Wednesday, July 30, 2008


* * *

"They followed a stone wall past the remains of an orchard. The trees in their ordered rows gnarled and black and the fallen limbs thick on the ground." Cormac McCarthy, The Road (First Vintage International Edition 2006)

* * *

In Albert Camus's The Stranger (orig. L’Étranger, 1942), the book's intrepid protagonist, Meursault, faces the guillotine in the book's final pages. He is to be executed for murder.

Moments before his execution, Meursault looks to the heavens and finds an existentialist refuge in the ultimate inconsequence of human existence. In my tattered paperback version of the book (Eng. trans., Gilbert 1946), he confides:

[G]azing up at the dark sky . . . with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

I grew up in a rural patch of the continent from which the "signs and stars" were still visible in the night sky. As a child, I spent hours in the meadows outside my parents' home at the top of Dogwood Hill, staring up at the enigmatic sky beneath the wheeling stars and wandering planets that rose like fireflies from the timeless gray shoulders of Mount Jefferson.

On a dark night, you could see that the sky had depth; it was no mere canopy. To the mind of a child, it went on forever with no end.

A view of Mount Jefferson from the south as shown on a postcard printed by Ray Drug Company, West Jefferson, circa 1937. At the time, Mount Jefferson was known as Negro Mountain.

This epiphany of the infinite has come to me again and again from childhood into adulthood; it is my sense of the ineffable. It is my context for understanding the universe, and as I have learned more, I have concluded that a proper consideration of our place in the universe should be simultaneously comforting and terrifying.

It is comforting to conclude, as Meursault does in The Stranger, that there is no significance to human existence in the broad context of the indifferent universe, its spatial and temporal dimensions exceeding our ability to comprehend, its apathy to the value of life apparent in the the cold empty spaces between the impossibly distant stars. The systems of the universe reflect no purpose or desired end; the fixed laws and mechanics of space and time, of gravity, are supreme and inexorable. You can take no action that is of consequence against this infinite landscape.

It is nevertheless starkly disconcerting to consider our frail, tenuous existence at the unmerciful hands of nature. It is remarkable, indeed, that life has existed continuously on Earth for millions of years without interruption as she has spanned the crushing black vacuum of space, a solitary ship, the Sun and Moon her lanterns, traversing the vast, empty seas of the universe without map or compass.

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy depicts life in this latter, gravely tenuous sense. He tells of the struggle for life after global holocaust, a man and his child searching for moral understanding in a world destroyed in the fires of nuclear war.

Yet The Road could easily have described a world rent asunder by an unmerciful act of god, such as a planetary collision with a wayward asteroid, or an earth-shaking eruption of a volcano whose ash takes to the sky and separates the Earth and the Sun, leaving our world dark, cold, and dying. This has happened before; it will doubtless happen again.

* * *
A Day in Pompeii
* * *

Eight hundred miles east-southeast of Djakarta on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, a somnolent giant rises 14,000 feet above the ocean waters below. It is Mount Tambora, an immense volcano that in April 1815 filled the sky with ash and vanquished the eternal Sun. The year following this eruption became known as "the year without a summer," as volcanic dust cast a curtain about the world and precipitated a subsistence crisis of global magnitude.

While tens of thousands are believed to have died in the eruption, thousands more perished in the ensuing volcanic winter that brought famine to a Europe already enervated by the Napoleonic Wars.

It was during this bleak period below the darkened skies of Geneva that Lord Byron (poet &c., 1788-1824) envisioned a world for which:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.

Byron memorialized his vision in a macabre poem titled Darkness (reprinted here). In Byron's unending darkness, "all hearts were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light," and "the meagre by the meagre were devoured."

The dead became the fuel of funeral pyres, and the dying "looked up with mad disquietude on the dull sky, the pall of a past world; and then again with curses cast them down upon the dust, and gnash’d their teeth and howl’d . . ."

McCarthy's vision of ashen skies made permanently gray by nuclear winter and the "cold relentless circling of the intestate earth" in the "darkness implacable" are reminiscent of Byron's Darkness in ways that are not likely to be coincidental.

* * *

Wilmington, NC circa 1863

A few weeks ago on a weekend trip to Wilmington, I found a used copy of The Road high on the shelf behind the small, one-person desk that serves as a make-shift sales counter just inside the door at Old Books on Front St. As the name indicates, the store is located at 22 N. Front St., one street up from the inscrutable waters of the Cape Fear, and it is evident from the vantage point of the street that it is a real bookstore.

Inside, books are stacked from floor to ceiling in every part of the store, such that one is always in danger of stumbling over a stack of books on the floor or being crushed to death by forgotten tomes and treatises falling from precipitous heights. Most of it is not wheelchair accessible; it is undoubtedly a fire hazard. It has thin, rusty-looking carpet and it smells a bit like old laundry.

