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On the coast they put up a few ramshackle huts
and slept uneasily. This, they claim, in the Riachuelo,
but that is a story dreamed up in Boca.
It was really a city block in my district – Palermo**.
Jose Luis Borges – The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires
Nothing is true or false until it is properly enstoried.
It can be handy to think of our hemisphere as three distinct ethnospheres; Euro-America consists of most of the US and Canada, and the Southern Cone of South America, which were relatively empty (or quickly emptied) and where the indigenous peoples were displaced by populations from Europe. Afro-America consists of the Caribbean basin, some parts of the old Confederacy in the United States, and the northern parts of Brazil, where the same vacuum was filled by slaves imported from Africa. Finally, Chthonic America consists of the heartlands of the old native American high cultures of Meso-America and the Andes, where the indigenous inhabitants were not eliminated so much as creolized, and where the underlying thought patterns are still very much Inca, or Maya, or Toltec.
The mythopoetic process, the digestion of Chthonic America, I believe, can be found in what is called the literature of “magical realism”, about which I know little, but at whose fountain I have tasted sweet waters and want to learn more. Miguel Angel Asturias, of Guatemala, whose master-work Men of Corn I have yet to read but the portions which I have read burn like lava.
Along the same line, the mythopoetic impulse in Euro-America, I believe, can be found in what I like to call “visionary realism”, except that the seminal works are not fiction, but non-fiction. Let me explain.
About 15 years ago, before moving to Miami, Florida, I read a book by a remarkable woman, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The River Of Glass. Yesterday, I began another book by an equally remarkable woman, Mary Hunter Austin, The Land Of Little Rain. These two books are so similar they almost appear to have been written by the same mind. Certainly, they partake of the same spirit.
Both books were written by women of powerful character who, despite being early feminists and agitators for “women’s rights”, kept their husbands’ names. Both of them endured a rocky and tempestuous marriage that ended in divorce. Neither of them was native to the place she wrote about; Mrs. Douglas grew up in Minnesota, but moved to South Florida in 1915, and she lived there until 1998. Mrs. Austin moved to the Mojave Desert in 1890 and remained there for the next 17 years.
Mrs. Douglas wrote about the Florida Everglades, and Mrs. Austin about the Inyo valley on the leeward of the Sierra Nevada range, and both of their masterpieces share a common structure. Both begin with the geography and the flora of the region, then they discuss animal and bird life, noting peculiarities caused by the singular environments, overly wet in the case of the Everglades and overly arid in the case of the Inyo valley.
After this, they describe in considerable detail and with great sympathy the lives and customs of Native Americans that lived, and continue to live, in these areas. Only after all of this are the stories of white settlers introduced. At first they are the stories of solitary, furtive men, miners or trappers, who wander into the region hoping to find some kind of quick economic salvation from a region that at first sight has very little to offer.
Only towards the end of the books are the stories of “smart men” introduced, well-connected men, who can systematically exploit the scarce resources of the region efficiently. This then draws the region into the larger American narrative, dominated by a nearby large city; Miami in the case of the Everglades and Los Angeles in the case of the Inyo valley.
I think I would call the writing style of both The Everglades: River of Grass and The Land Of Little Rain “visionary non-fiction”. Think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek or Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams, both of which have been recommended to me and both of which I have tried to start. It is possible that I have an antipathy to Dillard and Lopez in the same way that I have an antipathy to the very derivative Tolkien imitators that so abound these days.
This visionary realism may just be the essential Euro-American way of mythopoesis. It attempts to “get inside” a place, to show how the contours and characteristics of the land work their way into the consciousness of its settlers, and how the consciousness of the human agents affects the land. Both River of Grass and Land Of Little Rain are spiritual histories of a particular place, at the margin of the easily habitable and easily “developed” parts of the country. Yet they are far from tedious.
