The Wind of Idiocy

by Sam Buntz

Blood on the Tracks is probably Bob Dylan’s most popular album. You don’t need to be up for Rimbaud-style strangeness to appreciate it, and you can find its songs of heartbreak immediately affecting. It’s the most widely-appealing because you’re able to know “what it is” with relative ease, which wouldn’t be true for, say, Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, albums that trade heavily in the cryptic (not that Blood on the Tracks is lacking in cryptic moments, of course; “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is one solid 8 minute and 52 second crux). At any rate, it’s susceptible to definition. Basically, it’s a break-up album.

Four tracks in, we find “Idiot Wind,” clocking at 7 minutes and 47 seconds, making it the second-longest track (after “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” obviously). Like most of the songs on Blood on the Tracks, it seems to bear a definite relation to Dylan’s impending divorce from Sara Dylan, the goddess-muse presiding over his work from Blonde on Blonde onwards. Whereas tunes like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” are melancholy and tender lamentations, “Idiot Wind” is one of Dylan’s greatest, caustic kiss-offs: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” So far, so clear, but the title itself presents us with a puzzling poetic image (not that wind really has an “image”). What is specifically wind-like about idiocy and the means by which it is spread?

It’s not only a force that’s ruining his relationship with Sara, probably the most important relationship in his life, both artistically and literally speaking, but one responsible for broader societal and cultural dysfunction. The track’s actual music is uplifting, as soaring organs and up-tempo drums provide an ironic contrast with the biting lyrics, indicting the malign effects of this “idiot wind.” Insidious tabloid rumors and persecutions become emblematic of its effects: “They say I shot a man named Gray / And took his wife to Italy / She laid hands on a million bucks / And when she died, it came to me / I can’t help it if I’m lucky… / People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act / Their minds are filled with big ideas / Images, and distorted facts.” The idiot wind blows through the collective mind, wilting and corrupting it, the intellect perishing, flowers withering as they make contact with this poison breath. It’s not the “breath of life,” but its opposite, a wind conducive to senility and decay, and hence to death.

The symbol isn’t unique to Dylan. Seth Rogovoy locates its origins in The Talmud (Jewish Tradition being a perpetual source of inspiration for Dylan), where Rabbi Reysh Lakish says, “No one commits a sin unless the wind of idiocy (ruach shtus) enters him.” (Seth Rogovoy. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. New York: Scribner, 2012. 167). But we can go back even farther, and analyze the Biblical sources of the symbol, as well. The term for “wind” in this Talmud quote is actually ruach, which is a Hebrew word frequently translated as “spirit” in the Bible (spiritus being the Latin word for “breath”). Hence, when we read in 1 Samuel 16:14 that “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him,” we’re metaphorically witnessing an evil wind or breath take possession of Saul; in this case, not a “wind of idiocy” but a wind of depression and despair. It’s a good metaphor for domination by an undesired feeling: a person falls subject to despair or idiocy in the same manner that wind controls a dry leaf. While the spirit or breath of God possesses and directs human action in a definite and positive way, this opposing, alien, and evil wind forces human action into undesired channels.

We can further trace the genealogy of the symbol into English literature, isolating one example among many: while John Milton doesn’t specifically reference an “idiot wind” or “wind of idiocy” in his great elegy, “Lycidas,” he uses the symbol of a corrupting breath to indict Britain’s clergy. He compares them to shepherds playing on pipes which fail to lead their sheep (the congregants) on to satiety and more life: “when they list their lean and flashy songs / Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw, / The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, / But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw, / Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread […]” Instead of generating spiritual life, the breath blown through the shepherds’ pipes just makes the sheep swell with gas.

Leaping ahead roughly three hundred years, we find that Dylan is already using imagery related to the wind and the spirit in “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As Rogovoy and others have observed, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind,” can mean either that the answer to society’s ills has been sadly lost in the breeze, or that this answer is a truth conveyed by the spirit, by the “breath of life.” This more positive reading doesn’t seem egregiously out-of-step with the song, either… It’s similar to D.H. Lawrence’s great line, “A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time.” But on “Idiot Wind,” Dylan laments the absence of this purer spirit. We really are lost in the breeze: “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol / Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” The literary critic Christopher Ricks observes that the idiot wind wraps around the singer’s head and around the Capitol, which is the metaphorical head of the country (since “capitol” literally means head). This buffers what was said earlier, that Dylan is considering the idiot wind’s effects on scales both personal and societal. (http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/bob-dylan-im-poet-and-i-know-it)

If he stopped there, Dylan would simply be calling his soon-to-be ex-wife an idiot. He would be doing it eloquently, of course—but it would still seem a bit harsh. Yet, as the song concludes, he indicts himself, equally: he’s been possessed by the idiot wind, too. He sings, “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor all the pain I rise above / And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love / And it makes me feel so sorry… / Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats / Blowing through the letters that we wrote / Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves / We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” His self-humbling elevates the song from being a mere kiss-off in the vein of “Positively 4th Street” to something tragic and searching.

