In pagan Spain, Part II

In Part I I considered the pagan aspects of bullfighting. Now we move on the Virgin Mother goddesses…

There is a folkloric tradition binding bullfighters and the Virgin Mary, the different representations of whom, as I have argued before, are for all intents and purposes distinct goddesses, or at least distinct avatars of a generalized Mediterranean mother goddess. Up through the 1970s, the only form of social mobility for young men in Andalucía was to become a bullfighter, but it wasn’t easy to find a trainer or a patron. So the bravest or most desperate would-be bullfighters would sneak into the bull breeders’ fields at night to get some practice passing bulls with a cape. This was incredibly dangerous because Spanish bulls are very large and extremely aggressive, plus it was dark, and if the breeder’s ranch manager caught you, they would likely shoot you on the spot. Lots of guys were gored to bleed to death alone in the night somewhere. Not surprisingly, in such situations, you want to have a little supernatural protection. And so, at least according to legend, bullfighters tend to be especially fervent in their devotions to their Virgin.

And the feeling, we are told, is mutual. There’s at least one famous song about one of the Virgins mourning the death of her devotee, a young would-be bullfighter in the fields. The most common representation of the Virgin Mary in Spain, particularly in Andalucía, is la dolorosa (the sorrowful). This is Mary distraught over the death of her son Jesus, with tears on her face and frequently a heart pierced by daggers. This is the Virgin that people pray to for help. Yes, there are representations of Isis Mary holding Baby Horus Jesus, but these are usually located in small side chapels; the largest and most central representation of the Virgin is almost always a dolorosa. So, mourning is a defining feature of these goddesses’ mythology and of the relationship between them and their people.

I think what we are seeing in these separate goddesses who yet seem to be the same, is the meeting of locally-specific land- and community-based powers with more universal deity powers. I don’t fully understand how this works, but I think it’s a lot more representative of how old time paganism functioned than the highly abstract universal deities that seem to be popular with modern pagans. For whatever reason, grief seems to have become the nexus that enables people to connect to these deities, and has come to sort of encapsulate their nature.

But there’s mourning, and there’s mourning. This is how one of the most famous and popular Virgins is dressed as she mourns perpetually for her dead son Jesus:

Macarena en paso

She is standing here on the paso or float that will carry her around town on the night of Maundy Thursday/Good Friday. You know, the day Jesus was crucified. She looks pretty magnificent in spite of a few tears; there is about a ton of gold and silver here, and those five flowers on her bosom are made from enormous emeralds and diamonds.

But this is how she looked in 1920, when her most famous bullfighter devotee was gored to death by a bull:

Macarena de luto

Gone are the emeralds and diamonds (a gift from that bullfighter) and the golden mantle, replaced by widow’s weeds.

Wait, widow? Yeah, I said it. I realize that what I’m saying is…uh, non-canonical…to Catholics and other Christians and once again I have to reiterate, this is not something local people in Spain would ever say. This is my interpretation of what is really going on under the surface. Just as numerous scholars, pagans, and magicians have spotted the obvious parallels between representations of Mary and Baby Jesus and Isis and Baby Horus, I think the Virgin in southern Spain (Sevilla in particular) has picked up the dropped thread of an ancient goddess. The way the Virgin mourns for Jesus and her bullfighters looks a lot less like a mother grieving her son than it does like a woman grieving her lover (your mileage may vary, but that’s my take). Not that those two things are mutually exclusive–indeed, I think the Virgin’s mourning is multivalent, by which I mean that people connect with it through their own experiences of grief, whether those involve a lost parent, child, spouse, lover, or what have you. But the mother grieving for her son/lover was a major religious and mythic current in the pre-Christian Mediterranean, in the form of Cybele.

In light of this, I think it is interesting to look at a well-known story about two of Sevilla’s patron saints, Justa and Rufina. According to the story, they were sisters, from a family of potters, who lived during the 3rd century AD. At that time, Spain was the Roman province Hispania and Hispalis (Sevilla) was an important river port and center of trade. In the version I heard, celebrants carrying an image of Cybele/Magna Mater on a kind of litter or float, passed by Justa and Rufina’s family’s shop and demanded a sacrifice of pottery. Naturally, the Christian sisters refused. (The rest of the story is your standard martyr story–they were hauled in by the Roman authorities, tortured, and killed.)

Carrying religious effigies around on litters isn’t exactly unique to Spain–they did it in ancient Egypt, they do it in modern Japan–it’s something people just do. Other kinds of Christians do it in other parts of the world. But I guarantee nobody gets into it the way people do in Sevilla during Holy Week. Hours and hours of pounding drums, funeral dirges, incense wafting, candlelight, bloody penitents, strange robes and headdresses, people spontaneously bursting into ecstatic praise songs, throwing flowers–I mean, if that’s not a pagan ritual then I don’t know what is. And if it doesn’t alter your state of consciousness, nothing will. (Jesus is a part of this too, but I’ll get to him in the next post.)

So ok, it’s pagan, but why do I associate these goddesses with Cybele? Well, it might not be Cybele per se. Many cultures have called southern Spain home, or established colonies there, from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, Celtic-speaking peoples, Visigoths, and Muslims from Africa, Arabia, and Persia. It was deliberately religiously pluralistic until the Reconquest and the exile of Jews and Muslims in 1492 (a banner year, that one). In Sevilla, you can still feel the undertow of different cultural currents. For example, the Virgin pictured above is Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena (Our Lady of Hope Macarena). Though I’ve heard different proposed etymologies for the name Macarena, the only one I’ve found remotely persuasive is that it derives from al-Makrin, the Arabic name of a gate in the Roman wall near this Virgin’s church, subsequently applied to the surrounding neighborhood. In Sevilla, it makes perfect sense that a nominally Christian Virgin, probably carved in the late 1600s, would take her name from the Arabic name for a Roman neighborhood. And as Gordon points out, such deeply layered cultural palimpsests are where magic is made.