Both Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Austin accept a responsibility for their respective territory that leave you feeling as though they had become, through their artistry, almost a familiar spirit or a guiding genius. Mrs. Douglas, in particular, living in South Florida until her 108th year, was continually referred to in the press as a spokeswoman “for the Everglades”, or for “the cause of Everglades conservation”, whereas, truth be told, she felt every unnecessary subdivision and short-sighted, self-serving political decision impacting her beloved River of Grass as a personal affront. I heard that she didn’t die a happy woman.
It may very well be that the project for the Church for the next millenium will be to drop the Imperial Church one-size-fits-all fantasy and begin to develop what Father Stephen Freeman refers to as Orthodoxy Where You Live, what I would like to call the Orthodoxy of Right Here, Right Now, and what Mark Thomas Hoyer calls, following Mrs. Austin, Local Christianities.
To be certain, embracing sectarianism is not the idea. Each square inch of ground has to have a tutelary spirit, a guiding ideology. I want it to be Orthodoxy, the Faith Once Delivered, but it may very well be that an Orthodoxy lived out and developed in a particular place wouldn’t “work” 50 miles down the road.
Maybe we need to find out.
Watching the recent movie War, Inc. I saw another example of a cinematic cliché which, as far as I can tell by extensive Googling, I am the only film fan who has ever noticed. Now, if I am the only film fan who is aware of a cinematic cliché, can it possibly be a cliché? Since it appears I have few, but loyal readers, I will let you all be the judges of this.
I call the cliché “the paralyzed totalitarian”. I have seen him now in four movies. In Terry Gillam’s Brazil, Sam’s father’s colleague (and Sam’s mother’s lover?) Helpmann has enormous power, orders Sam to be tortured, but is confined to a wheelchair.
Also wheelchair-bound is José Lewgoy as the warden of the prison in which are being detained William Hurt and Raul Julia in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Together with the secret policeman, he cunningly positions the homosexual Molina to weave his way into the confidences of the suspicious political prisoner Arregui, yet he is incapable of any independent motion and is dependent on an attendant for everything.
In the recent War, Inc., Walken, the “viceroy” of sad Turaqistan, which has been the object of yet another American preemptive invasion, wields enormous power from his wheelchair, and the very earliest movie I in which have ever seen this “paralyzed totalitarian” figure is Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece Napoleon, in which Marat, Robespierre, and Louis St. Just plot together to eliminate enough Frenchmen to usher in the new day of la Republique juste et belle. The actor portraying the arch-Jacobin St. Just fidgets about in his little wooden wheelchair nervously planning the death of thousands and misery for uncounted others.
The image sticks with me, I believe, because it portrays those of a totalitarian cast of mind as victims of their own machinations. In gathering more and more power to themselves, they lose that which make them human, becoming in their turn as powerless as their victims.
One of the emotional objections I had to Calvinism as a system was that I always had a niggling in the back of my mind that the system would eventually eliminate the freedom of God. If man were not free, then I couldn’t see how God could possibly be free. Some great awful necessity, some dreadful immutable ἀνάγκη, whether internal to God or external to Him, would demand the damnation of men.
I know there are a thousand qualifications I would have to make, and I take a great risk in mentioning this. After all, the Christian blogosphere is about 94% Calvinists of disputatious temperament. I hope my obscurity saves me.
Borges says it better than I:
Lejos de la ciudad, lejos del foro
clamoroso y del tiempo, que es mudanza,
Edwards, eterno ya, sueña y avanza
a la sombra de árboles de oro.
Hoy es mañana y es ayer. No hay una
cosa de Dios en el sereno ambiente
que no le exalte misteriosamente,
el oro de la tarde o de la luna.
Piensa feliz que el mundo es un eterno
instrumento de ira y que el ansiado
cielo para unos pocos fue creado
y casi para todos el infierno.
En el centro puntual de la maraña
hay otro prisionero, Dios, la Araña
“Far from the city, from the clamorous forum and outside of Time, which is Change, Edwards, now eternal, dreams and walks forward under the golden trees.
