Wednesday, December 3, 1997

Millenium Fervor


"To be different. Like everybody else!"

In my college journal, I transcribed Dr. Joyce Brothers’ 1970 comment from an Esquire interview because her light-hearted remark seemed to capture the Age of Aquarius. In time, the best seller I'm Okay! You're Okay! confirmed her chortle. As Sociology Departments have taken over every college campus since the 1960s, we're now up to our ears in naifs searching for the Wizard of Oz to give them personal recognition. Is it any wonder then, that America is ripe for the hucksters of millennium fervor?

Millennium fervor conjures up mystical behavior. A thousand years is the limit that the human mind can comprehend. On the cusp of a new millennium, people have it in their minds that they are different from their ancestors, if only for the experience of being alive when the calendar turns over. While the turn of the century causes people to go a bit batty as they try to deduce the future, that’s nothing compared to what they do at the end of ten centuries.

G. K. Chesterton perhaps understood millennium fervor when he said, "When people no longer believe something, they do not turn to a belief in nothing; they will believe in anything." (1936)

Bertrand Russell offered a similar lament: "Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones." (Unpopular Essays--Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, 1950)

Michel de Montaigne deduced: "Some impose upon the world that they believe that which they do not; others, more in number, make themselves believe that they believe, not being able to penetrate into what it is to believe." (Works, Book II; 1580)

I think all three quotes enlighten us as to what gives license to cultism, regardless of whether a new millennium is upon us. While most cults tend to have a religious bent, we are seeing an increase in cults that embrace atheism or (pseudo) science. Madeline Murray elevated atheism to a cult when she challenged school prayer. Experts, and I use the term derisively, are prophesying that Earth is warming at a critical rate. On Tuesdays, the same experts worship the ozone layer. Junk science is now a cult.

There are also Nature cults of which I view PETA as being the most radical. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is the apocalyptic manifesto of the Nature worshippers. Revelations, on the other hand, remains the standard reference for extreme fundamentalists who believe that God is soon to visit his wrath upon us.

Perhaps I should stop here and insert a quotation from Maeterlinck about what he thought science would eventually accomplish:

All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than the animals that know nothing. A day will come when science will turn upon its error and no longer hesitate to shorten our woes. A day will come when it will act with certainty; when life, grown wiser, will depart silently at its hour, knowing it has reached its term. (from Our Eternity)

Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911 and was, by all accounts, a learnĂ©d man. Though he lived long enough to see the invention of Penicillin, it is clear that he earlier believed that euthanasia would be the capstone of science. That he believed his death more painful than a lesser animal’s tells us of his religious belief. "Death, where is thy sting?", the age-old hypothetical New Testament question, does not appear to have been part of Maeterlinck’s philosophy.

Intelligent or not, you believe what you want to believe-Man … must believe something!

* * * * *

All of our history, experimentation, and research has led us nowhere and everywhere. We don't have a clue as to how the Great Pyramids were built. Our brightest engineers have only theories as to how the great stones were quarried, transported and erected. Nobody really knows why they were built either. The pyramids were tombs, you say? Of course they were. But how did humans come to the decision to build burial tombs in the first place? This is the "Why?" I refer to. Enshrinement has to be a ritual invented by the human mind. What precedent is there in Nature?

There is no real historical or archaeological evidence of Jesus' life or that of the Jews' Exodus from Egypt. But don't argue the point in church. Religion requires that we believe these events occurred (as written in the Holy Bible) based on faith, not evidence.

Science is quite the opposite in that science demands discovery and proof of events. Junk science, though, seems to be a meld of religion and science. Extrapolating the end of Nature and demise of the Earth based on 100 years’ worth of temperature measurements is a leap of faith that only a Tennessee snake handler would make!

There is no sure explanation for the demise of the dinosaurs. But they died off in the geological blink of an eye. There are people in the Amazon Basin today who haven't discovered how to build a fire. Yet Newton wrote out the study of math and physics with a quill pen and Einstein dreamt the duality principle that led to E=mc2. How is it that we can be so bright and so ignorant, so intuitive and so forgetful?

"Paradigm Shift" is the new catch phrase among pseudo-intellectuals when it comes to explaining change. Perhaps God tired of dinosaurs and ordered a paradigm shift! It seems our species has no discernible baseline, just centuries of random paradigm shifts. Will humans in the future marvel at the Aswan High Dam the way we do at the Sphinx? If the Nile undergoes a paradigm shift and dries up or changes course, they could be just as mystified with a concrete monolith protruding from the desert just as we are with the Sphinx. In the year 4000 AD, will science have solved the mystery of the Sphinx or will a future religious cult make pilgrimages to Aswan?

