Hey hey, we're the monkeys
He realized at last that the arguments of pessimism were powerless to comfort him
Here we come…
Write about what you know, they say, except what I don't know is much more interesting. So what am I supposed to do?
For instance. Lately I've been less impressed by the fact it's only three years till the end of the Mayan's Fifth Sun than that it's been eleven since the final episode of Seinfeld. Or eight months since my last post. (Is it nine yet?) Or, until Father's Day, that it had been four weeks since I'd visited my tumble-down dad. He told the hospital staff he'd thought only old people broke their hips. A 79-year old widower, whose kids launched their lifeboats years before he went down with the house, said that. The things that must slide by in the blink of his eye. Some more things that I don't know.
One thing I do know is that I'm going to miss Betelgeuse. The star has “mysteriously” shrunk by 15% in only 15 years. That's considerable: a loss of radius equivalent to the orbit of Venus. And it's quickening. Because modern astronomy is so young - we haven't even marked the centenary of the embarrassingly late discovery that the Milky Way isn't the sum of the universe - astronomers can't be sure of what it is exactly that they're observing, so what it means remains uncertain. But what it may, credibly, mean is that the star is rapidly burning through its last reserves of carbon and approaching the end its short life, in which case we could see it supernova during our much shorter, yet main sequence, human lifespans.
Betelgeuse is just four or five hundred light years away, the red giant nearest the Earth, and only six or seven million years old. (Its precise distance and date of birth being two more of those things that neither I nor astronomers know.) It appeared above, completing the constellation of Orion, as the first hominines appeared below, creating the evolutionary branch that differentiates us from chimpanzees. Australopithecus was obsolesced by increasingly sophisticated models of symbologic acuity, able to connect the dots of the night sky into pictograms of their world. And in due, deep time, Orion became our superlative, celestial representation.
When Betelgeuse dies - if it hasn't died already, and we're just belated mourners awaiting the public viewing - its luminosity is expected to increase ten thousand fold, outshining the Moon, before diminishing over several weeks until its shell passes from unaided sight. And when that happens, Orion dies as well. And even for the billions whose night vision has been impaired by electric light, that’s some kind of collateral damage.
To the first humans who saw the heavens as a storyboard, what must it have meant for them to recognize their own form in the sky's most magnificent pattern? If the records we have are suggestive of the accounts that we’ve lost, it meant a great deal, and perhaps even entrained human consciousness to believe us a most favoured and peculiar beast. And if that's true, then its suddenly not being there will mean something for us as well. Even if many of us can’t see it any longer on a cloudless winter night.
We don't need to swallow Robert Bauval whole to admit the barefaced as above, so belowness of the Giza complex. Like Washington’s Federal Triangle was laid out upon the blueprint of the constellation Virgo to create an auspicious sacred space, the three principal pyramids create a fair facsimile of the three stars of Orion's belt, with the southern shaft of the Great Pyramid’s King’s Chamber aligning to the belt’s brightest star, Al Nitak. Though of course he wasn't Orion then. He was Osiris himself, and Sirius wasn't his companion dog star but rather his wife, Isis. And his seasonal course retold the story of his perpetual murder by Set and his perpetual resurrection by Horus.
When I was a teenage evangelical I learned the fanciful doctrine of the “Gospel in the Stars,” that God had arranged the heavens like a dispensational chart to forewarn illiterate antediluvians on the plan of redemption. Virgo, the Virgin Mother, holds a branch: “a familiar Old Testament name for the Messiah.” Aquarius with his water pitcher represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the elect. That sort of thing. And Orion depicted the risen Christ himself, triumphant, foot crushing the serpent’s head.
Until Betelgeuse fails. Then Horus fails, and Set buries Osiris once and for all time. Christ and the Great Hunter lose his red, right shoulder, taking the colour out of space, and the dots which remain above our heads reconnect to depict another form. One in which we won’t recognize ourselves.
Perhaps for the stars to come right, some stars for us have got to go out.
