Inexplicable Realities vs. Sensationalized Claptrap: TV Takes the Wrong Side Again

I was watching something on TV the other night (okay, okay: it was Ancient Aliens) that reviewed a really astonishing kind of psychic phenomenon… and then proceeded to handle it in a wholly whimsical, even childish manner. I believe the first time I was ever exposed to the idea that people can remember scenes and events from a life prior to their own was in Blackwood’s Magazine (praised be its memory), the oldest literary monthly of them all. I learned style and taste by combing through those pages, and I rue to this day the inevitable demise of “Maga” (which came, I think, in 1976).

Anyway, as I recall the story, it involved the case of an Australian who remembered a Scots castle down to the last detail. This young person was visiting the British Isles for the first time, and was staggered to find the very structures he had dreamed about, though in a somewhat dilapidated form. The author, who chanced to encounter this unique tourist, was enough of a local historian to realize that the recalled differences were indeed accurate images from earlier centuries. By the way, the piece was presented as entirely non-fictional.

The phenomenon was called a “racial memory” in that presentation, and the suggestion was made that memories may somehow be passed down through our DNA (since the Australian visitor was actually a descendant of the castle’s one-time inhabitants). The incidents highlighted on the TV show, in contrast, did not seem to involve cases of shared genetic material (or they may have, and the producers chose to suppress that “minor detail” in order to spin a more spectacular theory). Let it stand, for the sake of argument, that you or I might somehow be born with clear memories of the Battle of Waterloo even though we had no progenitors there. That’s a really fascinating condition that we cannot presently explain… but what in the world does it have to do with reincarnation?

The reincarnation of A in B would require B to recall every detail of A’s life, not just a castle or a battlefield; or if most memories have been washed away in the River Lethe, then why did any at all remain? Why, in fact, does a small handful of images covering a very brief period typically haunt the “receiver”?

And if this is the universal fate of all souls—to hop from a dying body into one just getting born—then what happens in generations that have more bodies than their predecessors did? Or fewer? Do some bodies not have any soul at all—or do some souls shuttle between a dozen bodies and earn overtime? Do excess souls chat quietly in a cosmic waiting room, hoping that abortion doesn’t catch on?

If you have a metaphysical belief in the reality of the soul, then each individual must have a single, unique soul. This is a moral necessity, if you also believe that the ultimate end of human life is to serve the cause of goodness. The murdering tyrant must answer for his atrocities in another dimension that won’t let him off scot-free, as likely happened in this world. The tyrant’s martyred victim who died protecting innocent children must also have his snapped thread caught up in the weave of a greater reality. If belief in an immortal soul is not subordinated to a conviction in the triumph of goodness, then it’s mere, pathetic paganism that ascribes understanding to cows and makes the life-extending favors of demons worth cultivating. Such debased belief is worse than none at all.

I often talk and write about Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome. If you air out an idea in a context which ends up trivializing or infantilizing it, then no sensible person will ever hear the idea mentioned again without laughing it off. There’s a heck of a lot we don’t understand about ultimate reality; but thanks to the way popular culture keeps sensationalizing the troublesome corners that don’t fit under contemporary science’s umbrella, thoughtful people are not going to take a serious look at those corners for a very long time.

Hands Off YOUR WHAT?

We’ve bought a nice little piece of land in the Appalachian foothills where I plan to grow almonds and apples, just to name the two that begin my list alphabetically. I have cans and canisters of seeds saved from years and years ago which I intend to plant. We’ll see what actually comes up. Thanks to genetic modification, very few of the fruits and vegetables I would have bought at the grocery store over the past six or eight years will ever produce anything from their seeds. That’s a frightening thought, and one of the reasons I want my own land with my own food growing on it. Some day, Big Brother is going to be deciding who gets viable seeds and who doesn’t, because nothing in our commercially purchased food will reproduce. I’m sure the basis of selection will be “first come, first served”… just as I’m sure that the single year my tax-exempt charity was hounded by the IRS had nothing to do with Lois Lerner’s reign.

At the entrance to my property sit two rusty old gates. They won’t keep out any hunters who really want in, but they might be a mild deterrent to teenagers looking for some place to drive into the woods and smoke weed or run anatomy experiments. The previous owners don’t seem to care about the gates sufficiently to take them down, and we’re glad enough to have them since we are not yet in situ. It might be said that the gates are now ours: the property is ours, and the gates were a free gift. Kind of.

