Suicide: Dark Goddess of a Youthful Cult?

I learned yesterday that one of my favorite students had committed suicide.  As far as I knew, she had continued on from her Bachelor’s to a graduate program.  I don’t think she managed to be admitted into the university of first choice, but she had settled into a program that would prepare her to be a professional editor.  She seemed to “have it together”.  While I was aware that she suffered from severe insomnia and was on medication, I had supposed that the problem had been brought under control.  She had a boyfriend of whom she spoke with much warmth, so I wouldn’t have imagined her to be agonizingly lonely and isolated.  She was not unattractive, though the average male these days would likely have been drawn neither by her looks at first glance nor by her quiet, retiring manner.

The person who broke the news to me explained that the girl was bipolar, as if that accounted for everything.  My informant was almost in tears, and I’m certainly not criticizing her individually; but I’m a little vexed when someone hands down the bipolar diagnosis as being sufficient reason for tragedies like this.  We can resist, we can fight—all of us can.  A genetic or hormonal predisposition to gloom means only that some have to fight harder than others.

I couldn’t help but recall, as well, that our victim had been enrolled in that class about which I’ve written so many times—the one whose members (well, three or four of them) howled at me when I once remarked, “I guess the homework assignments drove them to suicide,” in an effort to wave away my irritation at certain frequently absent students.  I have always made clear (including when the incident happened) that I was NOT joking about suicide, but rather about the lack of commitment in this group; and I have since stressed, upon reflection, that I view the manner in which my remarks were received by the loud few as willful, wanton belligerence.  If I say, “I’m out of ammunition,” am I showing insensitivity to the school children slaughtered at Parkland?  If I say, “I’m kind of spacey today,” does someone whose sibling died of a drug overdose have a grievance against me?

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I was indeed joking about suicide.  Why shouldn’t I, or why shouldn’t anyone?  Why should the word “suicide” only be whispered, and always with fear and awe, as if she were some ancient goddess from the dark side like Hecate or the Erinyes?  Why should not Suicide be scorned and derided like the opportunistic, cowardly assassin that she is?  At the end of The Haunting—original version, directed by Robert Wise—Richard Johnson’s character subdues a murderous poltergeist by openly, mockingly laughing at her.  Why should not Suicide be shown the same degree of respect… which is to say, none at all?

When I was suicidal in my mid-twenties (as I, too, enjoyed the delights of graduate school), I fought my way out of the haunted house by observing to myself how melodramatic I was being, and how stupid and cowardly an exit by way of The Pit would be.  I can hear one of my detractors from two years ago right now: “Well, that’s fine for you—but it doesn’t mean that other people feel that way.”  No… and your style of “sensitivity” doesn’t mean, either, that you’ve shown more mercy or saved more lives than I have by refusing to venerate the dark goddess.  What if you have actually contributed to the problem by inducing those around you to bow before spirits from hell?  Are you so sure that you haven’t?

Personally, I am convinced that such “sensitivity” is somewhat implicated in the suicide epidemic.  Suicide has become an Event, perhaps the Ultimate Event (in a society that has no other use for the metaphysical or the supernatural).  It is the dramatic exit always accessible to people whose lives otherwise have no drama and attract no notice.  I’m not suggesting that the friend we lost last week was such a one: if her insomnia had returned, that alone may have driven her over the edge (or that and the useless medications so freely and heavily prescribed by “professionals”).  Yet even under such horrible torment, perhaps she would have held out if the shame of suicide were still prominently etched in everyone’s soul.  Feeling shame before certain acts is healthy.  It can protect us from catastrophe.  Now that we’ve decided that shame is “judgmental” and “lacks compassion”, our brothers and sisters have a diminished power of resistance which makes them easy prey for the spiritual parasites gnawing the human psyche.

But that doesn’t really matter, of course: the only thing that really matters is for you, generation of hair-trigger outrage, to make clear to the world—and yourselves—that you are morally superior beings.  Gee, what great friends you must all make! What comfort the despairing must find in you!

Rest in peace, S.B.