Magna Mater

My point is that there undoubtedly a lot of goddesses worshiped in that city through time, including numerous mother goddesses, and maybe even many grieving mother goddesses. It could be, for example, that in this region people more readily connected with the part of the Isian-Osirian myth where Isis mourns for the dead Osiris. Perhaps most likely it’s a syncretism involving aspects of all these goddesses. Those that are specific to Cybele and shared by the modern Virgins are (1) They are urban. Cybele was not exclusively urban, being associated with nature and wild animals, but she did have an explicitly urban connection at least in Greece. (2) A central element of their myth is mourning for a dead lover who dies and is resurrected and who, at least in some versions, is also the goddess’ son. In Cybele’s case, this lover is Attis, and he was also her priest. It is noteworthy that the goddess’ consort is never her equal. In Sevilla’s version of Catholicism, Jesus doesn’t receive anywhere near as much popular devotion as the Virgin. She is treated as a goddess, he is treated as something less than a god. (3) Springtime festivals. In Roman times, Magna Mater/Cybele had two festivals, Hilaria, a week-long celebration around the spring equinox; and Megalesia, also about a week, which began on April 4. And (4) from the 2nd-4th centuries AD, taurobolia–bull sacrifices–were offered to Magna Mater née Cybele. (I also have to say that I’m not the only person who has made the connection between the Virgins and pre-Christian mother goddesses, I’m just making it my way.)

“In the late republican era, Lucretius vividly describes the procession’s armed ‘war dancers’ in their three-plumed helmets, clashing their shields together, bronze on bronze, ‘delighted by blood’; yellow-robed, long-haired, perfumed Galli [priests] waving their knives, wild music of thrumming tympanons and shrill flutes. Along the route, rose petals are scattered, and clouds of incense arise. The goddess’s image, wearing the Mural Crown and seated within a sculpted, lion-drawn chariot, is carried high on a bier.” (quoth Wikipedia)

In Sevilla, Holy Week is the major religious festival and while its dates change every year, they are of course always in March or April. Holy Week is holy through its association with the death of Jesus and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter begins the season of (what I interpret to be) ritual bull sacrifices. Two weeks after Easter comes the April Fair, another week-long festival, but this one dedicated to drinking, dancing, rich people showing off their horses, lots of bullfights, and general Bacchanalian revelry. Collectively, Holy Week and the April Fair are known as Fiestas de Primavera (spring festivals).

So while I don’t 100% commit to the idea that the Virgins are avatars of Cybele specifically, Cybele/Magna Mater’s cult does seem to at least be one strand in the skein–which is, appropriately, the symbol of Sevilla on the city flag. Given the Mother’s “Virgin’s” special patronage of bullfighters, might we consider the possibility that the bullfighter enacts the role of her priest and consort, and that the recipient of these sacrifices is in fact the Great Mother, who occasionally also requires the sacrifice of her priest? Again, I’m not making the argument that this is some secret 5,000-year-old religion that has persisted since the Bronze Age. Rather, I’m saying that the most resonant threads from religions both ancient and modern are continuously teased out and re-woven. But at the same time, because the local deities were never completely allowed to “die” or be forgotten, they continue to communicate with people and to teach their mythology. We can’t overlook their role in writing the story.

Have yourself a happy Halloween folks!

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In pagan Spain, Part I

I was thinking about autumn today as I was walking my dog and enjoying the cooler temperatures (“cooler,” of course, is relative in Southern California). Fall has always been my favorite season here in the US, but in Spain my favorite season is spring.

Spanish spring is a heady mix of contagious eroticism, religious fervor, and electric physical vitality. Now, spring was also a big deal when I lived in Minnesota, but there it was more a matter of relief, tempered with disgust at the vast quantities of mud and months-old dog poop newly revealed from beneath the thawing snow. I should specify that when I say “Spain” here I am really referring to the southernmost region of Andalucía, and in particular Sevilla, where I lived in from ages 15 to 18. It’s a pretty warm part of the world, no snow except in the mountains, so the verve of spring in Sevilla is not that winter-is-finally-over feeling you get in Minnesota. It’s…different. A young St. Theresa of Avila, begging her superiors for a transfer to a convent in some other time, reputedly explained, “To live in Sevilla in the springtime and not sin it is necessary to be a saint.” Well, she should know.

I’m not just thinking about this because of the change of seasons, or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but more on a metaphorical and metaphyiscal level than the literal one. My life in Spain was an experience intimately tied to my relationship with my mom. My mom had been traveling to Spain to visit friends she’d met in 1971, when she went there to do a pilot study for anthropological research. The research ended up never happening for various reasons, but the friendships turned out to be lifelong. When we moved there, it was because one of her acquaintances offered her a teaching job at a college he ran. Part of my mom’s salary would be free tuition for me, and I was bored as hell in high school, so we took the leap. As far as we knew at the time, it might be a permanent relocation; though, as it turned out, it was only three years. For me they were very formative years as you can imagine if you have ever been 15-18 years old.

Being just five weeks past my 15th birthday when we moved, I was full of teenage pissiness. I’d been hearing my mom’s Spain stories my whole life, and they were interesting, but for reasons I still don’t understand and can only put down to hormones and being a weirdo, I hated that we were on such unequal footing there. She’d been going to Spain for more than 20 years, she had friends and acquaintances and a boyfriend there, whereas I was leaving behind all the places and people I was familiar with.

That said, it took me all of about 24 hours to decide that it was going to be an excellent adventure.

Anyway, long story short, I observed some things that I thought might be of interest. These are not things I’ve seen talked about much in the magical community–and that could just be my ignorance, but if that’s a real thing then my observations might prove (as the anthropologists say) “good to think with.”

I’m not the first person to observe that Andalucían Christianity looks like a very thinly veiled paganism. While I think that’s the case, I don’t put full stock in arguments that what one sees there is some unbroken line of continuity from the Bronze Age. It strikes me as more like a tapestry where individual threads break, but the loose ends are picked up again; the pattern gets a little messed up, its original designer long forgotten, but is never completely lost.

In trying to organize my thoughts, the themes that seem to me to most clearly embody the paganism of southern Spain are bullfighting, sacrificed Jesus, and Virgins. I have already written a bit about the Virgins, but I want to be more speculative here. These themes are all intertwined and I hope I can do justice to their interrelationship, but once I got started writing this post got super long, so I decided to break it up.

bullfight

The first thing to understand about bullfighting is that it’s not a sport. I don’t know why that idea seems to be so hard for people from non-bullfighting cultures to grasp. I get that most Westerners are really uncomfortable with the subject, as am I, but does that mean we can’t at least understand it accurately and on its own terms? I used to have a little test I would submit travel guides to, but checking their bullfight section. The number of inaccuracies seemed to be a good index of how poorly researched the book would be overall. I never did find a single accurate description of what goes on in a bullfight, which tells me something about how invested we are in not understanding it. The same is true of most descriptions coming from animal rights organizations. Do we really think that understanding something means condoning or enjoying it? Bullfighting is bloody enough as is to excite the sympathies of any animal lover, there is no need to exaggerate or misrepresent the case.