Today is tomorrow and is yesterday, and in the serenity there is nothing of God which does not mysteriously exalt Him, the gold of the afternoon, or of the moon.
He meditates happily upon the world as an eternal instrument of wrath, and that the anticipated heavens were created for a very few,
and Hell for nearly everybody, and that at the absolute center of the maze waits another prisoner, the Spider, God.”
By the way, the movies are all good. War, Inc. is the weakest of them, maybe a C+. Brazil is a B+. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a solid A, and Napoleon is one of the best movies ever produced.
It has been interesting to see the turmoil occasioned in what remains of the once-vibrant Christian blogosphere by self-proclaimed “post-evangelical” Internet Monk Mike Spencer a couple of weeks ago (ancient history in the BS) when he proclaimed the inevitability of the Coming Evangelical Collapse in a three-shot salvo over the bow of the Good Ship Evangel. The first post alone garnered 192 responses.
Now, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t resent the fact that an identical prophecy on my own blog went completely unremarked upon. But, Michael has been blogging far longer than I have, and he irritates more people in a week that I will probably ever be able to do in a lifetime. He is too Librul/Catlick for half of his readership and too Fundy/iggerant for the other half, which if you know anything about Chesterton, means that he’s right where he needs to be.
He offers a lot of reasons for the impending implosion in Evangelical belief, most of which are The Usual Suspects; the Babylonian Captivity of the Evangelical Church in RonnieReaganLand, Disney-fication, theological superficiality, but I loved his final conclusion.
Evangelicalism is going to run out of money. In these straightened times, nobody is going to throw good money into a dying enterprise.
Now, that’s good as far as it goes, but a week after finishing his tirade and disturbing the peace of just about every practicing Christian on the Internet, he featured an interview with a former Evangelical journalist who, in my opinion, nailed it down.
It’s sex, pure and simple.
The disconnect between Evangelical (and Catholic, and Orthodox) teachings on sex and the sexual behavior of young people in Evangelical (and Catholic, and Orthodox) churches has become so wide and so unbridgeable that it has come to the place where young people are going to have to choose between the Church and the possibility of ever having sex. Not surprisingly, the majority of them are going to be opting for sex.
Now, follow me here, as I outline the change in the sexual constitution of American society as it has changed over the last fifty years. There are three versions of the sexual constitution I would like to investigate – The Old Double Standard, the Interim Compromise, and the New Double Standard.
The Traditional Double Standard was very much in place during my adolescence, despite the swingin’ sixties rhetoric that innundated the movies and television at that time. It was still very much the job of a man to compromise a woman’s virtue as it was the job of women to preserve it. Most of the weddings announced in my little Midwestern town, a bastion of Christendom in probably the most Protestant area of the country, were the result of an impending unexpected arrival, and nobody was surprised. At the time the unspoken rule for women was, if you let him sleep with you, he better at least be on the road to matrimony. For men the unspoken rule was, if you get her pregnant, you do the right thing and marry her.
What was revolutionary about the Sexual Revolution was not that it gave men permission to be promiscuous. Men always had permission from the larger society to be promiscuous. Giving permission to be promiscuous to women, which is what was truly revolutionary about the Sexual Revolution, had some unintended consequences.
If you give a man permission to sleep around, he wants to sleep with every woman he meets. If you give a woman permission to sleep around, she wants to sleep with the same man all the other women want. Some men unashamedly begin to gather harems. For the less shameless, serial monogamy becomes the order of the day, and no one considered it unusual for one man to commandeer the reproductive capacity of more than one woman.
So, the Sexual Revolution actually resulted in less sex, and less quality sex, for the poor chump at the bottom of the Darwinian pecking order than the old Double Standard. At least under the old constitution, everyone roughly paired off at their own level. Now, the idea was that the poor, boring stable guy had to wait until his future wife was through making the rounds before settling into domesticity.