But what happens if, after we’re moved in and well settled, the previous owners show up and want their gates back? They say, “You know, leaving them didn’t seem like a problem before… but now we’re running really short of cash. We need another pair of gates on our farm but can’t afford to buy them—so, naturally, we thought of these two. Sorry that you got used to them, or that we let you get used to them… but they weren’t ever part of the original sale. You realize that, don’t you? You didn’t pay a penny for them. They were a freebee, given on the assumption that we had unlimited money in the bank. Turns out that we don’t, so… now we need them back.”

At this point, I rear back and scream at the top of my lungs, “Hands off my gates! Do you want me to die—do you want robbers to break in and kill us? Everyone has a right to protection in this world. Hands off my gates!

I would look pretty stupid, wouldn’t I?

Concerning Nixon…

Since mentioning Richard Nixon last time (in whose administration Pat Buchanan worked), I’ve been wanting to get a few things off my chest. I came of age during the Watergate years, and I think the picture that young people are painted of that most unfortunate time—by their teachers, their textbooks, and popular culture—is an utter travesty.

I distinctly recall reading (though I read it only once or twice; the media feeding frenzy quickly obscured such fine details in froth and body parts) that Nixon suspected McGovern of communicating with Fidel Castro. This may seem of no account to most of you now; but if you retained anything from your history books about the early Sixties, you remember that the Cuban Missile Crisis is rated as having had the potential to begin of World War III.   Now, I put it to you: if Castro was such a desperate character that Kennedy’s facing him and Khrushchev down saved the human race from extermination, as is popularly let out, then why should he have been considered a pussy cat a mere decade later?

Or if Trump’s colluding with Putin to steal our last election is a scenario whose mere specter should put all other business on indefinite hold, then why would credible intelligence that a presidential candidate had covertly communicated with a despot eager to nuke our shores not warrant looking into?

Nixon, of course, was loathed by the Left since the days when he successfully prosecuted Alger Hiss, a Soviet spy deeply secreted in D.C.’s corridors of power. Younger Americans will have been told that no threat from the Soviets (except the Cuban Missile Crisis) ever existed, and that the hunt for spies on our shores and within our government, especially, was an indefensible witch hunt. The idiotic word “McCarthyism” has now entered the parlance of both sides of the aisle—as if poor Joe McCarthy, a war hero and a simple man of the people, had any “-ism” behind his clumsy attempt to weed out traitors from his nation’s most sensitive sources of power and influence. Nixon’s star rose as McCarthy’s plunged into flaming descent.

McCarthy, to be sure, stirred up a deal of hysteria. Why wouldn’t he have? The nation’s children were being drilled in their schools for an all-out nuclear attack during these years. Nixon, likewise, was no black belt in public relations. His homely mug, his sanctimonious style, his irrepressible persecution complex, his self-consciousness about his humble origins… a walking target, he was, for all the bullies on the playground. And then there was his vanity. If only he had burned all the damn tapes, as William F. Buckley urged him to do in print, the nation would have been spared a lot of misery. They were his private property—he could legally have done whatever he wanted to with them. As his “legacy”, however, they were sacrosanct… and he dragged himself and the country through disgrace that the record of his years in office might be preserved.

Sad. But not deserving of the caricature which has been visited upon the man. Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson, having left a couple of bodies in his wake (I do not speak figuratively) during his climb to power in South Texas, is remembered as the compassionate architect of the Great Society.

Try, just try, to remember that you know less than nothing about the historical personages presented to you by textbooks and movies; for the lies with which we have been programmed are worse than utter, abject ignorance.

 

On Pessimism and Misanthropy

Pessimism is the routine expectation that things will happen for the worst (pessimus being Latin for “worst”). Misanthropy literally means “hatred of mankind” in Greek (misos + anthropos)–but in common usage, its tone is somewhat milder, as in “not trustful of people”.

