Thursday, February 24, 2011

After a Fashion

Laurie and I recently had a small, uncommon sum arrive which had the lion's share immediately thrown at our ravenous debt.  I appropriated an even smaller amount in which to purchase a few books that I've had my eye on for a while.

The first small set was Wheelock's Latin and accompanying textbooks.  I have made the declaration in the past few days that I am, at long last, going to go through with learning Latin, upping my commitment level by announcing it here as well.  My reasons are many: 1) My friend Christopher suggested it a few months ago and it has appealed to the part of me that 2) considers myself a Classicist, although I don't know Greek or Latin, which makes my Inner Critic murmur "ersatz Classicist" every time I apply that label to myself.  Laurie and I have talked about learning Greek together for about a year now but her current commitments prohibit it at present, which is fine because 3) I am given to understand that Latin is a lot easier than Greek.  4) I have a storehouse of Protestant guilt within me, ready to tap should Method Acting needs arise, over the years worth of atrophy my brain has suffered over the smattering of French and German that I so enthusiastically dived into in my early 20s. 5) Yet another in a seemingly endless line of "I heard a story on NPR" life choices.  The story in question here reported evidence that learning multiple languages could potentially stave off Alzheimer's/dementia, a disease which is one of my key phobias.  And, of course, 6) somewhere in my adult life I developed the strange kink of liking to take on huge, complex, multi-year projects.  Many at once and the headier the better!

The other set of books I ordered deal with the subject of the photo above.  The photo is of fashion icon Isabella Blow.  Some people don't know this about me, because I don't talk about it at nearly the length and detail that I talk of literature and art, but I am absolutely fascinated by the beau monde.  At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I am of the view that beauty, style, and creativity contain visible echoes of the very fingerprint of God.  I am quite serious.  Sometimes people are taken by surprise that, as Laurie puts it, "he could probably tell you what Karl Lagerfeld had for breakfast this morning."  A slight exaggeration which illustrates my point.

(Half of a grapefruit and a demitasse of Arabic coffee, for the record.  Whenever he internally grumbles over his Spartan breakfast, he thinks of his closets filled with Hedi Slimane designed clothes and perseveres.  You must admire that kind of dedication.)

I should probably take a moment to establish what precisely interests me.  What interests me is, of course, enveloping the human form in art, self expression and bold individual style, as well as the psychological effects of "uniform" if you will.  The latter refers to the effect of one's clothes on a person's attitude and, indeed, their very life.  Which outfit will make me feel most bold: t-shirt and sweats OR pressed suit, Windsor knot tie, shined shoes.  I recall a Wodehouse story where Jeeves, with possible a wink of the satirical, urges a young man to go to a costume ball dressed as Mephistopheles in order to embolden himself to propose to a specific young lady.  Clothes do make the man.

It is entirely possible that I am uncommon in this regard, but I can tell an autobiography of my mind through the progression of my clothing style.  In high school, I had a most likely skewed estimation of what I imagined was Urban Haute Bourgeoisie in a time when I lusted toward that world (and missed the target terribly.  Looking back on photos of me in High School I now think, "bartender at a high end, touristy New Orleans bar or European hairdresser trying too hard to project the image of affluence or student at an elite art school who currently takes himself so seriously that he's destined to become something only tangentially related to the creative.  Like a party planner or something"), followed by punk, goth, hippie, an interlude of sort of Urban Haute Bohemian intending to project a general eccentric artist vibe, followed by what I now aim toward, sort of an intellectual, moderately well dressed proletariat aura more in keeping with "my place."  Usually with the accessory of a hat that, out of context of the rest of my outfit might suggest "golfer", but within the context of the rest of my outfit, if I achieve what I am aiming for, prevents people from being too surprised when I walk around whistling the Internationale.

Which brings me to the very strange side note of uniform.  Uniforms offer the advantage of being uniform (having worked with the severely mentally ill, I can report that a uniform is a very helpful tool.  Also that I find it remarkable how long a brain will still recognize uniformity and its significance) as well as the advantage of not involving one's personal wardrobe in the duties one is called upon to perform in the course of their work.  Of course, there is the disadvantage at times of encountering someone who is convinced that their position in life is elevated above the one in a uniform, however, I have found in those instances that as soon as the initial frustration wears off, one realizes that such behavior is the very model of déclassé and more a commentary on the sort of person the offending party have the misfortune of having chosen to be.

Isabella Blow was much like what I want to be, a beautiful person whose career mainly comprised pointing out beautiful things.  I do not feel the need to go into great detail about her at present as I undoubtedly have forthcoming book reviews on the subject.  But I thought I would highlight a few points about her by way of either introduction (for those unfamiliar) or of pulling this post together (for all of us) culled from the key bits of information that most people who know of her know about her.  I am included in this group, having only a "fly-over" knowledge of her career, just enough of a taste to know that I coveted these books.

