The God of Small Things Broken on the Wheel

Titian's Madonna of the Rabbit might be sweet and simple and pastoral: the young woman holding the baby, the child reaching for one of two domestic white rabbits, the mother's hand caressing the back of the child's head. You can almost hear them murmuring, gentle, now. The mother's hand cupping the rabbit's haunches rather than holding the scruff of its neck, an indication of trust on the rabbit's part that must have been observed from life. A shepherd in the backgrond that might be a guardian of the gentle triangle, petting a black sheep, his gaze not anxious, but dreamy and thoughtful in a place where "sheep may safely graze". Is the baby reaching, or blessing? Is the mother's hand intentionally making the Buddha's "earth touching" gesture?

That's a big part of Christmas for me, a midnight when animals can talk, a truce when soldiers from the tranches exchange cigarettes and play soccer, when the world is supposed to stop savaging children and animals. On any other day of the year, the Baby Jesus, the ox and the donkey would be "collateral damage", swollen at the side of the road somewhere-- just look at the statistics on civilians from Our Monkey Emperor's invasion of Iraq, or if, as Stalin believed, "statistics" don't count, Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad. For one night, the Roman Saturnalia is turned into a celebration of the most vulnerable fragments of suffering humanity.

Titian's meditation goes deeper; the young girl attending the baby is Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who lived almost 300 years later. Artists called these kinds of paintings "sacred conversations", sacra conversazione, figures from different periods brought together to carry some symbolic message.

A ghost of horror stalks the loving scene, because Catherine symbolized the torture and cruelty imposed on the small things of the world. When she was eighteen, she was condemned to be broken on the wheel: on the "Catherine wheel", the victim is bound to the spokes and the wheel is turned with a rod shoved in between the spoke and the all too human limb. Arms and legs can be broken many times this way, with the victim still conscious; sometimes broken so many times that the torturers could wrap your arms and legs around the spokes like a piece of string. According to the saint's legend, Catherine touched the wheel, and the wheel itself broke into pieces. Robbed of their fun, they beheaded her instead. Of the rabbits, and the flowers (artists were very specific about the symbolism of plants in Titian's day), the shepherd and the black sheep, I'm fairly ignorant, except as indications of gentleness and trust. That the world contains such cruelty in juxtaposition with beauty and tenderness is one of those mysteries of the "philosophia perennis" that I keep trying to understand with Christian and ecumenical metaphors, but there's real blood mixed in with the wine.

So Merry Christmas. Sorry, cosmos, that we've been such vicious, murderous primates all year, but we promise to do better next year. That was Christmas Eve, of course, and we made those promises and toast while we were drunk on sentiment, sentiment being defined here as emotions that you don't really mean, as sincere as Jove's perjuries. Christmas Day, people were back to taunting a captive Siberian tiger, dangling a leg over its prison and then affecting surprise when the tiger climbed up that leg, killed one of them and mauled two more, doing what tigers do. What would William Blake make of this? Word comes as I finish this post of the death of Benazir Bhutto. Let us continue this talent for killing our best and brightest on the altar of a murderous God, and then see what we've accomplished. Our friend Michael in Colorado sends his usual cynical Christmas card: Merry Fucking Christmas. Not nearly cynical enough.

Everything I Needed to Know About Religious Fanaticism, I Learned from DC and Marvel's Problems with Continuity

Peter Brook once said that directing an opera was like getting spring water to run through old, calcified pipes-- there was nothing wrong with the living music, but the institution had built up so much lime and scale in the pipes the water had to travel through that in some places they choked off the flow. I expect a similar phenomenon occurs in major religious institutions and big comic book companies.

I was rereading Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory , which plays with obscure characters DC didn't care about and not only revives, but makes them profound. On Comic Book day (Wednesday) after savoring the high minded stuff I push on the literary goyim about (Ex Machina, Fables, the stuff deemed acceptable by The New York Times and the Royal Society-- will someone please beat some life into Chris Ware with rolled up copies of Fantastc Four # 48-60?), I induged myself with episodes of DC's The Search for Ray Palmer. Nowhere near as layered or meaningful as Seven Soldiers, but it struck me how full of comic goodness they both were, the stuff Alan Moore defined as "the Snap! Crackle! Pop! of comics" when describing Love and Rockets. This is the living water forcing its way through the calcified pipes of the genre, and although some very dark things happen in Morrison's epic, as dark when taken out of context as anything in Ellis, Miller or Moore, it avoids the abasement of humanity that seems to be the editorial norm at Marvel and DC.

