Quaint Infrastructure

Folly Beach, the corner of 4th Street and East Huron

It’s a melancholy sight as I wend my way to the post office in the mornings, or to Chico Feo in the afternoons, to see Folly Beach’s quaint avenues blocked by tree removal trucks a-blare as they decimate aged oaks and remove palm trees to accommodate drooping electric lines that look as if they might have been strung sometime during the First World War. 

C’mon, y’all, this is the 21st Century! We’ve put men on the moon, perfected heart transplantation, and created contraptions that allow us to conjure whatever song or movie we’d like to hear or see right now – presto![1] Seems as if we could come up with some less primitive method of heating and illuminating our domiciles.

As I was watching the Micky Mouse Club in the 50s on my grandparents’ black and white Motorola, I expected that in the year 2021 we’d be zooming around in flying cars, not rumbling along in the diesel stench of city buses that look pretty much as they did during the Eisenhower Administration. I certainly don’t recall the cities of Tomorrow Land crisscrossed with utility poles and rusted out transformers. Thank God HG Wells isn’t alive to witness it.

Yours truly, in an alternate future off in my time machine to catch Josephine Baker at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées 

When I see one of the tree-cutting vehicles rumble past, I feel like screaming “butcherers,” but, the tree men are not ultimately responsible for the electrical grid, and I suspect in these latter days, most US citizens, if given the choice, would opt for refrigeration over an oxygen producing oak, no matter how majestic.

Utility Poles

I think I’ll never behold

A tree as useful as a utility pole.

A pole whose wires are connected

To power stations carefully selected,

Like hydroelectric plants in the upper state

That provide a reasonable utility rate,

A pole whose wires provide a perch

For winter birds without a birch,

A pole pointing to a godless sky

Where cumulus clouds go scudding by.

O, poems are made by fools like me,

But only power plants can generate electricity.

Like I said, I think I’ll never behold

A tree as useful as a utility pole.

I’m typing this caption right beyond those windows

[1] But we haven’t, damn it, found a cure for baldness (other than the tried-and-true method of pre-pubescent castration). 

Pedestrian Poetry

Pedestrian Poetry[1]

Too clever is dumb – Ogden Nash

Jesus and Caesar sported sandals,

Shakespeare and Burbage buskins.

Ruskin owned a pair of patten leather ankle boots,

But in the garden, Adam and Eve wore nothing.


[1] Pedestrian: person walking; pedestrian: lacking inspiration, commonplace, dull. Both apply to this poem.

A Little Knowledge Can Be a Fortunate Thing

When I was an undergraduate, I had a fantastic professor named Dr. Bryan who taught Art History 101 in a large auditorium that could accommodate a couple hundred students.[1] I learned so much in his class, which featured a superb, richly illustrated textbook that I perused religiously whenever we had an assignment.  I took meticulous notes during his engaging lectures and tried my best to keep up with his rapidly administered slide shows projected on the giant screen behind the podium. 

I remember that a missed more than a few identifications on his first test, a midterm exam; however, my essays on that exam so impressed him that he awarded me extra points, so I ended up getting an A despite than more than 10 points of deductions on the objective portion. However, somewhat surprisingly, I received a B+ on our one outside paper (some damn TA graded it), so I had an A- going into the exam.

Perhaps, to keep students interested, Dr. Bryan would occasionally announce that if a student could answer some obscure question he threw out, he’d give them an A for the semester no matter what grade they had earned. Well, a couple of weeks before exams, he said, “If anyone in this auditorium can tell me who invented kindergarten, I’ll give them an A on the exam.”

My hand shot up, but he ignored me, until I leapt to my feet, waving my arms above my head, and the auditorium started booing him.  “Okay,” he finally said, pointing to me, “Who started the first kindergarten?”

“Fredrich Froebel,” I hollered. I had learned this bit of trivia literally the day before in my History of Education class.[2]

“Okay,” he said. “I can’t give you an A on the exam.” 

The auditorium erupted in a chorus of boos, so he relented a bit. “Meet me in my office after class and bring your midterm and essay.”  

Thunderous applause.

So later that day, I met him in his office with assessments in hand. I explained that I had an A- average anyway, so he allowed me to exempt the exam, which I really appreciated given the load I carried (see footnote 2).