Cell-phone picture taken in the "L" section of Old Books on Front St.'s fiction section. This picture is almost to scale. Most aisles are not wide enough to pitch a cat through sideways.

On weekends at least, a girl named Gwenyfar (not making it up) sits at the desk just inside the door and greets visitors to the store. It was while I was engaging Gwenyfar in vague persiflage that I happened to notice a fairly new copy of The Road on a shelf behind her head. A friend had recommended that I read the book, and my younger sister had lent me her copy with a similar recommendation, but I needed my own copy so that I could mark it up as is my custom.

Pointing to The Road, I asked Gwenyfar if she had read it.

"He was on Oprah," she said with a dramatic raising of her eyebrows, as if that would make the matter clear to me. I gathered that Gwenyfar was likely suspicious of all writers of recent popular appeal. It's the mark of a purist, I suppose.

"Oprah? Really? I didn't know that."

"Yes," she said. "I haven't read anything by him. I don't read Oprah books," she said with friendly sarcasm. "Since he was on TV, everyone in the world has been asking for them. We can't keep 'em in the store."

"Well, you managed to keep one." I laughed uncomfortably. She didn't.

"Yeah, a guy just brought that by this afternoon. Traded it for something, I can't remember what." She looked around briefly as if the answer might come to her, then just as quickly abandoned the effort to recollect. Meanwhile, the book remained on the shelf behind her.

"Is it for sale?" I said, unsure if it was ready for sale or if it needed to be properly inventoried or something. I suspected the bookstore had no such inventory procedure. Plugging in a computer in this store would probably start an electrical fire.

Eventually she handed me the book and I bought it along with a hardback Thomas Wolfe compendium that I had never seen before and did not know to exist. I finished The Road before leaving Wilmington that weekend.

* * *

The Road is a well-told, painfully grim post-holocaust story about a man and his young, terrified son who trudge across miles of scorched highway (thus, the title) in snow and endless rain in search of the coast where they hope without reason to find food and sympathetic life.

The father and son have almost no food; they must scavenge like wild animals, and they are in a state of constant starvation. The son's "candlecolored skin" is "all but translucent" due to malnourishment, and they must wear facemasks to filter the ubiquitous ash from the air.

The cold is ungodly because sunlight cannot penetrate the ashen sky. They can rarely build fires for warmth, for this would alert other scavengers who might come and try to rotisserie the boy.

The father has a gun with two bullets, a shopping cart with "a tire that has gone wonky," and the damn kid has intimacy issues - which is stressful. The only people left alive on Earth have been reduced to absolute savagery. Life has become a ghastly competition for dwindling, non-regenerating resources.

The boy is forced to develop his sense of morality in this world of death and terror, and the most compelling aspects of the book concern the boy trying to square his naive (and apparently innate) sense of right and wrong to a world in which it no longer finds application and altruism has died with the disappearing Sun:

The boy lay with his head in the man's lap. After a while he said: They're going to kill those people, aren't they?
Why do they have to do that?
I dont know.
Are they going to eat them?
I dont know.
They're going to eat them, arent they?
And we couldnt help them because then they'd eat us too.
And that's why we couldnt help them.

The story is one continuous, mostly linear narrative. With few exceptions, the language used is simple, stark, and at times profound.

As an example, on pages 146-47 McCarthy describes a scene in which the father, after happening upon what is apparently an unused underground bomb shelter, makes a warm bath for his son who is "shivering like a dog."

They took the little stove with them and a couple of pans and he heated water and poured it into the tub and poured in water from the plastic jugs. It took a long time but he wanted it to be good and warm. When the tub was almost full the boy got undressed and stepped shivering into the water and sat. Scrawny and filthy and naked. Holding his shoulders. The only light was from the ring of blue teeth in the burner of the stove. What do you think? the man said.
Warm at last.
Warm at last?
Where did you get that?
I dont know.
Okay. Warm at last.

The story by itself would be effective if McCarthy told the story of the wandering father and son without any injection of philosophical content. However, what makes The Road exemplary is McCarthy's ability to be reflective and express simple, profound ideas within the context of the work. In this passage, the father contemplates their hopeless condition in the changed world:
No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

Another effective passage appears on page 58, when McCarthy reveals that the boy's mother ended her own life in the hopelessness of the destroyed world:

She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He'd taught her himself. . . . And she was right. There was no argument. The hundred nights they'd sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.
In the morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were packed and ready to set out upon the road he turned and looked back at their campsite and he said: She's gone isn't she? And he said: Yes, she is.
* * *

The observant reader should have already noted that while the content may be quite good, McCarthy employs several unusual conventions in his writing that are akin to the orthographically challenged E. E. Cummings whose typewriter apparently did not have a SHIFT key.