Anyway, a sport is a contest between two more-or-less evenly matched opponents, where either can win. From a Spanish perspective, bullfighting is a highly ritualized art form. If you want to find out what went down at Sunday’s fight, you look it up in the Arts and Culture section of the paper. First of all, while most bullfighters (I used to live in a house full of them) would agree that the man and the bull are more-or-less evenly matched, nobody “wins” a bullfight. An especially brave bull may be given an “indulgence” and allowed to live but that is rare indeed. In that case the bullfighter still has to go through the motions of stabbing the bull through the heart, but using his bare hand, which is even more dangerous. Probably 99% of the time, the bull dies, because that is the point of the whole endeavor.

Bulls are the only animals believed to have courage and nobility like a human man. Although these characteristics are considered quintessentially male, bulls are believed to inherit them from their mothers. Just as the most honorable way for a man to die would be in righteous battle, that is also the only honorable way for a bull to die–in ritual combat with the only being who can truly understand and relate to the bull. Man and bull are equal polarized forces, light and dark, civilized and wild, life and death.

Bullfights are riddled with the number three. There are three bullfighters (each fighting two bulls), and each fight is divided in three parts. Each of those three parts is in turn divided in three, for a total of 9. I don’t have to tell you people how magical those numbers are. I’ve heard various explanations for the purpose of the three parts; for example, some argue that the point of having a guy on horseback stab the fatty deposit on the bull’s shoulders with a short-bladed lance (the first third of the fight) is to weaken the bull, but bullfighters tell me it’s to test the bull’s nobility. (“Nobility” here means that the bull keeps charging in spite of his pain and without thought to his own safety.) If the bullfighter is particularly skilled and brave, he may be awarded three trophies, the bull’s ears and tail.

There is a bullfight “season” in Spain which begins on Easter Sunday. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

It seems patently obvious that a bullfight is a ritual animal sacrifice. In fact, it used to involve a lot more sacrifice: Today the horses ridden by the guys with lances are heavy, placid draft breeds, blindfolded on the side that faces the bull to spare them anxiety, and swathed in impenetrable body armor. But 50 years ago they were just light carriage horses with no armor, and they were routinely disemboweled by the charging bull. Three jabs with the lance per bull times six bulls per afternoon meant up to 18 horses being killed along with the six bulls. I saw some old footage once on TV, and if you think bullfighting now is brutal, you just cannot imagine the carnage back then. But I digress. Just as when a chicken is sacrificed to a lwa or a lamb is offered to a Greek deity, after the fight the bull is butchered and eaten. However, there’s a disconnect in that the meat isn’t eaten by celebrants at the rite, but by whoever happens to buy it from the butcher. And most people don’t prefer bull meat because it’s tough. But then, the meat is not the point. A further disconnect is that, if this is indeed a sacrifice, the recipient is unspecified. In modern times, I think the bullfight has functioned as a sort of sacrifice to the people, sort of like a scapegoating where the death of the bull relieves the people of their burden of sin. But that’s just my interpretation and is certainly not explicitly articulated.

Some believe that bullfights descend all the way from Bronze Age Minoan tradition, referencing the paintings of “bull-leapers” from Crete. Others say that bullfighting simply evolved from a military-training-cum-bloodsport of Moorish times, where warriors on horseback would hone their skills against bulls. If bullfighting really is the remnant of an ancient religious ritual, what does it mean for that ritual to lose its context, or perhaps more accurately, for the religious context to change?

I think bullfighting fits within a widespread pre-Christian Mediterranean custom of bull reverence and feats of death-defying derring-do revolving around bulls, but I’m not sure that requires 5,000 years of unbroken tradition. But this brings me to my next topic, which is for next time.

How to help a grieving person

I just got done reading Deb’s latest post which couldn’t be more timely for me given my mom’s recent death. It got me thinking, maybe people would like to hear some thoughts about how they can help someone who is grieving, from someone who is grieving. This may come across as whiny or kvetchy but I don’t care too much because if you have been in this position, you will understand, and if you haven’t, you will understand someday. There’s not much use to anyone else if I can’t be honest about the process, after all.

Since my mom’s death not quite two weeks ago, friends and relatives have called or emailed to offer support. I have also received some lovely supportive messages as comments here. It is much appreciated. Many people have said something like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” and that got me thinking: what might they do?

I am not a person who is comfortable asking for help. It’s not just a matter of being too proud–although yeah, I admit, that has often been a factor–but more than that I just don’t know what would be helpful. That has never been more true than now, when I cannot really think straight. It might seem that because I am still blogging here regularly, I am mentally ok; but I can assure you that I am several tacos short of a combination plate, cognitively speaking. What I write here is basically stream-of-consciousness verbal diarrhea. Whereas I am utterly incapable of writing, say, an obituary. I have great difficulty concentrating, no attention span, and zero ability to plan ahead. I am managing (poorly) by making lots of lists, eating lots of sugar, and sleeping a lot (also poorly). I feel sad and/or lonely and/or baffled in waves, and in between I feel stressed out and worried.

One of my close friends, though she lives in a different state, asked me if she could order me a pizza or some Thai food or something online. That was a freaking brilliant idea. Because I can barely feed myself. No joke, I have only been able to cook a meal for myself twice in the past couple weeks (soup, both times). Well, I did make a couple batches of pesto but I don’t consider throwing stuff into a blender, and then eating directly out of the blender, to be cooking. Open flame and I are not a good combination right now. So I’ve had a lot of meals of toast, or fast food that normally would disgust me but now it’s like, sure, whatever, who cares, I don’t know.

When I started taking care of my mom, she was already too sick to move to where I lived, so I moved in with her. Now that she is dead, I have to get everything packed and moved out ASAP, probably by the 1st of November, or else I will have to pay nearly $1000 rent (for an apartment of less than 500 square feet because California…but I digress). (How deathy is that timing, by the way?) My back is a mess, in part because I had to pick my mom up off the floor a couple weeks ago and even an emaciated person is damn hard to lift when they are limp and unconscious, so carrying heavy boxes is pretty much out of the question. But I can’t afford to hire movers either. Hmm.