I'm not very good at analyzing great art, too emotionally involved by the whole to ever figure out "how'd they do that?" It's easier to see what went right, or wrong, in journeyman work like The Search for Ray Palmer. The plotline is simple alternative-universe stuff: the Atom, shrinking down to the size where Newton no longer applies, scoots from parallel universe to parallel universe while four heroes follow after, so they can ask him where the remote is, or how to save the universe, or some damn thing. There's a universe where genders are reversed, another where "The Bat-Man" in army surplus cape stalks a gaslight-era Gotham, and one very scary world in which the infant Superman's rocket landed in Stalinist Russia, with Batchik a bitter dissident haunting the subways. They even did the "everybody's a vampire!" hooey-- so why does this entertain, while Marvel's alternate universes (What If? and Marvel Zombies) are as emotionally vile and morally repugnant as a Bush administration law brief?

It has something to do with the demon of "continuity", an invention of Marvel's in the 1960s that gave its superhero books greater depth and literary credence than DC, which lagged behind as "kid's stuff" for decades. "Continuity" already existed in slice-of-life strips like Gasoline Alley, but applied to the serial adventures of a superhero, it meant that characters would age, graduate from school, fall in and out of love, marry, have children, and interact with each other and the "real" world. Thus Captain America would have his heart broken by Richard Nixon and expose Ronald Reagan as a reptilian alien conqueror; Peter Parker, hero of a soap opera for boys, would sooner or later have to choose between Felicia Hardy or Mary Jane, and marriage meant a family and hostages to fortune.

But continuty meant calcified pipes choking off the water, like the ones in Peter Brook's old opera house, conventions that become sacred cows and then taboos. If a series character becomes successful-- steady contracts and health insurance for all-- continuity becomes a trap. Some series have so much back story, they can scarcely move. The more brilliant creators, like musicians improvising on a theme, can play with an archetype without breaking it, but for journeymen artists and writers it must be like writing the hundredth episode of MacGuyver-- what's the gimmick this week, and how will our hero escape it while coming out the other end without fundamental change? Star Trek writers had a direct approach to this conundrum: kill off the love interest in the next-to-last scene. The much reviled editor-in-chief at Marvel, Joe Quesada, can think of no better solution to his characters' problems than to burn everything down and start over. DC avoided the continuity trap longer than Marvel did, primarily aiming their books at young children and tweens. They could play with continuity in the most absurd ways, and who the heck cared? Marvel marketed itself towards adolescents and college students, and they paid attention to whether the Hulk was grey or green. When DC started getting "gritty" like Marvel, they found themselves trying to make sense of infinite crises as byzantine as a history of religious wars.

Which leads us to the crisis in monotheistic religions, and people willing to murder in an argument over whether the eyes of God are grey or green. The insistence on historical veracity found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam seems to me another version of this pernicious trait, with real casualties. It perverts the intention of the archetype. Hinduism, though it makes room for ten thousand gods, seems no better at suppressing the will to murder or die over something that cannot be known. Even Buddhism was perverted by the samurai to affect indifference to life and death and the suffering of others. Mental flexibity, the ability to play with ideas and explore alternatives, allowed us to take over the planet, and a lack of flexibility now finds us strangling each other's children in a dispute about which end of a hard-boiled egg an invisible being orders us to open first. Why an entity with ten thousand names would be so insecure is beyond me. Worst Excuse for Murder Ever.

How the Boss Made a Monkey Out of Me

The recent headlines about chimps who outperform college students at mental math are somewhat misleading. It's not that these were super chimps, or moronic freshmen. Boxer and Feinstein, two female chimps named for California's senators, played a memory game that asked them to compare numbers and choose the larger number of two sets of objects. Their human opponents-- here's what made the difference-- "were not allowed to count or verbalize as they worked, and they were told to answer as quickly as possible. Both chimps and humans typically answered within 1 second. And both groups fared about the same."

Comparing sets of numbers resembles a task primates might have to perform in nature: grabbing as much as you can before the hyenas chase you away, or the po-pos arrive, whichever comes first. Taking language away from the humans put us on a level playing field with the other primates. "I think of this more as using non-human primates as a tool for discovering where the sophisticated human mind comes from," explains Jessica Cantlon of Duke. "I don't think language is the only thing that differentiates humans from non-human primates, but in terms of math tasks, it is probably the big one," she said.

