at the start concoct colorfully absurd origin stories. In the early days of Gerald Gardner, Alexander Sanders, Sybil Leek, and Lady Sheba, nobody seemed to be content to “just” be a witch, they had to be “kings and queens of the witches,” boasting that their families had been practicing the Craft in secret for generations and carrying out shouting matches and character assassinations against others with identical claims. As silly as this was, the tabloid spectacle of it all was still more amusing than what came later, as humorless feminists and crystal-clutching New Agers got their mitts on Witchcraft and made it painfully bland. Early on, one might catch witches dancing naked around a bonfire, howling at the moon on a spring night. Later on, they were far more likely to be in their jeans and t-shirts, sitting around a lump of quartz in the living room, holding hands and honoring “womyn power.” The TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer pefectly summed up the 90s witch-scene in the fourth season episodeHush;

Buffy: (to Willow, who has just come from her first college witch circle meeting) “So, not stellar, huh?”

Willow “Talk, all talk. Blah, blah, blah Gaia. Blah, blah, blah moon. Menstrual life-force power thingy.”

Buffy: “No actual witches in your witch group?”

Willow: No. Bunch of blessedwannabes. You know, nowadays, every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she’s a sister to the dark ones.”


It was largely the mass-marketing of Wicca that leeched it of any color it once had. Where in the beginning you needed to seek out a coven and hand-copy their ritual book, the post-80s scene saw bookshelves groaning under the weight of self-help witch books, all of which had carefully exorcised “questionable” elements. It wasn’t enough to be about casting spells; Wicca needed to be feminist, politically correct, and environmentally conscious to sell. As it down-played spell-casting, backed away from practicing rituals in the buff, and did away with hiearchy and degrees, Wicca became acceptable to shy, mild-mannered boys and girls who wanted to be “different” without actually being different at all.

Despite the concessions it had to make (or more likely because of them), Wicca did succeed, far better than any other occult tradition could claim. It’s slow metamorphosis from lunatic fringe to pop phenomenon mirrored the journey of early Christianity (“Gee, if you guys could get rid of all those uncomfortable Jewish elements I’m sure the Romans would buy it”). Soon, with practioners estimated in the millions (high or low millions depending on who you ask), Wicca was head and-shoulders above similar alternatives to mainstream faith, and those others could not fail but take notice. In blatant imitation of Wicca’s success, Aleister Crowley’s own Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) has been restructuring and repackaging itself as a “Church,” with priests, bishops, and masses (ironic considering Crowley’s dim view of Christianity). Pointing out the fact that in his Magick Without Tears Crowley had disapproved of calling his philosophical system a “religion,” an O.T.O, member replied to me without blinking “but its more acceptable to the public if we call it that.” Had he not been cremated, ole’ Aleister would be rolling in his grave. It’s getting to be these days that the only occult traditions out there still willing to be politically incorrect, anti-consumerism, and unapologetically antagonistic towards conventional religions are Anton LaVey’s Satanists and the chaos magicians, God bless ‘em.

In short, I suppose I like my alternative religions alternative. I’m kind of crazy that way. While I have fond memories of my adventures in Wicca (dancing all night on May Eve, high in the Adirondacks, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and blue spirals all over my skin springs to mind), the bulk of the tradition has become something so tame and tidy it leaves me cold. To my mind, the whole point of magic is to steal fire from the gods, so an alternative religion based on worship and prayer hardly seems worth leaving mainstream faith for. To each is own, of course, but as even alternative religions go mainstream, I find myself being pushed further out into the fringe.

Which is good. I like it there.

ON THE "GOTHIC"

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

Shirley Jackson, “The Haunting of Hill House”

Though I don’t recall the percise wording, it was Clive Barker who described Gothic fiction as an art form which rejects psychological and pseudo-scientific explanations in favor of poetic, magical thinking. It earns the label, “gothic,” because it recreates the Dark Ages, a time of brooding uncertainty and dark superstition. Gothic came into its own with the Age of Enlightenment; as people turned increasingly towards rationality and reason in their daily lives, the superstitious and the sinister was repressed, predictably to find expression in art. Naturally it was in England—the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution—that it found its strongest voice and attracted its greatest practitioners before seeping out to infect the rest of the world.

I’ve written all sorts of things since I started around the age of 12, but it is invariably the Gothic that draws me back to write again. My attraction is twofold. On one hand, I write the Gothic because I am intellectually a rational materialist. My worldview does not generally include the supernatural (though I remain open to the possibility should evidence ever present itself). I don’t believe in the notion of devils, spirits, and gods except as projections of the human condition on the cosmos at large. Because of this, I suppose, the notion of them existing is particularly terrifying to me. Which brings me to the second point. I find it very difficult to understand people who do believe in the supernatural. That people chose to live in worlds where the disembodied dead continue to exist, where evil finds genuine personification in the guise of demons, where a single spiritual dictator sits in absolute judgement over all boggles my mind. Writing “Gothic” therefore is a way to explore that side of myself I usually deny, and to try to crawl into the worldview of people I do not easily understand.

My personal feeling is that man is by nature an amphibious being that swims in the lagoon of dreams and irrationality only to emerge and crawl about on hard, dry, logic. This seems natural and necessary: otherwise there would be no art, mythology, or religion. People with no poetry in their souls as at least as broken as those who cannot separate fantasy from reality, and the worst doom I can imagine is to “grow up” and become one of those 9 to 5 people who never allow themselves moments of childish terror and wonder. To characterize such pursuits as mere “escapism” is to mark yourself not as a human, but as some gray-faced automaton.