The portable typewriter used by Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962)

McCarthy never uses quotation marks, and, frustratingly, he intermittently omits apostrophes in conjunctions. Thus he writes don't as dont (which I have a tendency to pronounce as daunt), but then inexplicably employs the apostrophe in I'm and they'd. I had hoped that this was something that was specific to The Road, but my limited research has revealed that this is apparently his "style," such that all or most of his books are written in this fashion.

He also seems to enjoy making compound words out of words that are not truly compounds, some of which produce Faulkner-esque compound adjectives that are fairly effective, such as sweatblackened (p. 51) and ruststained (p. 108). Other examples are more mysterious, for their use seems to add little to the story: oilbottles (p. 7), pumporgan (p. 22), foldingtable (p. 26), woodsmoke (p. 31), and gaslamp (p. 151), to name but a few.

Along the same lines, McCarthy sometimes seems to just invent words entirely, which is just bizarre. I came across the word parsible on page 88, and naturally I went to look it up because I did not recognize the word or know the meaning.

Now, if I have nothing else, I have dictionaries. Large ones, small ones; old, dusty ones; new, shiny ones. Dictionaries of old, archaic words; dictionaries of rare words. On the dictionary front, I've got it covered. Parsible does not appear on the pages of any dictionary that I own. I am therefore bewildered by its use in this story; it does not and cannot lend meaning to the text. (I am aware that parsible has some meaning in the programming context, but obviously that is not a meaning relevant to The Road.)

Similarly, McCarthy sporadically and inconsistently employs a vocabulary of recondite terms that: (1) detract from the otherwise very simple, elegant story; and (2) are not always in the dictionary.

A few of the words I circled in the text with an accompanying question mark include: discalced (p. 24), rachitic (p. 63), siwash (p. 68), catamite (p. 92), chert (p. 129), and patterans (p. 180).

[Incidentally, I got into some trouble for my opinion on McCarthy's use of parsible with the friendly folks at The Official Website of the Cormac McCarthy Society in regard to this article and related comments I made in the forum section of the aforementioned C. M. Web site that some overzealous disciples of Mr. McCarthy were quick to perceive as unforgivably critical of their infallible literary hero. A gentleman with the handle peterfranz who had an obvious blind spot in regard to McCarthy's minimal shortcomings wrote this in response to my point that no one could possibly know what McCarthy meant by parsible because, quite simply, this is not a defined word in the English language: "Those readers, to whom this board by its very existence has a responsibility, are not helped by EK's post, which I would delete were I in a position to." I should note that peterfranz later backed off the censorship angle, but did suggest that I should "self-censor" and remove my critical comments myself notwithstanding the fact that I was entirely correct on this point. To his credit, a bona fide McCarthy scholar named Rick Wallach who was more or less kind to me and fair in his arguments conceded finally that parsible as it appears in The Road "could be a typo - but in McCarthy, how the hell do we know?" - Ed. 12 Oct 2010] 

* * *

Nevertheless, McCarthy's vision of the end of civilization is chilling, plausible, and probably accurate. As noted at the outset, The Road simultaneously recalls Byron's Darkness and refutes the benign nature of the universe perceived by Camus's Meursault, while still finding disquiet in the indifference of the heavens.

In Darkness, the Sun has gone out and "the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space," while "the icy earth swung blind and blackening in the moonless air."

McCarthy echoes this vision of the Earth and Sun divided. He writes: "Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."

In another passage, McCarthy again parallels Bryon's Darkness; departing from the gray roads and withered forests of the Earth, he looks godlike upon the Earth as a lost child of the Sun: "[T]he bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond."

* * *

Blaise Pascal once remarked that he found terror in the "eternal silence of these infinite spaces." Hearing this for the first time as a much younger man, I was perplexed by the expression. For as much of my life as I could remember at the time, I had been deeply moved in contemplation of the vast, immortal skies. It was a religion to me.

As a boy, lying outside under a starlit summer sky on the green army blanket my parents dedicated to my use as an amateur astronomer, I viewed the infinite heavens with hope and warmth and optimism.

As I grew older, I frequently turned to the heavens for comfort, and being reminded of my slight significance within the context of the benign and indifferent universe, I was comforted.

As an adult, I continue to find comfort in such thoughts, and seeing the eternal Moon ascend in the arms of Orion over the North Carolina mountains will always bring me solace as one fortunate traveler on Earth's solitary ship through the infinite, rolling oceans of space and time.

Yet, I now have learned enough about the world, and the universe, and our place in it - so fragile, so brief - that Pascal's remark is no longer quite so mysterious to me.

* * *
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. . . . Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

From Dogwood Hill, the Moon rises over the old gray shoulders of Mount Jefferson.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


* * *

Portnoy’s Complaint (port’-noiz kəm-plānt’) n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933- )] A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: “Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient’s ‘morality,’ however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.” (Spielvogel, O., “The Puzzled Penis,” International Zeitschrift fur Psychoanalyse, Vol. XXIV, p. 909.) It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship.

