Monday, March 28, 2011

Review of "Julian" by Gore Vidal

For the longest time I thought Gore Vidal was this weird character-actor who always played dignified guys with excellent diction. I also knew that he had written the screenplay for "Myra Breckenridge", which appeared in a book called "The 50 Worst Movies of All Time" (Vidal has apparently disowned it). Imagine my surprise when, a few years ago, I discovered that his movie career is actually secondary, and that he is a novelist foremost. He has written an impressive number of historical novels, one of which is "Julian", the life-story of Julian the Apostate (331-363 A.D.), a Roman Philosopher-Emperor who tried to fight Christianity and revive the worship of the Hellenic gods during his short reign.

It begins with a correspondence between two philosophers, Priscus and Libanius, during the reign of Theodosius I, many years after Julian's death. Together, the two conspire to publish Julian's secret memoir. Priscus sells the memoir to Libanius with some notes. Libanius writes on the manuscript as well, seething that Priscus keeps withholding sections of the memoir and asking for more money. Thus Julian's life work is interrupted constantly by the two philosophers as they berate each other, discuss morality and offer differing accounts of the history.

"Julian", amongst other things, is a criticism of the effects of power. From the moment his uncle Constantius murders his father from paranoia, Julian is abused by the Roman state with all its bureaucracy, intrigue and fear. In his secret dreams of power, he wishes to be Emperor and do things differently. As he first tastes power as Caesar of the West, he is energetic, destroys pointless ceremony and thwarts the powerful. But as his day as Emperor dawns, despite his philosophic training and morals, he finds himself miscarrying justice and making concessions to powerful men. Corruption leaks in: where Constantius had his decadent eunuchs leeching money and resources from the state, Julian has a cadre of dubious Hellenic priests and magicians making their fortunes from his rule. Paranoia begins to haunt him, just as it did his uncle. As one reads, one begins to ask, despite obvious religious differences, if Julian's reign would have been similar to his uncle's if he had ruled longer.

More than anything, "Julian" is a lament for the vanished Hellenic world. The main characters of the novel are all pagans. As Julian follows his quest to restore the old gods, everywhere he is confronted with omens that his efforts are too late. The old classical world is vanishing, replaced by a new, ugly world. As the pagans lament the shortness of Julian's reign and the fall of old Rome, the reader is struck with further significance of which the characters are unaware: that in little over a century, Rome itself will collapse under the weight of barbarian invasions and its own corruption.

"Julian" has also been called a critique of Christianity. I'm not sure that's exactly the case. Whatever Gore Vidal's thoughts on Christianity are, and I bet they are not that friendly, the anti-Christian sentiments of this novel are the time's own. The main characters, being pagan, are hostile. The criticisms levelled at Christianity are merely echoes of Porphyry, Libanius, Julian's known published works, and other neoplatonists. Is this really criticism or is it just journalistic retelling?

Despite definitions of what "it is", the anti-Christian sentiments seem to have stirred me up. Without a doubt, this novel was the impetus for my writing "My Damn-Fool Search for Religion" post - a post that seems to have lost my blog some readership, by the way. The hypocritical, sleazy and maddening origins of the early Church are examined: the contradictions in the Bible, the corruption of the Bishops, and the exportation of pagan rituals and gods as sacraments and saints. But the book also features what has to be the stupidest religious nightmare of all time: what is the Holy Trinity Made of? For those of you who are unaware of this debate in which hundreds of thousands of human lives were lost, what do you think? Are The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit made from the same substance or are they made from different substances, are they different people or are they made from the same substance but they're different somehow? Be careful how you answer, because 1500 years ago, your life would be in jeopardy.