People say we monkey around
And there’s Lovecraft again, several dismaying assumptions ahead of us, implausibly relevant.
But there's more bad news for us, and for those nearly us, playing out our options on Team Hominid. (And what a lonely and denuded bench since we made a last supper of the last Neanderthal.) The UN has called this the Year of the Gorilla, when it is rightly the Year of the Jellyfish, so we should know that for the Great Apes the signs are truly dire. Almost entirely because their survival depends upon our selfless forbearance, which we are too inclined to dispense grudgingly, sparingly and belatedly.
In the Earth’s current extinction event, precipitated by humanity’s going viral, the species most at risk are those that are most complex: the ones that have appeared most recently. The ones most like us. Three per cent of all fish and amphibian species are considered “threatened”; four per cent of reptiles; eleven per cent of birds; and 24 per cent of all mammals. The happy accident of our genus, the late Cretaceous wipe-out of the top of the food chain that left our shrew-like ancestors huge boots to fill, is being undone by our calamitous footprint. It's not the end of the world, but it maybe the end of the Cenozoic Era as we know it.
Nature doesn’t need our two-hanky sentiments to see this for a tragedy. If chimpanzees were in our place, they might try to kill us all, too. They’re that much like us. In her concluding note to Ervin Laszlo's Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos, Jane Goodall writes that in her 45-year study of chimpanzees she has witnessed "emotions similar to those we label happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and so on.... They care for each other and are capable of true altruism. Sadly, also like us, they have a dark side: they are aggressively territorial, and may perform acts of extreme brutality and even wage a kind of primative war." One part of our heritage Goodall never saw was the calm, premeditated manufacture and stockpiling of weapons. Out of his wild and into ours, Santino, the 30-year old chimp incarcerated in a Swedish zoo, recently did just that. "These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way," says Mathias Osvath of the University of Lund. "It implies they have a highly developed consciousness, including life-like mental simulations of days to come."
After her pet chimp/life-mate Travis chewed through her friend's face, Sandra Herold sobbed on the Today show that she couldn't understand what had happened: "Chimpanzees share 98 per cent of their DNA with humans." He could brush with a Water Pik, surf the web and use the toilet - how could he be so vicious? They could probably even travel by night bus to Winnipeg and tear somebody’s head off, but they lack our facility for imaginative violations. (Even with opposable thumbs I doubt chimpanzees would think to pluck out someone’s eyes, stuff the sockets with live maybugs and sew the lids shut. It took humans, precisely three Vichy militiamen, to conceive of that.) As Edmund Kemper put it, in a jailhouse reminiscence of his own career in atrocity: "I'm sitting there with a severed head in my hands, talking to it, and I'm about to go crazy... [But] wait a minute: I've seen paintings and drawings of Viking heroes, talking to severed heads, taking them to parties, carrying enemies in leather bags - part of our heritage." So I don't know: does the answer to Sandra Herold reside in the 98 per cent DNA common to both species, or in the unshared two?
"Life is a hideous thing," begins Lovecraft's Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His family, "and from the background behind it peer daemonical hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous." The facts poor Arthur uncovered took the shape of a mummified ape wearing a locket which bore the Jermyn family arms: his own great-great-great-grandmother. (So Sir Wade's reclusive Congo bride hadn't been the daughter of a Portuguese trader after all.) Impossible, over five generations, but over five thousand it's evolutionary canon. "If we knew what we are, we should do as Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night." Family tree? You're swinging in it.
Lovecraft's story first appeared in the March, 1921 issue of The Wolverine. Five years later, while America assessed the damage of its own monkey trial, Stalin's Bride of the Monster-like whim for an army of atomic supermen set "Russia's top animal breeding scientist," Ilya Ivanov, on the task of crossing humans with apes. "I want a new invincible human being," Stalin reportedly ordered, "insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat." On a budget of $200,000 – considerable funding for a Soviet scientist in 1926 - Ivanov traveled to West Africa to conduct his first experiments in cross-breeding humans and chimpanzees. Though Stalin’s dreams could be as big and as ugly as Lovecraft’s, and he had more will and obvious resources to avail their manifestation, Ilya Ivanov was no Wade Jermyn, and he had no better success when he returned to Georgia to continue his monkey insemination project, after which the stink of his failures inevitably condemned him to the Gulag. Stalin didn’t have the patience for it, nor the sophistication of our own culture’s various devolution projects, but perhaps the unfinished story of human speciation is just another tragedy that, in due time, produces comedy.