Anyway, when I began teaching myself, I would occasionally follow Dr. Bryan’s model and announce that I’d give a student an A for the year if he or she could answer an obscure question, which I made damned sure no one would get right.

E.g., “Okay, if anyone who can name the comic butt in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, I’ll give you an A for the year. You’ll still have to do the work and try your best, but you’ll get an A.”

Then a volley of incorrect answers would ricochet off the walls of the room.

Ophelia, Bottom the Weaver, Falstaff, Casca, etc.

“Time’s up,” I’d say. “Sorry. You were so close. It’s Thersites, who spoke these immortal lines: “Great Agamemnon has not so much brain as earwax.”

However, one time, I came really close to blowing it. I gave the A option to the question “Where did I see Dr. John perform the last time I saw him, and to my astonishment, a student answered correctly Newberry.

“Oh shit,” I thought, then said. “Great! Where in Newberry?”

“What do you mean?”

I mean the venue. What building?”

“Um, the Newberry Auditorium.

“Sorry. It was at the Newberry Opera House.”

I can’t remember if I stopped asking A questions after that close shave. I wonder if Dr. Bryan did. I, however, did dub for the student a compilation c.d. featuring some Dr. John tunes, which in the long run was probably worth more than an A.

Newberry Opera House

[1] An unfortunate event occurred at another one of these auditorium classrooms when I fell asleep during an astronomy film with my legs draped over the two empty seats in front of me. When the film ended, the student to my right roused me, and startled, I leapt to my feet. Unfortunately, both of my legs had fallen asleep, so I immediately collapsed and fell to the floor. Again, I attempted to rise and again I fell, so students began to gather around me, thinking I had had a seizure or stroke. Luckily, class was over, so I sidled over and sat down until blood returned to me feet.

[2] I didn’t declare my major until the second semester of my junior year, and because I had dropped several courses and never attended summer school, I had to take 21 hours that semester to graduate on time. The good news that most of them were basic level freshmen courses like Music Appreciation or fairly easy sophomore English courses like Contemporary Fiction, so it wasn’t all that burdensome taking such a massive load.

Roll On, Roll On . . . 

photograph by Wesley Moore, a.k.a. I-and-I, a.k.a. Yours Truly

The night before last, Caroline and I saw the Rolling Stones for the second time in three years, which, as we say in Summerville, ain’t nothing. We had lunch yesterday with Tom and Kathy Herman in Little Five Points, and Tom told me that the Atlanta show was the third show he’d seen in the current tour.[1]

For this concert, his tickets were in the pit to the right of the stage and ours smack dab in the middle, just beyond the end of the jutting runway. Not surprisingly, the closer the proximity of the performers, the more expensive the ticket, and, hence, the more geriactic the concert goer.  In fact, most of the people around us could have been cast in the movie Cocoon, though they sported Stones’ tee-shirts and knew the words to every song. The ashen old man in front of me smiled broadly, swaying feebly as he held his phone aloft to record “Midnight Rambler.”  Yet, he left early. Standing up for three straight hours was too much for him.

Not for seventy-eight-year-old Mick. He danced, clapped, dervished, sang, stuck his tongue out a la the logo, a lean but amiable Dionysian machine, his on-stage persona friendly, making sure to mention local landmarks, addressing the audience as if he appreciated their presence.  Of course, on this evening, he gave a shout-out to the World Champion Atlanta Braves. 

Keith, on the other hand, seemed – to put it mildly – less robust. Ronnie Wood took up most of the guitar duties and killed it while Keith slowly wandered around playing mostly rhythm. Occasionally, while Ronnie was screeching a solo, the jumbotron showed Keith.

Still, the cat also turns 78 in December, and it ain’t like he was propped on a stool. If Charley Watts is/was the heartbeat of the Stones, Keith is its soul, conveying the darkness of the blues, howling wolves, muddy Mississippi waters, hearts shattered like beer glasses on the floors of Delta juke joints.

Keith is a walking, talking memento mori.

The set list for this show featured rarely performed “Shattered” from Some Girls and “She’s a Rainbow,” a period piece from the Stones’ blessedly short-lived foray into psychedelia. Of course, you can’t always get what you want, but I would have rather heard “Beast of Burden” from Some Girls and, if you wanna go obscure, why not “The Spider and the Fly” from Out of Our Heads, a truly great album, which also features “Play With Fire,” which would have been more than a worthy substitute for “She’s a Rainbow.”