So far, I haven't touched on the structure, dialogue or story of the novel. That's because, as far as I'm concerned, it's perfect. The story is thrilling. The characters are brilliant and products of their time, not 20th-Century-people slapped into an antique setting. Every detail is slavishly researched. If I ever write a book this thoughtful and excellent in every way, I would die a happy man. I give it my highest rating possible and recommend it as required reading for anybody with a brain and a thirst for knowledge.
5 arbitrary arrests out of 5

As a side note, this is something I have always wondered. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, here's the background. Rome was an awesome place with awesome art. Then it got divided in half between east and west. The western half fell to barbarians, beginning what is known as the Dark Ages, when art, literature and intellectual thought were in a primitive state. The eastern half of the empire lived on for 1000 years as the Byzantine Empire.

To give you an example of how crappy the Dark Ages were, let's look at some coins:

Here's a solidus of Julian the Apostate from 360, before the Dark Ages. The profile is of good quality and striking. Obviously, somebody of artistic skill crafted it. The tails side isn't so great, but you can tell what's going on. There's a guy with a captive or body held in submission.

Here's a coin of Marcian, who became Emperor in 450, ninety years after Julian. Under his reign, Rome was sacked by the Vandals, which officially marks the end of the West. The bust is looking a little more cartoonlike for sure. But what the hell is that thing on the right supposed to be? According to Wikipedia, it's Victory. Victory is looking a little shabby, kinda like Rome itself was.

Here's Zeno, who had a reasonably long reign at the end of the 400's. Oh dear. Zeno himself looks like he was rendered by a talented six-year-old. Victory looks like a fallen angel with droopy wings. Did contemporary Romans have any sense of irony about this like we do?

Poor Emperor Maurice and his family ended up headless and floating in the Sea of Marmara in 602. Perhaps he was beheaded by his usurper, Phocas, who saw this coin and figured Maurcie was so ugly he had to die. Victory is at her most abstract yet. Any more abstract and she would be a crayon drawing of a head with legs and feet sticking out of it.

Things were worse in the Western half of the Empire, where they stopped making coins altogether. Germans were running around whacking the heads and penises off of statues. Then they all retired to Africa and had a big laugh.

So here's my question. What was the Byzantine Empire's excuse for having sucky art? The West was overrun by barbarians. They have a good reason for entering the Dark Ages. But what was going on in the East? Constantinople was never sacked by barbarians. Why is there such a shocking and lasting decline in the quality of their craftsmanship?

If "Julian" is to be believed, the ascendancy of Christianity caused it. At the time of Libanius and Priscus, the Christians were just closing down all the Hellenic schools. There are constant references to the new style of "ugly" art. Could it really be that the Christians had their own abstract and austere style of art that they favoured over the photorealistic tradition of the Greeks? Did Christians cause the Dark Ages just as surely as rampaging Germanic tribes?

I suspect the truth is not so clear-cut. But on the other hand, maybe it is. I won't know until I spend a little more time reading the history. I have all sorts of vile anti-Christian words dripping from my fingers right now, so maybe it's best to stop this post now before I lose more readers.

Maybe I'll read a nice book about Jesus next. I have to get rid of some of this Christ-anger. Maybe I'll read Ben-Hur. Incidentally, Gore Vidal wrote the original screenplay for the 1958 movie Ben-Hur. Just goes to show you that Gore Vidal has affected our lives beyond reckoning. He might just be watching you right now...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I, Mister Stay-at-Home Dad

It has been a little over a week since my wife went back to work and I officially became Mister Stay-at-home Dad. This situation has produced several career challenges and family difficulties. However, the family's got to eat and Suzi and I have agreed that this is the best thing to do.

Firstly, I want to make it absolutely clear that this wasn't my first choice. Kara is nearly three months old and I think that she should be with her mom. I offered to go apply to shite-jobs in Rosetown many times so that I could be the manly provider and Suzi could be the stay-at-home mom. But she wouldn't let me do it. She believes in my talent as a writer and she thinks that I will be miserable at 7-11.

When she first told me this, I felt relief, flattered, fearful and distressed. But it makes sense. Her new job is well-paying. 7-11 isn't, and it's true that rejoining the workforce in an unskilled job would be a crushing blow to the old ego. Now I just have to succeed at my writing career and make her sacrifice - being separated from her little girl too soon - worthwhile.