Yet despite evidence and ominous portents, our presumed end has often been thought transcendent and divine. Maniacs and the criminally religious have been beatified for seeking God's face, while a few, like Albert Fish who believed the voice holy that told him to make a Eucharist of children, get the electric chair. There’s always been an urgency about the endeavor, but since the 20th Century’s premature triumphalism of positivists it’s taken on a neurotic urgency for those who might ask, What Would Arthur Jermyn Do? Though that annihilating question didn’t exhaust itself on the descent of man, but also implicates the character of God, and all pretenders to the Throne who would claim credit the way Zodiac would claim the souls of his innocents.
Significantly, it wasn’t that the existence of God was in doubt, so much as the benevolence and soundness of the divine mind. The terrible proposition of the 20th Century wasn’t What if there’s no God? but rather, What if there is?
Come and watch us sing and play
“Our little brains,“ rants a feverish character in Frank Belknap Long’s 1928 short story “The Space Eaters,” “what can they know of vampire-like entities which may lurk in dimensions higher than our own, or beyond the universe of stars?
Suppose they had shape unknown on Earth? Suppose they were four-dimensional, five-dimensional, six-dimensional? Suppose they were a hundred-dimensional? Suppose they had no dimensions at all and yet existed? What could we do?
They would not exist for us? They would exist for us if they gave us pain. Suppose it was not the pain of heat or cold or any of the pains we know, but a new pain? Suppose they touched something besides our nerves – reached our brains in a new and terrible way? Suppose they made themselves felt in a new and strange and unspeakable way? What could we do? Our hands would be tied. You cannot oppose what you cannot see or feel. You cannot oppose the thousand-dimensional. Suppose they should eat their way to us through space!
Long described himself as agnostic, and wrote that he "always shared HPL's skepticism ...concerning the entire range of alleged supernatural occurrences and what is commonly defined as 'the occult.'" In other words, he, like Lovecraft, regarded cosmic horror as purely a pulp genre rather than also a metaphysical suspicion. Yet Lovecraft has become the avatar of our doom-struck age because the arguments for such fantastic pessimism have basis, even if only imaginatively so, in science sounder and stranger than Ilya Ivanov’s.
By the mid-twenties, physicists were demolishing Enlightened assumptions about the fundamental states of matter, and though the quantum revolution was still too young to rewrite the textbooks - those "pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science,” in Thomas Kuhn's phrase – its early outrages were known well enough for materialists like Lovecraft and Long to lift them for the premises of their pulp fiction. The weird science informed the weird tales, but the authors themselves could remain untouched and observe the world for their own purposes as old school Newtonians. (Not all artists could. Wassily Kandinsky wrote that “the collapse of the atom model was equivalent, in my soul, to the collapse of the whole world. Suddenly the thickest walls fell. I would not have been amazed if a stone appeared before my eye in the air, melted, and became invisible.”)
In 1926, Schrödinger published his theory of wave mechanics, while Heisenberg began work on what was to become the Uncertainty Principle. Lovecraft wrote “The Materialist Today” in the same year. "The Call of Cthulhu" also, though it wasn't published for two more years. His thin tract is frightening in its own right.
All is illusion, hollowness, & nothingness - but what does that matter? Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them - they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless & purposeless.