The problem is communication. That’s what the idiot wind disrupts. It breaks down comprehension and receptivity, creating destructive mental distance between people. Dylan sings, “I kissed goodbye the howling beast / On the borderline that separated you from me,” meaning that he’s not going to try to communicate anymore, the separation is final, and the idiot wind has done its work. (Actually, later on, he and Sara nearly reconciled and even considered remarriage.)

After Milton discusses the workings of the same wind in “Lycidas,” he concludes with one of the most famous puzzles in English Literature: “But that two-handed engine at the door / Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” These two lines have been debated over and over again, with no settled conclusion. Yet the fact that the engine is “two-handed” seems to imply something significant: to break down the idiot wind’s power and counter its effects will require a total effort, and, what is more, an individual effort, a kind of self-cultivation. Once the victory is won, and the ability to communicate has been re-established, the struggle really will be finished.  The engine smites no more. But for Dylan, the tragedy of “Idiot Wind” is that the break is absolute.  He needs to start over.

Chuck E. Cheese and the Redeeming Light of Christ

by Sam Buntz

In 2012, Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant chain fired Duncan Brannan, the long-time voice of the company’s mascot.  Shortly thereafter, Brannan posted a farewell message online, concluding with the words: “…And, if being the voice of Chuck E. Cheese for any length of time has meant anything to me, it was never about a paycheck because God will always provide for His children in one way or another.  No.  What it was about, what my sincere hope is is that you — you fans, you parents, and all you kids who have loved Chuck E. Cheese over the years — have seen, heard, or experienced Jesus Christ in and through my life in some way.  For He is all that matters, now and for all eternity.”

I think this fairly bursts with all the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition— principally, in that human beings want to do great things, but are given absurd and seemingly inadequate materials to accomplish their aims. In this case, a dude wants to save people from suffering an eternity in hellfire.  (He makes that pretty clear in an earlier part of the message I didn’t quote.)  In and of itself, this is a strange conceit, but undoubtedly audacious.  If you are someone who actually believes that the vast majority of humans are all rushing ignorantly and headlong into hell, then saving people from this fate would probably be the best way to occupy your time.  If you didn’t, you’d be somewhat irresponsible, to say the least, letting countless souls tumble into perdition.  But, here’s the kicker, the pinch of unexpected spice: the only tool at your disposal is your ability to voice a fictitious mouse.  Sometimes the mouse appears in cartoon form, sometimes as a live-action mascot, but every day you must struggle to use this mouse’s voice, reciting scripted lines advertising a pizza and video game franchise devoid of any overt religious message or symbolism, in order to help manifest Christ’s love in the world, thus furthering the redemption of the human race.

I find this simultaneously moving and claustrophobically terrifying. It’s like one of Kafka’s fever dreams.  No one really commented on this in a serious way back in 2012, aside from a lot of scurrilous blogger mofos, turning it into some big joke… which it obviously is, of course.  But it’s so much more than that, too.  If I’m still carrying it around with me in 2015, how could it not be? It’s haunted me for nearly three years.

In a way, Brannan’s pizza-loving-mouse-based evangelism encapsulates what people mean when they say that something is “postmodern.”  (Although at this point, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals may have fully talked-out postmodernism—like with “hipsters” and “the internet.”  Lines of inquiry feel exhausted.  It’s all like some conversation from 2006.)  Of course, outside of decent universities and their satellite spawning grounds, people don’t walk around saying, “That’s so postmodern.”  But if they did they would definitely say it about Brannan’s unique way of expressing Christ’s love.  It’s postmodern because it exists beyond any humanly conceived notion of an ordered universe.  It is an instance of a man trying to impose a plot, a religious narrative, on a world that refuses to be pinned down by any totalizing narrative (including atheistic and secular narratives as well, I believe.  We live in Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, where our theories can never be fully comprehensive; there’s always a flaw, a gap, some information that just won’t fit into the model… Godel was a religious man, though, by the way).  This is a cosmos without a single narrative that can fully do it justice.  Maybe the only comprehensive narrative would be all the narratives absorbed at once—chaos and a plethora of meaning simultaneously.  This is why Duncan Brannan can only try to secure the salvation of humanity by providing the vocals for a cheese-craving rodent pizza-mascot.  His evangelical narrative can only remain coherent within his own private world, but when he tries to express it in the broader universe, it becomes dyed in the hue of postmodern absurdity.  Yet he quests onwards in spite of this, a latter day Don Quixote. Windmills are giants.  Ads for a pizza chain are a coup for Christ.

