Kissing Icons, Swinging Censers: The Ancient Vibes of Eastern Orthodoxy

by Sam Buntz

The censer swings… and swings. The censer keeps swinging, persistently, throughout nearly the entirety of this Eastern Orthodox Church service in Central Connecticut—indeed, throughout the recorded history of Christendom. The censer emits little puffs of incense, beseeching the altar, partitioned from the congregation by a barrier featuring paintings of saints. (The first official Christian martyr, St. Stephen, adorns one). Altar boys and assistant priests pass in and out of the swinging doors fixed in this barrier; there is constant activity—things are happening. It’s a performance of color and sound and matter-in-motion, with a sense of silence and stillness lying behind it. You might not understand 75% of what’s going on, but the believers believe in its efficaciousness. They stand in hallowed expectation, waiting to be fed God.

The priest sings the Gospel reading; in fact, with the exception of the homily, the entire service is sung in English with bits of Old Church Slavonic thrown in. Parents hold their children up to kiss icons—images of the Virgin Mary (in Eastern Orthodox parlance, “The Theotokos” or “God Bearer”), Christ, and the Saints. Christianity, which we normally find so familiar—such a known quantity—suddenly appears foreign. After all, the faith began in the East, and here, at a Russian Orthodox Church, the East seems strangely close to the West. Much of what the average Catholic or Protestant accepts as Christianity is certainly present, but there is more—the fullness of the service, the amount of activity and imagery, attended by a chorus of crying babies brought by young families (youth is in short supply at most other denominations these days, though not this one), is impressive, and to a passing observer such as myself, a little intimidating. What’s happening? Suddenly, the priest flaps a white cloth about twenty times over the altar. Why?

(I’ll explain later).

This brief dip into Orthodoxy helped me gain some perspective on Christianity—on what it is and what it does for people. G.K. Chesterton lamented the skeptic’s lack of fair-mindedness towards the Christian Faith, stating that we tend to take it for granted as something ordinary, the wearily trod province of church committees and spaghetti dinners. But, he argued, one could see it more clearly if one first de-familiarized it: “It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.” (The swastika, at the time Chesterton wrote this sentence, was still a peaceful Hindu and Buddhist symbol, and hadn’t yet been stolen by the Nazis).

Sitting—or, primarily, standing—at this Orthodox service, I saw Christianity as such an Eastern faith. Atmospherically, the experience was oddly closer to being in a Hindu Temple than it was to being in, say, a liberal United Church of Christ service… An Eastern Orthodox Mass has the feeling of an ancient, almost Shamanic rite—of something magical and timeless. (I don’t mean to wallow in exoticism, but it’s hard to deny that it’s part of the appeal.) Here, bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of a God, and dispensed to people who are made mystically one with that Deity by partaking of His very being. While this basic purpose is the same as that of Catholic Mass, the presentation has a distinctly pre-Vatican II feeling. (A congregant told me that the Eastern Orthodox mass is closer to the Tridentine or Latin Mass than to the current Catholic version). It is proudly unreformed, and its antiquity is palpable. This is attractive: Eastern Orthodoxy offers a historical connection to the origins of Christianity, and folds to a millimeter the distance between Christian and Christ—time past is time present and time present is time past, to paraphrase a T.S. Eliot line. Naturally, all true believers want to be as close as possible to the living reality of Jesus and the Apostles, to a way of life instituted not by the ever-conniving human intellect but by the pure breath of God. A Protestant fundamentalist can do this by trying to reconstruct true Christian life from a close reading of the New Testament—but an Eastern Orthodox lay person looks to a tradition of ritual and shared experience that claims to go back to the very beginning. Only Catholicism can make a similar claim on historical continuity (though, again, it seems a bit more reformed these days). In the mists of the past, the Mass eludes the sense of being a merely human innovation.

Many of the members of the congregation I visited were former Catholics or Episcopalians, searching for a connection to a venerable tradition, mixed in with a fair amount of ethnic Eastern Europeans. Since Eastern Orthodoxy has a historical pedigree, and since it is both less reformed than Catholicism and less overtly hierarchical (there is no Pope and no doctrine of infallibility), one can feel the peculiar magnetism of its aura. If you were present at the creation—at the origin—you have a strong claim to be the bearer of Christ into the New World.

But why was I there? I’m interested in all religions, and have attended numerous services—from a Sikh Gurdwara to a Swedenborgian reading group to Buddhist and Sufi meditation sessions to Hindu puja—but hadn’t previously been to an Eastern Orthodox Mass. This seemed like an unfortunate gap, given its strong claim to being the original Church. Also, aspects of its inner life—its spirituality—were highly intriguing: on the whole, Orthodoxy has been more open to the mystical life than Catholicism and Protestantism, despite the great mystics of both those traditions. Books like The Way of a Pilgrim and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov further contributed to my interest, as did the sayings of an Eastern Orthodox sage, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who offered this striking and rather cryptic observation about prayer and Orthodox ritual to the philosopher Jacob Needleman: “In prayer one is vulnerable, not enthusiastic. And then these rituals have such force. They hit you like a locomotive. You must not be enthusiastic, nor rejecting—but only open. This is the whole aim of asceticism: to become open.”