And so begins Philip Roth's 1969 masturbatory thriller, Portnoy's Complaint, with what is perhaps the single greatest prologue in the history of the written word.

This little introduction is not even on a numbered page in the edition that I purchased; it is not found on one of the pages marked with lower-case Roman numerals usually reserved for prefatory information (i, ii, and so forth).

It just appears, intrepid, indifferent, staring up at the unsuspecting reader on the unnumbered page opposite the copyright information and foretelling the coming of a very strange story.

Inquisitive and attentive readers will discover from information found opposite this preface that in 1956 Georgie Yeats renewed the copyright to Simon and Schuster's The Poems of William Butler Yeats: A New Edition, out of which was taken an excerpt of everyone's favorite bestiality poem, Leda and the Swan, for use by Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint.

Standing in Blue Bicycle Books at 420 King Street in Charleston (where they buy books, sell them, and occasionally, when circumstances are just right, have been known to read them), with sand and ocean salt from Folly Beach comfortably between my toes, I picked up Portnoy's Complaint, opened it to the copyright page, and in an nanosecond without having to actually read the text, the words










bypassed my cerebrum, briefly toured my cerebellum, and then hit that ancestral part of my brain responsible for base libido functions like a lawn dart covered in blowfish poison.

I'm not going to lie to you; this is my kind of literature: introspective erotica that simultaneously reminds you to feel guilty for even thinking about getting a hard-on; the kind of literature that any self-respecting mother who came of age before the sexual revolution would admire.

If you are not familiar with Philip Roth, he's an impressive and accomplished writer. He has won innumerable awards for his literature, including the coveted and elusive Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for American Pastoral, a book which I have been told that I need to read. I knew these things, and thus I was somewhat surprised (pleasantly, I'll concede) to find Portnoy's Complaint to be so openly salacious.

Philip Roth (1933 - )

In Portnoy's Complaint, the story's narrator and chief protagonist is Alexander Portnoy, a Jewish kid born in New Jersey to a chronically constipated father and an overbearing mother who informs Alex's entire life sexual experience in not a good way. The story can be summarized as Alex Portnoy's sexual pilgrimage to hell, and parts of it are fucking funny.

The second chapter of the book, which begins on page 17, is titled Whacking Off. It commences thusly:
Then came adolescence - half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out.
He goes on:
Or else I was doubled over my flying fist, eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open, to take that sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox on my own tongue and teeth - though not infrequently, in my blindness and ecstacy, I got it all in the pompadour.
And this continues for several pages, including one hi-larious scene in which he orbits a load into the air and part of it sticks to the single naked light bulb illuminating the bathroom:
So galvanic is the effect of cotton panties against my mouth - so galvanic is the word panties - that the trajectory of my ejaculation reaches startling new heights: leaving my joint like a rocket it makes right for the light bulb overhead, where to my wonderment and horror, it hits and hangs.
After delicately cleaning the light bulb, Alex is terrified that he is going to leave some trace of his illicit activities behind for his mother to find. He says, I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off - the sticky evidence is everywhere! Tell me that's not funny.

Родион Романович Раскольников
(Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment makes a rare appearance in a book about jerking off)

Historically, the cleaning-up phase after masturbation is closely associated with the guilt phase, where if you are going to feel any sort of remorse for tethering the blimp, it will occur most acutely during clean-up rather than during the act itself. Your psychologist will explain to you that this has something to do with our fear of making a mess - an idea as anathema to the traditional American mother as molecular biology is to a Free-Will Baptist.

My favorite line in chapter two of the book is LENORE LAPIDUS'S ACTUAL TITS (all caps in original; p. 21). You'll have to read the book to see what that is about. I almost changed the name of the blog to LENORE LAPIDUS'S ACTUAL TITS, and I still might. We'll see.

Later, Alex gets his first hand-job from a girl named Bubbles Girardi who he describes as weighing a hundred and seventy pounds and growing a mustache. After the application of duress from one of Alex's friends, Bubbles reluctantly agrees to the task and before Alex can get his pants all the way down, suddenly she has hold of it, and it's as though my poor cock has got caught in some kind of machine. Vigorously, to put it mildly, the ordeal begins.

We've all been there.

As a college student and later as an adult who is superbly successful with his career as a lawyer fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, Alex has several different relationships with various women (The Pumpkin, The Monkey, The Pilgrim, &c.), all of which end in miserable failure.

In one case, Alex discovers that one of the girls, The Monkey - who is spectacularly hot - is functionally illiterate. He arrives at her apartment early one night while she is in the shower and finds a nearly illegible note on the coffee table and reads it. Has a child been here, I wonder, he says.