As cults go, they latch on to an unorthodox answer for their need to answer that which is beyond their grasp or control. Some sort of end-of-the-world prophecy permeates cult doctrines. Thus, a sense of utter futility pushes the unwary believer into the web of propaganda that the cult leader spins. The cult leader's goal is simple-he loves the adoration and is not so different from most leaders in that regard; the difference being in what ends he'll go to in order to force his will on his admirers.

Jim Jones was a bad dude. Marshall Doe, the San Diego cult leader who believed that a comet hid his awaiting spaceship, was equally bad. What's scarier, though, is that each of these men had devout followers who drank poison on command. The cultists had gone beyond reach. Does one really have to don new Nike sneakers and commit suicide to hitch a ride on a spaceship? This is where logic should win the day but to the devotee, it's the illogical that seems so logical! ‘Tis sad indeed that no one now can even remember what Jim Jones' followers were doing in Guyana. Yet his flock took it all so seriously.

After Guyana, fraternity houses started serving Jim Jones Punch (formerly grape and grain) at parties. Everyone else went back to their routine thinking "Good riddance!" to Jim Jones. We, the ordinary, cannot understand why the Jonestown congregation did themselves in. So we put them out of mind, either with graveyard humor or common disdain.

The 1993 conflagration at Waco brought us a new perspective on cults because we have the two-month-long film record. David Koresh and his Branch Davidians prayed for, and received, an unprovoked assault on their temple. Such an attack was key to fulfilling Koresh’s prophecy. From the initial, ill-conceived skirmish by the ATF to the final, ill-advised tank assault, Koresh scripted a chain of events that would prove him a true prophet in the eyes of his believers.

The ATF is simply not a government agency called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. ATF agents are the descendents of Revenuers, the Prohibition era whiskey sleuths who approached their work with evangelistic zeal. The most famous of them, Elliot Ness, was himself an alcoholic. Imagine the conflict in a man’s mind as he tries to fight his own demons by transposing them onto his sworn enemy! Though the 1993 fight at Waco was about guns, and not whiskey, the Revenuers still believed that their purpose was anointed.

If I were judging the battle at Waco, I would have to award cult status to both sides. A sensible law enforcement agency would have served the warrant and waited out the Davidians. That’s not to say Koresh would have eventually surrendered. He wouldn’t have. Janet Reno, on the other hand, was not up to playing this high-stakes chess game. In the end, she was mesmerized by the Revenuers zeal. She willingly became their Anti-Koresh.

When Jim Jones and Marshall Doe drank poison, they probably did so thinking they were modern-day equivalents of Socrates. They steeled their minds with Maeterlinck’s outlook and met their demise head on. There is not much that society can do alter this kind of suicidal behavior. Socrates, the thinking man’s thinking man, previously proved this conundrum.

The shootout at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian war need to be viewed differently, however. In these incidents, the ringleaders did not drink poison and the government did not play a passive role. If anything, the G-men were the aggressive enforcers of a collective will. Actions like this tend to galvanize the fringe kooks who were previously content with living ‘off the grid.’

* * * * *

Millennium fervor began in the 1960’s. College campuses morphed from gentrified, ivy-covered islands where students learned a core curriculum to Hippie communes whose members protested what they believed was such a suffocating plan for learning. It wasn’t long until Race & Gender became a required (and extremely puff) course. (The answer is always: I’m okay. You’re okay.) The learning curve continued to nosedive until Shakespeare was no longer a required course for English majors. Is this not the height of silliness?

The drug scene started in the 1960s; marijuana smoking was cool. But it wasn’t long until Timothy O’Leary introduced collegians to LSD and the neverending desire for a new drug. In the quest for the newest Soma, marijuana has been hybridized into a potent leaf that dwarfs its ancestor’s mellowing effects. The pharmaceutical companies have done their research as well. Prescription painkillers are generations advanced from what was available in 1960 and their biggest market is not for pain control but for staying stoned. Doctors joined the psychedelic circus and became common drug pushers when they hooked an entire generation of bored housewives on Valium.

The birth control pill radically changed sexual behavior. Pregnancy, or rather the fear of it, had been the great deterrent of sexual escapades. Then the pill came along. When else in history could The Joy of Sex have been a best seller? Attitudes about sexual behavior changed overnight. Divorces soon equaled marriages. But even the 99% efficacy of birth control pills could not prevent a rapid increase in teen pregnancies. What was taboo in 1960 became commonly accepted by 1980.

The explosion of law school graduates since the 1960s tells us much of the remarkable change that has taken place. More lawyers = more laws = more judges = more criminals = more prisons. This cycle has yet to peak and yet we now imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other country. Roe vs. Wade, the defining case of the age, was never about Constitutional interpretation; it was a paradigm shift that transferred dominion over the unborn from religion to the state.