If you haven't an accessible visual memory of what I am talking about, I would highly recommend you immediately browse Google Image Search, or possibly a few moments worth of YouTube diversion, on Isabella Blow (her real name, by the way.  She was married to Detmar Blow who, architecture buffs will correctly guess, is a descendent of the architect Detmar Blow), Philip Treacy (sort of the last man standing in this story, if you'll pardon the spoiler), and especially the incomparable genius of modern couture, the tragically beautiful discovery of our tragically beautiful heroine, Alexander McQueen.  Their mixture of the Apollonian and Dionysian sensibility are very much to my taste and, I think, a necessary balance for great art.

If I may indulge my maudlin side ("sure, Paul, why stop now") and employ the metaphor of a rose, the very millinery she was remembered for wearing served as both an expression of beauty and, in her own words, a deterrent from the ubiquitous Continental kiss in the circles she inhabited.  To draw in with the beautiful even while repelling spatially.  Sadly, that also calls to mind her well-known, aggressive and eventually successful suicidal tendencies, terminating in her drinking weed killer.  Reportedly among her last words were "I'm worried I didn't take enough."

Much like Richard Cory (Truman Capote also springs to mind as he was the darling of the "beautiful people" of his day and yet poisoned himself to death over a much longer period of time), one is left to wonder how someone who seemingly had so much, was at the height of her career, an aristocrat, beloved by many, paid for creativity, could get that low.  I imagine what she had was nothing compared to what may have been missing.  Or rather, circumstance is not what really matters in this life and will not save you in the end.  What one does with circumstance, I would imagine, is more the point.  But I don't presume to have a definitive answer to this right now.  I would hazard a guess that it is one of the answers I'm looking for in this reading side-project.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter Light


“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” -Robert Frost

There is a term in some religious circles being tossed about which I have heard referred to as either dechurched or the equally neologistic unchurched.  I am given to understand that they mean "one who retains a form of the religion in question, but has untethered themselves from any orthodoxy, denomination, or, to put it simply, church."  Some will "church-hop."  Some will attend very small home gatherings.  Some will go out into the woods of a Lord's day morning with their Bible in hand or a mind toward prayer.  Let me make two things abundantly clear right here at the beginning: 1) I am not here to disparage anyone's chosen spiritual walk and 2) I am not, myself, "unchurched" (leaving that dangling at the end of the paragraph anticipating an inevitable "however.")

However, I have great apprehension over involving myself in any group of fellow believers at this point in my biography.  Since just shy of a year ago now, Laurie and I endured a series of trying episodes wrapped in the Gordian world of spiritually abusive, right-wing fundamentalism.  In the face of such predicaments, I came to reassess my faith.

In that time I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, who, as most of you are probably well aware, is an outspoken atheist and this book a sort of atheistic apologetic.  I read that book at that time because I really did want to scuttle my faith.  I wanted to have nothing to do with Christians because of the abuses I'd suffered at their hands.  I bring this up because my interaction with the text was sort of holographic of the entire issue I've been wrestling with.  Dawkins, in my reading of him, had two major key points to the book and a conclusion.  It went something like this: 1) Religion is a highly destructive force in human civilization, likely having caused more harm throughout history than good.  Religious people are capable of horrible things and often exhibit the behavior of the ostrich when faced with the option of viewing reality or the depths of the sandbox.  viz., 2) The evidence that Darwinian evolution is an accurate representation of the history of biology is overwhelming.  Therefore Dawkins' conclusion is: There is no God.  I spotted the hole in the logic immediately.  What if all of that is true, but there still is a God and a Gospel.  The two do not necessarily lead to that conclusion.  It is entirely possible that religious people are horrible and destructive, that Darwinian evolution is accurate, and that there is also a God.  Dawkins failed to write me a permission slip to write off my religion and I am left to reconcile my beliefs with the difficult experiences.  And that is where I still find myself.

I'm writing about this aspect of my experience in this manner to armor both myself and the general public from the specific personal abuses we've observed and suffered (also, hoping against hope that I am not calling down those same evil, bastard Christian forces down on my head again by mentioning them again, eschewing accepted wisdom in these matters and throwing everything I learned from H.P. Lovecraft to the wind), but I would stress that almost every one of said abuses were some manifestation of Dawkins' two key points.  Church came to be, for me, like a job where the boss micromanages and yells at you all the time.  The society around you dictates that you have to keep going and you know that, when you do, you are going to get abused.  And so you exist in this world as a sort of Purgatory.

Why is it thus?  Because the church is full of humans.

Left to my own devices, I would go back to attending Quaker meetings.  My experience there is an earnest group of people set on living out the fruit of the spirit through social justice and attempting to do good in this world.  I swallowed the lie for years from the mouths of men that there are vast doctrinal problems in modern, unprogrammed Quakerism.  Now I see that loving mercy, justice, goodness, peace, and equality and living consistently with those values is far better doctrine than hashing out at which point in pre-history God ordained the Elect or some such pedantic nonsense.