He is horrified to discover that the note was written to him by The Monkey. Despite the fact that The Monkey is two fathoms out of his league in terms of physical attractiveness, the fact that she cannot spell essentially ruins the relationship for him.

I had a similar situation with a girl from northern Minnesota that I dated for a while. English was like a second language to her, which would have been ok if there had been a first language.

She spoke and wrote a Scandinavian-English hybrid that to anyone familiar with either appeared to be an altogether unfamiliar third language invented by a set of deaf illiterate twins. A love note is just not quite the same with shit spelled wrong in it. It's just not.

Overall, Portnoy's Complaint has no discernible plot progression; it is fundamentally a stream-of-consciousness work in which the impossibly randy narrator describes simultaneously his indefatigable lust and the inescapable sense of shame that accompanies every gooey nut he blows.

There are no groundbreaking literary techniques in the book, and the writing style is fairly familiar if not overused. Roth's protagonist comes off sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield, a character who doubtless would have talked more about beating off if he had been invented in 1967 rather than in 1951.

Legend has it that J.D. Salinger got tired of saying,
"Zoo-ey. Franny and Zoo-ey."

The storyline does move around in time quite a bit, and that is probably the best aspect of the book. Roth flashes backward and forward and sideways, and I imagine it was difficult to put together a seamless story like Portnoy's Complaint with so much temporal manipulation.

The idea is that Alex is recounting his puzzling past to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, so the story necessarily jumps around a bit in the telling as different memories resurrect other associated memories out of the obscurity of the past. In this way, Alex is kind of like a brainy, Jewish Benjy Compson who, after realizing that Caddy doesn't smell like trees anymore, tries to fuck her in the ass.

Roth does not disclose to the reader right away that the book is in fact a one-sided dialogue between Alex and Dr. Spielvogel (the latter does not speak until the very last line of the book); however, this fact is enigmatically revealed fairly early in the book by Alex's offhanded and obscure references to the doctor, somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov's ladies and gentlemen of the jury asides in Lolita. (Picnic, lightning.)

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) liked to invent chess puzzles.

While much of the book is quite funny in the same way that a good comedy routine is funny, there are two jokes in the book that Roth sets up expertly and makes the reader wait for the punchline long enough to make them really worthwhile. One has to do with why Alex's second girlfriend is given the nickname “The Monkey. I can't remember the other joke right now, but I'm pretty sure there was one.

The edition that I have is 274 pages long, and I doubt there is a red-blooded American male (or female) who would not relate to at least some part of the book. It is, at bottom, a grimly uncomfortable yet humorous commentary about our inability to become completely comfortable with our own sexuality. This fact has long baffled me.

Why? Because single-celled organisms first engaged in honest-to-god sexual (not asexual, but sexual) reproduction just short of a billion years ago. (For you Young Earth Creationists out there, the conversion ratio is 1/160,000. Please modify your texts accordingly.)

Going even further, somewhere around 100,000 and 200,000 generations of our ancestors have been the product of reproduction and have reproduced since the time of Australopithecus anamensis, one of Homo sapiens' earliest ancestors. That's - a lot - of the ol in-out in-out.

(An interesting aside is that it took that many generations before it ever occurred to anyone to Superman a ho, an obvious product of the enlightenment.)

Prior to the end of the last Ice Age, despite the fact that nearly every organism born as a result of sexual reproduction had a mother, I doubt it ever occurred to anyone that what they were doing was anything at all to be ashamed of. They probably didn't even know precisely which holes went with what, and if someone felt like rubbing one out, it is unlikely that they felt guilty for doing so.

Indeed, modern scientific literature indicates that sex and the birth of offspring were not even causally (not casually; causally) associated by our earthly predecessors until relatively recently in human evolution. Hell, there are still “modern humans alive today (the Trobriand Islanders) who have not yet grasped the connection between sex and childbirth, but somehow they manage to keep reproducing - which is not a mystery to anyone.

The point: you can thank our sexual proclivities for the fact that you are here today reading this blog. If our ancestors were not willing to indiscriminately mount anything with a nervous system, we would never have survived as a species.

Recall also that 40,000 years ago, the “Brazilian and the electric toothbrush had not yet been invented, and women were basically indistinguishable from trees.

It's not like there were hot chicks walking around. Imagine Hillary Clinton without soap, dental hygiene, or nail clippers. Say it with me: Wookie.

Yet still our ancestors, early and recent, reproduced with such extraordinary ferocity and determination that billions of us happened to survive into the present day while millions of other species did not.

So don't be so damn hard on yourselves if you feel a twinge of shame when, like Onan, you throw a load into a Kleenex and wonder when polymer chemistry will catch up to the disposable-tissue industry so that the damn things can be made not to adhere to your dick like Elmer's wood glue when you try to dry off. Sex is a fundamental part of who we are as a species. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Don't puzzle your penis. Just make sure to clean up the mess.