This is not ordinary and predictable change. It’s millennium fervor.

* * * * *

We should look for millennium fervor to continue for three or four more decades. As time passes, the desire "to be different, like everybody else," will wane. Until it does, we must try to survive the assault on social order. But do not assume this battle is winnable because it may already be lost.

Wednesday, September 10, 1997

NOUNS--A Tribute to Dorothy Upton Davis

For our purposes of understanding the dilemmas of the present day, perspective can be a wonderful study tool, can it not?  Our only problem to date with perspective seems to be its Dopplerian nature because we seldom know where we stand in our own time whenever it is that we have chosen to revisit history.  When we do travel back in time, we examine the written record which invariably includes interpretations of literature as well as the catalogue of historic fact.

In the last two decades, T. S. Eliot has been both praised and vilified for his commentary on human behavior.  CATS was brought to the Broadway stage as Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical interpretation of Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.  But since the show's premiere, there has been a tussle of criticism (in literary circles) over Eliot's perceived anti-Semitic writings.  And therein may lie our dualistic problem with perspective--perception. 

I enjoyed the verse as well as the musical.  I've also read some of Eliot's other works while in college though well before academia construed them to be anti-Semitic.  Thus, I recently concluded that I must be living in some out-of-sync era because I have not been able to understand this modern criticism of Mr. Eliot.  If turnabout is indeed fair play, then it seems that the literary critics should pay heed to my perspective as well.  My perspective?

Some would say that our notion of April was forever changed when Eliot pronounced it the "cruelest month" in The Waste Land.  How many times since have we seen this line quoted in the print media whenever there's so much as a cloudy day in April?  And yet, it's hard for one to believe that this stern passage was penned by the same man who poked fun at us and the perceived importance of our own names in "The Naming of Cats:"
        ...of the thought of his name, of the thought of his name:
        His ineffable effable
        Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Well, any hint of freshness in April was wrung out in 1922 with the publication of The Waste Land and we didn't have to wait much longer until the critics sought quotable modifiers for each of the remaining months.  This eyeshaded brassiness led to the maligning of October after the stock market crash in 1929.  Even "Bloody Friday" took it on the chin!  And it was all as if something dire had never happened on an October Friday before. 

So whatever happened to the kinder, gentler times when our children could make jest of the months when playing in the schoolyard?  They'd ask:
        If April showers bring May flowers, then what do Mayflowers bring?

Nothing cruel about April here!  Only a kid's attempt to humor his chums at the expense of the Puritans.

Fortunately, for those of us living in West Virginia, April is anything but cruel.  Our forested Appalachian hills muffle the echoes of even neighborly criticism--mine included.  April is considered our good friend, teasing us like schoolchildren with her green wisps and flowery swatches of Nature's new fashion collection.  April has her flair for being, too.  For us, an Appalachian April is the month of re-birth.

Well there!  I've had my go at naming months! 

Perhaps we all do because it came as a surprise to me that no less a student of the Appalachian hills and of T. S. Eliot, the venerable Dorothy Davis, had figured mightily during her teaching career that September, if not altogether cruel, was at least the "dreaded month".  Why September?  'Twas the month when school went into session for most of her career.  Oh, to be sure, you could understand a charmless, hot and humid August as being a teacher's nightmare.  That's when we march to the bus stops nowadays.  But for bygone generations, Labor Day was the bellwether that signaled when summer was done and school days began.

She first told me of this prejudice one winter's day while she stoked the fireplace.  There, at the end of South Dale Street in Salem, sits the house built by her father-in-law, the town's physician, and it, probably as did he, surveys the goings-on in Salem with a professional's detachment.  Often, when I'd stop by in winter, Dorothy and I would talk on and on about the nonsensical and inconclusive state of world and national affairs.  I suppose there were times when we took ourselves seriously but, surely, that was at the beginning of the hour and not near the end.  Because at the end of our chats, we'd usually arrive at the same conclusion:  namely, that life in general really hasn't changed in all these years even though we're quick to say that it has.

In retirement, her perception of September had changed.

There can be no doubt that September's harvest is a reminder of why we toil all spring and summer.  It's that time of final ripening that allows us to reflect on the amount of rain and sun and weeds and bugs that the growing season brought us.  All at once, bushels of vegetables tell us the numbers in the latest inning of the game between man and Nature.  And no matter what the score or the sum total of our errors, we usually conclude that victory was ours for the taking.

That wintry day when she first expounded on September wasn't a particularly cold one.  But the fireplace was lit and the hearth stocked with Osage-orange logs, a hearty, crackling wood seeming just right for inviting two armchair philosophers to discuss the merits of life and living.  And the crackling nature of that wood, while never quite as predictable as our conversations, nevertheless seemed to accentuate our remarks.