Also, with any homogeneous group, there is the issue of diversity.   In this case, I am not only speaking of diversity in types, but also diversity in ideas, the ability to question, explore, learn, grow with and from others.  In my particular area of space-time, it is the norm in the mainstream or fundamentalist branch of my religion for the common parishioner to assume their fellow congregant subscribes to a conservative political worldview.  This has never been the case for me.  I am not just a liberal, but I would probably be more accurately called a Leftist.  Possibly an extreme one who is only being slightly hyperbolic in stating that Trotsky may have been a bit too conservative for my taste.  I think that a mind toward shared resources, the abolition of property to a large extent (certainly the abolition of avarice), and the common goal of building a great society is not only consistent with Christian scripture, but consistent with any person seeking to be virtuous.  Being in a large group of people of differing opinion is not in and of itself a bad thing.  If it is in an anthropological or free exchange of ideas situation, it can be a wonderfully rewarding and broadening experience to converse with and peek through an alternate reality tunnel.  This has not been my experience.  When you presume upon the homogeneity of your group and denigrate any different point of view or type, anyone who is of that type and has not expressed it yet will most likely keep their mouth shut and feel terribly unwelcome.  That is largely the story of me and Christianity.  It is not just politics.  I also don't hate, dislike, or think there is anything wrong with homosexuals.  I am fairly convinced that the evidence does, in fact, point to the veracity of the Theory of Evolution and the antiquity of the universe.  I think that there is a great deal that all religions could learn from one another if they allowed for an open dialogue with hearts of loving-kindness and respect.  Also, I find myself most likely becoming an Annihilationist (one who believes that God is not a torturer and that life without Christ being death literally.  As in, the unbeliever simply dies instead of eternal torment in the afterlife.  I am not willing to argue this point and have absolutely no interest in theological debates, so please extend the basic respect of not commenting with pistols blazing over anything I am saying here.  It bothers me enough that I even have to have that fear in speaking honestly about my spiritual walk.)  To secular eyes, these may not seem like extraordinary statements, but I know that in most of the churches I've attended there are at the very least a contingent, if not the consensus, that people who think that way should not be allowed in the door.  In fact, I once had a church leader tell me, years ago when I was more sartorially immature, that I wasn't welcome in his church simply because I was wearing a Jerry Garcia t-shirt.  He wasn't even the pastor.  This may have something to do with the irrelevance of the church in modern Western civilization.  The loud and the bully within will not even permit a fellow believer if they do not lock step.

But, returning to those original two points, I found myself holding all of these bags, but still incapable of disregarding the truth of the Gospel.   So, this is where I find myself after all that we've gone through in the past year.  I find myself still a believer in the path I set out on over a decade ago, but now I find myself decidedly on that path as Paul Mathers the individual.  My hope is to find a congregation in which the love of Christ is a reality made manifest in the lives and actions of the congregation.  I also hope for a pegasus that will fly me to a magical castle made of gumdrops.  But I believe that one ought to strive to do what is right, be a person of virtue, and live a good life in spite of the odds being stacked against one.  It puts me in mind of that bit of verse by Vachel Lindsay:
I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.

And later:
Come, let us vote against our human nature.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Pre-Emerson Show

Hi.  Remember me?  First, a little housekeeping on the cusp of the early spring recently portended by a New England rodent.  At long last I will admit publicly that circumstance and my heavily neurotic inability to cope with same has left me in a pronounced case of the mean reds over the past year.  I had recently noticed on my medical insurance package that I can be reimbursed up to a certain amount for psychotherapy!  Which appealed to me greatly until I realized that the certain amount would only cover about six weeks of talking.

Long time readers may have noticed the evolution of this blog into pure literary criticism with occasional interior decorating updates.  This is largely, not to pick at scabs, due to a group of fundamentalist religious fanatics whose principle applied doctrinal quirk is vicious behavior, who Laurie and I ran afoul of about a year ago.  Subsequently, I deemed it prudent to grow stingy with personal details in my online life.  Also, my current work hours make writing, socializing, and anything aside from animal survival, difficult.

Recently, I've noticed the virtual and vacant leather couch potential of my blog.  I have also been turning over in my head for some month the words of a friend of mine who suggested I write whatever I feel like in spite of anticipated peril.  Add to that my recent ear-bending toward the Transcendentalists and the Quakers and you've got a characteristically circumlocutory way of warning you that sometime in the very near future it is my intention to write a bit about religion on this blog.  Specifically, sorting through the rubble of my own.

So, I'll be brutally honest and admit that in most of these books in the Harvard Classics series there is a point where I'm sold.  Before that point, in my head I'm usually struggling with maintaining interest, I read very slowly because I'm not yet hooked and am still frittering away my reading hours reading Beartato comics until I hit the hook.  After I find that point, however, I am hooked and begin devouring the book (not literally.)  With Ralph Waldo Emerson, this came with this quote, which was what I was meaning to post in the first place.
"Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's. 
"Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind. Not too anxious to visit periodically all families and each family in your parish connection, — when you meet one of these men or women, be to them a divine man; be to them thought and virtue; let their timid aspirations find in you a friend; let their trampled instincts be genially tempted out in your atmosphere; let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered. By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other men. For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts; that all men value the few real hours of life; they love to be heard; they love to be caught up into the vision of principles. We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were. Discharge to men the priestly office, and, present or absent, you shall be followed with their love as by an angel." 
More soon.