So—why did I go? Anthony Bloom, vulnerability, Dostoevsky, the way of a pilgrim… Is that a coherent explanation? I think it adds up to one. I wanted to see a portion of the past made present—receive a material impression that there’s something eternal underneath this changing flux of dreamlike appearance. I wanted a little evidence that you can’t really bury the human need to make contact with Eternity under diodes and wires: people will proudly revert to the ancient ways.   Also, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to see if I could enter, if for a second or two, Bloom’s state of vulnerable receptivity to experience. I liked his depiction of prayer: clearing out a space, emptying one’s self of ordinary human thought and emotion, so that a higher influence could enter. It gives a sense of what seekers are likely looking for in Eastern Orthodoxy: an open space in the midst of modern noise, a place where your ear might be able to catch a higher tone.

But, unfortunately, I’m not really a morning person, and my brain was haphazard with irrelevant thoughts throughout the ritual… Additionally, while I’m not what you would call a “skeptic,” I’m not sure I could bring myself to a point where I could feel anything sincere as I kissed an icon or received the Eucharist (I refrained from doing either, out of respect). In order to do it, I would have to shift my stance towards reality in a fairly radical manner… But, nonetheless, I was impressed by the experience.

The form of the Quaker service I went to a week before could be succinctly summarized in one sentence: “The congregation sits in silence, and when someone feels like the Spirit has moved her, she speaks.” (I enjoyed this, and, in many respects, it seemed closer to my own wavelength.) But one could spend multiple volumes detailing the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Mass and Liturgy. There was a long period in which the priest flapped a folded white linen over the altar—there were many flaps (as mentioned earlier). A friendly lay person told me later that the original purpose of this was to ward flies away from the Communion wine.  Yet, even without flies around, the practice remained in place… Mundane gestures take on a mood of sanctity when repeated in a devout manner, I suppose.

To further explore the contrast: Quaker worship intends to connect you to an immediate sense of divine presence—an Eternal Now, in which revelation can still happen.   Eastern Orthodoxy does the same thing through nearly opposite means. It also feels timeless, because it’s been going on forever with its relatively unreformed approach. But it tries to connect you to the Spirit by placing your attention on a heavily symbolic ritual, whereas the Quakers try, mystically, to allow you to open your attention to the Spirit without reliance on any external aid. Both techniques have just claims in their favor, though they lie on opposite ends of the spectrum of Christian practice.

In the midst of the gory mess that we call history, the rituals of Eastern Orthodoxy provide an escape hatch for their devotees, connecting them to Eternity. Many souls in the modern world can’t accept the notion that everything we see and experience is sentenced to the cycle of birth, decay, and death—and neither can I. There must be something that transcends… An ancient tradition like Orthodoxy symbolizes, in my eyes, an ongoing counter-movement beneath the bustle of time—the swift but silent footsteps of Divinity through the ages.


Becoming Still in America: Thoreau vs. Rand

I recently encountered a sentence that struck me as perfect un-wisdom. It was perfect because, if you turned it completely inside out, it became true: it wasn’t a mixture of wrong and right, but a pure crystal of error. This made it usefully illustrative.

The sentence in question came from Ayn Rand: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life.” What statement could be more aligned with the ethos of our world, in which all that distracts and provokes the mind into new contortions is hailed as advancement? Apologies to Rand’s worshippers, but the testimony of the world’s greatest mystics indicates the precise contrary: stillness is true life, the core of silence we carry in the midst of noise. (Rand hated mysticism). The busy-ness of the world, the constant hue and cry, are peripheral matters, constantly sweeping us out to the fringes of the universe, away from the still center of our being. As Meister Eckhart put it, “We are all asleep in the outer life”—implying that we are all awake in the inner life.

In America today, the Rand perspective is dominant. Her endless rhapsody to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, is apparently America’s second favorite book, after (of course) The Bible. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have all cited Rand’s opus as though it were holy writ, awkwardly balancing themselves between chestnuts like Rand’s “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your products by tears” and Jesus Christ’s identification with the poor of the world: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Yet, in the eyes of many Americans, the chasm between these two worldviews seems strangely obscure.