I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear at any point in the past few paragraphs, but I’d say that I’m basically pro-Brannan.  It’s impossible not to be.  The pop culture websites that reported this pseudo-story back when it came out mainly just used it as an occasion to mock human weirdness and, potentially, highlight the lameness of contemporary Christianity.  But it’s bigger than that, because it’s a symbol for what anyone who tries to actually live a myth in today’s world has to do.  And I don’t mean that Christianity is a “myth” as in something untrue.  I mean that it is a certain species of story that envisions an underlying narrative, couched beneath the world of appearances.  It proposes a hidden order, just like any other religion, or even, in a counter-intuitive way, like the-order-that-isn’t-really-an-order, the Blind Watchmaker Cosmos of atheists like Richard Dawkins.  All these mythologies attempt to author the text of reality, but reality, I believe, always evades being pinned down by one specific story (as stated moments earlier).  God is either all gods or no god. Brannan’s courage isn’t so much that he clings to a rigid belief system, full of brimstone.  It’s that he continues to let his story manufacture a meaning for his life under circumstances that wouldn’t seem to fit that story.

In a way, I suppose that Jesus’ death on the cross is itself an example of a story that braves its own seeming negation in order to come out okay on the other side. (Which means that Jesus himself was “postmodern”?? Should I have refused to use pseudo-intellectual buzzwords in this article altogether???)  No one would expect God to be humiliated and murdered.  People would probably expect him to use his God powers to strengthen his dominion of the universe; like, he would appoint himself Supreme Emperor of the world in an actual, political manner. In fact, everyone at the time expected the Messiah to institute his rule with an iron fist, which is how the Book of Revelation actually does depict Jesus. But the Gospel story shockingly subverts that expectation. The exact opposite of what you would expect to happen happens, and it turns out to be the one really necessary event, cosmically inevitable and unambiguously good.

I think Brannan might feel the same way about being Chuck E. Cheese. It doesn’t seem like an appropriate platform for introducing the love of Christ, but its very absurdity makes it more Christian, more in line with Jesus’ own triumph through absurdity. (An early Church Father, Tertullian, once said, somewhat paradoxically, “I believe because it is absurd.” In other words, it’s too weird to be fiction.)  So, in a way, I guess I’m saying that Brannan is a great example of a postmodern Christian, or of any postmodern religious believer.  His narrative is his cross: an absurd problem that, nonetheless and against all expectations, manages to redeem him.

Wounded by History: An Appreciation of John Ford’s “The Searchers”

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never seen The Searchers, don’t read this article. Instead, watch The Searchers, preferably as soon as you can… Feel free to come back here once you’re finished.]

The Searchers might be the greatest American movie ever made. At least, you could make an easy argument for it. It’s clearly shoulder-to-shoulder with The Godfather, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and a few others—plus, it’s the definite summit of John Ford’s career as a director. (In my view, it’s pretty tough to rank the top ten or even the top twenty movies in any kind of coherent order. You end up falling back on criteria that are necessarily highly specific to your own interests and on personal quirks of taste. It’s kind of like trying to argue which pitcher threw a better perfect game). Like all pantheon-level movies, every scene in it feels absolutely inevitable. Nothing could’ve been different. It all clicks. The best movies have this intensely fated quality to them—they could only have ever been what they are. They seem to have existed forever, in and out of time, relating stories that will probably be re-told in a different form a thousand years from now, or are being told in some distant galaxy at the present moment. In the case of Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers deals with the universally relevant topic of human hatred. It is a remarkable story because it depicts a man’s triumph over his own hatred—which, in a way, is a more startling and difficult achievement than triumphing over someone else’s.

To briefly summarize: John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran, who joins his homesteader brother’s family on the plains of West Texas. While Ethan and the family’s older adopted son, Martin, are investigating a supposed cattle raid (which turns out to be a ploy), Comanches slaughter the entire family, except for the youngest daughter, Debbie, who they kidnap. (The Comanches also capture the older sister, Lucy, but shortly rape and kill her in some horrifying yet unspecified manner).

Ethan and Martin continue to search for Debbie over the course of five years, finally discovering that, as an adolescent (played by Natalie Wood), she is now one of the wives of Scar, the same Comanche chief who murdered her family. Since she’s effectively become a Comanche, Ethan attempts to kill her—but Martin prevents him. After a comic interlude back in Texas, in which Martin disrupts a wedding and wins back his former fiancé, they end up falling into a final conflict with Scar, successfully killing him (Ethan scalps him, to boot). They reunite with Debbie again, only, this time, Ethan has overcome his desire to murder his only living blood relative. He puts Debbie on his horse, tenderly looks into her eyes, and says, “Let’s go home.” There’s a lot more to the story besides, like a sub-plot in which Martin accidentally purchases an Indian bride, and goofy moments with Ethan’s friend Mose. But these are the essential beats of the tale.