Illusions have always mattered - our facility with illusion is the greatest achievement, and perhaps even the point, of our biological speciation - but a science of collapsed wave functions, uncertainty and entanglement suggested that illusions are of paramount concern to physics as well. New physics and ancient intuitions were sources for Lovecraft's weird fiction dream quest - "non-Euclidian geometry" was the signature of the Great Old Ones - but the first mythographer of hyperspace remained resolutely materialist. (Shortly before Houdini's death in 1926, he hired Lovecraft to write a never to be completed book entitled The Cancer of Superstition.) Nevertheles, the shattering of the atomic model prompted a re-evaluation of scorned, occult studies such as alchemy, and non-locality and its spooky actions meant even astrology could merit another look. Early in the course of his own revolution in the science of consciousness, Jung saw the virtue in both. And the later discovery of the double helix suggested the Sumerian-derived alchemical caduceus of Hermes had all along been modelling unaware the structure of DNA.
As the science has grown only weirder, its congruence with Lovecraft's weird fiction has become ever more apparent. Earlier this year, researchers studying gravitational waves in the depth of space may have discovered holographic noise - the "graininess" that comprises our space/time - while the first "tunable electromagnetic gateway or "hidden portal" has this month been scientifically described:
While the researchers can't promise delivery to a parallel universe or a school for wizards, books like Pullman's Dark Materials and JK Rowling's Harry Potter are steps closer to reality now that researchers in China have created the first tunable electromagnetic gateway.
The work is a further advance in the study of metamaterials, published in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society).
In the research paper, the researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Fudan University in Shanghai describe the concept of a "a gateway that can block electromagnetic waves but that allows the passage of other entities" like a "'hidden portal' as mentioned in fictions."
The gateway, which is now much closer to reality, uses transformation optics and an amplified scattering effect from an arrangement of ferrite materials called single-crystal yttrium-iron-garnet that force light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation in complicated directions to create a hidden portal.
McKenna's alien spores and Crick's directed panspermia were foreshadowed in Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth. The mysterious, deep-sea "bloop" from 1997 of a massive and unknown organic source, "possibly a many-tentacled giant squid," was provocatively heard near Lovecraft's coordinates for the sunken city of R'lyeh. The proliferation of cephalopods and jellies in our ever more alien seas, and our skies and fields as well. And then there's the uncanny and ugly efficacy of his imagined grimoire. Because it's not the science only with Lovecraft: it's the myth, magick and religion as well, because his fiction is a conversation with archetypes, and like all fiction that matters, is evocative, which can be about as magical as it gets. (And all grimoires, lets remember, are no less imaginative works.) Whether something exists in itself may now be rightly dismissed as a meaningless question, for gods no less than for a quantum of information. And Lovecraft's myths are acutely resonant in postmodernity, because the dread of his cosmos is its radical indifference to such haughty apes as ourselves.
In 1926, the same busy year for Lovecraft, Einstein wrote his letter to Max Bron from which is cribbed the famous misquote that God doesn't play dice with the universe. His actual words were that quantum mechanics "does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'Old One'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice."
In 1938 Einstein helped a young German Jew emigrate to California. Theodore Gottlieb had seen men eaten alive by dogs in Dachau, where he'd signed away his family fortune for a single Mark, and was to lose much of his family to the Nazis, including the mother rumoured to have been Einstein's lover.
Gottlieb became Brother Theodore, exponent of "stand-up tragedy." ("The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people.") Einstein balked at the implications of his own discoveries. (Lovecraft would think the fuss over his fiction foolishness, too.) Last March, Scientific American asked Was Einstein Wrong? A more timely question may be, was Brother Theodore right?
We’re the new generation
Time flies. Into tall buildings.
I was four years old when John Kennedy was publicly executed, and I was inconsolable all weekend because my cartoons were preempted. Last November I travelled to Dallas for the 45th anniversary commemoration and JFK Lancer conference, and during a Jim Marrs lecture on Obama’s Illuminati-bred socialism I fell inconsolable all over again. Reading Crossfire was my first occasion to have good reason for my doubts and for why I shouldn't get over them, but now Marrs’ cornpone dialectics made me wish I were back my hotel room eating mesquite chips and drinking Texas-bottled Dr Pepper made with real cane sugar. The quiet of a November 21st on Dealey Plaza's grassy knoll was more of an education than another Discovery Channel documentary, but aside from the remarks of consequential researchers such as John Judge and Dick Russell, the funery burlesque of the 22nd was more disheartening than a month of Shark Week.