Many of us assume with Rand, on little evidence beyond the worried mutterings of our digitally-stoked anxiety, that the soul is like a shark, which dies when it ceases to move. The prospect of becoming mindful or developing a contemplative life seems like a prison sentence rather than freedom. But when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond and sought out stillness, he found an infinitely more precious form of freedom, experiencing an intoxicating feeling of identity with all things and all people—which perhaps was part of the reason he supported the Underground Railroad, while Rand supported Barry Goldwater’s segregation-friendly presidential campaign in 1964.

To be clear—Rand opposed slavery, but objected to altruism, writing, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake.” This statement grants little basis for one to become an abolitionist like Thoreau, and I think it ties into the stillness question. You can’t be empathetic if you’re constantly agitating your mind and treating life as a contest—it doesn’t provide any space for empathy and humanity to emerge. Rand supported Goldwater’s lenience towards segregation, based on the individual’s presumed right to only serve clients and customers of his or her choosing—not, she claimed, racism. Given the brutal images of violence against Civil Rights marchers, which were broadcast daily on TV and which Rand certainly saw, this constitutes a radical failure of empathy and understanding. Even if Rand technically was not a racist, hers was a woeful misreading of the times, not to mention permanently discrediting! On the other hand, Thoreau’s Underground Railroad work demonstrates an exceptional soul, transcending the typically racist views of the era, and actually doing something radical to counteract those views.

In light of this, is it sane and healthy to cultivate a state of mind in which one rails against moochers and fetishizes tycoons?  Are altruism and empathy dirty words? We rightly admire people who manage to create successful and socially-conscious businesses, but part of our admiration stems from the benevolence those businesses contribute to the world. We admire talent and self-reliance, and we admire natural expressions of human goodness: the choice Rand offers in her books, between an insidious life-hating socialism and capitalism-as-religion, is so transparently bogus. At any rate, those who stare with gape-mouthed admiration at the gold-plated seatbelts on “Trump Force One” (Donald Trump’s private jet), but cannot value the altruism of MLK or St. Francis, do not provide a compelling example of human flourishing.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the American experience—what you might call the underground or esoteric side of the American character. Consider Thoreau’s description of his condition during a summer on Walden, and feel free to measure this against any supposedly eloquent passages from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:  “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”

Which perspective offers water in the desert, Rand’s or Thoreau’s?   Is America packed with too many freeloading woodland sages at present—mere “moochers” purchasing sympathy with tears—or do we have too much of the contrary perspective, the Reptilian impulse to serve only the self? To any non-muddled observer—to anyone who has found at least a sliver of stillness within—the answer should be clear.

If we look at the life of Steve Jobs, we see how stillness can be the antidote, the necessary support system, to a life of action. (The fact that I use the most famous capitalist of our time to highlight my point should show that I’m not hostile to business and human desire—just that I think stillness can add proportion, humanity, and beauty to capitalist endeavors). Negative anecdotes about Jobs are commonplace, but there is something moving about how he turned to Zen meditation to cultivate a space in which his mind might settle. This didn’t kill his mind—wasn’t “the antithesis of life”—but refreshed him in the midst of battle, and evidently influenced the design of his most famous creations. Creativity doesn’t emerge from white-knuckled grasping, but from a state of relaxation and receptivity; as William Blake put it, “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”

Likewise, although Thoreau’s pond-side idyll seemed peculiar and worthless to his neighbors, it gave him the resources he needed to write Walden and to pursue his greater humanitarian project, working on the Underground Railroad and extending his sympathies towards the whole of life. After all, life—real life—is found not where we expected to find it, in the most ardent business maneuverings and political power games, but in the silent awareness of a soul at peace.

Game of Thrones: The Power of Weakness

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never watched the show, but plan on doing it, this has spoilers. If you’re more or less up-to-date, yet haven’t seen the last few episodes, it doesn’t give anything away].

On Game of Thrones, penile amputation has the perhaps unanticipated effect of making characters into better men. (Or is that actually the expected effect?)  Theon Greyjoy begins his career as a raider and murderer, specializing in pillage and the betrayal of close family friends; after prolonged torture and the severance of his male member, he lands, rather flat-footedly, on the Good Guys’ team. Redemption is possible on the continent of Westeros—but (to understate it) at a price. In the words of Yeats, “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

Varys, professional whisperer in corridors, underwent the same thoroughly unpleasant ordeal as a child, making him into a eunuch, and hence, into another one of the Good Guys—though an infinitely more articulate one than Theon. Withdrawn from the field of sexual combat, he’s able to see situations with clarity and empathy; he’s grown rigorously detached, thanks to that initial, cruelly physical detachment.  Again, Tyrion Lannister has a brush with the fate-worse-than-death: he momentarily falls into the hands of slave traders who threaten to divide him from his better half, but decide to wait until they can find a “cock merchant.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to become a genuinely nice person on this show without having endured a physically or psychologically scarring trauma. The heroes are all maligned and beset outsiders—Tyrion is a dwarf, John Snow is of illegitimate birth, Daenerys is initially a powerless outcast forced into an unwanted marriage, Sansa and Arya undergo their own endless gauntlets of humiliation and pain… Even Jaime Lannister became relatively more sympathetic after he lost his hand.  Cersei, the most repugnant villain of all (well, next to Ramsay Bolton… God, this show has a huge cast…) has just undergone her own Walk of Shame, though I’m not sure it will have any serious long-term effect on her personality.