Yet, there’s a secret, underlying plot point in The Searchers, which has helped secure its high critical estimation. It is implied that Ethan may have been in love with his brother’s wife, Martha. There’s no dialogue to suggest this whatsoever: Ford hints at it entirely through looks, highlighting odd glances exchanged between Ethan and Martha, which would be pointless if they weren’t meant to suggest something. This leads the viewer to another realization: Debbie might be Ethan’s daughter and not his niece, adding yet another level of pain and sadness to the story and to Wayne’s character. His hatred for the Comanches who murder his brother’s family leads him to almost exterminate the girl who might be his only child. A terror of “miscegenation,” of sexual pollution, helps creates the suspenseful, dreadful atmosphere of The Searchers. It’s not supposed to be pleasant, but it’s unusually realistic, true to the social mores of the West, given that sexual-racial anxieties were a huge element in the settlers’ wars with Native Americans, and also in European imperialism.

When I first watched The Searchers as a teenager, I totally missed these implications. I wasn’t entirely sure why Wayne’s character wanted to kill Debbie beyond the fact that she had become “one of them.” It didn’t occur to me that becoming one of them was essentially a matter of sexual violation, of rape. Ethan doesn’t just want to kill Debbie because she’s adopted the habits and customs of the Comanches. He holds the nasty belief that she’s been sexually polluted by another race, and that she can’t be rehabilitated back to a state of whiteness and normalcy. (Plus, if she really is his daughter, he might be harboring some guilt over cuckolding his own brother). If he were to reunite with her, she would represent only things he hates and regrets, the memories that assail him in vacant and idle moments. In Ethan’s eyes, she’s become indelibly stained by the racial and sexual conflicts of the West—in effect, she’s a product of those conflicts—and that’s why she needs to be eliminated. He thinks that if he can murder her he can put it all behind him… This is obviously insane and untrue, but part of the miracle of the movie is that it makes us actually understand Ethan. He never seems like a monster, exactly, because we see how hatred gradually eats at his heart in a way that’s both awful and undeniably human. He remains part of our species even in his worst moments.

The fact is, Debbie hasn’t been indelibly stained by these conflicts. She’s been hoping that Ethan and Martin will come and rescue her throughout the duration of her captivity. To the contrary, Ethan is the one who’s been marked by history and hatred, though not, as it turns out, wholly or permanently. The movie’s moment of transcendence comes when Ethan suddenly, and for no particular reason, forgives history and himself, and tells Debbie, “Let’s go home.” There’s a moment of recognition when he looks at her, the acknowledgment of an indissoluble bond. He’s been a product of his time up until now, but in an instant of grace, he rises above his own historical moment. He’s able to recognize that the relationship that exists between himself and Debbie is an eternally important one, much more significant and enduring than ethnic hatreds and perceived sexual shame. Those things all fall away. But Ethan, the man, can’t really live the happy familial life that’s shaping up for the other characters at the end of the story. He’s been too misshapen by time to be a father figure to Debbie—there’s still an excessive amount of history there, given the fact that he did attempt to murder her earlier. Now, he has nothing left to do but fade into the past, along with all the conflicts that defined Western settlement: the last shot of the movie is of Ethan walking away, alone.

In the end, Ethan doesn’t triumph over a tendency peculiar to himself—he triumphs over a hatred engrained in many people by harsh experience and by the sufferings imposed by history. History, according to The Searchers, is a nightmare, but a nightmare for all sides. Everyone becomes infected by the poison of ethnic and tribal hatreds: Scar takes scalps from whites and massacres families to avenge the deaths of his own sons, just as Ethan shoots the eyes out of a dead Indian’s body, in order to grotesquely violate a Comanche prohibition which states that a soul will wander in eternal loneliness if its body has been left eyeless. We see women who’ve been recovered from Comanche captivity, reduced to insanity by the torture and abuse they’ve experienced, and we see Ethan attempt to slaughter an entire herd of buffalo, purely in order to further the starvation of Native Americans. In a way, The Searchers offers as violent a portrayal of the West as Cormac McCarthy’s classic novel Blood Meridian. But The Searchers keeps the actual atrocities and rapes off screen, which makes them ultimately more chilling and affecting. The fact that Hostel-level butchery is occurring all the time in this society keeps us on our toes and pricks our imaginations into nervous action.

