I will not Reason & Compare

While walking to this library a short time ago, I spotted two very young children standing next to a church and mumbled something to myself about how I hope they make a good next generation for the world. And, well, it depends a lot on what circumstances they’re born into. It’s just kind of sad how some kids are surrounded by neglect or bad intentions – and stranger still how sometimes despite the worst conditions, some become fantastic people. There’s a very confusing correlation here. I can’t claim to understand it well.

I’ve also been thinking more about similar ideas to what I was discussing yesterday – about the effects that the economic systems in which we live have on our lives. How we make compr0mises and sacrifices, just in order to get enough money to be able to do this or that, pay rent and eat food, buy products and services outside our homes. We have strange relations with the concept of consumption, negotiating our options and desires. Everything seems to flow in an unbalanced cycle, from factories and natural resources into stores and shipping, to trash cans, streets, dumpsters, landfills, wherever… as a wise man named Deep Throat once said, “Follow the money.” And in the midst of this system all of us live, trying to puzzle out its ins & outs, causes & effects (or not – or happily accepting whatever the systems chooses to throw at us, and passing it along, enabling the cycle). We did not ask to be born into this world but we were born nonetheless.

I’ve been reading a lot of William Blake lately – I once cited him as an “especially deluded and fractured artist” – so pardon me if I allow his writings to heavily inform my thinking; he speaks to the necessity of creation & imagination, the confusing conditions of life on earth, & my love of ampersands, so I find his ideas very valuable in my lines of thought. So consider these lines from his “Auguries of Innocence”:

Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born.

Every Morn & every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight.

Will we be born to misery or to sweet delight? We really have no say in the matter. It’s just a matter of fortune. I’ve marveled many, many times during my life that I was born to an affluent society on a dying planet at the turning of what we call the new millennium – what are the odds of that? Why wouldn’t I have been born to what Blake calls “Endless Night,” or born centuries ago, or in some antique land? Why here and now? Some would say there’s purpose behind all of it. Others would say it’s all completely random – but why my particular self, my identity, my subjectivity, in this body temporally localized within 1990-2009 and so on? Well, here I am in this current mix of misery & sweet delight.

"The Shadow Out of Time" (1936)

This also reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” which I read over the course of a few weeks this spring. Its premise suggests that a Great Race, who dwelt on the earth before the dawn of man, learned how to transfer their minds into bodies spread across time and space, and thereby mastered time travel, eventually able to forgo their own extinction by fast-forwarding to the bodies of a species that lives after the death of mankind. Using this ability, they were able to see the conditions on every planet where life exists (or has ever existed), deep into the past – to the very beginning of life – and into the future, till the existence of the last living thing. The Yithians are a race capable of avoiding this random placement into misery or sweet delight, as they can switch between the two whenever they choose (albeit with the aid of an easily-constructed device). This connects back to my earlier explorations of how authors of speculative fiction, like Lovecraft, can comment on existential problems hounding us at this very moment.

Anyway, here I am and here we are, in the midst of unending strife & chaos, attempting to be good people but constantly foiled by the way we are and the way the world is. It just occurred to me that there are a lot of quotes and speeches that zero in on how there are two kinds of people in the world. The kind I’m specifically thinking of are the ones that identify the givers and the takers – good people who lose out, and bad people who get what they want. Though here’s another kind of quote like that, from John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, as said by villainess Connie Marble, played by Mink Stole:

I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: my kind of people, and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fit into. Have a nice day.

This is an interesting tendency itself: dichotomizing the entire human population into good and bad, light and dark, lions and lambs, hunters and hunted, doers and talkers, whatever. For what it’s worth, I say, Fuck that. People are psychologically complex organisms. Hitler liked his dog. Etc. We have irrational, conflicting drives affected by numerous factors, biological and environmental; this isn’t Brave New World and we aren’t systematically conditioned from birth to be an Alpha Plus or Gamma Minus or somewhere in between. Granted, we are systematically conditioned from birth. And I’m sure a lot of advertisers wish (on some level) that people could be brought up in corporate schools where they’d have product consumption associated day after day with pleasure, and non-consumption associated with pain. Hell, kids want candy, toys, and explosions as it is. But my point is that it’s far from absolute. There’s a lot of space in human minds still devoted to curiosity about the world outside themselves, experiencing new and different sensations, and creating something new. And my point is that consumerism and advertising tend to oppose this. I haven’t read Brave New World in an awful long time, but its lessons are still very relevant. “The more stitches, the less riches.” Throw away everything dusty or old; covet only the shiny and new. I’m really not sure what point I’m driving toward here, but I seriously do have a point.