I have been called both of these; and while I certainly haven’t a lot of trust in people, especially in an age where young high school and college graduates are constantly encouraged to “follow their dreams” in idiotic commencement addresses (a recipe for disaster, given the irresponsibility of dreams nourished on video games and Netflix fantasies), I think “the worst” is most often averted when we’re suspicious of our neighbors. The founders of the republic thought the same thing. In my lifetime, it has been the optimists who typically open the door to disaster: the people whose expectations are so absurdly self-indulgent and rose-colored that cynical manipulators run circles around them and create a hell on earth. Then, when the “snowflakes” finally wake up and realize that they’ve been played, they become as naïve in their mistrust as they were formerly in their gullibility. They tend to lay the blame for all that has gone wrong at the doorstep of a certain designated group of villains, in a romantic kind of Manichaeism—good guy versus bad guy—rather than growing up and recognizing that all people have at least latent corruption nestled somewhere within them.

The trouble with optimism is that it can leave those whom it burns stupidly pessimistic. And on their way to getting badly burned, the naïve can get innocent people killed. I won’t repeat my remarks of a few weeks ago about Pope Francis.

Let me toss out just a couple of examples that sailed past my bow this week in illustration of why I don’t feel just all peachy soft and fuzzy about human civilization’s future.

One case stares at me from my Kindle almost every time I fire it up. The murder mystery seems to be to our casual reading public what oats are to a horse. Now, my mother loved mystery novels, and I think most of us enjoy a good crime drama on occasion. I had to give up watching Joe Kenda, however, because at some point I just couldn’t take any more young single moms letting strangers they’d picked up at the bar into their lives and winding up in a dumpster. Real murder, you see, is anything but glamorous. It’s the most squalid crime imaginable. The motive is generally some mix of lust, greed, egotism, and stupidity—with a very strong dose of the last: murderers are almost never evil geniuses. The murder itself is usually a brutal act of superior physical strength asserting itself over a victim screaming piteously, and pointlessly, for mercy. Even the higher predators in the animal food chain show more heart than the average murderer.

Yet nowadays, even as we create safe spaces and trigger alerts to coddle our epidermis-free sensitivity, we willingly accept murder into our amusements as an integral part of escapist fantasy. It’s the sanitization of murder in the pulp romance that gripes me—the degradation of mass taste that is implied in that makeover of human depravity. Joe Kenda’s tales were real enough to leave me mildly nauseated after a while: Joe Kindle keeps insulting my intelligence with teases about the latest “humorous, sexy murder mystery”.

One more quick example: I was looking up the Romanian word for “bull” because I know almost no Romanian whatever, and I needed to make a linguistic point about the modern languages descended from Latin. I’m not kidding you: the first full page of a dozen entries that popped up on my computer screen when I Googled my question offered Romanian street parlance for “bullsh*t”. Seems that we have all forgotten about the male bovine with a bellowing voice and what Jack Falstaff called a “pizzle”. How did we come to the point where coprologisms have more currency among us than basic words for basic realities? What does that say about us?

So, no, I’m not real happy with things. It’s because I can still generate the energy to be upset that the notion of effective action continues to mean something to me. Would we be better off just smiling every time our decadent culture serves us up a dish of “bull” when we ask for bread?

Except for People

Just got in from checking on my garden. The sweet potatoes are starting to send their leave up out of the ground—it happens literally over night. My bell peppers are doing much better now that I’ve transplanted them from the raised, boxed garden with its rich soil into more sandy terrain; they just didn’t take to the high-rent district! My goji bush is exploding; an odd little tree that I think (and hope) has sprung from a jujube seed continues to thrive; and the ever-screwball butternut squash have actually volunteered this spring (after I had given up on them after so many years of wasted time) and are producing plump gourds that, by all lessons of the past, just shouldn’t be there!

One can usually make peace with Nature. If things aren’t growing, there’s a reason, and one may be able to figure it out with a lot of patience—though it would have been even better to have preserved some of that ancestral wisdom which we’ve trashed along with Grandma’s sewing machine. Many times, I have the thought that a large part of our postmodern malaise is owed to our having ruptured our bonds with the soil and the seasons. Life and death, health and sickness, the stages leading to maturity, the rain that must fall so that the sun may give further life… even the electricity released by violent thunderstorms, I suspect, must be balancing out something in the atmosphere that would prove toxic if the weather were forced to be “peaceful”.