The Searchers has memorable characters, expertly placed moments of comic relief, and an exhilarating story. But like any prospective candidate for the greatest American movie of all time, it manages to say something enduringly important about the country and its people. It portrays America as defined by terrible instances of ethnic conflict and conquest, yet capable of rising above them. While it certainly doesn’t sentimentalize Scar’s band of warriors to any degree, it at least affords Scar an understandable motive (avenging the deaths of his sons) and portrays Ethan’s near-genocidal hatred of the Comanches as something fundamentally perverse. Frank Nugent, who wrote the excellent screenplay, actually based it on real incidents of kidnapping from the 19th Century frontier, and the movie seems more faithful to the reality of strife between settlers and Native Americans than most. It’s not a sustained critique of the settlement of the West, by any means, but it offers a more nuanced view of it than most movies from its era. Yet, the essence of The Searchers isn’t its critical depiction of these sordid conflicts, but the way in which it seeks to transcend them. It convincingly places human love above the world’s other mean and petty concerns, and it doesn’t do it cheaply or too easily. It manages to earn it, totally.

An Obligatory Think-Piece on ‘American Sniper’

by Sam Buntz

Apparently, I need to write something about American Sniper. There’s no way around it.   I missed writing a think-piece on Girls back when it was hot, and now I’m left with the pathetic option of weighing in on Girls from the colder, more distant perspective afforded by the passage of time. So, I’m determined to get in on American Sniper while it’s still relatively fresh…

First of all: I actually liked American Sniper. I get why some of the criticisms are being made, but can’t really get behind them—or can’t get behind most of them, anyway. It’s no mystery why someone might find the real-life Chris Kyle to be a little suspect. The dude claimed he “loved” killing people—bad people fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but people for all that. Yet, it’s easy enough to sit around in a cushy yuppie apartment, critiquing a few insensitive or dumb statements made by soldiers who’ve been through absolute hell. The movie’s critics have the right perspective on the fundamentally negative course of the Iraq War, but they lack a proper sense of the people who are responding positively to the film. Contrary to something Howard Dean said on Bill Maher’s show, it’s not just fanatical Tea Party members who are embracing the movie—the soldiers (and their families) came from a vast, cross-section of American society, politically, ethnically, and religiously. And people who’ve known soldiers and lived with them can’t just dismiss them as entirely passive victims of a really dumb policy. They naturally want to see them as heroic—because they were heroic. They were definitely ill-served by Bush and Cheney’s terrible policies—but it’s clearly dishonoring them just to dismiss them as chumps who were fooled, and leave it at that. Clint Eastwood made a genuinely good movie, because it shows us that the American Character, despite being in a state of degradation and chaos, still has plenty of heroic qualities.

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote one of the most aggressive critiques of the movie. Although he writes in a style that is consciously punk and profane, he makes some fair points. He somewhat excessively points out how “dumb” the Iraq War was—probably the weakest and most irritating feature of the article, belaboring the point: “Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question… Well done, Clint! You made a movie about mass-bloodshed in Iraq that critics pronounced not political! That’s as Hollywood as Hollywood gets.” So much for the un-informative, invective-laden part of Taibbi’s piece… But towards the end, he makes some thoughtful remarks: “The thing is, it always looks bad when you criticize a soldier for doing what he’s told. It’s equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual soldier’s experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too… [W]e’re ready to be entertained by stories about how hard it was for our guys. And it might have been. But that’s not the whole story and never will be… We’ll make movies about the Chris Kyles of the world and argue about whether they were heroes or not. Some were, some weren’t. But in public relations as in war, it’ll be the soldiers taking the bullets, not the suits in the Beltway who blithely sent them into lethal missions they were never supposed to understand.” I’d say that’s fair—but it still acts like it’s wrong to try to understand what a war was like for your own country’s soldiers… which it really isn’t.

As dumb as he thinks American Sniper was, I wish Taibbi bothered to describe in more detail the kind of Iraq War movie he actually would want to see. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that he wouldn’t mind staring at a giant neon sign blinking the words, “Fuck Bush!” for two and a half hours. That show might have the facts on its side—but flat accuracy of opinion and decent film-making are two different things. (Taibbi should check out In the Loop, an excellent satire on the political machinations leading up to the war—a scathing, under-appreciated classic). The Iraq War movie I most want to see is a little different: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fictional film, a documentary, or a TV special depicting the lives of average Iraqi citizens, or dramatizing their relations with the American soldiers and government in a humane, understanding, and non-sappy way. They’re just background scenery in stories about Americans, or in reports about their most violent coreligionists; they’re usually just a casualty statistic. The ordinary Iraqis’ actual views and ways of life find zero coverage in the media, where they’re typically depicted either as objects of sentimental plight, or as a potentially dangerous pack of unruly natives.