Conversely, Good Guys who haven’t been sufficiently traumatized or maimed fail to survive: Ned Stark is decapitated, and Catherine Stark and Robb Stark get murdered at the “Red Wedding.” Suffering creates depth, and the hoary adage, “That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger,” is proved over and over again on Thrones. By contrast, the rich and powerful are surrounded by an aura of intimidating earthly glory—yet, ultimately, they’re just a bunch of walking appetites. Tywin Lannister, Cersei, Ramsay… all are (or, in Tywin’s case, were) evil in complicated ways, but remain fundamentally shallow. The only characters who can conceive of a situation in total, who have minds that engage with subjects more absorbing than predatory self-interest, are people like John Snow. Snow senses the crucial imperative of uniting with the Wildlings in order to defeat the White Walkers, because his woundedness and outsider status allow him to see the world with awakened eyes.

(As a side-note: when you type words like “Wildlings” and “White Walkers” in rapid succession, you realize how, despite it’s widespread popularity, Game of Thrones is still fundamentally an intense nerd-fest. Yet, it’s escaped the fate of catering exclusively to the Comic Con crowd. Credit, of course, copious nudity for the show’s—ahem—enlargement of its viewership. According to the New York Times, even President Obama watches it—though the same article described Thrones as a brutal recreation of “the wars of medieval Europe,” which it is not.)

Beyond the inducements of titillating brothel sequences, the show’s storytelling strength comes from this narrative of weakness as a paradoxical source of strength. The more terrible things befall Tyrion and Snow and Sansa, the greater the ultimate payoff will be when and if they finally succeed.  At this point, we watch the show expecting to see our hopes for the heroes get thwarted: the record of misfortunes lengthens and lengthens, making the feat of finally steering the survivors to a reasonably satisfying denouement all the more daunting and therefore exciting to anticipate. We quite naturally want to see the apparently weak, yet more resourceful people triumph, but we don’t want this to be easy. We want the resilience they’ve gained to matter, to help drive the story to some sort of happy-ish ending in which the Good Guys finally gain power.

Yet the course of the show strongly implies that power itself may be the problem. When Daenerys takes over Mereen (and, yes—these damned fantasy names do make one feel slightly ridiculous as one types one’s semi-earnest think-piece) she discovers that wielding power is full of dialectical contradictions: if you reign with too much justice and not enough mercy, you spark discontent, and if you reign with laxity, you fall prey to the designs of the craftily unjust.

That’s why The Lord of the Rings has the greatest ending of any fantasy novel. As W.H. Auden observed, the conclusion to the Rings trilogy beats out both the Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost in its depiction of how ultimate Good ought to defeat ultimate Evil. In Revelation and Milton’s work, God crushes Satan through superior firepower—which is a little disconcerting, since it implies that the difference between Deity and Devil is not so much a moral difference, as it is a matter of having the biggest guns on your side. The Lord of the Rings gives us epic battle sequences as well, but they’re ultimately a sideshow to the main event: the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom. The Good Guys, Frodo and Sam, defeat Evil by refusing to meet it on its own terms—instead of using the ring to enhance their own power (transforming humble Hobbits into future Saurons, or, less magnificently, future Gollums), they renounce it, and destroy the very object that embodies power.

If the world worked differently, this is what we wish the Good Guys could always do—and it’s what some universally admired heroes (Gandhi, King, Mandela) actually, in a sense, did. They used apparent powerlessness as a paradoxical source of power: their voices were amplified by imprisonment and persecution, not stifled. But, unfortunately, these tactics don’t work in all circumstances: if Gandhi had tried to resist Hitler with non-violence, he would’ve been killed before he’d gained any followers.  The continent of Westeros seems like another place where violence can’t be renounced in order to purchase victory.  It’s a less High Romantic locale than Middle Earth, and the possibility of a fully harmonious conclusion is a bit uncertain.

Perhaps the Good Guys will manage to balance pragmatism and idealism, get their hands on some superior firepower (dragons) and learn how to use it in an effective way, winning single-payer healthcare and free-tuition at public universities for the masses of Westeros. But maybe, given all the mysterious stuff going down with Bran and the Children of the Forest (again, the mild sense of ridiculousness intrudes as I type…) the possibility of pulling the same sort of trick as Frodo and Sam will come to light. It’s possible that, in the words of Dylan, they’ll be able to miraculously, “win the war after losing every battle.”