The Spirit and the Flesh: Adversarial Allies

If a man asks you for food, take him to a sandwich shop and sit with him to eat.  Don’t give him a wad of bills or a card to draw infinitely upon the food bank.  You do not serve the man in him with such charity—you stifle his humanity by making your sacrifice at the altar of the Stomach.  You proclaim that the end of life is to stay alive.  You heard the word “hungry”, but you did not hear the man who said he was hungry.

If a man tells you that his child is sick and needs medicine, take him and his child to a doctor, and buy what medicine is needed.  But do not give the man’s family endless draws upon your account to buy whatever medicine they may need at any time in the future.  Charity without a setting or boundaries is an unlimited worship of the god Health; and in serving that god, you declare that life is about nothing but health, always health.  If the child is cured for no other reason than to stay cured, then he might as well grow on a stem in a garden, like a vegetable.

And if a man comes to you saying that he is so tired of life that he yearns to end it, do not give him a free pass to an amusement park or introduce him to a wild leaf that sends the bored mind into ecstasy.  The god of Escape can keep bodies alive as well as food and medicine sometimes—but what lives is only a body.  Try your best, rather, to show the man what weariness of life teaches about life: that it ends in nothing if one sets one’s goals within its boundaries.

Charity is not about feeding the hungry, but about removing hunger as an obstacle to a higher mission.  Sickness is another obstacle—and the purpose of life is not to avoid being sick, any more than it is to avoid boredom.

We always teeter on the brink of getting this wrong, because lavishing people with food or medicine or amusement is a deed, a measurable behavior… but the spirit has no measure.  The spirit is a negative presence, we might say.  We cannot bestow it as we would a sandwich of a Z-pack.  We can only remove obstacles to it.  Saving a person from death only gives him the opportunity to live; we cannot know if he will use his opportunity well.  Refusing to fuel a lie only gives the truth an opportunity to prevail; we cannot know if that truth will bring most people to insight or despair.

Health, happiness, prosperity… they all end when life ends.  And if life ends tomorrow, then it might as well end today—at least if it is to hold nothing for us but animal satisfactions won from a body that declines to torture us.  But for a person who has found purpose in life, even bodily tortures—sickness, tedium, poverty—are a small price to pay if they are a means of the spirit’s reaching its end.  A father will live on one meal a day to feed his child.  An artist will take the money that might have kept wood in his fireplace if it will buy paint and canvas.

What kind of person are we producing in our world today—a plump vegetable immobilized in a garden, or a visionary who happily suffers privation for the sake of a higher end?  I think we all know.


A Professor’s Life at a “Christian” College: Assume Nothing!

Once again, very pressed for time, I’ve decided to excerpt from the introduction I’ve just written to some of my past scribbles collected into an anthology.  Will try to be more original next time!

The Greeks called the period of life when a man reached his thirties the acme, or peak. Perhaps I continued to be a late bloomer. In retrospect, it certainly seems to me that I might have awakened to a few unpleasant facts of existence a little sooner.

Foremost among these would have been the truth about the professorial lifestyle. At the beginning of these “acme” years, my unstable professional situation had put my small family into something near survival mode.  I resigned the last tenure-track position that I would ever occupy for numerous reasons, some having to do with how far scattered our extended families had become as I dragged my wife about in search of employment “with a future”; but the ignition point of my resignation, as I’ve never denied to myself or anyone else, was a boss who constantly laid traps for me after carefully removing her fingerprints from the set-up. This went on from Day One, for five years. I had been hired against her will, and her “beef” had soon become pretty obvious. She had to her credit neither a Ph.D. nor a single “significant publication” (as it’s known in the biz). Ever hoping that I would stumble into one of her finely crafted snares, therefore, and have to depart in disgrace, trailing behind me my offensive résumé of publications, she didn’t so much transform life into hell as sabotage my moments of enjoyment with perpetual anxiety about where my front foot was about to fall.

Our first son was born as this period began—the happiest day of my life; and, if the reader will pardon me for taxing credibility, it was only after the general display of interest in and congratulation to my newly expanded family roused her tireless envy that the Boss decided she, too, must have a child. Any eclipse of her place in full sunlight was intolerable. Her own son was duly born (almost as if on command) within a couple of years, she collected her laurels and applause… and then she consigned the child’s rearing to her milquetoast husband and returned to addressing higher rungs of the career ladder. After my departure, I’m told that she addressed them very successfully.