But then to my surprise, my dad stepped up awesomely. This is a big deal because my parents divorced when I was four, and it was ugly, people. They didn’t speak to each other except to exchange legal threats–which were not empty threats, I might add–until my college graduation and then seeing them try to make nice with each other for my sake was chilling. But since my mom got sick they started to thaw a little, and each would even ask me how the other was doing. Still, I would never have predicted that this would bring me and my dad so much closer. He was much more upset than I thought he’d be, and literally dropped everything and drove five hours to be with me and help me get boxes and just do the annoying daily stuff that needs doing.

By contrast, my cousin asked if I needed help, and I said I needed money (my last paycheck is delayed pending receipt of the death certificate). She told me to ask my dad. I said I might need a place to stay when I move out of here, and she said I could stay at her place but only if I put my baby dog in a boarding kennel (which is so not happening). So that was, in fact, not remotely helpful.

Some people seem to think that what I need is to talk to them on the phone. That actually isn’t helpful to me. I can’t spare the time when I should be packing, and talking on the phone takes a lot of energy which I don’t have in abundance. Also–quelle surprise–it makes me sad. Besides, I have always hated talking on the phone.

Notifying people of my mom’s death has been the hardest thing to do. At first I would start crying, which was frustrating because the lady on the electric company customer service line really doesn’t want to hear some stranger blubbering at her. In my family, one does not cry in public, like, ever. Strong emotions? Lock. That. Shit. Down. Crying–or for that matter even laughing loudly–is for when you are sure you’re absolutely alone and you can lock the door and close the blinds and drink yourself into oblivion. Now, I think losing a loved one should mean you get a free pass to cry however much you want, but I admit I feel oddly awkward doing it over the phone. Even after I stopped unexpectedly bursting into tears, there are still a lot of agencies to notify, in particular if your loved one was elderly and received Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid or housing assistance. Everybody has their own paperwork that needs filling out.

My mom’s hospice nurse said that many people need to remain “task-oriented” to get through their bereavement. I don’t see how that’s even possible, but as Deb points out in her post, that is certainly what the typical American job demands, and indeed what many of the people around us demand. Most of the people who know me or knew my mom genuinely do want to help, but most live out of state and there’s not much they can do from afar; of those who are local, I think most probably have no idea how to help. Thinking back to when I knew bereaved people but had not yet lost a loved one myself, I don’t think I quite knew how either. So in case you too feel a little clueless in these situations, here are my suggestions (and I also recommend this other article by Deb):

The bereaved person will probably not be able to think straight and will be overwhelmed with bureaucratic paperwork. Do not expect them to be able to tell you how to help. Especially if they have never lost someone close to them before, they are probably fumbling along figuring it out as they go. They are not likely to know what they need until they’ve already figured out how to get by without it because it wasn’t there when they needed it. Self-care is also likely to be very low on their list of priorities. Consider dropping off or ordering them some food that actually has some nutritive value, or maybe washing the dishes for them. Simple food is fine; otherwise they are likely to not eat at all. Or to eat at McDonald’s, which is even worse.

For that matter, maybe you could help drive the bereaved to places they need to go. I am running on autopilot these days and am freaked out by how not-fully-focused I am when I have to drive. I mean you don’t have to chauffeur the person everywhere they need to go, but on longer or more distressing trips (e.g., to the funeral home) it would be great.

Another helpful thing would be to take over some of the notification duties, especially if there are a lot of people or agencies to notify. There are people I still haven’t been able to bring myself to tell. It would be super nice if someone could take some of that off my hands.

If the bereaved has to move out of the home, offering to make some runs to the library or Salvation Army or whatever to drop off donations would be swell. Or even, if you are physically up to it, helping with the move.

Do not ask the bereaved person to help you with your own stuff, or to chitchat on the phone or whatever. If nothing else, they should feel free to drop off the radar for a while. I’m not saying you should completely ignore the person, but talking about one’s bereavement isn’t nearly as therapeutic as you might think. And it should be done on their terms.

I think it’s nice for the bereaved to hear that their loved one was important to others too.  If you knew the deceased, and can honestly say something nice about what they meant to you, tell the bereaved. It creates a little sense of bonding or community at a time when the bereaved is probably pretty lonely.

And now here are some more examples of people helping brilliantly:

My friends got together and sent me a beautiful bouquet. Some people think sending flowers is cliché, but I actually found it really touching. It’s also something my mom would have loved; I don’t know if my friends realize that, but whatever, it makes it special to me. There is something nice about having that tangible symbol that is surprisingly comforting. Plus, it smells a lot better in here now.

A couple of my friends have offered me and my dog a place in their homes, rent-free, indefinitely, as well as substantial loans, and in one case even a temporary job prospect in the future. That is some top-notch helping right there.

A good friend of my mom’s regularly messages me on Facebook or by email to say she loves me and loved my mom and feels blessed to have had us in her life. She doesn’t ask me to call her, or go out and be fun, but conversely it’s clear that she is available if I want to do those things. This gives me many good feels. She also sent a fruit and cheese basket, which is cool because there’s food in it.

For the grieving person, I would pass on a bit of advice my mom had to give me many times. She said, People need to help. Let them. The wisdom in that is finally beginning to sink in. If you do know you need something, of course, whether it be alone time or groceries or (as in my case) wine, just say it loud and proud. Granted, a lot of people suck spectacularly at helping, when they even bother. Some people will get weird and uncomfortable, which is to be expected because our whole culture is weird and uncomfortable around death and grief. That is not your problem. But you may be surprised who steps up if you give them the chance, and moreover, you deserve all that care and attention and more right now. So let them help.

Mythic reality?

pareidolia-peppers-l

“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

–Sallustius, 4th century AD

 

“A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition.”

–Joseph Campbell

 

“If you think this is ‘mere’ fiction then fuck you, you’re already lost. It is Mythic, and Myth is probably the only eternal thing.”

Gordon White

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Gnostic philosophy–not that I’m any kind of expert on the subject–but I don’t hold with it 100%. I realize, in fact, that there was a lot of diversity among so-called Gnostics and their beliefs, so it may be that I am inadvertently reinventing a philosophical wheel that some fringe group of them wore down to the nub 2000 years ago. I imagine I could be down with a neo-Gnostic revival of some sort.