In the years following her retirement, when dictated schedules began to disappear, Dorothy became appreciative of all the months.  January, she said, allowed her to be "cloistered" and tend to the work delayed by the holidays.  From then on, each month had its purpose.  Christmas at South Dale Street began with the first blooms of May because she was eager to dry the flowers.

Throughout summer and fall, she'd glue the petals to hand-made Christmas cards.  Though it was never mentioned, I always supposed that the haiku she wrote for the greeting was actually composed in June or July.  The potatoes she dug in October were husbanded in the cellar for year-round use as starter for the salt-rising bread which she baked and shared seven loaves to the batch.

Deadlines for newspaper columns and demands for her thoroughly-researched historical sketches made for timely interruptions.  (A Doctor of Letters  shouldn't be too consumed by the seasonal chores!)  And so went the progressions of the seasons at the two-storied Victorian house on South Dale Street--a virtual symphony of sowing, tending, harvesting, and using all mixed together with research, writing, and an all-too-brief cloistered respite between years.

She hired a workman to install a gas heater in the fireplace when the drudgery and mess of the log fire caught up with her a few years ago.  Made to look like logs ablaze, this new contraption gave the Gas Company its due but little warmth to the homesteader, the heat going up the flue rather than into the room.  This blue-flamed fire was no substitute for the occasions when the Osage-orange popped and crackled.  In fact, based on this one example of technology gone awry, I think our conversations turned to deriding all of the modern substitutes that pretend to capture the warmth of their predecessors.

And once, while I roundly cursed modernity and its pretense at personality, she stopped me in mid-breath to offer this famous quotation:  "May you live in interesting times."  Then she was the one heard cursing as she couldn't recall who had said it!

"Oh damn!", she roared, "I've lost my nouns!"  (With "nouns" being pronounced, "nownz".)  That may seem odd to you.  After all, our English teachers, retired or otherwise, aren't supposed to mock the language.  But the drawl with which she so richly tarnished "nouns" was so deft as to lend the word only a valued patina.

Ever since, I've often brought to mind that quote, "May you live in interesting times.", and it makes me come to think that its author wanted us to seize on the interesting moments in our own lives rather than dwell on a disinterested historian's retelling of events.  It may be read either way, though.  I'm sure that the Roaring Twenties had at least one saloon-full of boors.  And I'm certain that our Civil War had regiments of the disinterested as well as non-combatants.  Alas, in history, both eras qualify as interesting times. 

Isn't our present day as interesting as life has ever been?  With access to multi-media, we know so much gossip!  We simultaneously complain that we know too much while brazenly asking for more.  Whether our taste for scandal is comparable to an addiction or chewing gum losing its flavor is academic--we do live in interesting times. 

From time to time, Dorothy and I concluded that the skunks in office today probably didn't smell any worse than yesteryear's.  We recalled Warren Harding (whose own father told him that if he'd been born a girl then he'd always be in the family way) as being a standard of comparison.  Indeed, unless the people of the future elect Ben Dover to the presidency, then Harding's currency will remain intact.  And while lack of personal integrity seemed to be the one thing that we concluded had deteriorated, we then paused to reconsider our argument.  If past generations had had the lack of censure as we do today, would they have cheated any less?  Most likely they would have done the same, which is: Obey the standards that your era demands.

Philosophy or no, these discussions sometimes left us with a hint of sadness.  We weren't trying to judge our peers as being inferior but were regretful to see that today's youngsters would likely not be exposed to the ideals that make men and women reach for the stars.  In the present era, we have sought the common denominator, the Lake Woebegone children, whose creator, Garrison Keillor, said were "all above-average".  It should not be.  But we have made it so and we've proved the results statistically.

In time, people will tire of the blissful mirage of Lake Woebegone.  The pursuit of ideals eventually springs forth even in a desert.  This same phenomenon caused our forbears to leave home and seek new shores and will, no doubt, do so again. 

Since the beginning of civilization, hope has been marred by sadness, only to revive itself.  Adam and Eve, upon learning of the escalating feud between their sons, most likely warmed to the crackle of their campfire and asked of each other, "How could this happen?"  As nouns did not exist prior to them, can we even begin to imagine their bewilderment?  So then, was that the moment of our genesis--this living in what we call "interesting times"?

*   *   *

Perhaps someday, a young person puzzled by the mystery of life will warm to my hearth and ask of me for a philosophy that he or she can recognize as being true.  When that day arrives, then I too shall recall that wonder-fully puzzling quotation, "May you live in interesting times."  And when asked for attribution, I'll be able to answer forthrightly that a credentialed scholar, published historian, and esteemed friend named Dorothy Davis coined that blessing.   

That is to say, until the time comes when I've lost my nouns.