By 1968 my favourite shows were Mr Dressup and The CBS Morning News. So when our Grade 3 teacher wrote "Robert F. Kennedy" on the blackboard and told us to copy it while she stepped into the hallway to collect herself, I knew why she was crying. I'd woken up as well to the blanched scenes of grief from the Ambassador Hotel.
I didn’t cry on September 11th. Though like Lovecraft's New York detective Malone, I promptly "acquired an acute and anomalous horror of any buildings even remotely suggesting the ones which had fallen in." No, I cried the next Tuesday, when Mr Dressup died. I could have imagined commercial airliners striking the twin towers. But that, I didn’t see coming. A stroke; possibly a stress-induced casualty of the Twin Towers' second-hand smoke. It was hearing on the radio report the familiar, tinkled theme that set me off.
I'm not saying it's all about me. I'm saying, I'm all about it. My own, private Long Count is measured in decorated caskets and bulletins of grim tidings. I suppose that's the inescapable condition for all who share the communion of where were you when, but I don't think that's something to be celebrated.
Eight summers ago, George W Bush sat in a Sarasota classroom looking like a mannish boy draped in his dad's old suit on picture day. Ten summers before that, Paul Rubens was down the road in a darkened theatre choking the chicken out of America's singular boyish man, Pee Wee Herman. Only one of them has a criminal record for his public indecency but neither could get elected president. And I think it's appropriate to speak of them in the same breath, now that they're both returning to the stage.
My own stage, with respect at least to the vigor of the dissenting culture, I’d characterize as acceptance, having idled a long while at grief and anger. Good research and analysis still happen, significant stories still break, but like most deserving things they either fly beneath the radar or someone somewhere has switched off the media’s transponders.
The Truther wars are over, and Loud, Dumb and Misguided hold illimitable dominion over all. The moment for justice has passed, and the truth movement has become an Alex Jonestown. Regardless of how the best and most nuanced work doesn’t deserve it, 9/11 skepticism now wears the clown nose of National Chauvinists suiting up for the Red Chinese on the Mexican border and Obama’s FEMA guillotines. (The noise on the right is now amplified mainstream by the opportunistic likes of Glenn Beck, who keeps his armchair militia in a perpetual state of apprehended Apocalypse while ridiculing the real ruin of the world.) Serious questions and connections re September 11th have been berated and beaten down for the quick confirmation thrill of slapstick forensics which sustained controlled demolition’s imaginary crime. Since first viewing Jones’ The Obama Deception, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt have been “nonstop researching the Internet...for information for at least a month all day every day." Pratt is so changed, his “first rap album is going to be called Infowars.”
Mr Dressup – Ernie Coombs - was a lovely man. Pee Wee Herman was always more creepy than funny. Atlas shrugged, but Jesus wept.
And we've got something to say
Though I won't say I'm having a mid-life crisis. I turned 50 in July, and even with the unearned benefit of a North American life expectancy that would be unaccountably optimistic. The crisis is the same companion I’ve had since reading Lovecraft and Marrs and seeing the Kennedys shot, though I’m finding it more companionable at this time of life. Art Spiegelman, in In the Shadow of No Towers, wrote “I can no longer distinguish my neurotic depression from well-founded despair.” I would have said the same when he wrote that five or so years ago. But now, I’m no longer depressed. I just despair heartily.
But neither is the Earth middle-aged. It’s already about a third as old as the universe, and it took nearly all of that time to turn out overreaching hominids. If we fail, then Earth’s highest iteration of enfleshed consciousness fails with us. (Until we educated ourselves right out of nature, we knew well enough that consciousness doesn’t demand the medium of meat to manifest.)