The points on which I diverge from the Gnostics are principally these: (1) though I like some other aspects of Neoplatonism, I don’t share the Neoplatonic cosmology of hierarchical emanations from the Monad; I think I’m just too antinomian to like anything hierarchical. (2) I don’t think spiritual = good and material = bad, for so many reasons. My understanding is that not all Gnostics held this opinion but it does seem to have been common. And (3) while I basically agree that what we perceive, or interpret, as “reality” is anything but, I don’t necessarily think it has to be viewed as an archonic prison. It certainly can be, and I think for those who never worry about the nature of reality, it becomes a prison by default. But, at least hypothetically, could it not also be a university, or a temple, depending on how one approaches it?

It’s this last point that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

For many years, I have felt that our “reality” is virtual, sort of like a flight simulator. I’m not sure where I came by the idea, but it was before The Matrix came out. It was really more an intuition than an idea, I guess. Who might be running the simulation, or why, I don’t know, and have always figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyway. Ever since I was a kid there has been a “voice” that periodically drops a little mind-bomb on me that changes my way of thinking about reality, and I think this was one of them. (I don’t know who or what that voice is; I don’t hear it externally, and it sounds like my inner monologue except that it knows, or claims to know, things I don’t.) I imagine there is probably a real reality within which the virtual reality exists–which may be what we experience when we have numinous encounters–but I don’t think most people access it, and when we do, it’s pretty much ineffable.

These are working hypotheses, or operating assumptions. They’re in a state of perpetual beta testing. I know I’m only seeing shadows on a cave wall here, but at the same time, I have to admit that this model makes so much sense to me on a deep level, feels so right and natural, that I find it hard to get outside of it.

Another bit of information passed on to me by the voice in my head is that what’s most important about your life are your relationships. Not in the romantic sense, or at least, not only in that sense; but the way it was presented to me–if I can find the right words for it–is that the interactions with other conscious entities are the only thing in this virtual reality that is really real (albeit not necessarily in the way you perceive them to be from within virtual reality). Each of us has our own virtual reality, but our relationships are nexus points where our data set expands. These, then, are opportunities to break out of prison. This would also apply to our relationships with non-physical beings, of course, and those are arguably even better opportunities to break out of prison because when we experience the numinous or ineffable, it’s like we get a peek at the coding of the virtual reality program. When you recognize that code for what it is–a script, a text–it blasts you out of imprisoning concepts of reality.

Recently I was having what passes for a conversation on the internet, i.e., talking past each other, and I was finally able to put into words an idea that has been nagging at me lately. Our seeming realities are not so much virtual as mythic. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my “reality” behaves like an affect-symbol system. When I ask myself, for the sake of intellectual rigor, whether materialistic models of the universe might not be accurate, I cannot find any rational way for a purely material universe to produce the amount of meaningful patterns and coincidences that I experience.

In Chris Knowles’ latest two posts, he proposes that synchronicity is “misdiagnosed psi”:

“Now, ‘Synchronicity’ is a useful term in some settings– a kind of accepted shorthand for discussing unusual experience– but in others too often becomes the dinnerware we take out for guests but rarely use for ourselves. It’s a kind of quasi-scientific window dressing on a reality that our forebears understood as magic or religious phenomena….Hence you get the whole idea of acausality, a split-the-difference notion which tends to alienate both believers and skeptics. I don’t think meaningful coincidence is acausal, do you?

(Emphasis is original but I removed some bolding at the beginning.) Indeed I do not believe meaningful coincidence is acausal. Of course the inevitable counter-argument is that the coincidence is not meaningful; but after a while, it gets awfully hard to explain away even just the volume of coincidence in a human life, let alone what makes those coincidences feel meaningful. To quote Knowles again, “Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.”

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, and it’s something I want to write about in greater detail but the ideas aren’t quite ripe yet, is pareidolia. (That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and let me just take this opportunity to say I in no way endorse the opinions of Wikipedia editors, but they usually follow the latest hegemonic paradigms, so are a good summary of consensus reality.) Pareidolia is a skill that I have taken to practicing in order to hone the ability. The notion that pareidolic percepts–or pareidolica, as I call them–are generated from random data is an assumption that, as far as I know, has yet to be tested. I guess those data are as random as anything else in “reality,” which I suspect is not at all. Which is not to say that every percept is “real”–are those bell peppers really freaking out?–but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful skill to have in your magical toolkit.

silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.
Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.

Back in 2001, two Norwegian archaeologists, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, wrote an article that was very influential in helping me wrap my head around the cognitive and consciousness differences among cultures. The article’s central premise is that Migration Period animal-style art–the complex, interlaced beasts that adorned metalwork of the broadly Germanic and Nordic world during the so-called Dark Ages, including what we think of as “Celtic” knotwork–constitutes mythic hypertexts. These texts superficially look like visual gibberish but become legible, that is, their hidden pictures emerge, to a viewer in a light hypnotic or trance state. Those who were skilled in achieving such an altered state of consciousness could act as interpreters or mediators for less skilled viewers, or those not able to see the texts. (Not everyone could access the texts closely, because this style of metalwork is found on items limited to the very wealthy, primarily mature women of the chiefly class.) Conversely, contemplation of these representations also helped to induce the necessary state of consciousness, meaning these art objects were not only texts but tools. So an ability to achieve a trance state would have been a valorized talent among elite women, which fits with what we know about the social role of seiðr among Norse women.

Now, a trance state might indeed render animal-style art hypertexts legible–I really wonder whether Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen tried it themselves–but so would skill in pareidolia. From my own experiments, I can say that one’s ability to perceive pareidolica does improve with practice. It if were socially validated, e.g., if the person who spots Jesus in a tortilla is hailed as a seer, I can only imagine it would enhance one’s motivation to practice. In short, I think one gets better at spotting omens and synchronicities (and perhaps also other subtle environmental cues from animal tracks to facial expressions). In short, I suspect it is one of a number of skills including, but not limited to, lucid dreaming and meditation, that make one better at spotting the code that underlies “reality.”

