“No I.D.”

by Sam Buntz

The now deceased poetess, Adrienne Rich, once wrote a poem entitled “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last as a Sexual Message.” While possessing some rhetorical ability, the poem is a deeply repulsive piece of nastiness—yet, it represents a certain attitude on the far-far-far-left that I’ve discussed before to some extent, and one on which I’d like to expand. (For the record, I consider myself a moderate liberal—though a pretty disengaged and dispassionate one, admittedly). Rich’s poem revels in a fellow human’s disability, namely deafness—reminiscent of a Fascist railing against the weak and disabled, but from the other side of the ideological spectrum, praising the pain inflicted by nature on a white, rich, talented, German male. Ms. Rich delights in the supposed fact that the Ninth Symphony is the music of “a man in terror of impotence or infertility, not knowing the difference…the beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table.”

This is, for one thing, a moronic interpretation of music that expresses the very opposite of impotence—supreme creative triumph and joy in life, the surmounting of all trials to finally say, “Yes”. More importantly, listening to Beethoven’s music entirely (or even mostly) as the product of a supposedly impotent or infertile, white, German man is beyond ridiculous. It’s like being entirely hung up on the fact that Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life was written, sung, and performed by a black guy, and keeping that at the forefront of your mind the entire time you listen to the album. Doing this would be truly racist, in my view—it’s better to approach all music, from The Beatles to Prince to Aretha Franklin to Mozart to Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Joni Mitchell to Kanye West—with the same carefree, calm joy we take in any aesthetic splendor. Don’t dig (or not dig) the skin tone or the genitals—dig the music, because, otherwise, why are you even listening to it? Obviously, being hung up on an artist’s various identity labels is not a very healthy method for appreciating any creative work, be it one by a black, white, green, or blue person—it’s (what else can you call it?) a diseased, paranoid, and resentful way of engaging with art, not to mention with life.

But the consciousness that creates is distinct from race—its racial, sexual, and class background exists as something of which it is conscious, something that conditions how it is conscious, but not something that it is. Anyone who rejects this view, who believes ethnicity and sexuality are super-essential, seems to me to be arguing that Hitler and all the other far-right purveyors of hate in human history were basically right, but were simply on the opposing team—that there really is such a thing as essentially “Jewish” art or essentially “Aryan” art, and that nothing is allowed to just be “Art.” Obviously, this isn’t to deny that there are rich distinctions in the diverse styles and art-forms produced by all cultures, affluent and impoverished, black and white and beige, or to deny that we should be really grateful for that diversity, or to defend the way that privilege has benefited so many rich white males above others throughout history. Rather, it’s an argument against getting stuck merely at that hyper-superficial level of interpretation, making racial and sexual conflict the lens through which everything is perceived. If there were no underlying humanity or soul in art, then all African and Asian music would be incomprehensible to Americans—it would just be a bunch of incoherent squawks and buzzes. But that so totally isn’t the case—music easily crosses borders because of this underlying soul, which generates everything that we humans have ever created, though cloaked in a million disguises that both reveal and conceal it.

Quite frequently, we’re not locked in these different conflicts, we’re just existing—and these assorted identities become more like trappings and trimmings, not the real Identity.   Adrienne Rich was never able to understand this—she confused what William Blake called the “sexual garments” (and the racial garments) with the soul.   (Blake was able to imagine an afterlife in which white and black people would no longer exist—they would only exist as souls free from time and space, free from “white cloud” and “black cloud”, as he put it.) Rich’s like-minded cohorts are just as confused as she was, even more so in certain cases. Rather than living life with a profound yea-saying—like Blake or Whitman or Prince—people who engage in this kind of identity politics frequently fall into a form of cultured hate, hating anyone racially or sexually associated with historically more powerful classes (regardless of whether the specific individuals in question actually were rich or poor or prospered or did not prosper while living under those classes) and pretending not to be haters by couching their arguments in jargon. Rich typically did this, but her poem on Beethoven allows her hate to emerge fairly distinctly.