An Obligatory Anti-Trump Comment

by Sam Buntz

There is a definite irony involved in writing an anti-Trump essay: it’s a piece that should be persuasive—yet, if one hasn’t been persuaded to oppose Trump by listening to his fragmentary speeches, in which clauses and phrases are tossed up like confetti, never to be joined into a single coherent utterance as they scatter over an energy-drink-stoked crowd, one likely will not be convinced by an essay containing a sentence as long as this one.

Against this crisis of purpose, I nevertheless proceed, preaching to whatever choirs may gather. How are we to explain the Trump phenomenon? More laptop keys have been worn of their letters in answering this tired question than any other (at least, in the history of laptops). Does he represent the honest grievances of a betrayed and harried working class, the latent racism of middle-America, a resurgence of populist Huey-Long-style fascism, the failure of traditional religion to yoke its adherents to a philosophically consistent mode of being, the modern Gospel of Wealth, the Freudian Death-Instinct otherwise known as Thanatos, a response to the anomie and entropy bred by modernity, or reality television’s triumphant conversion of American political life into its own medium?

Doubtless he represents all of these things—and more besides. One thing he doesn’t represent is an articulate narrative about American life. He has a narrative, of course, familiar now to everyone—concisely summarized, it reads, “Stupid people lead America, which makes America lose. I’m not stupid, and thus will make a great president who can make America great again.” We all already know this, and my recapitulation of its bold theme is purely rhetorical and pointless—it’s extremely simple, and therefore popular. (True, it doesn’t have the brilliant, clarifying immediacy of an aphorism from Epictetus, but it apparently gets the job done for some people.)

The thing that most amazes me about Trump’s success is that we live in a nation in which embracing cosmopolitanism has never been easier or more practical. In all of our major cities, Sikhs rub elbows with Tibetans who rub elbows with Nigerians who rub elbows with people from Moldova and Azerbaijan. Virtually all cultures converge in America, nestled under the overarching principles of liberal democracy—which should be exciting and should feel like the fulfillment of something…like, perhaps, the promise of America in its deepest and truest sense? The world is open. If that sounds trite and like something Thomas Friedman would say—well, maybe that’s because it is. It shouldn’t sound that way—not if we were having a conversation in some lofty realm of the Ideal, wearing togas among the clouds. But, unfortunately, we inhabit modern chaos, and that’s all there is to it.

As studies have shown, when presented with the vast marketplace of ideas ostensibly existing on the Internet, people narrow their views. The public recoils from too much information into an extreme selectivity—they edit out the voices that are confusing or that they don’t want to hear. The task of thinking seems not invigorating, but tiring—so much material to wade through, as though we were called upon to play existentialist versions of Woodward and Bernstein. It’s best you don’t get started… Hence, any mildly conscious person who uses social media is aware that, in their political dimensions, Facebook and Twitter resemble a large number of padded cells, with loud and decidedly one-sided conversations taking place in each one.

Trump’s voice is certainly the loudest and happens to be located in one of the most populous cells. He offers his devotees the ultimate negative reaction to the complexity of globalization and modernity—a full-on rejection. No Mexicans, no Muslims, no pesky thoughts. While the best guess anyone can make right now is that Hillary beats him in November, I wonder what the future of Trumpian discontent is, beyond the election. To what extent can America—or for that matter, Europe, or The West in general—learn how to assimilate and adjust to the fusion and mingling necessitated by globalization, that cultural exchange which is both its glory and severest challenge? Is the retreat into a narrow perspective inevitable?

I originally wrote an optimistic ending to this column, but it drifted into vagueness. I didn’t actually put it this way, yet it sounded a bit like I was saying, “Maybe all the people can just come together, and learn from each other.” It was, underneath the verbiage, very Woodstock.

Ultimately, I have no idea how the American people can salvage their battered attention spans from the gutter. Maybe some catastrophe will prod us out of our unreflective rages and stupors, or maybe nothing will happen at all, and we’ll just senesce over time, until something in the system fails, things start to unravel, Vandals and Visigoths show up on the stoop… But is it possible we’re leaving something out of our calculations?

The logical thing to do would be to propose an alternative. I can do that—but I’m merely “ready” for Hillary (Sanders being semi-officially dead in the water), not enthusiastic. By all means, vote for her—I will.  While I can’t quite summon the apparition of a brave new future to attend her passage into office, I can mention the happy fact that she is not, in fact, a raving maniac.  So, yeah—vote.