Flashback: I guess I was about sixteen when I first heard “The Spider and the Fly,” and, I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I found the following lyrics disgusting:

She was common, flirty, she looked about thirty 
I would have run away but I was on my own 
She told me later she’s a machine operator 
She said she liked the way I held the microphone 
Then I said “hi” like a spider to a fly 
Jump right ahead in my web.

Yuk, thirty years old! Who would want to go home with a thirty-year old?

Yes, young readers, the cliches are accurate, a blink of the eye, calendar pages riffling, being torn off by the winds of time in a black-and-white movie that your great grandparents watched for a dime a second ago. 

However, to quote my man Andrew Marvell:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun 

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

In other words, after a Stones’ concert, you can either limp back to the hotel and retire, or hit the hotel bar, which at the Omni boasts a balcony overlooking the skyline, which on this particular night looked downright Boschian. As we sipped our drinks, Caroline regaled me with stories from her wanderings in North Viet Nam in the previous century as the sun dropped below the horizon of the British Empire.

And when we returned to the hotel room, we continued our conversation, talking about this and that, looking out over at another view of Atlanta, not wanting to go to sleep, yet looking forward to tomorrow, to our lunch with Kathy and Tom.

view from the hotel bar balcony

[1] By the way, Little Five Points is a funky, mural-rich blip of Bohemia in an otherwise seemingly staid state capital. Outside a vintage clothing shop, I ran into this fellow dressed up like Dr. John, complete with voodoo hat and tooth necklace, plus the male version of Dorthey’s ruby slippers from Oz.  I said something like, “Hey, mon, dig the Doctor John get-up.” His response, a blank contemptuous look.  I asked, “You’ve heard of Doctor, John, right?” He said no and asked me if I had ever heard of some bullshit name like ‘Magnifico, Light Bringer” and then proclaimed that he was Magnifico, Light Bringer, a magician, and then launched into this puffed-up Jesus spiel. I interrupted by saying “party on,” and split, though I felt like stealing the Tom Waits line and saying, “You know they ain’t no devil. That’s just God when he’s drunk.”

mural in Little Five Points, photograph by Caroline

Fun Stuff to Do During a Deluge

Dore’s Noah’s Flood, an illustration I first discovered in a volume called Illustrated Bible Stories for Children

Every once in a while, it’s fun to be cooped in a beach house during a bleak, dull, dark November day when clouds hang oppressively low in the heavens (and a storm from the ocean, aided and abetted by a king tide, pushes flood waters into the garage of the Airbnb next door – tee-hee). 

The Gothic grey weather practically demands you break out some Edgar Allan, peruse some of those exquisite Latinate sentences that provide delightful dead weight to so many of his tales, sentences like: 

We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorium , by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and œgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic — the manual of a forgotten church — the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.

Still awake?

Or you, if you’re lucky enough to possess one, you can put together a jigsaw puzzle – literal recreation – or play a game of Scrabble, or, if you’re by yourself, a game of solitaire with an actual deck of cards, which make such delightful riffling sounds after you have scooped them up shuffling in preparation of losing once again. 

These activities, by the way, don’t require electricity.

Before the digital age, when I was a boy in Summerville, on a blustery autumn day like today, I’d sometimes put together model airplanes. I remember on one Saturday riding my bike in the rain to the Hobby Shop on North Main to buy a model of a Fokker Triplane, the plane that Baron von Richthofen flew. Oddly enough, he was one of my boyhood heroes, despite his being on the wrong side in a war that killed lovely poets like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke.

By the way, did you know that Yeats’s poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is the first poem in English that places a person airborne in what they called back then an aeroplane? It occurs in the third stanza:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.[1]

That side trip prompted me to extract a collection of Blakes’ poems from the cliched voluminous library, the poems selected by Willie B himself, who wrote the introduction, which begins with this amusing snippet of biography:

“Early in the eighteenth century a certain John O’Neil got into debt and difficulties, these latter apparently political to some extent; and escaped both by marrying a woman named Ellen Blake, who kept a shebeen[2] at Rathmines Dublin and taking his name. He had a son James, I am told, by a previous wife or mistress, and this son took the name of Blake, and in due course married, settled in London as a hosier, and became the father of five children, one of whom was the subject of this memoir.”