Of course, I’m not saying that white men are a persecuted minority or anything stupid like that—clearly not, a thousand times! But I have noticed a strong tendency in the left-wing websites I read to nearly always interpret art through the prism of racial and sexual conflict. I’m not trying to make any sort of profound point—I’m just saying that this kind of ideology doesn’t fit with our experience, doesn’t jive with how most of us engage with art. You need to keep that ancient American imperative—which is also a universal and cosmic imperative—in mind: you gotta have soul.

“Head Pats”

by Sam Buntz

It’s kind of funny that the strategy employed by schoolyard bullies, cult-leaders, and Vladimir Putin-type guys toward their respective cronies is essentially the same: striking the right balance between patting said cronies on the head and ignoring them.  You’ve got to make them work for the head-pat… but you can’t withhold the head-pat for too long.  You need to constantly keep in mind which crony is ripe for a head-pat, and whose turn it is to squirm in the shadow of your icy indifference.  This simply has to be exhausting for everyone involved, especially considering that the goal of most of these cronies is to eventually be the guy dishing out head-pats.  You have to do your time, cycling through the world of head-pats and no-head-pats, a process which is most likely to last until you die, unless you become head head-patter.

But in the meantime, you’ll have plenty of sub-cronies below you on whom to deal out practice-head-pats, while these sub-cronies busily linger about, intent on gaining more power for themselves while handing out selective head-pats to their sub-sub-cronies…  Again, it sounds exhausting. Like Franz Kafka said, it’s possible that Alexander the Great could’ve looked out over his future domain, and just stood still, letting the weight of his body get the better of him.  That sounds so much easier, so much simpler.  It’s surprising it doesn’t happen to more politicians.

I remember one of my teachers said that it strikes us as having inherently more dignity to be a tyrant than to be a slob—but, personally, I’d go with being a slob, if those were my only choices.  Bluto Blutarksy needs to trump Stalin, ethically at least, in addition to having a better time.  For that matter, I think I better understand politicians who seek power in the same way that other people seek money and fame—say, for the purpose of filling a swimming pool with Jello and inviting super-models over, or getting Kanye West to play at their birthday parties.

That makes sense—that’s the kind of thing that Silvio Berlusconi did, or that Bill Clinton or Jack Kennedy did.  It remains within the realm of comprehensible human activity.  But to seize and pursue power purely for the purpose of wielding it—of dealing out more and more head-pats, and more and more carefully cold silences—seems to me monstrous.

The rewards of seizing Crimea (or, to be fair, Iraq)—despite what rationalizations the leaders may offer—are ultimately pretty tasteless, scent-less, invisible, inaudible and intangible.  Monetary rewards may accrue for certain businesses and industries, but they might as well have gained them in any number of peaceful ways—the real motive lies in the leaders’ attitudes to power.  The true purpose of such invasions and excursions is simply to expand the field in which such calculated head-pats can be administered and refused.

When Alexander the Great went to meet the philosopher Diogenes—who lived in a barrel—Alexander asked him if he (Alex) could do anything for him, given his sorry and destitute state.  Perhaps sensing that this might be but the first head-pat of many, Diogenes cleverly cut off the possibility, saying, “Yes, you’re standing in the sun.  Get out of the way!”  Fortunately, Alexander thought this was funny, and left Diogenes alone… I wonder if there is, somewhere, a Ukrainian Diogenes who might level the same reply at Vladimir Putin?  After all, it may be the only honest response anyone can make to an advancing head-patter.  It saves both one’s head and one’s dignity.

 

“Confessions of a Square”

 by Sam Buntz

 I’ve been calling myself a liberal for awhile, but “conservative” is actually probably a better label for my inner nature—despite my strong liberalism on most social issues (particularly LGBTQ Rights) and, I guess, on some economic issues too (I have no real knowledge about economics).  Yet, the innermost sanctuary of my Self was constructed in a very definite shape: Square. (Maybe the fact that I still use the term “square” is itself strong evidence of this?)  I’m a conservative in a sort of mental and emotional character-based way, as opposed to a political way, and also insofar as I strongly resent the implication many collegiate liberals make, that you need to get really into leather or open-relationships if you ultimately want to help “The Cause.” 