Yet, before you vote, I would urge you to drop out. Definitely don’t “turn on,” probably don’t “tune in” (unless that means something deeper than drug use), but drop out. Cast your ballot into the void, and then hurry home to your own private corner of the abyss. Turn inward—create something in private. Spread kindness, but don’t preach socialism or libertarianism or any of that stuffing. “Tap inside”—as Emerson put it. Yield to charity, but don’t listen to the cacophony telling you how specifically you should be socially concerned or charitable. Ignore all voices but the still, small voice that visits you at three in the morning. Marinate inwardly. Ferment. Retreat into darkness and chisel for gold.

And then, maybe, in the future—four or eight or twenty years from now—you’ll be able to emerge from your period of seclusion and use whatever you’ve created to capture someone’s attention in a way that isn’t completely sordid. And if you can do that—in the words of Dave Chapelle, “Congratulations, bill: you’re a law.”

Prince: Genius of the Sacred and Profane

by Sam Buntz

I discovered Prince in the Paddock Music Library at Dartmouth College in 2010. Of course, I’d heard of Prince before then, and am sure I’d listened to “When Doves Cry” and “Little Red Corvette,” but for some reason, I hadn’t experienced any albums in full, nor had I granted his music my complete or even mostly undivided attention. I don’t know why I was so late to the game—I suppose I’d received, somewhere along the line, the severely misguided impression that Prince was a very poppy pop star. I didn’t even realize that he wrote his own songs, let alone that he was essentially a Mozartian prodigy. My illusions, however, were ripe for puncturing.

The librarians and student workers at Paddock greeted my selection of Purple Rain with extreme and enthusiastic approval. Expectations ran high, and the atmosphere sizzled. Across the greater Upper Valley, dogs perked up their ears, startled by a sudden change in the earth’s electromagnetic fields.

They knew that someone’s mind was about to be blown.

Back at my dorm room—breath bated, hands clammy—I inserted Purple Rain into my laptop and adjusted the speakers. In the understated words of T.S. Eliot describing the birth of the Christ child, “It was (you may say) satisfactory.”

Of course, it was more than “satisfactory.” For some reason, the first song I listened to was “Take Me with U,” and its orchestral fullness immediately grabbed me. (I don’t know why I didn’t listen from the beginning: “Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening track, might be my favorite Prince song, and some critics consider “Take Me with U” the album’s weakest track—not me, though). It conveyed a sense of movement, of someone actually taking someone else with them. Now, I know that sounds stupid, but if you’ve heard the song you’ll realize how precisely accurate it is. (I liked the breakdown with the toms too.)

A few months later, I was immersed in Prince’s music. I had a particular affection for Dirty Mind—it seemed to be the necessary dash of Yang in my Yin-overloaded life—but Purple Rain still remains, for me, at the canonical center of his output. I love Sign o’ the Times almost equally, and am more than willing to admit it might be his masterpiece, but find myself continually returning to the concentrated power of the earlier work.

Now, Prince has passed from our shadow-lands to a realm of eternal day—voyaging across some metaphysical gulf to “the afterworld” where “you can always see the sun, day or night”—in the words of “Let’s Go Crazy.”

He was a figure who managed to incarnate numerous contradictory impulses and divergent cultural tendencies—harmonizing, synthesizing, unifying, reconciling. The most obvious duality is that of his blatant sexuality and earnest religiosity, two pieces of the psyche that many people would consider to be totally opposed. But this is deep, deep in the American grain—what is it but an extension of the blues man’s love for the Blues and for Gospel, for the Sacred and the Profane, for the tension necessary to add adequate seasoning to life? Prince’s compulsive horniness routinely baited him into an awareness of something greater than himself; it’s an essential aspect of his project.

Indeed, there was a wholeness to Prince’s music; black and white, Bible and Kama Sutra, masculine and feminine, rock and pop—the double-consciousness of American experience was fully present within him. He would sing about a girl named Nikki who “you could say […] was a sex fiend,” before asking us if we could “bear the Cross,” in the same concert. He’d swing between the tender, balladic, avant-pop anthemics of “Purple Rain” to the graphic sex-funk of “Head” with no real feeling of radical disruption, because he was expressing the swirl of feelings that quarry in almost every human breast—raw lust, true love, spiritual longing, the concoction of all of these and more. And he expressed those varied feelings with an unbelievable array of talents: he could play guitar as well as Hendrix, compose melodies like McCartney, and funk-it-up with the attitude of George Clinton.

In our current age of hits written by twenty or more people, simply observe the songwriting credits to Sign o’ the Times: out of sixteen tracks, thirteen were written and composed entirely by Prince himself (he played a ton of the instruments to boot). On a double-album that renowned, this is a level of individual accomplishment perhaps akin only to Stevie Wonder’s on Songs in the Key of Life.