First, when we were prepping to invade, the Iraqi people were a Cause—and, after the invasion took place, they quickly became a Problem, one to be solved either with sympathy or contempt. But they’ve never been depicted in and of themselves, as people—we’ve always insisted on perceiving them through the lens of our own ambitions and concerns. American Sniper is obviously guilty of this—that’s where Taibbi’s critique is dead-on—but it was only ever a movie that aimed to make sense of Americans, trying to examine the things that are still good or are still somehow salvageable about the American Character, despite having been mired in a difficult conflict. Perhaps it is seriously incomplete in that it doesn’t provide any political context, highlighting the gross errors of the American Command. But is it all that wrong to fixate on the American Character, specifically, in a movie about Iraq—especially when it hasn’t been done in a dramatically compelling way with any frequency? No—but it would be (and is) seriously wrong to only make movies and news reports like that. The problem is balancing our self-awareness with a greater (a much greater) consciousness of the Iraqi people—since they clearly suffered more from the results of our invasion than we did.

“The Deep Truth is Imageless”: Reflections on Studying Religion

by Sam Buntz

“If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets… But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless.”
-Percy Shelley

In an earlier era, the greatest scholars of comparative religion searched for a unity underlying the world’s faiths. Mircea Eliade, probably the major figure in 20th Century religious study, argued that there were real universals to be found cross-culturally in religion. According to Eliade, religion is the search for an eternal reality that can interact or interpenetrate with our own, causing life in the world of time to become dyed in the colors of eternity—the profane world makes contact with a sacred world, becoming sacred itself, in the process. That’s the shared purpose behind individual, mystical practices, in which one seeks contact with eternity personally, and in social, ritual practices like receiving Holy Communion and Hindu Puja. Put far too shortly, this was Eliade’s big idea. It’s amazing how many scholars have tried to dismiss it—shaky guns that should’ve been trained on beer bottles sitting on backyard fences end up setting their sights on King Kong.

Closely related to Eliade, though not exactly the same, is another approach to religion, the “Perennial Philosophy” or Perennialism. One of its major proponents, Aldous Huxley, defined it as, “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.” The difference is that, while Eliade stated that there were universals in religion, he stopped short of claiming in his scholarship that these universals were determined by the “transcendent Ground of all being”—God, Brahman, or what you will (though that seems to be what he actually believed in his personal life).

This view is also widely out of fashion. A great number of scholars today argue that there isn’t really a shared commonality underlying religious thought and practice—religions don’t all say “the same thing” (as opposed to what Gandhi once said: “All religions are true). Stephen Prothero at Boston University is a good example, having authored the guide to world religions, God is Not One—kind of the antithesis of Huston Smith’s popular and famous The World’s Religions. Prothero basically points out the obvious: of course, Christians typically believe that Jesus was an incarnation of God, and Muslims typically deny it; that kind of thing… But that was never the kind of claim that Perennialists or followers of Eliade were interested in disputing. They were looking at religions to find deeper patterns of universality—not shared, specific doctrines. They wanted to find the relations between things, while analyzing the structures of myth and belief and praxis. It’s not that the particulars of Jesus’ and Buddha’s lives are all the same—it’s that the greater shape of those narratives share numerous commonalities (a miraculous conception and birth, a period of withdrawal from the world and temptation, a final apotheosis, etc.). As the literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, while religions often differ drastically in terms of theology, in terms of mythology they’re remarkably similar.

Consider Joseph Campbell, whose classic study of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, inspired Star Wars (probably one of the reasons certain joyless scholars dislike him so much and disagree with him so vehemently). Essentially, Campbell argues that the great heroic narratives of all mythologies and religions—from Maori and Native American legends to the stories of Buddha and Christ—encapsulate certain universal truths and themes about human experience. What you actually find in Campbell’s writings isn’t some mad attempt to reduce all religions to the exact same story, which is what his critics (who’ve evidently never read him) always seem to imply. Obviously, Jesus has his moment of triumph through the Resurrection, and the Buddha finishes the hero’s journey with enlightenment under the Bo Tree. That’s a blatant difference—and not one that Campbell ever would’ve denied in the slightest. His books explode with variety—yet he traces out shared depth patterns within that miraculous variety. It’s not that the particulars of religious belief are always the same everywhere—it’s that the power within humanity, which creates or projects those religions, is the same everywhere. And since we all have, in a biological sense, the same kind of brain, and since we all have, in a deeper sense, the same kind of imagination, it stands to reason that, beneath what society and biology condition, there’s some kind of commonality. Eliade, Huxley, Huston Smith, Fritjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and many other scholars and writers (though almost all of an earlier age) agree.

In Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, you actually find a celebration of diversity, with the persistent acknowledgement of an underlying unity—but this is a unity that is always implied, hinted. It’s never made crassly visible as a whole. (Perhaps that’s the implication of the adage, “No man can see God and live.”) The power that creates and animates all religions can be labeled—whether as God or The Self or the Absolute or the Great Void or even just, from a secular perspective, as Mind—and beguilingly suggested, but ultimately proves impervious to verbal definition or conceptual delineation. The human imagination can provide a battery of symbols for it, can dance around it, but can never really say, in one formulation, what it is. In John Keats’ phrase, it “teases us out of thought.” We have words that stand for the Eternal, and beyond that—a sublime silence. This is the territory of mystics—though scholars can take the intellectual journey up to the edge.

As Campbell recognized, we don’t live in a world of mere fragments—which is how the die-hard opponents of The Perennial Philosophy tend to view the human race’s spiritual and intellectual creations. They think that the random vagaries of socialization and circumstance are really all there is—there’s nothing beyond them. (A comparable counter-strain exists in the study of English, where professors like Stephen Greenblatt deny that there’s such a thing as a universal experience or truth in literature; millions of readers of Shakespeare, from Japan to Nigeria to Kansas would disagree). Although scholars often argue about this as if the Perennial and Eliadean positions have somehow been disproved, it should seem fairly clear to anyone with an ounce of common sense that the stance one takes on this question is ultimately just a matter of taste, or, in a deeper sense, one’s feeling for life—one’s essential attitude regarding the world. Whether one can trace correspondences in the world’s religions and mythologies depends more on whether one wishes to look for them in the first place. You can either dismiss those correspondences as chance coincidences or embrace them as “signs and wonders”—but both paths are, at least as far as academia should be concerned, valid. (Clearly, I only think that the position that insists on questing for unity within diversity is actually right, however. Also, seeing the world as a collection of fragments probably isn’t just wrong, but dangerous and hazardous to one’s own mental health, in a very real way. But there are just too many professors in the humanities who share that perspective to say it’s not legitimate… I’m compromising as tactfully as I can, basically.)

At present, the skeptics probably have the upper hand—but the pendulum of history continues to swing. I wouldn’t be surprised if a revived interest in the human spirit and its universals—in the Soul, to bundle it all into one unpopular term—within the University were to correspond with a broader revival of interest in the same. The human race can only endure being reduced to a mechanical object, can only put up with the trivialization of its motives and aims for so long. More and more people will eventually assert that human beings aren’t just products of socialization, biology, and chance, and hopefully, some Inner Revolution will overthrow this stale philosophy of fragments, which takes humanity piecemeal while always forgetting E.M. Forster’s great motto: “Only connect.”

Pouty Guinness

by Sam Buntz

Does anyone seriously believe that, if the Prophet Muhammad had been born in the present day (say, around 1975), he would be opposed to reproducing his image? Would he constantly be pulling his coat over his head as the paparazzi’s flash bulbs went off—occasionally decking a photographer like an irate Sean Penn? Would someone with the social skills to found a world religion really be so resolutely un-chill? Did Muhammad have no cool? In my personal opinion, I think tens of thousands of kids would be taking selfies with Muhammad and posting them on Instagram, and he’d be fine with it. You’ve got to roll with the times if you’re going to have any success.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I realized how important this issue is, because it’s so hard to discern where the limits lie. South Park made an episode where Jesus uses performance enhancing drugs to undergo the Resurrection, before launching a steroid-induced rampage and destroying the factory that was making all those Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelets… and no one got shot in the head or blown up as a result. But could I draw a stick figure—just a circle with some lines, no facial features, not even a beard or a turban or anything—and caption it, “Muhammad”? What if I try to argue it’s not that specific Muhammad, but some other Muhammad—like this dude I know who sells used Nissans? Would I still be a blasphemer? It’s the most popular name in the world, after all. And what if I turned it into a flipbook, with the stick figure Muhammad doing a happy dance? And not a crazy, excited-to-blow-up-skyscrapers dance—just a merry jig? Would I be Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s number one target?