Of course, I support medical marijuana and a goodly amount of decriminalization, but I have no interest in drugs (except for the caffeine included in Irish Breakfast Tea), absolutely no interest in going to crazy street fairs where they sell lots of whips and things, am heterosexual and fundamentally monogamous in a possibly boring way, and used to wear a lot of lame sweaters, in addition to being preoccupied with some fairly stodgy religious concerns (they may get mystical, but are decidedly not freaky).  Even though I’m not an Episcopalian or Presbyterian (or even an orthodox Christian of any acknowledged variety), I believe most people would be better off if they were.   

Also, this isn’t inherently conservative, but I really dislike loud bars—in a manner rather akin to that of the unsavory crowd of bow-tie wearing Young Republican weirdoes, who sit around smoking gigantic pipes and wishing it was the British Raj or whatever (which I don’t do), I regularly fantasize about a nice quiet pub with no music, where you can just sit down, and have a nice boring conversation about PBS documentaries (though that last part sounds pretty liberal, indeed).  Apparently, there’s a novelty bar in Brooklyn based on this concept—so maybe liberals are actually more into it, in the end. 

And, again, to re-iterate: I don’t believe in free love—love should be in chains, thanks.  But not literal chains—again, that’s starting to sound like more ultra-liberal S&M talk.  Also, in the final analysis, I really strongly disapprove of the Academic Reds who think you can substitute Allen Ginsberg for Shakespeare and magically levitate the Pentagon with nude, Shamanic rituals and all that kind of stuff.

Basically, what makes me so secretly conservative, is that, at the end of the day, I believe you need to buy into an idea of order.  You can’t live your life gleefully making confetti out of other people’s graph paper, wallowing around in your own personal chaos—you’re supposed to do that in your head, not in the actual world.  The tramp-Kerouac persona is utterly distasteful to all right-thinking people—and people who adopt it for more than their first two years of college are probably hitch-hiking serial killers.  As far as being a Square goes, having four sides really grants you a good, even abundant amount of personality—if you start to have too many sides, being excessively open-minded about opium pipes shaped like hobbits and the collected poetic works of Maya Angelou, your character morphs under the conflicting pressures of an unwieldy emotional and mental promiscuity.  And that starts to look like having no sides, which, in Nature, is best conveyed by the appearance of that particular form of matter we call “slush”. 

“I Was a Teenage Beer Keg”

by Sam Buntz

Well, only twice, actually—I was a teenage beer keg first, I think, during Homecoming, and then once during a hockey game in the winter.  If this statement sounds confusing, it’s because I’m needlessly making it sound that way, to generate suspense:  the college I went to (*cough* *cough* Dartmouth College *cough* *cough* Ivy League *cough*) had and, as far as I know, still has an unofficial mascot, an anthropomorphic beer keg named “Keggy,” who would show up at sporting events and on other festive occasions.  Being a member of the humor magazine, which was responsible for creating and maintaining Keggy, I played him on two separate occasions during my freshman year.  (Complete clarity now dawns on the reader as the title begins to make sense.)

Being inside the beer costume felt pretty uncomfortable—an experience probably not at all equivalent to being one of those Viet Cong couriers who would crawl through networks of tiny tunnels, but why not daringly make the comparison?   Since the costume was literally a trash can that had been repainted, it lacked any padding for the skull—in fact, without some sort of intervening layer of matter, you wouldn’t be able to see out of the costume’s mouth-hole, which would be at shoulder level while your head hit the top of the can.

However, a very clever mechanism had been devised to prevent this from happening, probably best described as “a block of wood wrapped in a sweatshirt.”  (And since the sweatshirt would inevitably fall off at some point during the night, it would really just be a block of wood resting against your cranium.)  You wore the old metal framework of a hiking backpack, with the wood block and sweatshirt attached to it, sticking out above your head, while a helpful pair of people—as equally deluded as yourself—slipped the actual “keg” over your head and torso.  You also wore white plastic “Mickey Mouse” gloves, shorts, and green nylons.