So, it seems that Blake had a drop of Irish blood in his veins, which explains a lot.

At any rate, I’ve rambled enough. It’s time for me to reheat Thursday’s chili and check of the girls’ progress on that jigsaw puzzle.

Cheers! And check out Grandson Julian, happy in the golden age before screens. Cackle on, my lovely.


[1] Talking about balance: four rhyming quatrains written in iambic tetrameter.” Four cubed.  

[2] An Irish term for an illicit bar or club trafficking in excisable alcohol without a license.

The Krushtones + The Sand Dollar Social Club = Federico Fellini

The Sound Track

One of the most pleasurable rites of spring celebrated in the Lowcountry each year occurs at the Sand Dollar Social Club on Folly Beach when the Krushtones take the stage for their annual April gig.  

[Cue country preacher]: We’re talking glorification, brothers and sisters, talking bout light!

Krush-tones: (krùsh– tõns)  n. a band that features high-Watt[s] drumming; a bodacious bottom; a searing, eloquent guitar; and  a latter day Jerry Lee Lewis on keyboards.   

Joyous!  

I swear, even if they were a mediocre band, the Krushtones’ taste is so exquisite I’d pay to hear the song sets. Al Green/ Talking Heads, the Beatles, Stones, Chuck Berry.  But mediocre they ain’t.  They exude this palatable vibe of happiness that spreads in concentric circles as if a pearl has been dropped into a pool of sound.  

Make you want to dance and holler hallelujah!

The Sand Dollar itself is difficult to categorize.  As a private social club, it offers all of the exclusiveness of a subway station.  One dollar secures you a year’s membership, but you can’t actually enter the club until 24 hours after your card has been issued.  A typical Friday and Saturday night offers free live music, canned beer for a buck, and and an eclectic clientele that, depending on the vibe the night you happen to be there, ranges from Felliniesque to Lynchian.  

Bikers comprise a large contingent of the revelers, parking their Harleys (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a BMW) perilously close together out front like a chorus line of internally combustive Rockettes.  I dread the day some reeling rummy trips and sets them crashing domino style one after the other. Years ago, before the bikers arrived, I had parked my VW minibus just in front of the designated space.  When JB and I left for home, I was horrified to see at least twenty Harleys lined up about six inches from my back bumper and another car looming about a foot from my front bumper.  Luckily, the fellow pictured below, a regular, helped me successfully to negotiate the scores of gear shifts, wheel turns, and progressions/reversals that liberated me from that straitened space.

Joining the bikers as a discernible group are the long-in-the-tooth dead-end hedonists, who can be subdivided into old hippies and old shaggers.  These sybarites, who hated each other in high school  (the former letting their freak flag[s] fly, the latter sliding sockless feet into their Bass Weejuns) have mellowed over the years and appreciate each other in their shared ethos of self-medication and the never ending but increasingly difficult quest of getting laid.                

A calico combination of others rounds out the squad – attractive, young preppies; South of Broad slummers; working folk shooting pool; the occasional bombastic prophet-of-doom blogger. 

Lynchian vis-a-vis Felliniesque 

What’s the distinction, you may wonder, between these two cinematic adjectives denoting surrealism?  

Although baroque, Fellini’s surrealism tends towards the comic/satiric.  His Satyricon, for example, counterbalances sensuous  shots with grotesque images of Late Empire overindulgence.  Carnivalesque might be an appropriate approximation. 

Lynch’s surrealism is darker, a world of evil where the hideous co-mingle with grotesquely bland clichés of Americana, a la the image of above, where the sinister red-clad midget sits beside someone who looks like he may be employed as a hardware store clerk in a Norman Rockwell painting or the son of the couple depicted in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.  Kafkalite-ish.

If I had to choose between the hellish dilemma of spending eternity in a Fellini film or a Lynch film, I’d definitely opt for the former.  Underneath all of the grotesqueness of Fellini lies a positive procreative impulse. Take “The Widow of Ephesus” segment of The Satyricon, for example, where  a woman who has decided to starve herself in her husband’s tomb is seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses.  

Now that’s what I call pro life.

Lynch, on the other hand, is anti-life.  Not that his films aren’t hugely enjoyable and laugh- out-loud funny.  Nevertheless, like the parents in Eraserhead, procreation begets monstrosity.  You don’t want to bring a child into David Lynch’s world.