Maybe it’s because of where my attention is focused that it seems there are just too many life events that look as if they are following a mythic script to be random. I know too well what the counter-arguments would be: that pareidolia is illusion, as is the meaning attached to coincidence; that myths are based on human behavior and perceptions and therefore of course human lives look mythic; that I shouldn’t be listening to the voices in my head. Am I reading into reality? Like all my other hypotheses about reality, these remain in perpetual beta. But I propose that pareidolica and synchronicity are also “affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” In my experience, there is a phase in magical learning where you have to accept everything as real before you can learn how to distinguish signal from noise, and learning to read and write mythic code is no different. It’s part of undrinking the Kool-Aid of materialism. But I have to say, if I may compare my life’s text to literature, my life pre-magic was Harriet-Carter-catalogue-beside-the-toilet and my life now is Shakespeare.

Season of the dead

In Ictu Oculi by Juan de Valdes Leal (1671)
In Ictu Oculi by Juan de Valdes Leal (1671)

I see that death is still in the air. I use Feedly to aggregate the blogs I follow, and today it greeted me with this post by Deb about visiting the beloved dead; this one about Undertaking LA, the “progressive funeral parlor” which happens to be handling my mother’s mortal remains at this very moment; the first in a promised series of posts on the Shinto way of death; this one which isn’t actually about death per se, but made me think of death because the Welsh god Gwyn ap Nudd is a psychopomp and underworld power associated with the Wild Hunt; and this one which also isn’t about death but references death, the descent into the underworld, and resurrection in the Maya cosmological context.

I’m sensing a theme here.

Not that that is entirely unexpected. There’s just something about the end of October…is it only a northern hemisphere thing? There’s Samhain/Halloween, the Chrysanthemum Festival (lunar date), Día de los Muertos, and not coincidentally the sign of Scorpio. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, but it seems like it ain’t what it used to be. Am I merely becoming crotchety in my middle age? People don’t seem to put the thought and care into it that they used to. This year I keep seeing things about “trunk-or-treating,” which I guess is more of this helicopter parent stuff where children aren’t allowed to go out at night and roam the neighborhood, even in the safety of their packs. For comparison, when my mom was a kid, they took the trick part of trick-or-treat seriously, stealing yard furniture and garbage cans, TPing people’s houses, throwing handfuls of dry corn kernels at their doors to make a racket, and so on. I think we should bring back Mischief Night. And when I was a kid, we rode around unrestrained in the back of a pickup truck, and later, having moved to the city, we went out with one adult who maintained a respectful distance. Sorry, but “trunk-or-treat” is a fucking travesty. Do not do this to your children. “Controlled and safe” is the antithesis of Halloween, and it might just be What’s Wrong With the World Today.

Anyway, up until my late 20s I guess, Halloween never disappointed. It was exciting because you just never knew what would happen, what with the disguises and being out late, the sugar rush and alcohol buzz, chill weather, and that whiff of liminality and leaf litter in the air. I remember when it changed–well, I don’t remember the calendar year, but I remember how it went down. My friend Heather made a bid to host the annual grad student Halloween party. She went all out with the decorations, I mean she even turned the crawlspace in her basement into a barrow full of treasure and ghosts. It was beautiful, spooky, and really captured the proper insouciant mood. But she unwittingly pissed off the woman who had hosted the previous couple years, who gave her the cold shoulder, some people didn’t even show up, and everything got really awkward. Heather was bummed. From then on, the previous hostess got her hostessing hegemony back, but the Halloween party became just another standing-around-drinking-and-listening-to-’90s music thing. It never again lived up to the sense of anticipation.

Maybe it was just something that happened within my circle of acquaintances (I hope so). Or maybe it was a reflection of a wider trend. My sense is that there is a magical current at this time of year into which one can tap, but it requires more than just fancy dress, a little sexual license, and booze. For me it seems to be some combination of beauty, a sense of mortality, and a willingness to think mythically and aim to misbehave. Suspension of disbelief is critical. I’ve long wanted to host a dumb supper but haven’t been able to assemble a right-minded list of guests. One day, though…

That actually was kind of a digression. My mom died last Sunday, on the New Moon which I think was rather stylish timing on her part. It was peaceful, and so far as I could tell, painless. The most unexpected aspect of grief, I am finding, is catastrophic brain fog. My dad says bereavement takes a lot of processing and one can’t expect to be operating at full mental capacity for quite a while. Taking care of myself, especially cooking, is surprisingly difficult. It just requires too much advance planning and too much attention span. If this post seems unusually rambly or flaky, that would be why.

So now I am packing and sorting and donating and throwing away in preparation to move (on which more later in another post, when I can think better). Sorting through a loved one’s belongings is a strange feeling. There are artifacts that mean nothing to you, that you have never seen and may not even be able to identify, yet which were lovingly curated for decades. It doesn’t seem right to throw them away, but needs must. For the first time I’m starting to see my mom as a person independent of me, the child. I mean, intellectually I knew that, but I never understood it till now. In some sense, I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to my mom, but she’s never been more of a mystery to me.

Weirdest of all is that I found a skeleton in the closet.

Oh, you think that’s a metaphor? Nope, I found a literal skeleton in a box in the closet. When I opened the box all I could see was crumpled newspaper; I picked up a piece and teeth fell out. I looked down to see a clump of ancient hair and vertebrae in my hand. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have archaeologists for parents, but I must say I was astounded that my mom didn’t tell me about it. I mean, that’s a hell of a thing to spring on a person. But it certainly is fitting for the season.

The violence of the rootless

Sculpture of "a world citizen" by Bruno Catalano
Sculpture of “a world citizen” by Bruno Catalano, Marseille, France

This topic has been rattling around in my head like a pebble in a rock tumbler. I had one of those as a kid. I loved the shiny jewels that emerged but was way too impatient to wait for them. And so it is with writing. The words for this post have been slow in coming so I’ve just been letting the ideas sit for a while, but now I see other minds are thinking and writing about subjects that dovetail with this one, so I think it’s time has come. Although I might point out to the Powers That Be that their timing really could be a lot better. As a writer, I am not at my best right now, unless you like raw and unpolished rocks. But come to think of it, I love raw and unpolished rocks.

Anyway, I assume that you are all aware, at least in a general sense, of the genocide of indigenous Americans that happened with the arrival of European colonists. While it in no way is meant to deny their/our responsibility, or to downplay the reality or the cruelty of that genocide, I came across the idea awhile back that the Euro-American perpetrators of that violence were themselves victims of violence, and therefore really kind of messed up.

I would like to cite the author of this idea of warped Euro-Americans, but I encountered it years ago on a now-defunct blog and I don’t remember, if credit was even given, who the author was. Maybe there was no single author, but many people arriving at the same conclusion. I’m also pretty sure the idea was a bit more sophisticated and well-thought-out than I’m making it seem here.