(I’m not sure if that paints a very vivid picture—if it reads like Hemingway describing shooting a hippo, or whatever other animals he was into killing.  That’s what I was aiming for, anyway.  But given that no sane person would ever demand a very vivid picture of this beer-keg-costume’s internal apparatus, I guess it’s best not to worry.)

But, wait—we’re plunging heedlessly into technical matters, before we’ve even touched on the bigger, more profound questions.  I’m thinking principally of “Why?”—a one word query which could be extended into this non-truncated form: “Why would you ever dress up like an anthropomorphic beer keg? Particularly given the high level of discomfort involved, as you yourself just described?”

The anthropomorphic beer keg, as I understand it, is supposed to be knowing and ironic.  It’s a self-conscious parody of Dartmouth College’s reputation for being a school full of debauched frat-boy alcoholics—a post-modern gesture, if you will, which deconstructs the very fundaments of… (Sorry—I lost interest in that explanation as I was making it.)

A friend of mine claims that the real reason for dressing up in the Keggy costume is that it’s a way of escaping the knowledge of our impending mortality by diving into a wholly absurd, pretend universe where death is impossible, and where engaging in carefree nonsense is the only possible existential response.   But, to be fair, he says that about everything.

So, why did I dress up like a beer keg at the tender age of 19, and parade around the College Green and the Hockey Arena—shepherded by other humor magazine people, since I could only see about four feet in front of me?

Dude, I have no idea.  I was, like, 19.  Maybe I did it so I could write some sort of blog post about it or whatever, six years later…  Who knows?

“1001 Floors”

by Sam Buntz

Right now, there’s a book lying around my family’s apartment entitled 1001 Floors.  If I had to describe the book, I would say that, essentially, it is a guide to floors.  It makes sense that my parents have this book, because they’re moving into a new house, and at least one of the rooms is going to require a new floor—it’s not like they’re looking at it recreationally or something.  However, speaking for myself, I think that a lot of horror stories would be much more effective if, instead of having the main character enter a chamber and confront an ancient evil, the main character entered a chamber while the door snapped shut and locked behind him, sealing him inside, alone with a copy of 1001 Floors.

Interestingly enough, the magical, indeed talismanic associations of the number “1001” are probably partly derived from The Thousand and One Nights (which is the same thing as The Arabian Nights, in case you don’t know anything), a book in which newlywed princesses are casually murdered by a psychopathic sultan, and genies and evil viziers wreak havoc at will.  But, despite these violent overtones, the purpose of the book is, basically, to evoke a sense of wonder—or, in Arabic, ajaib.  Perhaps this was also the goal of the authors and editors of 1001 Floors—hence, their allusion to the classic Arabic folktale collection I have just described.

Back during Pre-Islamic times in ancient Arabia, saying that there was “one thousand and one” of something was (probably) the equivalent of saying that there was an infinity of the item in question.  Intentionally or not, “one thousand and one floors” also happens to sound very much like “infinite floors.”  The book itself isn’t very thick, so maybe part of the magic or ajaib of the thing is that that many floors can be crammed into so small a space—a miracle of compressed plentitude, like Jesus multiplying fish and loaves.

Of course, it’s not that hard to give someone a fairly comprehensive idea of what a floor looks like—all you really need to show someone is a square, with the floor’s pattern printed on it.  So, theoretically at least, one thousand and one floors could all be presented with a fair degree of scope in two hundred pages or less.

I think that 1001 Floors so obsesses me—like Lady Macbeth agitatedly trying to wipe the blood off her hands, or Edgar Allan Poe’s madman distracted by the ticking of the tell-tale heart—because it provides a striking vantage point from which one can observe the lone and level sands of adulthood: the joys of shopping for door hinges at Home Depot and Lowe’s and the rest.  The inescapable finite, material contingencies of the world are most brutally demonstrated by such practically helpful and necessary works as 1001 Floors.  It’s why I prefer to limit my own material concerns to the microwaveable and the off-brand buyable.  The labyrinth of life contains enough twists and turns, without needing to face-off with the Minotaur of too-much-style-and-design, who will not hesitate to impale us on his horns and drink our blood.