The planet will be here for five or so billion years before it's cinders and ashes, but most of that time it will be essentially barren. Right now, the acidiphying seas bloom with jellies and tentacled things. Life goes on, but reduced, and reversing direction towards simplicity. Even with that, a biosphere habitable for all but the simplest extremophiles ought to be done by a tenth of the Earth's projected remaining lifespan. And that’s without an assist from our compounding calamities, and the odd but inevitable asteroid impact. We'll be the end of the line for biological complexity, not because we’re as good as it gets, but because there’s not enough time left on the clock, after the rise and fall of the great reptiles and the higher apes, to say third time's the charm.
In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock writes that the proximate cause of this prognosis is the “ineluctable increase in heat from the sun":
Our star, like all stars, burns hotter as it ages, and in 500 million years the radiant heat from the sun will be about 6 per cent greater than now.... [slowly enough to give] ample time for adaptation and further evolution. Already we have a new photosynthetic process due to the evolution of a new class of plants, which biochemists call C4, able to live at much lower carbon dioxide abundances.... [T]his evolutionary step might enable the contemporary biosphere to continue for another 100 million years. Beyond that, further genetic changes would surely extend the lease of life, but given the fundamental limitations of mainstream biology and the inevitability of perturbations, it is difficult to see life extending beyond 500 million years.
Lovelock regards the Earth's carrying capacity for our species to be overtaxed on the order of several billion souls, which will trigger a corrective and unprecedented culling by one means or another as early as this century. This hard truth-telling by the light of his science has marked him, particularly among anti-NWO-styled "patriots", as an apologist for elitist eugenics and mass murder. But to do so is to not distinguish deserved pessimism from wishful thinking, or even wishfulfilment. And there's an irony about this, as Jones' Infowars is content to use Lovelock's words to trash the inefficiencies of renewable energy and the green economy as "verging on a gigantic scam," while remaining in full denial of his gloomy rationale for so doing. Jones prefers the analysis of Spencer Pratt - "It's mind-boggling trying to say there's global warming right now" - and Steven Anderson, Arizona's please taze me bro so I can post it on Youtube pastor who hates the environmental stewardship nearly as much as he hates Barack Obama. ("Let that stupid whale die," says Anderson. In church, yet. "God’ll create a new one in the Millennium and I’ll look at it for a thousand years and Al Gore will be burning in hell!")
Lovelock is 90 this year. That's about three times the life expectancy in AIDS-stricken Swaziland, and barely a flutter of coronal muscle to the brainless immortal turritopsis nutricula. But everything that dies has first to live. (Even if, upon death, the remains are converted to fuel for corpse-eating robots, as a Defense Department-funded project envisions.) Like now. I’m listening to Blossom Dearie sing "Peel Me a Grape," realizing it’s maybe 15 years since I sat 10 feet from her piano at Toronto's lost Top o' the Senator. I left intent to become her lyricist. (I sent her a pastiche of Dave Frishburg and she graciously pretended I hadn't.)
Dearie was 82 when she died a few months ago. The week earlier, Lux Interior of the Cramps passed away at 63, marking another kind of wrong.
The Cramps threw a free concert in 1978 at the State Mental Hospital in Napa, California. “Somebody told me you people were crazy,” said Lux, “but I don’t know about that. You look alright to me.” The same year I voluntarily committed myself to a religious institution, where the Lord taught us different songs. It took another five years or so for me to suspect the likes of Steven Anderson's god might not be the Phantom of the Paradise, since none of his best show tunes were originals.
We're too busy singin'
And maybe that's the question behind all questions: who writes the songs that make the whole world sing?
And you know, maybe it actually is Barry Manilow. When I was in Dallas itching to be a Pepper, it was his old jingle that did the let's all go to the lobby dance in my head. Before Manilow met fanilow, he was catapulting the propaganda for McDonalds ("you deserve a break today"), Kentucky Fried Chicken ("finger lickin' good!") and State Farm Insurance ("and like a good neighbor"). It doesn't matter what you think of Mandy, if you're a child of North America, Manilow's intrusive earworms have made you do things, and made you think it was you deciding to do them. In other words - William Irwin Thompson's words - we're trapped in a commercial from which there is no escape.
