February 24, 2012
“There is only one crime, in the local sense, and that is not to turn blue, if the gods are blue: but, in the universal sense, the one crime is not to turn the gods themselves green, if you’re green.”
January 25, 2011
It is hard to imagine anything more unapologetically artificial than San Simón, the odd hybrid of Mayan god and heretic saint who wanders from house to house in Guatemala, generating temporary shrines around himself wherever he comes to rest. His anatomy includes plastic masks and mannequin parts; silk ties, cowboy hats, and sunglasses; christmas lights. His retinue is casually mercenary; they lounge in the corners of the shrine accepting without reaction the expected fee for visiting Him (extra for photographs). And if you’ve forgotten to bring an offering, there is always someone nearby to sell you anything you might need. Everything about San Simón seems calculated to dispel any sense of solemnity, let alone divinity.
And yet, far from repelling this solemnity, he exudes it. The air in his shrines is thick with the sort of hush that one associates with cathedrals or caves, and the colored prayer candles that burn before him seem to sit within the gaze of something living and watchful, each candle representing a crisis whose resolution lies at the mercy not of blind chance but of a roguish fate who can indeed be bribed.
How can this be? What is the source of San Simón’s paradoxical gravitas? Can it be his confidence, the fact that he doesn’t feel the need to affect sublimity? Perhaps it is his enigmatic approach to representation. San Simón is by no means separate from the many statues that circulate across the Guatemalan countriside, and in this sense there are many San Simónes; they are each San Simón and they are all San Simón. The individual statues are clearly intended to be more than mere depictions. They are given rum to “drink,” cigarettes to “smoke,” and in many cases women from the community take turns sleeping with them. Every effort is made to build around them the mystique of a living (and somewhat lecherous) person, an effort that is seemingly at odds with the kitschy artificiality of the figure. And perhaps this is the source of his power, the fact that he must be and cannot be what he claims. He is representational art pushed to a bizarre extreme, a process of portrayal bent on simultaneous self-transcendence and and self-sabotage.
And of course, he grants wishes.
December 22, 2010
I recently visited the CMA’s exhibit of medieval reliquaries. The official lit on the exhibit made much about the power of memory and the function of the relics as mementos linking the worshippers to their collective past, and while this probably has some validity, I doubt that medieval Christians thought about these objects in such psychologized terms. It’s always risky to speculate on what a group of people a thousand years ago “really” thought about their cultural constructs, but what I saw of these objects leads me to believe that the whole system of relics and reliquaries bespeaks a peculiarly material, even mechanical, approach to religious practice.
The basic theory hinges on a quantity that, for lack of a better term, we might call “holiness”. This is what the medieval pilgrim would have sought, and what the relics would purport to give access to. Etherial as this concept might seem at first blush, a couple of things can be said about it with some confidence:
Firstly, holiness (h hereafter) is good. We must clarify that “good” is intended in its most objective, unequivocal sense, and as so h functions as an end in itself. Having h or being in its presence is better than the alternative, whatever other effects might be attributed to it. That being said, h has practical functions, and these follow from its essential goodness. The supposed miraculous properties of a relic owe to its resident h increasing the goodness of those around it in a very concrete (if unpredictable) fashion.
Second, h can be said to act as a physical substance. Its existence is spatial and temporal; it exists in higher concentrations in certain places, times, and, in the case of relics, objects. One might even speak of h-gradients. In other contexts however, it displays properties of energy, particularly heat. For example, a high-h object such as a relic might provoke people to touch it, in hopes of absorbing some of its h. h, like heat, would seem to conduct from regions of higher to lower “temperature”. With this in sight, it makes sense that the church would strive to insulate relics as thoroughly as possible. A sort of Second Law of Theodynamics seems to be at work here, and h-entropy is to be avoided at all costs. The only significant departure from classical physics lies in the fact that h conducts not only via physical but also historical contact. A saint’s toenail continues to receive h from the saint long after it has been clipped and its owner martyred. Sir James Frazier called this the Law of Contagion, but for our purposes we can call it the Principle of Conduction-by-Association.
With these principles in sight, we may define relics as implements of controlled h-propagation. To our medieval votaries, the ultimate source of h was, of course, God, but this source was distant and therefore, like a faraway power plant, not reliable as a direct resource. Hence the need for an accessible system for the dissemination of this commodity, a system in which relics formed the ultimate “outlets”. We may map the flow of h thusly:
November 9, 2010
There was a great quantity of tentacles. They rose, thin and delicate, from the top like sparse hair. Thicker ones, more muscular seeming (although the amateur biologist in Thomas informed him that such a one as this wouldn’t possess anything that could be accurately described as muscles) formed a grasping ring around its middle. And below these, like the thousand breasts of an archaic Venus pushed by the febrile imaginations of Her votaries beyond sensuality to monstrous and back again, a chaos of massive and heavy tentacles erupted, trailing below them a bridal train of impossibly long filaments.