“The Broken Cup: Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s ‘I Want You’”

by Sam Buntz

“I Want You” is a frequent choice for both the avid and casual Dylan fan’s favorite— and rightly so.  Leading Dylanologist and lauded literary critic Christopher Ricks says it’s his, for one thing.  Yet, it’s also easy to get caught up in the perfection and catchiness of the song—it’s sheer likeability—and interpret it as being thematically little more than a love song or, more accurately, a song about sexual desire.  It is, of course, about that—but if we look at the images Dylan uses in the song, we start to sense deeper implications.

We start off, afloat in a sea of troubles, where “the guilty undertaker sighs” and “the lonesome organ grinder cries.”  The singer faces a problem: he really wants this girl, but time and tide seem to be against him.  “The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it’s not that way / I wasn’t born to lose you.”  Why are the bells “cracked” and the horns “washed out”?   As in the late ’80s Dylan track, “Everything is Broken,” the ages have worn them down—it seems too late in the day, too deep in the jaded decades of the mid-to-late 20th Century, to have an authentic love-connection or mighty, passionate desire for someone else.  Yet, Dylan snubs time—he wasn’t born to get overwhelmed by the way history’s heading, because he knows what he really wants.

What he really wants is explained directly in the chorus: “I want you…so bad.”  In the next verse, however, we’re back in the sea of troubles again, where drunken politicians oppress the people and fool them—the fact that mothers are weeping in response to this might very well indicate that their sons have died in Vietnam or in any other misguided war effort.  But the next lines, I think, are some of the most interesting in the entire song—though they can easily zoom by without the listener suspecting anything.  Dylan sings, “And the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you / And I wait for them to interrupt / Me drinking from my broken cup / And ask me to open up the gate for you.”

I sincerely hope you don’t find this theory too crazy—because I’m rather proud of it, and the images and metaphors, to my mind, seem direct enough.  Dylan isn’t just talking about a girl now—or, he is and he isn’t.  At any rate, I think he’s almost certainly using the language of Jewish longing for the Messiah to express his passion… Yeah, that’s right.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is believed that there are, in every generation, thirty-six righteous people on earth, called Lamedvavniks in Yiddish. Throughout World Jewry, people are pretty commonly aware of this, so it’s not unlikely that Dylan had, by the time he was recording Blonde on Blonde, absorbed the idea. The Lamedvavniks go about their lives performing acts of goodness, though they themselves have no idea who they are—they’re hidden, from the world and from themselves. Their goal is to repair the world, which Jewish mysticism imagines as being like a glass that God intended to hold his Light, before it shattered with the Fall of Adam.  The Lamedvavnik’s existence consists in picking up the pieces of this glass, and putting it together.

As I interpret the song, Dylan—like Matisyahu singing in the Hasidic-rap classic, “King without a Crown”, “I want Moshiach, now!”—is saying that he wants this girl as bad as some people want the Messiah to come back.  It will be that big of a revelation for him—though maybe, in another sense, he really is saying that he wants the Messiah to come back.  The ambiguity helps make the song more powerful…

At any rate, the saviors who are sleeping are all the Lamedvavniks of all the ages—to be revealed to themselves and to everyone else when the Messiah brings about the “World to Come”—and the broken cup from which the singer is drinking is our yet unrepaired world, which he continues to enjoy despite its fractured state.  But the saviors—these perfectly righteous people—are going to remind the singer of what’s truly valuable.  He’ll put down his cup, and by performing one good deed, one mitzvot or another, he’ll help open up the gate for the Messiah—or, at least, get with this girl he’s after.