So here I am with this little human in my lap. I have to balance her needs with Suzi's first and foremost. Then I have to somehow find time to write. I also have to find time to exercise, because damn, I'm getting bloated. I have to keep our house tolerably clean. And then I have to take care of myself somewhere in there too. I'm tired all the time because I rarely get a full night of sleep. I have no idea how I'm going to manage this.

Despite appearances and attitudes, I am no stranger to hard work. A mere six years ago, I worked as a production assistant on the movie "Just Friends". It was ten to fourteen hour days on my feet. It was physical work and it was frequently unbearably cold and thankless. But those two months were some of my happiest days. Every night when I laid my head on the pillow, I knew I had done a good job and slept easily.

So that's not much different from my present situation, right? Not exactly. The paycheque in my name was a real motivator. Also, I could be assured of a good night's sleep with Just Friends.

While I struggle and juggle tasks at home, Suzi pines for her baby and pumps her boobs to keep the milk flowing. She comes home more exhausted then I do. It will be interesting to see how our situation works. Will we get used to it? Or will something become intolerable enough that we have to change it?

Much depends on Kara. I look eagerly forward to her first time sleeping through the night. I will equally relish the day she picks up toys and stops relying on me to keep herself entertained.

This situation may not be ideal. Ideally, I'd be independently wealthy, nobody would have to take a nine-to-five job and we could both spend our days raising Kara. Or I'd be one of those hard-working guys with a well-paying job in a trade so I could be the big man. But I'm not either. All I have is a musical education, a difficult-to-realize dream of living as a writer and a baby in my lap.

Oh, and love. I love my generous and hardworking wife. I love my little, brilliant daughter. That is more than enough to sustain me as I navigate my new role in the world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Damn-Fool Search for Religion

I was raised an atheist. Then one day when I was fifteen, my kitten died in the dryer. It seemed unfair to me that such a tiny, loving creature would die meaninglessly. Thus began my quiet quest for divinity.

I began very cautiously. I was already aware that organized religion was repellent to me. One only needs to learn about a single crusade to discover that there is a down-side to large groups of grouchy people who think everybody else should think the same way.

It was when I was playing the last movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony in the Saskatoon Symphony's viola section that I was touched with the divine. Call it a chemical reaction in my brain if you must. But it started as a tingle that spread from my shoulders and filled me with euphoria. I felt something tug my consciousness upward. I soared even as my body played tremelo in place. It was fucking amazing.

While my search for the divine had been based completely in wishful thinking up to this point, I finally had some sort of indication. It was a physiological reaction of some sort. But I was unclear as to whether it was caused by Jesus, Mithras, a chemical reaction or midichlorians. (It was several years later that I learned of the existence of midichlorians from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. My midichlorian count is unusually high, you know). Whatever this feeling was, it was caused by music.

I decided to do some actual scholarly investigation on the world's religions to see what everybody had to say on the subject. Fruitlessly did I learn, fruitlessly did I wander. Did you know that the holy books and traditions of all the world's major religions are chock-full of useless information, contradictions and commandments now irrelevant to modern life? It's all "don't cut the hair above your ears" and Jesus getting mad at fig trees and this or that makes you unclean and "women, don't you contradict your husbands" and "Allah hates it when you hitch your camel like that, you know" and "when you die there's nothing: hurray!" and "when you die you float up to the top of the universe's skull and bounce around" and "welcome to heaven: here's your virgins".

I know what some of you are thinking. Organized religion has good aspects, it teaches morals, it has community and charity. Much of the music I was listening to after university had religious lyrical content which made me yearn for a religious community all my own. This is exactly what I was pondering when a girlfriend of mine invited me to Catholic services at Saint Thomas More chapel at the University of Saskatchewan. With some trepidation, I accepted.

Well, Saint Thomas More was everything I hoped it would be. It had (and has) a community of intelligent, enthusiastic worshipers. It has thought-provoking sermons. It has music and solemn traditions.