Aside from writing and telling stories, one of the ways I keep in touch with my irrational side is my “ritual chamber.” I keep a room in my house set aside for this, as what Anton LaVey so wonderfully called an “intellectual decompression chamber.” Inside that room, the unseen universe of devils, ghosts, and angels is real, and fantasies are indulged in. But these get left by the door. What happens in that room happens to scratch a primal, primitive itch, and when I emerge I can fully be the 21st century rationalist again. The same process occurs when I sit down to write (or role-play). I switch off the part of me that says “Humbug, bah!” and allow myself to think as a child again. I suppose because my world view is in general so bleak (we exist to propogate, life has no intrinsic meaning other than living, death is the end), I need these bouts of irrationality to vent off steam.

If I found religion, perhaps I would no longer need to write at all.

MY OBJECTION TO "OBJECTIVISM"


Don’t get me wrong; I am a fan of Ayn Rand.

Though a mediocre and exceedingly long-winded novelist, Russian born Rand (1905-1982) made a name for herself primarily via her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. These works reflected and put before the public her personal philosophy, a system which eventually became known as Objectivism. When famously asked by a reporter to define her philosophy while standing on one foot, Rand replied; “Metaphysics = Objective Reality; Epistemology = Reason; Ethics = Self-interest; Politics = Capitalism.” Or to put it another way, reality exists independently of human thought or existence, reason is the only way to understand reality, the purpose of human existence is to find happiness and self-fulfilment, and a hands-off free market society facilitates the rest. For Rand, the most important thing was to think for oneself and never let those in authority—government, religious, or otherwise—dictate truth. Her “rational self-interest” included within it full respect for the individual rights of others, and encouraged people to take their ideals and through the manipulation of reality imbue them with physical form—art in the highest sense. Rand’s is an attractive, reasonable philosophy that would do away with a great deal of the idiocy we live with today. It is hard NOT to agree with her.

But the problem with Rand is that she died before the Gospel According to Bjork;

If you ever get close to a human, and human behavior, be ready to get confused. There’s definitely no logic to human behavior…

That Rand spectacularly misjudged the human animal is clear from her own personal life. For her, human beings could be taught to rationally judge their actions and act in their best interests. What she failed to consider is that a substantial portion of human behavior, quite possibly even the bulk of it, is instinctual, and that our actions tend to be dictated by subconscious impulses rather than rational and considered responses. I would submit before the court exhibit A, Rand’s own infamous affair with Nathaniel Branden.

Twenty-five years her junior, Branden was a follower of Rand’s and one of the arch-advocates of Objectivism. The two became close, and then romantically involved, despite the fact that both were already married and the considerable age gap between them. Both managed to convince their spouses, however, that their affair was supremely logical. It was only reasonable that two intellectuals of their calibre be drawn to one another. Thus the relationship went forward with spousal consent, and Branden rose to become Rand’s second-in-command and “intellectual heir.”

Nothing wrong with this; everyone seems happy. But wait…here comes the punch line.

Eventually similar “logic” convinced Branden it was time for him to take up with an attractive younger model, in addition to his wife and Rand. Furious, Rand made a public spectacle of disowning Branden and villifying him, the Ur-Objectivist proving the old clichĂ© about hell, fury, and scorned women holds true for even the supremely rational. Her pain and rage devastated the organization they had built together, causing a rift amongst Objectivists. To my mind, there is no clearer indication that Objectivism is deeply flawed when its two highest advocates were incapable of acting in their own rational self-interests.

Message, Spock? “Humans, Ayn, ain’t Vulcans.”

No system of philosophy can succeed so long as it fails to take into account our animal natures. Behaviors demonized by religions and ignored by Objectivism have in fact contributed to the survival of our species, otherwise, either they would no longer exist orwe wouldn’t. Even the most basic understanding of natural selection bears this out. We may tell ourselves that our territoriality, violent impulses, and over-powering sexual urges are—like the appendix—useless vestiges of a primal past, but very little in human history or current events bears this out. As uncomfortable as “civilized” people are with the fact, there is very little in modern human behavior that is functionally any different from other pack-mammals. Like chimpanzees or wolves we have hierarchically organized packs, we remain fiercely territorial, will kill to defend our territory, and once our bellies are full spend considerable amounts of time thinking about breeding. If modern Americans, ancient Romans, and a band of gorillas all have much the same behaviors, perhaps it is time to acknowledge they are vital aspects of our being.

Rand also makes the mistake of assuming everybody wants to be “John Galt.” The truth is, there are many types of people, some of whom are fiercely independent, some who want to lead, and some to whom the idea of standing out fills them with mortal terror. Again, we see the same in other species, and it may be something in our DNA. I’ve heard the arguments that if we teach people to think for themselves, they all would, but such egalitarianism excludes the possibility that many people like to be told what to do. And while I would agree that our current education system is designed to create workers rather than free thinkers, isn’t it odd that some free thinkers still emerge from the system? Perhaps free-thinking is something inherent in their natures, something that cannot be beaten out of them even through the banality of modern education.

It would be nice to think that everyone could learn personal responsibility and act rationally. But there are a great many people who will have sex without that condom knowing the dangers, people who smoke knowing it might kill them, people who reach for the sixth or seventh drink before they have to drive home. Surely they have been educated to the dangers, but the fact is the urge to feel good often triumphs over reason. It may well be that before we can improve the human condition, we need to figure out some way to safely satisfy and indulge our animal behaviors. Ignoring them hasn’t seemed to have worked so well, not for Rand or anyone else.