All of this took place in the context of a “Christian” school.  If I devote what may seem an inordinate amount of space to such events, it’s because I would have you accept that they took a very heavy toll on my morale. I probably should have laughed them off… but the priceless endowment of a forgetful, dismissive heart was left out of the package that holds my character traits. There were less shocking incidents, of course—and a lot of them: for instance, the dean who seriously proposed to me that I could fight “grade inflation” in my classes by giving A’s all semester long (thus ensuring good student-evaluations) and then bring the inverted numerical pyramid crashing down at the last moment with a killer final exam worth half the term’s total. Those words were really spoken… and many others in the same genre, always behind closed doors. The fraudulent masks of piety and prayer that covered daily business, month in, month out, made of my life away from home an unending transit through a haunted house.  I’m not entirely ashamed that I couldn’t endure a diet of rotten meat served with honey for twenty years, as did a few genuinely decent people around me in this institution; yet something in me, I’ll admit, wishes that I had owned a stronger stomach.

True, I had a devoted wife—and now a child—to stabilize the weaving hallucinations beyond our doorstep. That should have been enough, some would say. Traditionally, that was supposed to be enough (though I never actually saw it work for anyone in my father’s generation). I’m afraid that the reverse may be true: that the lies you live when you exit your driveway will come slithering through your energy-efficient windows to infect the whole household….


How Does a True Conservative Stay Out of Holes?

If I have to read or listen to one more commentary about Trump’s coprologism for corrupt, impoverished Third World nations, I’m going to eject something malodorous from the other end of my digestive tract.

I’ll say this much, though, about the so-called conservative contempt for living close to nature: it isn’t conservative at all, and it has made my own alliance with the political Right very unstable at times.  Face it.  There’s a very vocal strain in “conservatism” that wants to burn energy and build highways the way any normal person would relish describing in front of a snowflake how he killed a squirrel.  (Squirrels eat baby birds, by the way, dearie: that’s why mockingbirds hate them.)  In other words, certain self-styled conservatives are reactive.  They say and do things because they know the other side will be ticked off.  Rush Limbaugh leaps to mind.  How many times has he discussed smoking his cigars, turning on all the lights in his mansion, and driving about in a gas-guzzler just for the joy of making his political adversaries change their diapers?

Now, I don’t know if the president made the specific comment attributed to him or not.  I know, however, that many who have sprung to his defense leave me feeling a little skittish with their implied judgment that life without cell phones and Netflix must be hell on earth.  The ancient Stoics viewed a man as free and true to his natural purpose to the extent that he could eliminate his ties to material needs and assert the superiority of his will.  I have always deeply admired that perspective.  To my mind, it comes very close to describing the essence of manliness (a word which literally translates the Latin virtus).  That’s one reason, by the way, why I have never found it very masculine for men to go chasing addictively after women: that is, if they can’t control themselves, then they deserve to be considered something more on the level of a dog pulled on an invisible leash behind any pooch in heat who wanders through the neighborhood.

Part of the independent life is being able to supply most or all of your needs for food, shelter, and defense.  There was a time when certain parts of what we call the Third World were very good at such self-sufficiency.  True, most of those places have since been transformed into hellholes; but they have been so courtesy of the USSR, the PRC, and—yes—sometimes the USA piping sophisticated weapons into the region and enabling (unintentionally or otherwise) tinpot dictators to subjugate their populace.  I am NOT willing to brand such spots the anal sphincters of the globe just because farmers have to use their hoes manually and don’t have iPhones in their pockets.

Any real conservative, on the contrary, would be very concerned about the inroads that frivolous high-tech is making into the lives of our children.  When a teenager plunges into deep depression and withdrawal syndrome just because he or she is deprived of Internet for a week, then we should not be proud of the new kind of dependency we have permitted to corrupt a once-independent citizenry, even if it “creates jobs”.  If said teenager were truly using the device to become better informed about the world, then a case might almost be made for the addiction… but remember where this ramble of mine started: in a news cycle that hasn’t for a week been able to let go of one badboy comment uttered in a supposedly private conference.  Meanwhile, China is sentencing a blogger to twenty years in prison and water has been incontrovertibly discovered on Mars—but who has time for that?