For a long time, money has disgusted me. It still does. I was thinking the other day how it felt like money & alcohol, two things which have ruined countless lives and brought on endless misery, were being shoved into my face by my peers, by authority figures, and by society at large through popular culture, advertising, media products, etc. To me, this is tantamount to waving a jar of rat poison in my face as a delicacy. In my view, money should be treated like kryptonite or plutonium and contact should be limited. Carrying large quantities around could cause a disease far worse than radiation poisoning. But I’ve said all this before. But consider how readily people become willing to sell off the world’s great treasures just for a quick cent. To quote Al Roberts, the doomed sucker at the heart of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir masterpiece Detour: “Money. You know what that is. The stuff you never have enough of.”

But I think what I wanted to talk about in the first place was our position here as consumers/producers (?) stuck in the middle of a world not of our own creation. And it brings me back to the William Blake quote I was considering when I started writing, what Blake called “The Poet’s Motto”:

I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.

I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.

It’s this issue of trying to fit into the grand scheme of things while retaining your personal sovereignty, your independence, your freedom as a human being – which is itself highly in question in the first place, living both in this economic system and in an unwanted contract with a domineering government. But at the very least, your artistic selfhood, individuality; your ability to create what you want without being strangled by “another Man’s” System. Of course, it all depends on how you read this quote, since no one starts out a genius – not even Blake himself – and we all have to place our roots somewhere in antecedents. It’s the tension between being ourselves, being 1 person, and yet being only one of many, one single element of a great mass, a collective brotherhood of mankind spanning the entire earth and all its history. How do we reconcile this? I have no fucking clue.

Incidentally, in the course of researching Blake online I found this highly appealing book, William Blake and Gender by Magnus Ankarsjö. Because of course, with every artist, it’s always more fun when you analyze their attitude toward gender & sexuality. From my reading so far, I really can’t discern too much of Blake’s opinions on this matter, but hey, here’s a resource to explore it! Includes such appealing chapter titles as “Apocalypse, Utopia and Gender.” Oooh.

Come to think of it, yesterday’s viewing of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies connects pretty well to this whole issue of art, society, and necessity, so why not invoke it. The film is long, eerie, slow, and cryptic. The plot is simple: a small town is on the edge of violence for some reason – rumors hint at economic troubles and growing unrest of some kind. A circus trailer arrives in town housing a giant whale and “the prince” who can apparently bend others to his will. Crowds gather, people go crazy, a night of violence ensues, and the film ends with its innocent protagonist János recuperating in his uncle’s care. It’s hard to determine the film’s intended meaning – some of course might say “It’s not supposed to mean anything!”, an assertion that invariably pisses me off – but I think, maybe, it shows how close a superficially civilized, organized group of people lie to full-scale panic and hysteria, ultimately storming a hospital and smashing everything in sight.

The town seems to be a fairly empty, quiet place during the film’s first half, an impression reinforced by the stark B&W cinematography, the drawn-out long takes, and the frequent spells without dialogue. And then the creaky system that held it all in place falls apart, and almost everyone descends into madness. Tarr insists that films can’t be metaphors – he’s photographing something real, and since physical objects are recorded, they exist as they are and not as symbolic stand-ins for anything else. I can concede this point – though it does raise some interesting questions which remind me of André Bazin’s theories – but I still feel like the lack of specifics, the anonymity in Tarr’s film enables me to draw out broader conclusions, with this town as any town and these people as any people, although they speak Hungarian.

So, my ultimate point, I guess, is that it’s hard to exist both as one man and as one of many men (men used here purely in the “mankind” sense). And I want to be able to live and make decisions outside of the constraints imposed by most institutions, be they media conglomerates or the United States government. I don’t mean a kind of Nietzschean way of living beyond the concepts of good & evil endorsed by everyone else. I just mean being able to live outside of this cage imposed on us by the Powers That Be. Which is all very nice and revolutionary-sounding, I know, but this really is the conclusion I’ve been drawing to (more or less). My business is to Create.

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Filed under art, Cinema, Media, Personal, Politics

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