A kind of Tantric Christian, Prince combined the sex god deification of early MTV with a spiritual journey, a quest that led him from his childhood as a Seventh Day Adventist to a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both of those denominations, fittingly, began here—like their illustrious adherent, they’re American Originals, manifestations of the way the Holy Spirit comes to dance in the New World. While expressing the religiosity of our own climate, nothing remained foreign to Prince—he was “at play in the fields of the Lord,” bounding across the full terrain of musical experience, from hip-hop to the Beatles-esque melodies of tunes like “Raspberry Beret.”

Considering his career’s trajectory, you can draw an insane parallel between Prince and the poet William Wordsworth—they both had a great decade (in Prince’s case, that basically means the ’80s, including a few years prior and after) before gradually becoming less radical and less artistically successful, with Wordsworth converting to orthodox Anglicanism and Prince to the Witnesses. But this is not to say that Prince either burned out or faded away. He continued to express his social conscience—consider his Baltimore Concert after Freddie Gray’s death. Additionally, his impact on contemporary music is impossible to overstate: plenty of last year’s biggest hits, like “Uptown Funk” and The Weeknd’s chart-topping songs, owe a major debt to His Royal Badness.

In an era of cheap satisfactions and empty calories, Prince reminds us that transformative musical genius is a real thing, and it can’t help asserting itself through all the white noise that regularly assails us. After all, that’s what Prince evidently was—a genius—and in the wake of his passing, it’s what we’ll be remembering and celebrating.

“The Big Short” Revives Your Idealism by Hilariously and Righteously Appalling You

by Sam Buntz

It may seem amazing, indeed miraculous, that the guy who directed Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby went on to direct The Big Short—my favorite of the movies from 2015 I’ve seen so far. (Granted, I still haven’t seen The Revenant, Bridge of Spies, The Hateful Eight…and a bit more besides). But it doesn’t seem miraculous to me, because creating comedy is hard.

I labored for a weird, collegiate idle in the standup comedy salt mines, and realized that life is but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The amount of crappy comedy out there is staggering, and a genuinely amusing Will Ferrell movie like Step Brothers deserves all the cred it can get. It’s infinitely easier to write or direct a somberly trudging period piece or a domestic melodrama than it is to be consistently funny; hence, the ascent of Adam McKay into potential Best Director Oscar territory should not come as a huge surprise.

The Big Short (co-written by McKay along with Christopher Randolph) details the true stories behind the people who guessed, circa 2006, that the housing market was ready to collapse in the next year or two, brought down by all those trashy, unstable subprime loans and the bonds underlying them. By betting against the market (“shorting” it), they were able to secure a massive payoff. Among these clairvoyant financial visionaries are Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who experience both the intoxication and the anxiety of knowing more than everyone else.

While the people responsible for the predatory lending of subprime loans appear to be idiotic bros—one of whom is portrayed by Schmidt (Max Greenfield) from New Girl—the smart guys, by-and-large, are outsiders. Burry has a glass eye, a condition that, along with his social awkwardness, separates him from the mass of men—yet, ironically, he can see farther than anyone else, spotting the signs of imminent collapse first. As a child, Baum used to get great grades at Hebrew School, though his industriousness was fueled by his rebellious search for inconsistencies in the Talmud, an impulse now parlayed into finding inconsistencies in the market.

In addition to these quirky performances, another impressive element of the movie is its sheer density. It clarifies much about the financial crisis, yet retains depths and layers—shying in little symbols that you might not notice the first time. For instance, at one point, a character is flipping through TV channels, which show images of both Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong—connecting their own steroid-inflated success to the false prosperity of the housing market.

The movie also makes extensive and impressive use of what the German playwright Bertolt Brecht dubbed “the alienation effect.” Characters address us directly, reminding us that we’re watching a movie, and Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez provide unexpected cameos, explaining how financial tricks like CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) work via clever analogies. While amusing us, these moments also (intentionally) prevent us from accepting the movie solely or purely as entertainment. They make us concentrate on its message. And The Big Short is overtly and unapologetically a message movie—the message being: people don’t act in their own “rational self-interest,” and greed and stupidity will ultimately hold the field.

Instead of becoming excessively caught up in the characters’ quest for their MacGuffin (their desired goal, the payoff generated by the “Big Short” of the title), we’re pushed back, forced to consider the movie with more objectivity.   We focus on what it’s actually saying, and we learn its lessons—we eat our vegetables and enjoy it.  Being a purveyor of socialist educational theater, Brecht would’ve been proud.