We don’t need more jobs: we need more nut-bearing trees, more hands that can turn sun and rain into potatoes, more minds that understand how to get an egg from the chicken to the table: that would be a conservative’s view.  But no, let’s all just keep piling into our own urban hellholes.  That’s the approach, by the way, which is drawing all the Third Worlders here—and the loss of traditional skills and social structures in their own homelands is what’s driving them to emigrate.


Depression: Part One

I do this sometimes: i get busy on a project and then decide to paste some of it into a blog instead of writing a new column.  Below is a bit from the intro I’ve been reworking for a collection including every poem I’ve published over the past forty years.  It becomes a kind of commentary on depression.  I’ll try to pursue that particular topic further next time.

The Coelacanth poems may have been partially composed, in some cases, when I was still a teenager.  Certainly I was in my mid-twenties when I pulled everything together to publish through a “vanity press”—having very correctly concluded that no “respectable” organ of the Muse at that time (the Seventies and Eighties) would let the leprous hand of such work touch its celestial hem.  Let me explain.

I had a “very young youth”, in that I didn’t reach maturity for years—or at all—in the fashion common among my peer group, especially those who went on to “elite” universities.  Everyone was experimenting in those days, early and often: experimenting with sex, with drugs, with haircuts and haberdashery.  I had already staked my claim to oddballism well before high school.  My family’s means were limited; many of my classmates had streets and museums named after their clan.  I was quiet and given to daydreaming; these were the years of spilling your guts in “sensitivity groups” and “letting it all hang out”.  High school and then college brought all of my environment’s unreconciled vectors into open collision.  I became an incredibly unworldly lad adrift in the most worldly generation, perhaps, yet known to man (if “worldliness” may be understood as liberation from the traditional and from a default-value restraint once called “decency”).

Most peculiar of all, this unenviable position made me extraordinarily mature in strangely isolated, incoherent ways.  I acquired a sense of wry irony that wouldn’t quit.  How could I not have?  The “liberated revolutionaries” all around me swept up the vast majority of college students my age into a lockstep march toward counter-conformist conformity.  If one did not revolt in just their fashion, one was tarred as “the other” and shunned as fatally infectious.  Some of the shunning, to be sure, was more on the order of benign condescension or amused pity. I recall being confronted now and then by a more affable footsoldier of The Movement about the poverty of a life such as mine, so sadly lacking in a “rich diversity of experiences”; and I further recall answering (or thinking the answer—for I was usually too shy to speak it), “To be twenty-one and not jaded by dead-end experiences is not only an experience unknown to you, but one from which you have now sealed yourself forever.”  That, had it been said, would have been well said.

What I could not or would not speak found its way straight into my writing. A fierce spirit of independence (perhaps the fiercer for its self-suppression in social circumstances) is not difficult to make out in these poems of my twenties—that and, again, the wry misanthropy of the wounded young soul who doesn’t look for things to get any better.  What has shocked me occasionally as I have transcribed the dozen Coelacanth scribbles (for we hadn’t so much as the first floppy disk back then) is the undercurrent of real despair: sometimes a complete tergiversation on the brotherhood of man (as in “The Tiger”), sometimes a religious mysticism that longs only for deserts (“The Prophet”).  The somewhat melodramatic prose introductions to each section seem to me a rear-guard action intended to generalize and elevate some of the panic into a calm, even serene moralism… but a wild scent lingers between those lines, as in the verses. Young people, we should always remember, are dynamos of energy without clear direction. If offered no wise guidance by their elders (and never did Elder Authority abrogate its shepherding duties more shamefully than in the Seventies), they are highly susceptible to self-destruction.

Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew became a literary sun that I orbited (the rest of the Bible much less so—for it is in Matthew that the drama of persecuted innocence shines through with the greatest fervor).   I managed to stay away from the cults that often consumed castaways in my situation.  To this day, I clearly remember a very simpatica young woman with whom I conversed lengthily as denimed, tee-shirted undergraduate drones trooped past us on Austin’s teeming campus (at the foot of the building from which Charles Whitman had gunned down two dozen people in his lunacy).  She left me a pamphlet.  A friend later sniffed it over and announced with a smirk, “She’s a Moonie!”  I must have had that look of “potential charismatic recruit” about me… for some chanting Hare Krishnas also made a gift to me in an airport (perhaps during that very year) of a lavish volume whose Sanskrit I have just begun translating in this, my silver twilight.  No, I didn’t fall into step with any of them… but I hope that God has touched them gently and led them to a safe haven.


“Proud to Be an American”: What Does This Mean in 2018?

I’ve been trying to establish a Twitter presence, on the advice of a marketer with whom I shared concerns about a couple of my microscopic business ventures.  Every day I try to grind out something pithy… and every day I watch the Twitterverse volley snarky remarks about Ivanka and Oprah back and forth over my head.  This ain’t working for me.  It’s like expecting a mastodon to do The Worm in the endzone.

A hot topic the other day seemed to be whether one should—or dare—be proud to be an American.  The ever-hypersensitive Mika apparently tweeted something about her friends being “viscerally embarrassed” to acknowledge their American citizenship in Paris.  I logged a response about my father-in-law’s having told me once that no one was ever allowed to enter Paris on furlough after the Liberation without a buddy—that too many fascist-sympathizers were abroad and looking for targets.  I added that the French Jews could never have been rounded up for deportation without local help: Hitler hadn’t the troops to spare for such duty.

My point, of course, was that Parisians hardly have a right to criticize anybody’s national affiliation… but the chatter just continued: “I was in Paris last summer, and I had no trouble being a proud American,” etc., etc.

On the one hand, I personally am probably not all that proud of my nationality.  I was born here.  So what?  I try to find other things in life in which to take pride than accidents of birth.  Should I be proud to be Caucasian or male?

I was once proud that my nation lived by a document that allotted rights to men and women on the basis of their being creatures endowed with freedom by God whose society left them alone to fail, to learn, and to grow… but I’m not at all proud that my nation has largely turned its back on that most precious element of its heritage.

I’m not proud, either, that one may not so much as begin a conversation about the sanctity, say, of Abraham Lincoln.  One may not call into question certain “facts” about the Civil War, observing that 95 percent of Confederate soldiers didn’t own a slave, that the South harbored more Abolitionist societies than the North until John Brown started stirring up murderous chaos, that Lincoln only emancipated slaves in the South—and there only to enlist them forcibly as cannon fodder for his very unpopular war (protests against which he squelched by suspending habeas corpus).  No, can’t go there.  Matters of history, especially when they’re tinged with matters of race, are a Twitter-ready toggle up/toggle down in this land of the free.  Either you drink the Kool-Aid, or you’re a liar and a racist.  I’m not proud of my association with a society that exacts such lynch-mob thinking of its citizens.

On the other hand, as I edge my way through the 2015 serial now on Netflix, The Fighting Season, I feel a certain pride that our military is halfway around the world helping people to resist the outright hooliganism—cynically swathed in religion—which is the Taliban.  I have no problem with our vaporizing these butchers, just as I would have no problem with our leaving Mexican pandilleros for the vultures whenever we find them straying across our border.  Men who behead women for visiting a hairdresser or enslave young girls in prostitution have already acted as their own judge and jury, as I see it, and only need an executioner.  The Mikas of the world are all for cutting them enough slack to brutalize more children, as long as they stay away from the gated neighborhoods of the elite.  Most Americans, however, would say, “You had your chance, and you chose the sword.  Now die by it.”

I’m not “viscerally embarrassed” that my countrymen do not sit impotently on the sidelines and do nothing but snipe at would-be intercessors.  Situations like those in Afghanistan are immensely complex, and a case could certainly be made that our well-intentioned presence will end up making things worse; but the French were raping Vietnam for her natural resources while we were trying to halt the creep of totalitarian Maoist communism, and I’ve no doubt that any interest they might take in Central Asia would be of a similar quality.