Brought to you by your friends at Kleenex®.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


* * *

When I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, "O Muhammad! thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel." I raised my head towards heaven to see who was speaking, and lo, [it was] Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon. - Ibn Ishaq, Sira, in Guillaume, trans., A Life of Muhammad
The world was full of gods, who could be perceived unexpectedly at any time, around any corner or in the person of a passing stranger. - Karen Armstrong, A History of God

When I was a child, I believed in flying horses and the sorcery of wizards. I believed that goblins and witches flew wicked and dark in the night sky beneath the benevolent Moon, while ghosts languished eerily in graveyards and the deserted houses of the dead. My parents, who were - and still are - very sensible and practical people, never taught me otherwise.

They read to my siblings and me a great deal of wonderfully imaginative literature, but I do not recall any meaningful disclaimers from them that the monsters and magic in those stories were matters of fiction.

I imagine it never occurred to them to do so. Certainly my parents didn't believe in fairies or monsters. They were merely reading us the stories that we loved and breathing life into the embers of our nascent imaginations.

The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward was one of favorite books as a child.

While inadvertently teaching us that the world was full of magical things by reading us those wonderful stories, they deliberately taught us to believe in an omniscient, corpulent bearer of gifts (the jolly old elf, who sees you when you're sleeping and who knows when you're awake), a nymph with a creepy obsession with discarded teeth, and an enormous magic rabbit who, being confusingly in league with Jesus, went around depositing candy in secret places. I'm sure there were more.
At five years old, an age at which I still thought the universal solvent was Sherlock Holmes, I could have taken a lie-detector test about any of these benevolent supernatural holiday beings and passed with flying colors because my parents and relatives so enthusiastically advocated their existence.
We've all heard it a hundred times: "If you don't go to bed now, Santa is going to know it and you are not going to get any presents!"
Of course, all these sentiments were lovingly expressed in the spirit of the holidays, and without the benefit of some of my present reflections I did the same thing to my daughter when the time came.
For some reason, people find it endearing to tell extraordinary falsehoods to impressionable children about such things, which I believe tends to cultivate misunderstandings about the nature of the world that regrettably survive in one form or another into adulthood.
It is during this period of impressionability that we also teach children about God and all those fantastical stories from the Bible as if every bit of it were wholly true.
If that last sentence strikes you as odd, and you still believe in the literal truth of the events of the Old Testament, such as that Adam and Eve were the first-ever humans or that God purposely killed nearly everyone on Earth in a great flood, it may be past time to revise your understanding of reality.
Nevertheless, I'd be willing to bet that most young children of Christian families roughly equate Santa and God in their meager understanding of the world.
The tradition in this country is to disabuse our children of their belief in the holiday fairies at some point during their childhood, but the simplistic notion of a personified God that is taught to most Christian children is left unrevised.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes:
My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas; I had come to a more mature understanding of the complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in kindergarten. Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed.
The same was true for me, and I imagine that most people who were raised in Christian households would say the same.
It turns out that this simplistic notion of God as basically an omniscient human superhero is characteristic of western Christianity, but many other cultures and ethnic groups hold a more complex, abstract notion of God.
My family attended a local Episcopal church with marginal regularity. My parents have never been extremely religious people, but they would take us to church occasionally and it was very much a part of my upbringing.

Acolytes retreat into the church after an uplifting sermon out of doors.

Just behind the alter in our old wooden church was an immense fresco of a shadowy figure - who I took to represent God - standing ominously behind Jesus hanging dead on a wooden cross. This portrayal of the crucifixion of Christ graphically depicted the iron bolts through his hands and feet and Pilate's darkly sardonic titulus - INRI - above Jesus's lifeless head.
The fresco was a work of extraordinary beauty and power, and it mesmerized me as a child. It seemed almost magical, and I often thought I could see the faces of angels (or ghosts) in the mist lingering in the gloom behind the fallen son of God.
This haunting portrait of the violence of the crucifixion and, importantly, the anthropomorphized portrait of God behind the crucified Christ, informed my early perception of the nature of God.

This fresco still hangs in St. Mary's Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina. Biblical accounts of the crucifixion indicate that Pilate wrote the phrase Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum - which means approximately Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews - and attached it to Jesus's cross in three languages. It is common for artwork depicting the crucifixion of Christ to abbreviate the expression to "INRI."

In Sunday school, to accompany my personified notions of God, I developed a vivid image of the devil (or Satan, or Lucifer). In my mind, the devil was a blood-red winged and deceitful half-man, half-beast who scratched and salivated for my soul at the black gates of Hell.
The devil and his soul-stealing mischief were chillingly described by my Sunday-school teachers as quite real, and the whole thing was indeed very frightening to me as a child. In my mind, these perceptions of God, the devil, and Hell were as real as my own parents.