In the bridge and the next verse, Dylan talks about lacking love and counterfeit love.  His forefathers went without “true love” in the past, and their daughters today chide the singer for not thinking more about it.  This is almost comprehensible if it’s just about how much he desires this girl he’s after, without it being true love, but it makes more sense if you interpret it, again, through Judaism: in the past, so many of Dylan’s ancestors went without their love or longing for the Messiah being reciprocated by God, and the good Jewish girls in the present era are chiding him for not taking this all more seriously—which he perhaps somehow feels he should do, although he isn’t doing it yet.  I’m not saying this is the only way of interpreting the song—again, it’s my personal theory.  But it makes sense, considering the particular Jewish cultural associations of the images and metaphors Dylan chooses (especially with the saviors and the broken cup).

After talking about how the chambermaid of the Queen of Spades is good to him, and knows a lot about him, he says that it doesn’t matter—because he has this more authentic desire for another woman, whoever she may be.  In the final verse—which could easily be dismissed as classic Dylanesque nonsense, although it isn’t—he sings, “Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit / He spoke to me, I took his flute / No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I? / But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I . . . want you.”

The dancing child is a false prophet or false Messiah or, simply, an inferior poet and songwriter.  Whatever he is, he’s wasting the girl’s time, drawing her in with insincerity and un-truth, and—in a higher sense—seducing and monopolizing the attention of the world-at-large.  He’s every slick operator who digests other people’s attention without giving them anything real in return, and his suit is Chinese because it might look nice, but it was made for cheap and is likely of a lower quality than it appears to be (certainly no offense to the Chinese intended on my part—this is simply what Dylan’s metaphor, in a perhaps un-P.C. manner, indicates).

So, the singer smashes the phony’s flute, and replaces this impostor’s music with a more genuine song—this song, in fact, entitled “I Want You”.  The tune of the “dancing child”—this immature winker-and-nudger—is one with the voice of the cracked bells at the beginning, since time seemed to be on their side too: it’s the voice of cynicism, the voice of personal and societal corrosion and, ultimately, despair.  But the singer’s ardent desire overrides all this—fate, time, history, the entire package–and all because he wants this unnamed girl, so bad.

“Incantations”

by Sam Buntz

I’m starting to wonder if the way people—particularly teenagers— communicate signals a particularly odd twist of the historical spiral.  If you look at your Facebook profile, or check out Snapchat or Vine, you might suspect that people in the Western World, and large parts of the Eastern World, aren’t really communicating with each other through purely written or spoken language to the degree that they once did—captioned pictures, memes, videos, comics, and other mixed visual-verbal forms of communication seem much more common than they’ve ever been in informal correspondence.

It’s almost like a new form of hieroglyphics—language that is also pictorial.  Interestingly enough, this lines up with the predictions of the 18th Century Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico:  Vico saw civilization as going through three distinct phases, followed by a period of chaos and confusion, after which it proceeded through the same phases again.  These big cultural and social phases also coincided with changes in the way language is used.

In the initial stages of civilization—in places like ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, Vedic India, and, really, everywhere else, regardless of the level of material “development”—people believed that language was magically powerful.  People thought that their scriptures and myths—whether in the Vedas of India, the Hebrew Bible, the texts of Greek mythology, or in any number of oral traditions—didn’t only communicate truths about the divine, but had a direct mystical relationship to those truths.  To a surprising extent, I think we can see this practice evident even today, in Orthodox Jews who bind pieces of scripture to their bodies, Sufi Muslims who create charms from Koranic passages, certain Buddhists who believe they can attain good karma simply by flipping through a Sutra without reading it, and in American forms of Evangelical Protestantism, where the Bible isn’t just a book about God, but a source for experiencing His presence directly.

Yet, it isn’t just the magical attitude (a cocky Marxist would say the “fetishistic” attitude) to scriptures that characterizes this early period.  The people who actually wrote or spoke the scriptures—whether prophets or inspired poets like the Homeric singers of Greece or the bards of Celtic countries and pre-Islamic Arabia—were believed not to speak and write with their own imaginations, but with the voices of good spirits, evil spirits, gods, or—in the case of Hebrew prophets, and later the Prophet Muhammad—God Himself (as the reader no doubt knows).  Language, at its highest cultural levels, wasn’t just a tool for speaking about reality—it was a way of channeling higher realities or creating new realities through magic. It didn’t just describe reality: it helped determine reality.  Hence the exceedingly high positions assigned to poets and prophets in so many ancient courts.

