16 April 2015

On Watching "The Walking Dead" II

This image is a metaphor for the show. As such. The dream-like nature of the moment did not prevent me from weeping.

They measure you by what they can take from you. By how they can use you to live.

Meanwhile, back at the end of the world in Georgia, a metaphor is being deployed. And that metaphor is explicating the conflict between, what I would call, Love and right-wing Conservative politics and policies and policing.

On the one hand, we have Our Team that we're rooting for, going through it. Like REALLY going through it. Struggling to find ways to maintain community, friendship, family--and therefore Love--and not turn into the others: not the undead, mindless destroyers, but the living ones, who give up on everything that marks civilization, as such--in a bid, not just to survive, but to dominate--secure in the belief that domination and survival are only coextensive and/or co-Terminus, instead of considering the possibility of them being coterminous.

Rick and Carol's incredibly even, often dead-seeming stare not to the contrary--a stare that, in contrast to most of their actions, only marks the success of their struggle to stay human--our team offers a very textured, layered series of responses regarding one's self-identity and one's self-delusion (often the same thing), one's ability to create meaning, one's love for one's sister or brother, whether one is one's sister's keeper, and whether one is responsible for civilization, or not. I hold that we are responsible for all these things. And I hold to this response-ability, not out of some misplaced nostalgia for a better time in the past, but out of a misplaced interest, desire, and demand for the future. In fact, I require it. I require it of me and I require it of you. 

One's ability to create meaning is core to this metaphor, not as the problem of not creating meaning--a problem we don't have--but out of the necessity and the endless human imperative to do so. We cannot not create meaning. What separates us from the animals and insects--from what we presume to call "Nature"--is meaning-production, in all of its ambiguities, vagaries, and lies. This is the essence of language. 

The issue is not that other animals don't have symbol-systems or feelings--of course, they do--it is just that our symbol-system is shot through with a kind of ambiguity and play that I believe is unknown to our animal friends. Cats are the Japanese of animals; Americans are the dogs; yet, for all the richness of the animal symbol-systems, they pale before ours. It's not their fault. The Axial Age marked a simultaneous and gigantic leap "forward" from them, and we don't know why--no, we don't; not exactly; not really--nor whereto and to what end, though some of the more depressing indicators are clear. 

Certainly, animals have their tools, and their feelings, and their language. Notice their industrial revolution. Marvel at their gridlocked, ideology-consumed, plutocrat-run political systems. Look at their nation-states and their wars, their weapons of mass destruction, their hedge markets and stock exchanges; their banks, pharmaceutical companies; their mustard gas and guns and hydrogen ordnance; their drug addictions and world-wide religious affiliations; look at their laws; look at their writing, their theater and symphonic works and dance vocabulary; their poetry and trash fiction; look at their Jim Crow laws and concentration camps; look at their schools; their utopian claims and their dystopic interventions; look at their lawyers, prostitutes, drug dealers, accountants, lobbyists, and markets; behold their polemics and rhetorics, logics and philosophies; their intense and subtle disagreements about these things; witness their drive for nothing but money; witness their money, their lotteries and casinos, their mafia; their shamans, soothsayers, clergy, and holy men; witness their mystics; and grow to appreciate their full-scale dismissal of climate change, which affects them least of all since they live outside: they have no inside, no insulation, no thermostat, and no aeroplane to take them on vacation; they have no vacation; they have no work, no movies, no television, and no internet. They are fundamentally not like us. So, please, stop boring me with your comparisons to the animals and insects; please stop telling me how much we're alike, because we are not. Your statements are only metaphors as justifications for your behavior--and The Walking Dead is shot through with these comparisons from suitably unsuitable characters--yet I've never seen any "natural" thing do what you do. No; we're stuck with each other, you and I, in this world not created by animals, but modified by animals with an awareness of ambiguity but an unshakable need for certainty, most especially when that certainty is the most deadly thing on the planet. 

The Axial provides evidence for humans employing a new facility for tool-use, including language, which is, after all, also a tool, but hardly only a tool--it is a tool like no other: it is an environment: it is the substance and structure of thought itself: we swim in it and it swims in us. One assumes, in comparison to the animals, that the Axial allowed us to leave the pseudo-psychosis of one-to-one correlations and certainty behind, and embrace the inherent ambiguity of large symbol systems, which are not and never have been set and clear, except to the psychotic among us. I say this is no way to impugn the truly psychotic, who rarely participate in the genocidal-level, sociopathic, blood sport that I will attribute to what I am choosing to call the waking dead. And this is what this post is about.

I began this post saying that The Walking Dead details the various choices of Our Team, the dwindling and growing, waxing and waning, group of survivors clustered around Rick Grimes, who by season five, with his beard, has started to look like a hot cross between Jesus and God. There are other choices being detailed as well, in this employment of metaphor, and these, for the most part, do not involve Love. What we witness instead is the spectacle of humans going feral: humans in the wild, not just without civilization to keep them in check, but a demonstrable rejection of civilization. We are speaking of a different kind of discontent. Rather it is a new kind of contentment with savagery, with murder, cannibalism, and pleasure in these things. It is Schadenfreude articulated at the level of an ethos.