In short, a Felliniesque evening at the Sand Dollar is more pleasurable Lynchian evening, 

Friday, 9 April 2010 

I’m not making this up.  During the Krushtones’ first set, I witnessed the departure of one of Charleston’s wealthiest septuagenarians and his seeing-eye trophy wife.  She, a blonde, a head taller and thirty years younger, held his hand mommy-like as she led him through the throng.  As they were leaving, three female dwarves dressed to the nines flowed past them and took their place at the corner of the stage.  I repeat, I’m not making this up.

Lynchian or Felliniesque?

If Johnny Mac had been playing that night, a man deeply in love with the sound of his own guitar, or Jeannie Wiggins, thumping serviceable rock to her adoring groupies, the karma might have darkened the brain chemistry that ultimately determines the existential nature of my world.  However, with the Krushtones on stage, beaming, jumping, singing “Lady Madonna,”  the positive vibration was infectious.  Even the stern-faced bouncer who looks like the promotional US Marine of recruitment commercials cracked a smile.

Too bad the Krushtones were too young to play at Altamont.

You, T.S. Eliot

Ronald William Fordham Searle: Sick and Dying: Cholera, Tarso Camp, 15 September 1943, Two Months After Illness. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/24373

Note: Words in bold provide passageways to complete texts alluded to in the poem, which was also influenced by the John Prine song “Hello, in There.” By clicking on the audio file at the very bottom of the post, you can listen to the song in its entirety. 

a reading of the poem

You, TS Eliot[1]

Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

TS Eliot, “Gerontion

He died alone in a hospice house
Hallucinating for a day and a half,
Surrounded by a swirl of phantoms,
A misremembrance of things past.

His funeral, too, was poorly attended,
Empty pews here and there,
The eulogy, merely perfunctory.
No one shed a single tear.

Too long a life ¬– calamitous.
No fun being one-hundred-and-one,
Outliving every single peer,
His wife, his daughter, and his son.


[1] The title echoes Archibald MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell,” a very different type of meditation on death. 

“Hello in There” John Prine

The Philistines Are Coming! The Philistines Are Coming!

“At pettiness that plays so rough”

Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)”

an illustration from Farhenheit 451

Man, oh man – or should I say, woman, oh woman – the culture wars are heating up bigtime in this fractured nation of ours. 

For example, in Virginia, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved has become an issue in the governor’s race. Last Monday, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin ran an ad featuring a conservative mother complaining that the novel gave her son, a senior at the time, nightmares.

As a former chair of an English Department, I’m not unfamiliar with over-protective parents shoving their noses into reading curricula. In fact, I faced a very similar complaint about Margaret Atwood’s The Hand Maid’s Tale, that reading the novel had depressed another high school senior, in this case a star of the football team.

Here’s an excerpt from an email I wrote to the parent.

I think that it is understandable that you are concerned that students, after so much sorrow last year, might react negatively to the novel.  However, given that the ending of The Hand Maid’s Tale offers a more upbeat conclusion than that of the 8th and 9th grade summer books, Of Mice and Men and 1984 respectively, I am confident that rising seniors will be ultimately encouraged by the novel rather than depressed by it. After all, some less-sheltered eighteen-year-olds might very well encounter the real thing in war-torn Afghanistan if they enlist in the armed services.

Come on, if high school seniors are so delicate that they can’t vicariously deal with fictive unpleasantness, perhaps we should consider sending them to military school in Tunisia to toughen them up a bit. 

Meanwhile, over in Texas, state legislator Matt Krause has compiled a list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

Titles include John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Matt Krause reading from Ezra Pound’s “Canto XIV,” “The stench of wet coal, politicians . . .”

On the plus side, I see an opportunity for authors who gaze at the human condition through rose-tinted glasses to crank out novels that, rather than challenging students to confront our history or to experience the travails of others, provide them with the stress-free experience of having their narrow world views celebrated.

Humbly, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, I offer this excerpt from a novel in progress:


Yippee-Ki-Yay

Chapter One: Awakening (in which our hero greets a brand new, God-given day)

Like two tightly strung window shades, Justin Odessa’s eyes popped open precisely at 6:29 a.m. 