One can see this in certain Vedic incantations, which, for example, attempt to call the “yellow” quality out of a patient suffering from jaundice, ordering the color yellow back into the naturally yellow things that populate nature—yellow birds and mangos and so on.  When, in the Hebrew Bible, God gives Adam the responsibility of naming the animals, and when, in the Koran, God actually teaches Adam the true names of all the animals, similar assumptions about the power of language are at play.  God isn’t just giving Adam a way of describing the natural world—he’s giving him the tools to control it, and to a certain extent, to reveal its deeper nature.  This was true for spoken language as well as written language—of which, William Blake wrote, “[God] in Sinai’s awful cave / To Man the wondrous art of writing gave.”  Vico calls this era’s language “hieroglyphic”, because of its ancient magical associations, but also because of its ability to summon realities directly, as in the images presented by hieroglyphic writing.

But, according to Vico, language gradually metamorphosed to new uses.  By the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was more a way of communicating truths about reality, than in calling forth or creating new realities (although the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance had plenty of magicians and would-be prophets).  In this time period, language still had a transcendental meaning and function—it couldn’t create reality, but it could turn the reader’s attention to Powers lurking beyond the merely material world.

Yet, in the next twist of time—around the 17th and 18th Centuries—language became increasingly “demotic” in its usage, meaning that it served to describe physical realities that were already present somewhere “out there”.  Anything that went beyond this rather scientific task could be safely filed in the realm of fantasy.  As Northrop Frye has observed, this is really the way language was used historically most of the time anyway—in doing ancient banking transactions and writing receipts and so forth.  It simply hadn’t been the preferred cultural usage of language in the highest spheres of power and education until recently.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t already forded through Vico’s period of linguistic chaos and are beginning again in a new, yet very different, “hieroglyphic” era.  The ancient way of using language has long been present in the underground, and has even, perhaps, been embraced by the majority of the world’s populace—there are tons of religious people who, today, still assign this kind of magical power to words (as evidenced by the examples given earlier).  Since Vico believed that his cycle was recurring, is it possible we are entering a new period where language isn’t just descriptive, but has the power to make and unmake reality in a more literal sense?  The fact that we pour so much writing  and speech into creating visual products—movies, videogames, tv shows, youtube videos, posts on Vine, whatever—indicates that language might be returning to its incantatory function, its ability to seed and grow new realities—or, as the case may be, virtual realities.

It’s easy to get hyped up about this and view it either as a symptom of cultural degradation and barbarism, or of some sort of impending technological singularity where we’ll all be immersed in a perpetual flow of helpful and benevolent information, merging with our machines in cybernetic bliss.  I mean to suggest neither of those hysterical alternatives, only to observe the change that seems to be occurring—and to suggest its relation to Vico’s theories.  Whether these alterations in the use of language end up being creative or just contribute to the endless amount of white noise with which we’re continually bombarded is, of course, up to us.

Rather than predicting that the chips fall squarely on one side or the other, I expect people will use these new forms of language in both creative and utterly wasteful ways.  Perhaps contributing to the static will be the more common and obvious route… but when have things ever been all that different?  This is my prediction, neither wholly optimistic nor particularly pessimistic: serious reading and writing need to survive, and will survive, because without them, the Culture of the Screen goes bankrupt, and the mixed visual-verbal form of communicating collapses too.

All these virtual realities would have their seams pulled free, with no written design underpinning them.  Special effects and flashing lights and gunning down pedestrians in a videogame can only hold people’s attention for so long—they won’t in themselves suffice (at least, they won’t suffice for some people).  I don’t believe they’ll totally crowd out the other, more creative uses of language, and the writer and poet’s midnight candle will still burn—bright or dim as the season bids it.  The Word will continually re-assert itself, mastering territory that once seemed to have been ceded to Chaos.  But we can’t yet predict what artistic forms it will assume in accomplishing its task…