Over and over Our Team either comes across people or is come across by people who have made horrible choices--and Our Team has made HORRIBLE choices, too--but these others, the waking dead, only have it in for anyone else who crosses their path, in an Us Against Them, that must always and only end badly, must always end in Evil. Our Team actively resists this conclusion--and it is a conclusion, in every sense of the term--and we, as audience members, yell at the screen, "Kill them!" but they very rarely do. To us, the paranoia of the Zombie Apocalypse puts us more into the camp of the waking dead than Our Team. Their struggle with this question is the problem and the point.

Despite the blood and gore, which has become more intense, even personal, as the series progresses, despite the first two seasons during which the series explored what to do about the zombies--realizing that the zombies are not the text, are only occasionally the subtext of the show, but are the backdrop--the show is about the living, the living who choose to be dead, and the living who choose to not just not be the dead, but who choose to be the living. And for humans, choosing to be the living means always thinking, remembering to feel, and to build bonds based on Love not Death.

Now, the all or nothing, Us Against Them, every-man-for-himself, how-can-your-life-benefit-mine continuation of the destruction of the world of the others, of the waking dead--the very thing that Our Team exists as a site of resistance against, even with all their mistakes--is right-wing, Conservative politics, policies, and policing as we experience it today. It is the coldest, most frightening, death-loving machine the human race has yet produced. It produces the end of civilization and the end of the world without even seeming to believe in either of those things, which is terrifying. And the dreams which are narratives on our television screens and in our comic books--even more remarkable for having been produced by corporations, the great engines of our destruction and political destitution--offer both a critique and an alternative. Must we get to the place on display in The Walking Dead before can realize alternatives are possible?

15 April 2015

Poetry/Jazz Appreciation Month II: Lilac Wine

Famously, there are at least two distinctly American art forms: the Broadway Musical and, of course, Jazz--I also include The Blues in this short, proud, list, and rock and roll, which is white Blues.

It is not an accident that Jazz derives from the Black experience on this continent and the Musical from a specifically Jewish-American genius, evolving out of operetta, vaudeville, and music hall nonsense into its own real thing. These two American art forms--Jazz and Broadway--revolve around each other, nourishing each other, making each other even better, more beautiful, more feeling, more sophisticated, more complex. For at least half a century, Broadway music was popular music in the United States, and Jazz ran and ran with it.

Then we have Nina Simone.

In the hands of a true genius--a real American genius, like Simone--a little Broadway ditty becomes a threnody, an In Memoriam: You; In Memoriam: Love; In Memoriam: Me. No one makes this song speak the way she does and no one else can pull Death, so certainly, out of it in this way.

And so we continue our exploration of Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month.

Lilac Wine
James Shelton

I lost myself on a cool damp night.
Gave myself in that misty light.
Was hypnotized by strange delight
Under a lilac tree.

I made wine from the lilac tree.
Put my heart in its recipe.
It makes me see what I want to see,
Be what I want to be.

When I think more than I want to think,
Do things I never should do,
I drink much more than I ought to drink,
Because it brings me back you.

Lilac wine
is sweet and heady,
Like my love.
Lilac wine,
I feel I'm steady,
like my love.

Listen to me.
I cannot see clearly.
Isn't that he,
coming to me,

Lilac wine
is sweet
and heady.
my love?
Lilac wine,
I feel
I'm steady.
Where's my love?

Listen to me,
why is everything
so hazy?
Isn't that he,
or am I going
crazy, dear?

Lilac wine,
I feel
I'm ready
for my love.
I'm ready
my love.

Poetry/Jazz Appreciation Month I: How Long Has This Been Going On?

April isn't just the cruelest month but also National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. What more could we want to commemorate them than the Gershwins giving us a bit of both by way of the titanic Carmen McRae with "How Long Has This been Going On" (1928)? A strange song about being taken by surprise by one's own feelings of love--an amazing song! an amazing lyric! "Where have I been all these years?"

Lyrics aren't necessarily poetry, and yet they also are. And the Great American Songbook is full of, not just flashes, but full on lightning storms of brilliance. The idea of asking the beloved how long "this" has been going on is just mind-reeling. To me, anyway. Enjoy.

How Long Has This Been Going On?
George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin.

'Neath the stars, at bazaars
Often I've had to caress men.
Five or ten, dollars then,
I'd collect from all those yes-men.
Don't be sad, I must add,
that they meant no more than chess-men.

Darling, can't you see?
'Twas for charity?
Though these lips have made slips,
They were never really serious.
Who'd have thought, I'd be caught
In a state that's so delirious?

I could cry salty tears.
Where have I been all these years?
Listen you, tell me do:
How long has this been going on?

What a kick, how I buzz;
Boy, you click like no one does.
Listen sweet, I repeat:
How long has this been going on?

Dear, when in your arms I creep;
That divine rendezvous.
Don't wake me, if I'm asleep,
Let me dream that it's true.

Kiss me once, kiss me twice,
then once more:
That makes thrice.
Come on, and let's make it four.

What a break, for heaven's sake,
How long has this been going on?
What a break, for heaven's sake,
How long has this been going on?