Yet all I hear and see in the human world is irksome whining about natural limitation (e.g., our paltry two genders), arrogant rejecting of cycle in favor of strict linear progression (e.g., our looming immortality as human/robot hybrids), and tasteless self-insulating in childish fantasies (e.g., the newly released Wonder Woman—and should she have hair under her arms, or not?). Plants can talk to you through how they look: my bell peppers told me that they preferred the sand when I saw them putting out new green leaves. Their language always makes sense. It’s about sun, and water, and survival, and supplying the next generation. People, in contrast, just don’t make any sense at all to me any more. Their audible language is much easier to assemble—but its message, the combined product of its words, is gibberish.

As I was walking back inside, I had the kind of thought that isn’t typical of me these days—and it came to me so powerfully that I was actually saying it out loud: “God, the world is beautiful… except for people. Except for people.” Yeah, that last part is typical “me”, I suppose, as I’ve now become; but I sometimes forget how Edenic life on this planet can be if you can just escape the clamoring, yammering apes in clothes. The alternative is well worth seeking out.

 

Animal Planet Peddles More Unicorns

I think “cryptozoology” is a really fascinating subject. The assumption is always made by the general public (and usually fed by professionals in the sciences, who don’t like to admit that something might possibly lie beyond their ken) that we must surely have discovered by now every life form on Planet Earth. This is an ignorant, arrogant leap of faith. Because most of us have now squeezed ourselves into “megalopolis” or into one of the concentric rings of suburbia enclosing it, we can’t imagine any weird creature’s escaping detection. One thing we fail to consider is that our collective influx into cities has left rural areas depopulated. Yes, the explosion of human inhabitants in all quarters of the globe would seem to compensate for any relative diminution in the percentage of people filling this or that corner. I doubt that this proposition is unassailable, however. Comparatively few though we were a hundred years ago, our overwhelmingly agricultural society still concentrated its strength very heavily in the boondocks. Now any drive along a rural highway (and how many of us ever take such a drive?) reveals desolation on all sides. Abandoned houses are falling apart everywhere, and seldom does any new structure rear its satellite dish in their place.

People who should find themselves in the country for some reason are also less likely now to know its sights and sounds. They can’t tell a wolf’s cry from a coyote’s or a crow’s call from a caracara’s. The situation where a tenderfoot thinks he may have seen a chupacabra when he’s only run across a large stray dog often works in reverse, thanks to such ignorance: a person might see an unidentified species and assume that it is a familiar one. Witnesses in shooting incidents almost invariably say that they at first thought the gunshots were a backfiring car. The stronger tendency of the human mind is to blend the unique into the commonplace, not the other way around.

Thirdly, the encroachment of human beings on so many once-remote parts of the natural environment can create opportunities for more resourceful species that were formerly hard-pressed. Squirrels are much more abundant in suburbia than in the wilderness. Humans have chased off or killed most natural predators (foxes, snakes, hawks) while allowing the “cuddly, adorable” little fur-ball to chew up orchards and attics unmolested. If something extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent like a Sasquatch did exist, an invasion of humans that thinned out rival predators like panthers and bears while allowing food sources like deer and squirrel to proliferate might actually improve the outlook for survival.

All of this is merely to say that I was looking forward to the first episode of Animal Planet’s Destination: Mungo last Sunday. Quite a letdown. Once again, we are treated to a showman who expensively, ostentatiously makes his way to some forgotten corner of the planet… and then spends one night in the “hot spot” to see if his infrared cameras are activated by anything larger than a rat. Bwana Mungo hasn’t even heard of the coelacanth, apparently (and hasn’t yet figured out how to pronounce the word, either). In one scene, he contacts his biologist buddy in the States to ask if the Postosuchus, a Triassic ancestor of the crocodile, might really exist today, as Liberian locals are reporting. Responding via satellite through a laptop linked to a smartphone, the suitably bearded academic tells an inspirational story. “Have you heard of the coelacanth, Mungo?” “No, never. Tell me about it.” Oh, please!

In the first place, the coelacanth’s presumed date of extermination was considerably closer to our own time than the late Triassic (by a factor of close to a thousand). In the second place, coelacanths inhabit ocean trenches and would be virtually undetectable to human beings in the normal course of events. In the third place, of course Mungo has heard of the coelacanth! I learned of its lately discovered survival into the present when I was a young boy—a professional wildlife photographer and cryptozoology enthusiast could no more have remained ignorant of the subject than a physicist could fail to have heard of a quark. And finally, biologist buddy’s fishing stories transmitted by satellite, however inspirational, are insufficient reason for Mungo to rise from his laptop feeling new confidence in his quest. He hasn’t garnered a single particle of arcane information about tropical African fauna that might be seen as assisting his search. The whole exchange is highly staged and utterly ridiculous… almost as bad as a mockumentary about mermaids.