I desperately wanted to be a Catholic then. But I could not. Here's why:
1. The Old Testament is senseless and insane.
2. The New Testament was written from decades to over a hundred years after Jesus died. His lessons were preserved (mostly) through oral tradition, which is like a decade-long game of telephone in which Jesus preached something like "be nice to everybody" and we heard "purple-monkey dishwasher". Then several hundred years later, a bunch of people Jesus never met picked through everything and removed anything they didn't like.
3. Even assuming everything Jesus said was accurately recorded in the Bible, the Catholic Church is a huge, bloated, worldly organization which has amassed immense wealth, all the while espousing the beliefs of a homeless guy who asked us to live poor.
4. A two-second glance at the history of the Catholic Church - with its crusades, antipopes, illegitimate children, schisms, wars of conquest, child abuse cover-ups and Nazi lovin' popes - confirms that it would be an agent of pure evil if it were not alloyed with hypocrisy.
5. As Christianity spread throughout the world in its infancy, it appropriated all sorts of unwholesome gods and traditions from pagans and turned them into saints and holidays. Old-Testament God does not approve.
6. Saint Thomas More chapel's worshipers are not actually Catholic. I could have gone through that crowd and asked people if they thought contraception was evil and homosexuality is a sin. The answers I would have gotten, from the priests included, would vary significantly from what the Pope thinks. You get different answers from Catholics in Scandinavia, Africa or South America. Back in the day, this was called Heresy. But now it's called, "believe whatever you want as long as you give us money on Sunday."
7. And most of all, the Mystery of Faith is anti-intellectual. How does Jesus' blood banish original sin? The answer is: nobody knows, don't think about it. Shut off your mind and accept it.

I apologize if I have upset any readers. I strongly considered going back and deleting that last section. It's mean. But they are my reasons for not being a Catholic. By listing them, I don't mean to challenge your faith or convert you. It's not about you.

They almost won me, those Catholics. When I list my complaints, it is with deep anger from betrayal. Their community enchanted me and made me forget that Catholicism is a teetering tower built on a delusion, built on a sham, built on a lie with a solid foundation of myth. Somewhere under that dark tower is buried truth, but to unearth it would topple the whole structure.

I pick on Catholics, but honestly every religion I've investigated is guilty. Where people congregate and organize, power appears. Power is the great corrupter and turns any religious bastion into a fountain of wickedness that spews lies and guilt into the world.

As I again found myself metaphysically adrift in a leaky boat of my own devising, a simple phrase illuminated my dark world like a lighthouse. "King Kong died for your Sins". It's from a document called the Principia Discordia, one of the holy books of Discordianism, a poorly-known religion created in the 1950s based on worship of the Greek goddess Eris, appropriated as a goddess of change and chaos. It has been called either a joke masquerading as a religion or a religion masquerading as a joke.

Remember: KING KONG died for your Sins. It was the first phrase I read from Principia Discordia and it made me laugh out loud. As such, it is the only sentence from a religious tract that has motivated me to do anything. Honestly, I was never able to get my head around what Jesus dying has to do with original sin, so honestly, King Kong makes about as much sense. The Principia Discordia contains many such laughs and a philosophy that made me think seriously about the role of chaos and discord in my life. It doesn't ask me to do anything I don't want to do.

Though I had first read it a decade earlier, I began to seriously think about Discordianism as my religion. Eris-worship does not ask me to surrender my mind, does not ask me to speak to her through a priest who leeches money from me, does not make me feel bad about myself and helps me accept change when it occurs in my life. I decided to investigate further.

I joined an online Discordian forum in 2006, expecting to have philosophical discussions with good-natured and inquiring fellows such as myself. What I discovered appalled me. Even on this simple website which should have been fun incarnate, rigid power structures existed. The most avid users had formed a clique and expected new users to undergo a hazing ritual. Rather than engage me philosophical discussion, the clique argued with me using name-calling and concluded their posts with pornographic images that they supposed were funny.