The Interim Compromise, which was in place from about the mid seventies until just recently, meant that young people were to “get promiscuity out of their system” in their twenties and thirties, then marry. You see it all the time in dating columns; young men complaining that women their age are only attracted to “edgy, exciting men”, overlooking the traditional sober and sensible (read: boring) potential mate. Young women, on the other hand, complain constantly that it is nearly impossible to keep their man from cheating, that other women are “hitting on him constantly”. The conventional wisdom given to the young men that the steady, boring guy should wait until the girl “comes to her senses” and learns to appreciate his sterling qualities over the more exciting, superficial guys she is attracted to now while she is “young”.
The trouble is, it usually the case that the superficial, exciting guys get tired of the now-not-so- young woman before she has any epiphanies about the desirability of boring, everyday, faithful men. So she grabs herself a pack-animal while she still can. I wonder how much of evangelical church membership is comprised of these “born-again” ex-virgins and their to-some-degree reluctant mates.
But the Interim Compromise is breaking down. As internet porn and the glorification of slut-culture lock young women into an “arms race” for the gutter in an attempt to snare the flagging attention of the most desirable young men, other young men are walking away from the prospect of marriage and family altogether.
I read an eloquent explanation of this on the Internet on a website that appears to have disappeared. You can read it here. Just page through the remarks until you find the excerpt from “Hook-Up Culture: Why There Is No Longer Someone For Everyone“.
The new Double Standard exalts female promiscuity, even outright whorishness, as “being in charge of her sexuality” , while excoriating men who do the same as being “Peter Pans” who are “afraid of commitment”. Add to this a hostile political atmosphere where women have every advantage in an increasingly aggressive “divorce industry”, and it becomes apparent why men are becoming more and more reluctant to step up to the plate.
I’m not going to buy into the old Evangelical mantra; “That’s the way the worldlings act. They don’t know any better.” I would be more likely to believe if there was a nickel’s worth of difference between the behavior of unchurched kids and the kids in Evangelical (or Catholic, or Orthodox) churches.
At this point in the game, voluntary chastity , especially for young women, seems more and more likely to become permanent celibacy, and that’s why the churches are going to empty like a high school keg party when the state police show up.
I’m sorry, this post kind of got away from me. My prescription for fixing this is surprisingly not the resurrection of female chastity but of male virtue, (from the Latin vir, viris – maeaning a male; same root as virile) but that for another time.
My son had a history assignment to take photos of a historical site. Most of his colleagues had chosen something closer by, but I decided to hijack him and take him to the site of the Andersonville prison, where 43,000 Union soldiers, among them my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather, were held captive during the American Civil War. 17,000 of these soldiers died while incarcerated under conditions so severe that they rivaled those of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or the Soviet Gulag
The site was about 26 acres in size, and completely devoid of any sign of the prison that had once held tens of thousands of prisoners of war on this tiny plot of Georgia soil. There were a few small reconstruction at the extreme north end of the field, and near the spot where the gate was located, but everything else was gone, just the open field with the sluggish gate stream still flowing through it, at one time the only source of water for all those sick, starving men.
Viewing the prison site from the vantage point of the Confederate commander’s post, I was meditating on the vast amount of human suffering that had transpired on this poor piece of ground, that of my ancestor mixed in amongst it. I felt moved, made the sign of the Cross over that empty field, and offered a brief prayer, asking the Lord to have mercy upon any souls who after 145 years, may have been bound to that area still by resentment and desire for revenge.
As soon as I finished, my son tugged at my sleeve. “Look up there, Dad!” He pointed to the sky. Above the field of the prison, an immature bald eagle was flying. We watched as he circled the field, then flew into the sun.
I remarked about this to one of the park workers. He confirmed to me that there was a family of bald eagles in the woods surrounding the park site. “They don’t come out very often, but they’re in there,” he said.