Mihaly Zichy's Lucifer (ca. 1887)
It is interesting to consider, therefore, how a child who has been taught from his earliest memories that the world is filled with gods and demons and magical things might interpret the world around him when presented with certain stimuli of unknown origin. By rearing our children in this fashion, do we not predispose them to see angels and demons when in fact there may be none at all?

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Part II: The Vision of Ezekiel

The Vision of Ezekiel by Raphael. "Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord, And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking." See generally Ezekiel 1:1-28.

One night, as I lay in bed at four or five years old contemplating my mortality, I noticed a faint, ethereal flash of light that appeared to hover briefly in the middle of my room before quickly disappearing.
Wide-eyed, I blinked through the darkness trying to make out what I had just seen. Seconds later, the apparition reappeared. It seemed to glide through the air; it seemed to move like mist.
I was terrified. I truly do not recall a more frightening experience in my life. I wanted to yell for my parents, but I was choked and strangled by fear.
Utterly paralyzed, I considered making a mad dash for the door (which was inconveniently closed at the time) while I scanned the room in a panic for my ghostly visitor. Again, the mysterious light appeared and moved vaguely about the room.

Jacob wrestles with God. "For I have seen God face to face." Genesis 32:21-32.

After a minute or two of abject horror, the feeling of which still chills me to this day, it occurred to me that the flashes of light were fairly regular in interval and duration.
I breathlessly began to count the time between flashes along with the hollow ticks from the old clock on my nightstand: 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 (flash). 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 (flash).
I counted again and again to make sure that I was not imagining the regularity. After a prolonged period of time, my adrenalin began to dissipate and the regularity of intervals suggested to me, even at that age, that perhaps the source of the light that had so terrified me was not supernatural after all.

Gabriel shows Muhammad the city of Madinah.