I'm sure that from their perspective, their antics were hilarious. But to me, they were cruel and snobby. The lesson I've learned from all this is that I will never find a community of people to share my worship. Even Discordians, when they congregate, become insular and intolerant. It doesn't matter if your religious organization operates from St. Peter's square, a single mosque or even an insignificant internet forum. Power crystalizes like a kidney stone, halts divine flow in the holy urinary tract and causes significant pain.

It's been five years since I learned this hard lesson. Now I have but one simple religious observance. As commanded in the Discordian Pentabarf, I partake of no hot dog buns. But every Friday at the Cook household is now Hot Dog Day, when I joyously partake of a hot dog as also commanded by the Pentabarf. By doing so, I remonstrate against Judaism and Islam (no Pork), Hindus (no beef), Catholics, (no meat on Friday), Buddhists (no meat of animals) and Discordians (no hot dog buns). But if I miss Hot Dog Day, it's no big deal. As a self-declared Discordian Pope, I can completely rework the Discordian church as I see fit. While I don't necessarily believe there's a crazy lady named Eris running the show, I am at least satisfied that if she exists she's not mad at me for doubting her.

And here's the point in all of this. The Divine is not something reserved for certain places or persons. As individuals, I believe we all have the power to commune with the Divine, whatever you believe it is. We need not go anywhere or ask permission from anybody, we need not consult a priest or give money to anybody, we need not worry about what the community thinks. If you think something holy is out there, you need only pick up a pen, a paintbrush, a musical instrument, or simply clear your throat or head. While there is nothing wrong with discussing religion with others to discover your truth, I say to you that those who ask you to surrender your will, your intellect or your money to them on God's behalf are scoundrels. You can be your own church.

For those of you interested in not taking religion so goddamned seriously all the time, there are a number of religions other than Discordianism available for investigation. Check out Zen, for instance. It's classic. Christianity is to Judaisim as The Church of the SubGenius is to Discordianism: it's not exactly to my taste, but sequels are usually worse than the original. And of course, whenever fundamentalist Christians attempt to impose creationism on the public school system, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster also desires its due.

Remember, religion is supposed to make you happy, right? As humans, we are never as happy as when we are laughing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review of "Insomnia" by Stephen King

Insomnia is a novel by Stephen King, one of many. King is one of the most successful novelists in history. He is maligned as a "popular writer" by literature-jerks. Yet despite their efforts, his books sell and sell and sell and get adapted for the screen and sell some more.

I also malign him, but for different reasons. I always enjoy the beginnings of his novels. I always get an inspired hope that this is going to be a great book. Then, suddenly, he drops the writerly ball. Either the scary thing turns out to be a dumb idea or the book wanders and meanders. His endings can be mindblowingly bad.

And yet I still keep reading. As each story ends, I emerge from it like a starved World War One soldier from a trench, my mind scarred and traumatized, the words "Never Again" wheezing from my quivering lips. But then I pick up another one, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this book will be everything the beginning promises.

Why do I keep doing this to myself? Because his prose is great. His dialogue is great. His setups are great. When he does it right, his monsters are frightening in unique ways. He is creepy like no other writer.

Okay. I got distracted there. This is supposed to be a review of Insomnia, not an anti-Stephen King rant. Insomnia is fantastically written, filled with superb dialogue. His protagonist, Ralph, is a wonderful character: old fashioned and quietly masculine in a way that begs the reader's sympathy. The suspense is wonderful. However, the supernatural world into which Ralph ascends isn't scary, nor really that interesting to me.
3 references to The Dark Tower and It out of 5

You know what else bugs me about Stephen King? I get the sense that he's making it up as he goes along. Yes, all writers do this. I could just have my head up my ass on this one, but I detect that he dislikes thinking about story structure, so he doesn't do it. He thinks of cool ideas, imagines awesome ways to get them rolling and then he starts writing without knowing how it's going to end. It would certainly explain why he rambles and his endings often lack lustre.

Also, he's a successful writer and I'm not. How dare he?