So… my quest of credible shows on the subject of cryptozoology continues as we permanently put the Amusement Park of Mungo at our backs. I’m looking for something rarer than a unicorn, it seems. In the meantime, old episodes of River Monsters are far less a waste of time.

Publishing: The Grandest and Vilest of Occupations

As I prepare to put my association with The Center for Literate Values to bed, after a seventeen-year struggle to make it grow, I’m greatly relieved… but also saddened. A lot of stuff in my life seems to be getting bundled off into memory’s attic at just this time. My son is done with college and busy with a full-time job at a location almost a thousand miles away. Who knows when I’ll see him again? I can’t wait to sell this old house and move into a new one built much more to our taste… but my boy grew up here, and every inch of the property stirs its own recollections. I’m about to begin my professional swan song as an educator, and it’s high time for me to bug out before I have to do everything online in semi-robotic fashion… but I had a few successes as a teacher, and I won’t be having any of those after next April.

The Center—and its quarterly journal Praesidium—shared much with my frustrating academic career. I thought we could reach a critical mass of people and help to keep a taste for classic literature alive; but we were forced to wage this war through a website for financial reasons, and people who surf websites generally don’t care about the proper interpretation of Virgil or Ariosto. It often seemed that I was fighting the spread of kudzu across my lawn by whipping new tendrils with vines of kudzu.

I continue to write and translate, and I know now that I can’t stop. But I also know by now that none of the conventional outlets for “success” is open to the likes of me. My translation of three medieval Celtic romances isn’t riddled with neo-Marxism, feminism, or Gay/Queer Theory, but rather juxtaposes the threesome from the point of view of comparative mythology and Christian allegorizing. Try getting that published at a university press today! A novel I wrote last summer represents through fantasy an eternal punishment for wicked deeds, its vision founded in an “absolutist” (what stupid words we’re forced to use now!) vision of good and evil. Try getting some money and press lined up for that from the “creative” community!

In fact, publishers rarely accept anything in any genre nowadays from someone not previously published and successfully marketed (the same old Catch 22 as, “We can’t give you this job unless you have experience”). Now, if your last name were Clinton or Trump or Kardashian and you were willing to tell all—in broken fifth-grade prose—about the intimate workings of certain households, the rule would be waived. Otherwise, publishers want proof that you can make money. The days of a thoughtful editorial board reading over, heatedly discussing, and taking a chance on an offbeat submission probably died somewhere in the Seventies.

Even academic publishers now require a curriculum vitae (what normal people call a résumé) to be submitted with the manuscript. The reason given for the request is completely disingenuous in an age when you can research “Halifax McGarnicle” instantly on your smartphone and see if he’s all he claims to be. No, the purpose of that somewhat creepy requirement is to ensure that the University of Deadwater Press doesn’t say “no” to Professor Gastropod, the world’s leading expert on gay behavior among narwhals.

I’m more and more attracted, then, to the idea of publishing my own stuff as cheap PDF and EPUB downloads—and the stuff of others who are equally sick of the publishing racket. We would do well to make a few dollars’ profit, but we would perhaps reach worthy audiences. And the investment would be virtually nil, unlike the notorious shakedowns operated by vanity presses, whose architects never report your sales to you honestly (as I know from bitter experience). One of the things I need to find out is if software exists to inform collaborators instantly and automatically of sales—for I would hate asking authors to rely strictly on my integrity.  I’ve known outfits whose marketers do this, and then bristle indignantly if you raise a question. Even if you set a trap and catch them in specific breaches of faith, what are you going to do—pay a lawyer to recover the ten bucks you’ve been cheated out of?  How do you prove that it’s more?

The “information for prospective authors” on my site would read something like this:

Aspiring authors are encouraged to submit their work for processing in inexpensive downloads, for which they may set their own price and for whose sale they will receive 100 percent reimbursement. The objective of this system is to draw potential buyers to a site where they may view works reflecting tastes and values similar to those of the author whom they originally came to seek; so your contribution is assessed in shoppers drawn to visit, not in pennies scooped off your sales.

I hope it works. I’m running out of ideas for saving literacy—and out of years on earth to give them a try.