Of course, what this is really all about is the incessant disparagement of everything wrought by Western culture—by Christianity, by capitalism, by applied science and technology, by republican governments—ongoing in our grade schools and universities.  It long ago leaked into the news and entertainment media, and it is growing ever more observable in a know-nothing generation of youth addicted to “smartphones”.  No one who’s read my stuff faithfully for a year would think of charging me with being uncritical of organized Christianity, unbridled capitalism, or unexamined technical innovation… but there comes a point when one finally wants to say to the spoiled brats inhabiting artificial reality, “Just shut up, will you?  Mistakes are what happen when you get off your butt and try to do something.  People like you never make mistakes.”

I’m not going to wrap myself in the Stars and Stripes… but I get it.  In this increasingly dumbed-down, either/or, “with us or against us” society of ours, I completely get it.


A New Life Matters Infinitely More Than a New Year

Yeah, yeah—another new year.  Another old year packed in moth balls.  Ring in the new!  Bells and whistles, toasts and firecrackers… idiotic resolutions and mawkish nostalgia.

Actually, 2017 was unique for me.  Bought some land to start a farm and contracted to have a house built.  Got my son successfully out of college—and without debt.  Found that my complex publishing ambitions could be easily accomplished, in large part, through Amazon—and am about to bring out my sixth book as the final day of December wears on.  Acquired a Twitter account, as well as my first faithful follower (everyone tells me it’s a “must” for publicity).

Also extraordinary amounts of misery and hardship.  Still fighting through a severely strained tendon in my knee, and had close run-ins with several afflictions that I was able to treat homeopathically.  Watched my son go through three jobs once he decided to give up baseball—the result, mostly, of being lied to during interviews.  (Some things never change.)  Continue to do battle with various investment firms to get my retirement in order and wrest control of my accounts from stifling bureaucracy—and to think that this is the private sector!

The Center for Literate Values will officially die this evening at midnight.  Amazing how many people want me to keep parts of it up and running on a fixed income—people who aren’t volunteering a dime of their own money.  Some things never change.

A fall semester safely in the books that trespassed on my academic freedom (thanks to electronic technology) more presumptuously than I’ve ever seen, and with every sign of continuing.  But I’ll be gone after one more round of this.  I taught my classes my way as ’17 wound down, and I’ll begin ’18 the same way.  Go ahead and fire me—make my year.

All in all, 2017 was one of the most productive twelve-month cycles I’ve ever lived through—and also one of the most traumatic and draining.  I haven’t described the half of it.  What I really need is for it to go away now.  The Year Eighteen gets me out of my professional prison to think and write freely as long as my time on earth continues.  It will bring me to a place where green vegetables other than cactus grow.  I’ll have a home where my son may come to visit over Christmas and not be counting the days till he can escape the deadest terrain north of Hell.

And maybe I won’t feel that chasmic gap in my life when he leaves—that abyss just after Christmas.  Maybe I won’t have to ask myself all the old questions any more, the ones I’ve pondered since he left home for college five years ago.  “Why does this tear your heart out?  You don’t want him to stay here, do you?  What would he do in Tyler, Texas?  Compete with other realtors for a small share of a small market, trying to make enough loot that the snooty locals deign to notice him—that their daughters deign to go out with him—and probably turning into a drunkard under the shadow of all the Baptist churches?  No, we want him out of here.  That’s what we’ve worked for all these years.  You don’t want him a child again—and you don’t want to be the bigger fool you were yourself twenty years ago, when you were trying to raise him.  Isn’t it your own life as it has come to be, though, that makes you weep as he leaves?  Not so much because he isn’t in it day to day, but because bringing up a child no longer distracts you from what you actually do. Isn’t it that you can no longer avoid seeing what’s right in front of you? Isn’t it the nullity that remains after that fresh gust of youth withdraws—the awareness of having sold out for almost nothing to a profession that itself sells out everything you believe in by double the amount each year?  The bitterness… the nothingness… isn’t that what you can’t face?”

Well, I won’t need to face it any more in a few short months. I will proudly be able to say, to my son or anyone else, “This is my home.  Welcome.  This is my food I grow, the forest I walk daily.  These are my thoughts about the world.  You are welcome to any of it you want.”

A new calendar is just another piece of paper.  But a new life… now that’s something to toast, if only with myself in silence.