Of course Barry was only punching the clock at America's ersatz pop bottling plant, but just following orders shouldn't cut it as an excuse there, either. Manilow and his fellow corporate minstrels would probably become physically ill if confronted with the enfleshed consequence of their art of persuasion: the child obesity, the diabetes, the cancer and the heart disease. Wordsmiths like Himmler and Eichmann didn't have the stomach for seeing their own words made flesh, either.
America may romanticize the singer-songwriter, but it's the factory system that weaned Manilow which produced the country's great songbooks: composers toiling in the sweatshops of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building and Motown, performing their labour to create an audience and then manufacture its consent. (Or the beats-for-sale of "urban contemporary" that can make a recording artist of a real housewife of Atlanta, so long as the voice modulator is turned up to 11). True, original talent - the diamond in the rough - becomes a commodity only when it's machined, polished and sold. Students of politics will recognize the process.
America doesn't elect singer-songwriters to high office, though its culture industries are happy to write for the wurlitzer and play let's make believe otherwise. (Come to think of it, it's perhaps apt that a contracted murder is also known as a "hit.") Obama, like so many succesful candidates before him, even had his own song. He didn't write it, but he sure knew how to sell it. Though some weren't buying.
"Expectations got fueled," Joan Didion wrote last December. "The spirit of a cargo cult was loose in the land":
I couldn't count the number of times I heard the words "transformational" or "inspirational," or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade's war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see. It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism—by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions—"convenient" because such redefinition makes those questions seem easier to answer, "dangerous" because this was a time when the nation was least prepared to afford easy answers.
Yes we can and Hope we can believe didn't sound quite like the Sixties; they sounded more like the Seventies' tin-eared counterfeits you would hear on Quinn Martin productions whenever a crime trail might lead Cannon or Barnaby Jones to a go-go club. There was nostalgia, though not for the dangerous and authentic historical moment, but for the regurgitated mush of the first nostalgia.
And they earned Obama the White House: perfect for a relaunch of that establishment hit factory which hadn't topped the charts since Let's Roll! and Bring 'Em On (Get it on). But Obama is a President like Franklin Roosevelt only in the sense that the Monkees were a pop group like the Beatles. A radical departure from "beltway consensus" was as unwise, to his producers and Chicago entourage, as letting Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork write and perform their own material. Iraq, Afghanistan, Bernanke, Blackwater: a new house singer may bring his own interpretation, but the song remains the same.
Sometimes presidents, like their prefab pop equivalents, balk at their impotent glamour and attempt to find their own voice by trying out original material. It took Kennedy some time to find his, so who knows, Obama may yet decide to do the same. But if he’s attempting to emulate the smart Beatle by provoking the CIA director to launch into a "profanity-laced screaming match" at the White House over a probe of the agency's use of torture, then God help him. Because America's musical isn't a lone nut show, and some nutty lyrics are being written to some ominous music.
During a period of pauperization, the people with a little who have been told all their lives that they have a lot and now risk losing even that are those most inclined to learn the Horst Wessel song. Fascism may be more voodoo than economics, but as Klaus Theweleit writes, “susceptibility to fascism is explicable in terms of the economic degradation of large sections of the middle classes.” And Glenn Beck is mobilizing the Freikorps.
Stupify, scare and starve the middle class long enough and they'll become the perfect mob to torch the least hope for their own best interests. Television, radio or the web will tell them how, because apparently in the United States today, where Vietnam is still the name of an American tragedy and not a South Asian holocaust, there's none more hive-minded than the "rugged individualist" who believes the ad copy written for him. The Ku Klux Klan, let's remember, didn't burn crosses until they saw it depicted in Birth of a Nation. And the art of persuasion has come only a long way since.