Blinking, he retrieved his phone, fully charged, from his bedside table and disengaged the alarm, which had been set for 6:35. Now he had six or so minutes to lie quietly and think about the upcoming morning, which featured a school bus ride, a history and AP chemistry test, and a chance to interact with Margo, his current infatuation. 

How fortunate, he mused, to live in the greatest country the world had ever known, the land of the free and home of the brave, a nation where anyone could succeed if they just worked hard and did what they were supposed to do. And what he was supposed to do was to get up, walk to the bathroom, take a shower, brush his teeth, run a comb through his tawny hair, and get dressed, which he did. 

Already from downstairs he could smell the pancakes and bacon his stay-at-home mom was preparing in the kitchen whose bay window looked out over the plain where pioneer ancestors had traveled via cover wagons and created a true civilization based on cattle breeding, oil extraction, and the Word of God Almighty.

Clad in his school uniform – a purple polo shirt emblazoned with the Midland Senior High Bulldog and a pair of khakis – he greeted his aproned mom with a cherry good-morning, and her glittery smile proclaimed the benefits of rigorous dental hygiene as her teeth fairly sparkled in the October morning sun that streamed into a bright kitchen and illuminated metallic appliances that shone like mica.

As he ate his breakfast, Justin glanced at the sports page and saw that his beloved Astros had triumphed over the Atlanta Braves, the way that civilized Europeans had triumphed over the savage Indians, which reminded him that he should glance over his history notes during the twenty-minute bus to school. He had spent most of his weekend studying chemistry, which he found challenging. Nevertheless, he had been brought up not to shy away from challenges, but to confront them head on.

Once he had cleaned his plate, he bussed the dishes to the sink, rinsed them off, and arranged them in the dishwasher. 

“Bye, Mom,” he said, grabbing his bookbag, which had been packed the night before and hung on the pegs next to the door.

“Bye-Bye, sweetie. Good luck on your tests today.”

“I’m ready, I think.”

“Of course, you are,” she said, drying her hands on her apron. “Dad and I are so proud of you!”

So out the side door he went and over to the road to wait on the bus where nothing stressful at all would occur because people in Midlands, Texas, are brought up right. 


Anyway, I’ll end with another excerpt from my letter:

It is a legitimate question to ask why so much of modern literature is so negative.  After all, looking towards Hollywood, one rarely ever encounters an unhappy ending.  However, unlike most movies, great literature provides students with a realistic portrait of the world and endows them with the vicarious experience that comes with experiencing the struggles, triumphs, and, yes, defeats of its characters.  For example, Hamlet – about as tragic a work of literature you’ll ever encounter – provides a realistic picture of the mourning of a fallen father, a mother’s obscenely hasty remarriage a month after her husband’s death, the dissolution of an adolescent love affair, and about as many corpses as will fit onto a stage.  Yet, when we finish reading (or seeing) the play, we’re not depressed but can share in the nobility of a person’s battle against “a sea of troubles” and say with Hamlet “what a piece of a work is man, how noble in reason.”  Moreover, we can perhaps learn from Hamlet’s mistakes.  They have become a part of our experience because Hamlet to us is a fellow human being.

The Uncertainty of Setting Forth

Jean-Paul Sartre

Allow me to wax metaphysical for a moment.  Life doesn’t begin at conception (the sperm and ova are alive after all) but began 3.5 billion years ago.  Life is a continuum through which beings may or may not replicate their DNA.  Randomness, not God, is the determinate in the clusterfucked process known as evolution – mutative, extinction-plagued, indifferent.

My grand transition from the birth-cave to the here-and-[not now]-now[1] occurred on a rare snowy day in Dorchester County, SC, on 14 December 1952, a leap year, an election year.  Thanks to my paternal grandmother’s terminal cancer, Clemson class-cutter meets student nurse, they elope, eschew contraception, and B-I-N-G-O!

In other words, I owe my existence to a 40-year-old woman’s terminal cancer.  If she had lived to a ripe old age, my father wouldn’t have met my mother.  He would have mated with someone else and produced a different Wesley Lee-Edward Moore III, and my mother, no doubt, would have produced other children with different surnames.  Rather than sitting here flailing away at the keyboard, the matter that constitutes me would be distributed elsewhere, and the not-I-and-I would be as oblivious to the Orwellian chicanery of Trumpworld as it was to Oliver Cromwell’s right-wing Interregnum, as oblivious to tonight’s World Series Game 5 as it was to Shoeless Joe Jackson’s stellar .375 batting average in the 1919 Black Sox series.