Not that Europeans in Europe weren’t capable of doing nasty stuff–nice guys don’t build empires. And the Americas weren’t the only place where European colonists were busy ruining the native cultures as they rapaciously extracted every last resource, be it animal, mineral, botanical, vaginal, spiritual or what have you. Yet the roots of that violence go back long before the proximal causes that drove, or lured, Europeans to other lands. How deep those roots go just depends on what perspective you take. One thing a career in archaeology leaves you with is a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun. Technologies come and go, but the overwhelming impression is one of cycles. So I don’t think the Native American holocaust was unique in the long duree of human time, but in terms of sheer numbers it might have been the worst.

I think about this in the context of my ancestors. One line of my Irish* ancestors arrived in the US almost exactly 200 years ago. Although I don’t have direct documentation, all the evidence suggests that they left when industrialization destroyed the household flax-growing and linen-weaving economy in the north of Ireland (County Monaghan, specifically). Monaghan is itself far away (in Irish terms) from the family seat around Waterford and Kilkenny, so I think my ancestors were already displaced. Did they settle in Ulster in hopes of making a fortune in linen? I don’t know. At the turn of the 19th century they must have smelled their impending ruin on the wind, because they left just before it got really bad, but they and their neighbors had already long been enclosed, in Caffentzis’ sense of that word, by capitalist and colonial exchange dynamics:

“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. …Thus did ‘exchange become more independent of them,’ its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove ‘everyone’ into the monetary system [and, I might add, into new lands].”

They settled in the area where Ohio, West Virginia (then just Virginia, of course), and Kentucky meet with the Ohio River as their shared border. The native inhabitants of this area had been forcibly ejected and divested of their lands during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. My ancestors were among the first white settlers of southern Ohio, but even so, they didn’t, or couldn’t, stay put. The first couple of generations zigzagged through southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, Illinois, and eastern Missouri. They were still rootless.

By the first and second generations born in the US (my great- and great-great grandparents), they were no longer farmers. Whatever land they owned had been lost, and most of the men worked their way into an early grave as coal miners. The townships and “hollers” (hollows) where they lived have mostly vanished now, abandoned when each local mining operation had finally raped the land to death. They were still rootless.

I haven’t been back there yet, but will be going this fall. My cousin went there years ago and said the whole landscape feels haunted. No surprise there. The little town where my great-grandparents built their home has 22 Adena burial mounds in an area of only 2.3 square miles. Yet the population is only 0.31% Native. From 100% to 0.31% in 200 years. That makes for a lot of ghosts. It always cracks me up when I hear someone claim that their house is haunted because it was built “on an Indian burial ground.” Find me someplace in the US that isn’t an Indian burial ground. But I wonder if the colonists don’t have reason to haunt too.

What sort of lessons learned do these rootless people reify in their new  communities? It is instructive to consider what happens to our traditions:

“Pay attention to most any living tradition, though, and you should see that they are never singular. Find one living tradition and you will discover around it at least one other tradition with which it is in dialogue and debate. In most cases, a living tradition is in dialogue and debate with a whole family of traditions. When push comes to shove, it is the dialogue and debate with other practices that defines a tradition. To understand a tradition, we need to appreciate its fellow travelers.

“In most cases, the boundaries between those traditions is [sic] permeable. One is not a member of this tradition or that tradition, but a member of the world in which these traditions play out their tension….

“One of the greatest dangers to a tradition’s viability is the loss of these interlocutor traditions that help to define it. When a tradition’s practices enter into diaspora or are adopted in contexts far removed from its origin, the tradition must reconstitute for itself a world of fellow travelers or slip into dogmatic dissipation. A similar conundrum faces a tradition whose fellow travelers become increasingly marginalized from it.”

So it is with people. Removed from our context, we lose our familiar interlocutors and the dialogue begins to stutter. It would be nice if we could always regroup and adapt and enter into new dialogues with new neighbors–and sometimes we do–but too often the result is “dogmatic dissipation” at best and genocide at worst.

In American terms, 200 years is a long time; but it doesn’t seem to have been long enough for us to develop a sense of this land and its inhabitants. This is true of our spiritual and ecological interlocutors just as much as our human ones. First we demonized everything native, then we fantasized it (as “in tune with nature” or as vengeful poltergeists, for example), but we still haven’t met the natives on their own terms. We are cut off from the powers and beings our ancestors knew in their own lands, but we haven’t earned the right to work within indigenous traditions. So we make ridiculous over-the-top celebrations of our ancestral identity that make our relatives on the Old Sod gag and roll their eyes at us, ironically cutting us off even further. And as Gordon says, you can make magic anywhere, but you can’t overlook the importance of physicality and place in magic. You can make magic, you just can’t make the same magic.

Some languages have words for the feeling of rootlessness, the longing to return, and the understanding that “you can never go home again,” like Welsh hiraeth and Gallego morriña. It is a feeling visualized in the sculptures of Moroccan-French artist Bruno Catalano.

World citizens by Bruno Catalano

“Mr Catalano said: ‘I have travelled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back….So the meaning can be different for everyone, but to me the sculptures represent a world citizen.'”

Aren’t we all essentially rootless in this global culture? In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer–a botanist of Native descent–argues that without a sense of indigeneity (is that a word?), how can one have a sense of responsibility to and for the land? She is not saying that white Americans should ape Native cultures, but that we should develop our own relationship to this land as our home. I think we might have done that, if globalism (especially globalism qua multinational banks, corporations, and government entities) hadn’t derailed us. Multinationals and genocide are alike fruit of the same root.

I don’t have an answer to what we should do about this. Well, as individuals we stay weird, re-enchant, re-wild, subvert, see our own and others’ hollow spots, and cultivate our minds and spirits as we are already doing. We form relationships to the land we find ourselves on. We plant seeds, we put down roots, hoping future generations will enjoy the shade. Is there anything else we can do?

*I have other ancestral lineages that came to the US much earlier, and a few that came after; but culturally speaking, the Irish side of the family has dominated, because it’s the maternal side. It is the source of our home life and everything that women teach their daughters. So I identify more with these ancestors than some of the others.