It was dead, of course, had probably never been alive. It wasn’t an individual so much as a type. It had been drawn from an unknown number of specimens, each an imperfect example of its genus and species, and from these had been distilled a super-mundane archetype from which they all drew substance, definition. Haeckle could just as easily have called his book Platonischformen der Natur.
Thomas Meridian closed the book and blinked the afterimage of the jellyfish from his eyes. The Massachusetts coast reappeared in front of him. At some point, the sky had clouded over.
Back inside the seaside diner (predictably noisy and filthy, an archetype in itself) Thomas staked out a booth and began mindfully waiting. Leo and Carol and Max would arrive soon for coffee and hashed-browns and pleasantries. They were less friends than placeholders. Thomas caught himself thinking this, began to admonish himself, then forcibly stopped the admonishment when he realized that it wouldn’t be sincere. He frequently had such arguments with his superego.
They arrived and sat down with smiles of varying sizes and comments about the traffic to explain their lateness (they weren’t late). Leo was short for Leopold; Carol was short for Carolina; Max might have been short for Maxwell or Maximilian, but wasn’t. Nothing was short for Thomas, thank you very much.
There was a television in the corner of the diner. They all made self-deprecating comments on their eyes’ tendency to drift toward it, even when only commercials were showing. The amateur mathematician in Thomas toyed with the idea of the television acting as a strange attractor, but found that the metaphor didn’t really hold, unless that is one maintained that the machine itself arose from the multiple lines of sight that gravitated toward it. A case could be made. He was standing on the seafloor. The perfect jellyfish, the Jellyfish God, drifted before him all clean silver lines drawn on the black water. From the numerous bell-like organs on its underside came a voice:
Which came first- the form or the substance?
…the voice was tinny and stentorian. The belled flared in time with the words like cartoon loudspeakers.
Consider, the Four Forced did not come into being until micromoments after the big bang. Natural Law is the dream of Matter.
Leo was talking to him. What? Oh yes, good seeing you, drive safe.
Thomas Meridian walked to the ocean.
June 22, 2010
Animism- the idea that every entity, even inanimate ones such as stones and buildings, has a soul (or to use less weighted language, a mind) – is about as unfashionable is at gets. It is hardly ever brought into discussion outside of new age circles, and when it is, it is usually referenced as a humorous reductio ad absurdum to some other idea. Indeed, the very word “inanimate” seems to function within our language as a built-in rejection of animism.
It has been traditional to attribute animism to the supposed infantile tendency to view all entities/phenomena as possessing minds comparable to one’s own, a tendency that is gradually outgrown as one’s perceptual faculties mature. What arises from this view is a sort of theological hierarchy, with each successive stage corresponding to ever higher levels of cognitive development: animism -> polytheism-> monotheism-> atheism (this last step may be skipped depending on which state you live in). Modern-day anthropology has mostly shed this narrative, but it lingers in the background of popular understandings of cultural development.
The biological analogue to this model is the now-discredited idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny- basically, that the historical development of forms mirrors the development of individual beings. So, in its maturation, the human body passes through phases mirroring the evolution of the human species. The only real defense of this model lies in the fact that human embryos possess gills and a tail- never mind that human children never pass through phases wherein they resemble lizards or lemurs. Regardless, there is a sort of superficial elegance to this model, and it was very much in vogue about a hundred years ago.
Applied to the development of cultural forms, this idea dives into even more dangerous waters. We are, after all, not just talking about a sequence of extinct ideas that ultimately gave rise to our current models. Animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism (as well as any number of less easily-categorized models) all persist to this day. To prefer any one of these as the inevitable evolutionary endpoint depends upon a fairly obvious ethnocentric assumption. It goes without saying that one’s own culture would possess the most advanced understanding, and other cultures would be viewed as more or less primitive (“infantile”) in proportion to their similarity thereto.
I mention all of this here because what is at issue is ultimately an aesthetic conflict. There is of course absolutely no rational or empirical defense for animism, and as a model it has no explanatory or predictive power. It is not so much a means of understanding the world as encountering it. Just as we would perceive other humans differently if we believed them to be mindless automatons, so do animism and related models offer the potential for a radically divergent experience of the world at large. This alone makes them worth engaging with on their own terms, and not to be rejected solely on the basis of their presumed absurdity.