My not being would merely be a matter of indifference.   

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

                    WB Yeats “Among School Children”

the author with 68 winters on its head

[1] That phrase, by the way, should be sung aloud to the tune of “Papa Oom Mow Mow.”

Darkness

Bosch

Since Halloween is the day after tomorrow and tonight I’m headed to a costume party dressed up as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, a practitioner of voodoo, I thought I’d darken your day (or night) with some musings on the concept of evil.

Frankly, in my philosophical musings, I’ve avoided the origin of evil.  I’ve read a bit of Augustine, a bit of Hume, but the left side of my brain leaves much to be desired; it is a virtual empty lot where tumbleweed tumbles and winds of distraction drown out the lecturer who argues in soporific sentences like these:

From [the idea that nature is not as good as its creator] there follows that there is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good.  A good that wholly lacks an evil aspect is totally good.  Where there is some evil in a thing, its good is defective or defectible (sic).  Thus, there can be no evil where there is no good. This leads us to a surprising conclusion: that, since every being, in so far as it is a being, is good, if we can say a defective thing is bad, it would seem to mean that we are saying that what is evil is good, that only what is good is ever evil and that there is no evil apart from something good.

                                                        Augustine: Enchiridion

Illustration by Wesley Moore: “The worlds revolve like ancient women,/ Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”

Like I said, my analytical skills leave much to be desired, but Augustine’s argument that evil is a privation of good (thus letting God off the hook for evil’s existence) strikes me as whistling past the boneyard.

Hume ain’t buying it:

The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!

                                                             Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Ignoring the incredibly complicated question of why a morally perfect Deity would allow evil into his creation, the Hebrew myth of Lucifer’s Fall does a pretty damned[1] good job of capturing evil’s innate human cause – pride and territorial dominance.  

In a sense, we can attribute the Fall to a kinghell[2] case of sibling rivalry, Lucifer’s jealousy of Yahweh’s power (or in the Miltonic version, the creation of Jesus as favorite son).  Of course, that other pillar of Western Civilization, the Hellenic, also has much to say about the evils of hubris, the harmatia of many an ancient tragic hero and contemporary public servant.

Oedipus

If we’re to accept Hume’s bleak assessment (finished in 1776, eighty-three years before Darwin published Origen of Species), then perhaps a peek at our maimed and abortive cousins chimpanzees might shed some light.   

Territory and sex seem to be the two main motives for chimpanzee murders.  Clara Moskowitz is a little easer reading than Augustine or Hume:

“The take-home is clear and simple,” said researcher John Mitani of the University of Michigan. “Chimpanzees kill each other. They kill their neighbors. Up until now, we have not known why. Our observations indicate that they do so to expand their territories at the expense of their victims.”

Sex is also a motive, especially in infanticide.  Further down the chain, langur monkeys, like their more sophisticated chimpanzee cousins, also engage in infanticide:

If the alpha langur is not successful [in defending his place in the pecking order], the young males then take over the troop, and systemically and brutally kill infant langurs, smashing them against the trees, crushing their skulls, until all infants are dead.

The young female langurs in the troop remain unhurt, as they are the love object of the young males.

The young males then begin to seat themselves at the head of their own helm, to take many females who will then bear offspring only to them.

Biologically, it is important for the band of marauding young males to to kill the infants, because the infants are preventing the females from bearing new young.

The females are suckling the infants, and by so doing, are incapable of having new infants.

                                                         Kathryn Esplin “Why Do Chimpanzee Murder

We share ~ 98.7% of our DNA with chimps, interestingly enough, the same percentage we share with bonobos, who are less studied than chimps.  They and chimps were at one time the same species, but after the Congo River formed, they separated into two distinct species, chimps organizing along patriarchal lines and bonobos along matriarchal lines.  

Can you guess which species relieves its tension through sex and which through violence?

So I say we let Eve and Pandora off the hook. What do Charles Whitman (University of Texas August 1966), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech 2007), and Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook December 2012) have in common?

Y chromosomes, a sense of entitlement, thin skin, territorial insecurity, and pride.

Happy Halloween!

Dr. John, the Night Tripper

[1] Forgive the execrable pun, loves.

[2] I’m on a roll.