I’m kind of worried because I didn’t realize that you weren’t allowed to draw images or cartoons of Muhammad (at least, according to many interpretations of Islam). Hence, I thought I was paying tribute to inter-faith tolerance when painting a series of seventy sumptuous, Italianate oil paintings, depicting the Prophet himself. Since I don’t know what Muhammad really looked like, I modeled him on Alec Guinness… Now, my escape plan is to claim that they were really meant to be Alec Guinness all along…

So, anyway, in most of the paintings, Alec Guinness (the dude who played Obi Wan Kenobi, for the younger readers) is reclining in leisurely opulence. He stares at the viewer with a classic male model’s “pouty” look.   He sits with his legs spread across a sofa, dressed in a fine, three-piece Armani, leaning against the end of the couch, one hand lightly supporting his head in a relaxed pose. (There’s a slight Kate-Winslet-in-Titanic feel to some of these). The other hand cradles a glass of Johnny Walker, no ice. In a few other paintings, Alec Guinness—still fully clothed in Armani—reclines in a bathtub, sportively flicking bubbles at the viewer…

Fortunately, by re-titling the paintings Pouty Guinness #1-70, I was able to save myself from a major headache—potential terrorist attacks. But others might not be so fortunate. You can make a basically respectful work, but still have it be misinterpreted… like this animated short I created, recently, featuring a zany soapbox race where religious founders compete against each other for the prize—Julia Roberts. But, surprise! It ends in a tie, showing that they’re all equal paths (except for Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard—he’s the Dick Dastardly of the skit, who crashes off course, and winds up frowning and confused in a giant pile of oranges). What if some terrorists misinterpreted my depiction of Muhammad and his Greased Lightning soapbox as some sort of confusingly ironic diss? Because it’s not—alright?

Cambridge Observed (with Some Digressions about Boston)

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never been to L.A. but I think I can arrive at a pretty decent picture by taking Cambridge, Massachusetts and imagining the exact opposite—developing that photonegative. Or, rather, L.A. would be the hellish negative and Cambridge the bright reality (probably). At least, in my ignorance, I would tend to think so, because I love Cambridge (and Somerville and parts of Boston). Sit down in any coffee shop or bar and you’ll hear people talking about their PhD programs and gossiping about their academic advisor’s mid-life crises. Is it easy to satirize? Sure—but what isn’t? All the girls are dressed in black and gray—they’re Serious People. There are no canary yellow sports bras exposed to daylight… Ah, this brisk Northern air! This bracing Yankee atmosphere! Unlike my imaginary nightmare Bladerunner vision of L.A., people don’t go clubbing in Cambridge (well, technically, some do)—they hold potlucks, at which unshaven physicists and their small, cryptic fiancés discuss the eventual heat-death of the universe. This is a good thing. I like this (apparently).

Cambridge, Somerville, and the collegiate portions of Boston form what might be the world’s largest economy based on knowledge—or, at least, on data. Mark Twain said that, in Boston, people care about what you know; in New York, they care about how much money you have; in Philadelphia, they care about who your parents are. I can’t speak to whether this is still true of Philly, but the first two claims still hold, strongly. I don’t hate New York or even dislike it—it’s so multi-formed, multi-eyed, multi-armed that you can’t really say what it is (except for “big” and “intimidating”). New York contains worlds nested within worlds—and, hey, most of them might suck. New York is everything, and 90% of everything is awful. But Boston is just a few worlds—and Cambridge is only one, the academic world. And I’m a Boston kind of guy—or, really, a Cambridge kind of guy. (I get that there’s a “big” difference, but whatever).

Boston’s great, but being an aspiring member of various elites, I need to voice my preference for Cambridge—and, even above Cambridge, I prefer Somerville, a dusky gem of rare value, unknown to the wider world. Union Square, a veritable El Dorado of alternative culture, remains hidden from the clueless—gracefully concealed by a lack of subway access—and Davis Square (possibly my favorite spot in the Greater Boston Area) is the vibrant core of Somerville.

Not too long ago, I was watching a game at Fenway (on TV) and my Dad (who’s a Yankee fan) pointed out, not unpleasantly, that Boston crowds always look like Boston crowds—the people sitting behind home aren’t rocking Versace and sipping Moet. They’re just humans, gloriously normal, middle-class, taking their kids to a ballgame. They’re not like Yankee fans at Yankee stadium—jet-setters, obviously camera conscious, as they lounge in overly dignified splendor behind home. It’s another point (or dozen) in favor of the Greater Boston Area.

Most importantly, I think Boston and Cambridge both have a good mixture of New England reserve and non-native, out-of-town friendliness. If you go up to backwoods New Hampshire, it’s all reserve. I imagine the Saudis are less reserved, despite the completely enclosed booths families sit in at Arabian fast food joints. But Boston has a pinch of accommodation—and, damn it, that’s all you need! Boston people aren’t silent and brooding—they’re not Finns. It’s just that the things they say to you might not be the things you want or expect them to say to you. But who the hell are you? Some chemistry student from Omaha? Get used to it. Life’s not a Lutheran Church picnic.