The snatch-and-grab-it instinct tells us a lot about why so many right wing cranks reject taxation, and vote against their own self interest to support the Republican party while the infrastructure turns to shit around them. Kim Stanley Robinson does the math in his novel Forty Signs of Rain:
“The average surplus value created by American workers is thirty-three dollars an hour.... Sixty four thousand three hundred and fifty dollars a year, generated by the average worker in surplus value.”

".... What's the average income?" Edgardo asked. "Thirty thousand?.... Call it thirty, and what's the average taxes paid?.... Call it ten. So let's see. You work every day of the year, except for three lousy weeks. You make around a hundred thousand dollars. Your boss takes two thirds, and gives you one third, and you give a third of that to the government. Your government uses what it takes to build all the roads and schools and police and pensions, and your boss takes his share and buys a mansion on an island somewhere. So naturally you complain about your bloated inefficient Big Brother of a government, and you always vote for the pro-owner party."

“.... It's a matter of what you can see," [Frank] suggested. "You see your boss, you see your paycheck, it's given to you. You have it. Then you're forced to give some of it to the government. You never know about the surplus value you've created, because it was disappeared in the first place. Cooked in the books.... The only things people understand are sensory. We’re hard-wired to understand life on the savannah. Someone gives you meat, they’re your friend. Someone takes your meat, they’re your enemy. Abstract concepts or statistics just aren’t as real as what you see and touch. People are only good at what they can think out in terms of their senses. That’s just the way we evolved.”

Heartbreaker, Nervewrecker, Meansucker—Which of You Stole Wesley Willis’ Money?

My kid-sister-in-law Colleen used to greet Wesley Willis on her way to and from class in Chicago. Wesley was a homeless, 300-pound schizophrenic who then made a few bucks selling ballpoint pen drawings and a CD he’d cut of homemade songs sung (badly— tone-deaf Wesley was a living refutation of the myth that black people are naturally musical) in front of a Casio keyboard that always played the same tune. Colleen usually shared her change, bought a CDs and received her blessing: knocking foreheads together and Wesley’s assurance that “you are my friend in Jesus’ name”. Starting in the 1970s, and then with a vengence in the 1980's, there was a devil's bargain between liberal pity for the institutionalized and conservative disdain for the poor : schizophrenics and severe manic depressives were turned out of the State Hospitals by the thousands and given pittances for rent and medications-- of course, they didn't take their medicine without supervision and wound up living on the street or being exploited in the new, private sector "group homes". Wesley was just one more broken loser, a failed capitalist in self congratulatory America. Great job, Brownie.

Then the beautiful people discovered Wesley. Chicago punks started using him as an opening act, then nationally known “alternative” artists, who shall remain nameless because I don’t feel like getting into a pissing match with Jello Biafra fans, started hailing Wesley Willis as a primitive genius, a celebrity of outsider art, started getting him gigs, recording contracts, having him over until they got tired of him. And I have no problem with that, if it got him out of the cold once in a while, if he had friends who checked on him once in a while.

But as entertainment, I never quite thought the joke was funny. I thought Will Robinson Sheff hit the nail on the head when he said "periodic appearances for crowds of jeering white "fratboys" evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freakshow. “It’s funny” my less fastidious friends tell me, “it’s not exploitive, it’s funny the way he screams ‘Suck a Swiss hound’s diiiiick...’ “. It’s still a freak show, I answer, and I have mixed feelings about the morality of freak shows. But then it’s all about the freak show these days, isn’t it? And nothing is immoral in America if it can be marketed somehow.

But Wesley died of leukemia at the age of 40, and no one seems to know where Wesley’s money went from the sold-out shows and the novelty act CD sales and his appearance fees for being laughed at on the Howard Stern show. If stealing a dead crazy man's money is a prerequisite for hipness, then turn my heart to stone. In a more honest age, we called them “geeks” and they bit the heads off live chickens and we paid them in drugs or bottles of hootch, and paraded them for the marks as “The Wild Man of Borneo” or some such-- but we knew it was grotesque and we didn’t kid ourselves that we were being chic. Yeah, rock on, Chicago.