Facebook and the culture of violence

panopticonIn the wake of the shooting in Oregon–which is still fresh in people’s minds though by the time this post is published, it will probably be a couple weeks old and, who knows? perhaps eclipsed by a new shooting–my Well-Meaning Liberal (WML) Facebook acquaintances have been all in a dither about gun control. The discussions all go like this:

“Another shooting! What is this country coming to?! We must have more gun control!”

“But how? What exactly should we do?”

“I don’t know! Control the guns! Control the mentally ill! Stop them from getting guns!”

So a friend of mine–someone I have actually been friends with in real life, though we live halfway across the country from one another now–posted something similar, and because we are friends I broke my cardinal rule: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. No wait, the other one: Never get involved in a discussion about an emotional, controversial, or sensitive subject on Facebook. Since people get butthurt on Facebook like it’s their job, that actually means that I can’t discuss anything that matters, unless I’m just reiterating the party line. Which I never do.

It’s not like I’m the first person to comment on the degenerating level of interaction on Facebook. I don’t use Facebook for the groups or anything, just to stay in touch with my friends far away and for publicizing lost and found dogs to get them home. I have longed to abandon it completely but I know this would probably mean completely losing touch with some people even if I tried to maintain contact via other means. Perhaps it’s time I realize that if they can’t be bothered to do their part in keeping in touch, I can let that friendship go; but then I feel like a hypocrite because I can be pretty terrible about keeping in touch myself. But anyway, at least you used to be able to exchange empty pleasantries. Now it’s like:

“Nice weather we’re having, huh?”

“FUCK YOU YOU HAVE TRIGGERED ME YOU INSENSITIVE FUCKWAD I HATE YOU DIE DIE DIE!”

So anyway, yesterday this friend posted something to the effect of “more gun control! stop the mentally ill from getting guns!” and I said, I thought pretty diplomatically, that I consider gun violence and much of our mental illness to BOTH be symptoms of the same deeper issues, among them materialism, hyper-capitalism, and pathologization of normal emotional states for the sake of Big Pharma. “Cui bono?” I said. I also pointed out that I am increasingly seeing reports that antidepressants cause suicidal and aggressive behavior in young people, that they result in further chemical imbalance in the brain, and that the chemical imbalance model of depression was being challenged in the first place.* Therefore, I proposed a thought experiment: What if gun control is just a band-aid on a gaping wound? What if mental illness and gun control are both symptoms? (I suggested this in less detail in my last post.)

You would not believe the amount of pearl-clutching approbation this comment received. Some person I have never met or communicated with in my life–some other friend of my friend–went immediately for the ad hominem and straw-man attacks, lecturing me with the consensus opinion on mental illness as if I had the luxury of not knowing it thoroughly, and even my friend accused me of being cruel and unsympathetic to people who suffer from depression and use antidepressants.

Well, that pissed me off. Because that friend was around when I was going through severe depression. We talked about taking antidepressants, compared the side effects we were having from them. (Side effects I’m still struggling with years after stopping the pills, which never really worked, by the way). The fact that she doesn’t know me better than that after all these years…well, some people would write a person off for a lot less. See the thing is, I don’t judge people for taking antidepressants. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive, to drag yourself out of bed and face the world. For some people, antidepressants make that possible. But no one in their right mind (heh heh heh) can deny that non-pharmaceutical alternatives are under-explored and under-promoted. I found mindfulness, and that’s what worked for me. But I had to find it on my own because I was desperate to get off the pills. While they did take the edge off the pain enough for me to get through the day in a benumbed haze, they utterly wrecked my endocrine system. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire. But the fact that some people get benefit from placebos antidepressants is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether mental illness is the cause of gun violence (it’s not) or a corollary symptom.

(Before exiting the conversation I clarified my point of view, admittedly not in the nicest of terms–that friend of my friend was a nasty bit of goods–but I then wrote a private apologia, reminding her that I have personal experience with the issue, had no intention to wound, and that Facebook is a cold medium that breeds misunderstandings. I have yet to receive any reply and if I don’t, well, that’s that then.)

I never cease to be amazed at the hypocrisy of both political groups in this country, but I think I’m more offended when I encounter it in liberals. At least the conservatives don’t make a pretense of being the Nice Guys. They also do a lot less simpering and hand-wringing, which I have to say I appreciate. I’m astounded that these WML extollers of empathy don’t see that labeling people as mentally ill (many of them suggest doing this to children and then isolating them from their peers and subjecting them to pharmaceutical “intervention”…because that couldn’t possibly have any negative results) and essentializing the mentally ill as The Cause of Gun Violence, they are scapegoating an already vulnerable, marginalized population. Precisely the sort of people who they claim to defend. It’s truly sickening and I have no time for that bullshit.

Between you and me, dear readers, I think these shooters are more sick at heart than sick in the head. And it’s not just their sickness, it affects our whole society. We can’t address the real problems because our ontology, our identity politics, and our rulers won’t even let us acknowledge them, let alone take action. All we are allowed to do is double down on “solutions” that have never worked. New ideas would require new perspectives–thought experiments such as the one I proposed–but new perspectives are non-canonical and thus, heresy.

But this encounter on Facebook made me realize that Facebook is itself a crucial element in the “culture of violence.” It’s always easier to misunderstand someone in print than in conversation; but even if you leave aside the creepy emotional manipulation Facebook (and their pals DARPA) do on people, there is something about that platform that riles people up, frays tempers, causes people to draw battle lines and turn on old friends. I don’t know exactly what factors are involved, but I think a big one is the sense that others are watching us. Identity politics and image management then take precedence over sincerity and empathy. Intimate truths and sensitive communication cannot happen within the Panopticon.** What is so insidious about Facebook is that it uses our own friends as the disciplinary mechanism. All that would be horrifying enough without Facebook actually working for the military-industrial-archonic complex. Truly, it sends shivers down my spine.

So before we tsk-tsk at all the tragic shootings, shrug our shoulders and sigh at the tragedy of undiagnosed mental illness in America, we each need to consider our own role in contributing to the culture of violence. Our Facebook personae are a great place to start.

*I’d love to Google that for you and give you a full list of citations but life is short. If you go to Google Scholar and type in something like “antidepressants cause chemical imbalance,” you’ll get a lot of hits. You might also enjoy Gordon’s Apocalypse Pharmaka series.

**When searching for an image for this post, I discovered that others have made this connection as well. I’m relieved to have finally found the words to articulate the creeping sensation of horror that Facebook gives me.