Having theorized a natural origin for the ghostly flash, although still being unable to fathom what could be causing the phenomenon, I cautiously pushed back the covers and - still with no small amount of terror - made a break for the only light switch in the room - which was inconveniently located next to the door where the apparition first appeared.
Turning on the light seemed to cause the ghost to flee; I felt safe again, and I stood for several breathless seconds looking about the room for evidence of the enigmatic specter. Turning up nothing, I gathered the courage to turn off the light again to see if it would reappear. Almost immediately the apparition appeared and washed across the wall in front of me just as it had before.
Looking back toward my bed, I noticed a sharp pinpoint of light quickly flash and disappear outside my window. Again, I counted and saw that the light outside the window flashed at the predicted interval. At five years old, this was my very first "what in the fuck?" moment.
After further investigation, I belatedly discovered that the mysterious light was coming from a newly installed airport beacon at the town airport five miles away. The beacon turned 360 degrees and the light from the beacon came through my eastern window once per revolution every eight seconds.
Yet, it could have turned out differently.
I might have scrambled out of the room, consulted my parents, and, if they had been susceptible to such notions, they might have confirmed for me what I first suspected: that I had seen a ghost, perhaps a dead relative who had slept in that room once upon a time. I might continue to believe to this day that I had truly seen a ghost, and I no doubt would believe it no matter what anyone tried to tell me given the searing nature of the experience.
Had my upbringing been slightly different, perhaps instead of a ghost - which was an idea that truly fascinated me throughout my childhood - I might have seen a religious icon; perhaps the Virgin Mary or the angel Gabriel that visited Muhammad and directed him to recite. Perhaps I would have seen a great chariot as imagined by Ezekiel. Or I might even have perceived a vision of God or his angels there in the dark above my bed.
This dubious portrait has been alleged with excitement to be an actual image of Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism. Described by biographers as a "religious genius," he founded Mormonism after receiving multiple revelations by the angel Moroni and transcribing the chief Mormon text on the basis of these revelations. After some research, it is apparent to me that he made up every word out of whole cloth. I find it doubtful that he even believed it himself.
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Part III: The Graveyard of Dead Gods and Angels
For time out of mind, human beings have seen angels, gods, and demons in their midst. Until comparatively recently, humans lived and walked with a panoply of gods and angels, and demons and fairies were blamed for the world's mischief and misery.
As the second opening quotation indicates, in the days of antiquity "[t]he world was full of gods, who could be perceived unexpectedly at any time, around any corner or in the person of a passing stranger."
This was certainly true at the time of events of the Old Testament, but even today there remains a marked credulity among humans in regard to visitations from angels.
As described above, Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) purported having many encounters with an angel (circa 1830) that led to the sacred text and rites of Mormonism.
Despite innumerable anachronisms and other ridiculous falsehoods in the divinely inspired text, millions of Americans are of the Mormon faith today and sincerely believe in the authenticity of the revelations given to Smith, who by all credible accounts was a pathological, self-serving mountebank of the first division.
Curiously, because one of Smith's revelations included the idea that men (but not women) can receive revelations directly from God, numerous others in the Mormon faith have come forward claiming to have received divine revelations through encounters with angels or direct communications with God, and many of them have started new sects of Mormonism.
Muhammad is of course another notable example of a historical figure who received revelations from God after being visited by an angel. Muhammad could not read or write, so he dictated the Qur'an (literally, the "recitation") as the revelations came to him. It is no secret that this religious text, like the Bible, has been used to justify bloody atrocities in the name of God.
Westerners tend to reject the proposition that Muhammad was actually visited by an angel bearing revelations from God. Why is this? Is Muhammad's account of his terrifying encounter with Gabriel less credible than Moses's similar encounters with God?
God appears in shrubbery and instructs Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Exodus 3:1-21. Some religious scholars have argued that God's revelation of himself through a burning bush is a metaphor for hallucinations achieved by smoking the reefer.
The Bible is a superb compendium of stories of angels and deities revealing themselves to the common people for various purposes. In the Old Testament, it was not unusual for God or some random angels to just show up and talk for a while, and in some cases, such as Jacob's wrestling match with God, it was not immediately recognized that God was present until some time later.
In addition to God and all the various angels of antiquity, the Bible describes innumerable other gods with which God (a/k/a Yahweh) competed for the loyalty of the people. Recall that Yahweh commanded his people not to worship these other gods, for Yahweh was a jealous and vengeful god who, by my reading, was scary as fuck.
The Ten Commandments, which are set out in both Exodus (20:2-17) and Deuteronomy (5:6-21), make these other gods a central part of Old Testament theology:
Ye shall have no other gods before me . . . You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:7, 9-10.)
Apart from the sadistic nature of this sort of nonsense (punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, an idea that is fairly central to Christian theology), one can't help but wonder what happened to all these gods that the Old Testament God was so obsessed with.
Did these other gods really exist at all?
If not, why did God make such a fuss about them?
If so, where are they today?
The answer, of course, is that these other gods do not exist today, and they did not exist at the time the Old Testament (or the Qur'an) was written. They have never existed. They were fables, metaphors, parables, and attempts to express the ineffable, but they were not real.
Most westerners have become atheists with respect to all these other gods. We consider the idea of their existence today to be quite silly. Is there one among you who continues to believe such gods exist?
Tracing the visions of Homo sapiens through the ages reveals that we first perceived gods among us, then as time passed we whittled away the excess gods but continued to see demons in the world around us; then witches became all the rage, and lest you think that this was mere fancy, recall that we rounded them up and burned them alive by the thousands.
See this article on the Malleus Maleficarum (the "Hammer of Witches") for a truly frightening example of what human beings are capable of in response to a belief in supernatural (i.e., non-existent) things.
This book (written ca. 1486) is a treatise on the reality of witches and the most effective ways to root them out and burn them in the name of God. In Europe, tens of thousands of women and children were found to be witches and were immolated on burning pyres to the great satisfaction of spectators.
Abandoning our widespread belief in witches, we soon thereafter saw spaceships in the night sky instead of women on broomsticks. Now even the aliens have retreated, leaving only God, and staggering atrocities are committed in His name.
We should be able to learn something from all of our past misperceptions. The lesson is that human beings are too frequently incapable of distinguishing what is real from that which we wish to be real.
The tendency of Homo sapiens to discard reason and adopt myth as reality is an unfortunate legacy for a species that has such extraordinary powers of reason. And there has been a cost.
This notion can be summarized concisely by this disconcerting fact: if someone is going to blow up the building you work in, chances are it is going to be done in the name of God with the dreamy expectation of His heavenly reward.
Ours is not a demon-haunted world. Gods do not walk among us, nor do they loftily reside in the sky or the heavens. They do not interfere with human affairs, or bring rain, or punish us for iniquities, or prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Our world is a natural world, unvisited by ghosts and goblins, and unmolested by the magic of witches and wizards. If there are events for which there are not natural explanations, I have not yet heard of them.
If we wish to understand our universe and survive as a species, we must discard mythology and instead practice reason. We must take great care to recognize a nearly universal human weakness: that we humans too often accept as true that which we merely wish to be true, instead of only those things for which there is evidence to believe.
The strength of one's convictions should be proportional to the evidence therefor. In the world of false prophets and revelations from angels, upon which all our modern religious beliefs are based, precisely the opposite has occurred. Too many of us believe most strongly those ideas for which there is the least amount of evidence.
Let us learn from our mistakes, sharpen our powers of discernment, and move away from that marked credulity that beguiles us into perceiving angels and devils among us when in fact there are none.
St. Francis Day at St. Mary's Episcopal Church. Try as I might, I could not hear the voice of God in my ears. 
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