We get the funniest looks
But then there are other songs, no less important for all the noise of modern life that render them barely audible.
In folklore, magick and religion, an opening to other realms or an approach to the divine is frequently initiated by ceremonial music and dance, or sounds resonating at particular frequencies. Familiar stuff ("If life is vibration, then music must not be incidental to it"), but not exactly the top of the pops. And perhaps to its credit, it never was.
"It was the weirdest music you ever heard...indescribable," says Mikmaq Mary Rose Julian, describing her family's introduction to the fairy realm in an isolated woods of Nova Scotia. "I asked my oldest 'Do you hear it?' She said yes, and I really panicked then because, you know, I wasn't hearing things."
Julian yelled for her kids to get in the car, then sped away, warning them not to look back. Yet her daughter still glanced out the rear window:
They were, like, just holding hands, jumping around in a circle sort of thing. And another one came out of the woods and they grabbed him, and they kept - they were singing. It was that noise that we heard. It was likethe were singing and dancing all over the place, in a circle. Just over there....
Of course it's effortless to think nothing of this story, even though this story has been repeating since forever in the places where our domesticated world encroaches upon the feral wood. "This was well-appreciated by the Ancient Greeks," says Phil Hine in The Pseudonomicon, "who designated such frontier places as sacred to the wild gods who might well visit terror or transformation upon those who strayed into them." Lars von Trier knows it, too. It's why we have the word "panic," after all.
"As sure as you are sitting down I heard the pipes there in that wood" [on the Hill of Tara], the Reverend Peter Kenney of Kilmessan tells Walter Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. "I often heard it in the wood of Tara. Whenever the good people play, you hear their music through the field as plain as can be."
And they're called the good people, remember, to not risk incurring their offence and inviting horror. The same way it's always a good life in Peaksville, Ohio.
Walkin' down the street
The Earth has its song, too. And it always closes out the show.
If not the least of our worries, then perhaps the likelihood of huge solar storms – to peak, wouldn't it just, in 2012 - may be the more prosaic. Because if we’re right, or perhaps just not completely wrong, about the South Atlantic Anomaly, the tremendous new holes in our magnetic shield - breeches in our planet’s offworld levees - may grant greater privilege to still wilder things that sometimes manifest in visible light.
And not light only. Since the transfer of energy is vibration, we may also experience it as sound. The Earth’s electromagnetic field is a power trio - a soaring ionosphere, fronting a rhythm section of north and south poles, creating an electrodynamic resonating cavity that finds a frequency of 10 hertz. Coincidentally, the same same alpha brainwave frequency for humans and all animals. The sky losing Orion and the Earth changing its tune are not auspicious prospects for the life we call life.
In 1926 HP Lovecraft wrote The Silver Key, in which Randolph Carter "lost the key of the gate of dreams." It was a hard loss for someone accustomed to Lovecraft's imagined landscapes peopled by oddly-robed figures and gibbering ghouls who saw "Earth's gods dancing by moonlight." But by the age of 30, the custom of waking life "had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions." Well-meaning and wise men explained to him the workings of the material world, and he came to be chained to it. But Carter's chains have shown themselves to be one of the weakest of Lovecraft's fictions.
I think of them when what became of the dinosaurs crosses my path: a subway pigeon pecking through litter and pools of piss and purple Slushee. Its ancestors have been bird-like far longer than my own have been man-like; longer even than ape-like. (And the folk knowledge of ancestry predates Darwin and scientific theory. In his Maps of Time, David Christian quotes a Portuguese missionary to West Africa in the early 17th century, Father Alvares, that "there are heathen that claim to be descendants of this animal [the chimpanzee], and when they see it they have great compassion: they never harm it or strike it, because they consider it the soul of their forefathers.... They say they are of the animal's family.") Beneath the K/T boundary that marks humanity's most fortuitous extinction event ever, we're represented by Cretaceous rodentia too slight for the appetites of the feathered theropods.
"There is no such constellation...." - Lars von Trier, Antichrist