The Big Short reminded me of why I’m supporting Bernie Sanders (who himself endorsed the movie). Occasionally, the more cautious Sanders supporter starts to think, “Maybe this is all too idealistic… Like, are we really going to have single-payer healthcare and free tuition in state colleges with a Republican-led congress?” But then you remember the roots of your discontent—you see the full battery of dirty tricks used by the big banks, thoroughly exposed and detailed. And you’re reminded that gradual and minimal change, and the impulse to be “reasonable,” can simply act as a smokescreen for unbridled greed. You feel the need to do something—to take a stand, regardless of its imperfect footing. And I’m grateful to The Big Short for that reminder.

Midnight Reflections on “The Witch”

by Sam Buntz

I respected The Witch, but I didn’t love it. The movie has some genuinely disquieting images—they are, to cite a cliché, “guaranteed to give you nightmares”—and is technically well made, using natural lighting throughout. Some of the masterfully composed candle-lit scenes feel like Rembrandt paintings come to life.  Yet it lacks story: it doesn’t have the structural myth-building of a horror movie like The Omen or The Conjuring. To be fair, it isn’t supposed to. It’s meant to be more like The Shining in its slow-burn reliance on atmosphere and tone (props to A.A. Down of the AVClub for highlighting the Shining influence, which now seems obvious). I marveled at its cold mastery, but I didn’t really have fun.

(However, one important difference between Kubrick and the writer-director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, is that Eggers gets great performances from his actors, whereas Kubrick’s control freak mentality tended to generate frankly lousy, typically overwrought performances — as Pauline Kael once observed).

The plot chronicles a 17th Century Puritan family’s isolated life in the midst of the New England woods. The father of the family (Ralph Ineson) breaks with the elders of their Puritan colony (Plymouth Plantation, perhaps?), subjecting his brood to the vagaries of life in the wilderness—which ends up involving a witch with a predilection for gross nudity. (No body-shaming intended—if you have a thing for grotesque love-handles covered by semi-decayed-looking skin you will probably feel a twinge of desire for this malign babe).

The disappearance of the family’s baby devolves into an inferno of mutual suspicion, centering on the budding pre-teen daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose first menstrual period coincides with her potential seduction into witchery (isn’t that always the way?). Will she flee her dour Calvinist surroundings and embrace true evil, in order to “live deliciously”—or stick with the boringly moral route?

There is no “stairway of surprise” in The Witch, and you might be able to guess where it’s going—though some of the imagery attending that arc is surprising and authentically disturbing. Once you figure out the movie’s “vibe,” you know that vibe will remain consistent throughout—we’re going straight to the bottom of Satanic Darkness. Also, we’re not going to get any back-story about the titular witch or arrive at any overly neat conclusions; evil phantasmagoria will sweep us away. The pilgrim family’s anxieties—over damnation, sexuality, and child mortality—are all ripe for supernatural exploitation, ready to explode into full horror-show mode, as they eventually do.

Despite my failure to fully embrace it—and it is mostly my failure—The Witch is a great movie to contemplate, providing excellent fodder for idle academic chatter. Its major achievement is essentially one of empathy. It enters into the mindset of 17th Century Puritans ultra-convincingly, without flinching or qualifying, fusing meticulous historical detail with the fever-dream irrationality of a particularly nasty New England folktale. (The movie’s period-accurate Early Modern English is a much more successful experiment than, say, Mel Gibson’s largely pointless forays into Aramaic and Mayan cinema with English subtitles). You might draw a seemingly bizarre yet helpful comparison with Latin American magical realism: we inhabit the characters’ world as they inhabit it. Instead of remaining objective outside-observers, the audience is thrust into the center of the characters’ obsessions and fears—obsessions and fears that miraculously comport with reality. The story isn’t “all in their heads,” and what they believe to be possible is, in fact, possible.

For instance, the Puritans thought female sexuality was a destructive force, and in The Witch—it is a destructive force! (To be fair, masculine pride comes in for a drubbing, as well: the family patriarch gets his brood into this mess to begin with, thanks to his stubborn refusal to conform to the doctrines of their Puritan colony). The movie interprets the psychosexual world of its characters’ literally, which can be disorienting. I think some critics are bound to take the overly obvious route and say the film is sexist or anti-feminist, assuming that Eggers actually agrees with the extremist Calvinist worldview. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and reading an interview with Eggers completely annihilates this notion. To the contrary, by presenting the Puritan worldview as a magical realist nightmare, Eggers shows us both how different the past was and how similar. It makes us wonder—have we really liberated ourselves from these ancient prejudices and irrational anxieties? Or are they still lurking under the surface? Is the world of the past then, in some sense, the world of the present?

The psychosexual fear at the center of The Witch can be articulated thusly: the life-giving potential of women can transform into life-taking potential. Women can go rogue, rebel against God, and start killing babies instead of making them. (This is a sick fantasy, but we occasionally do find real life examples—every now and then, the police will unearth a bunch of dead babies from some crazy lady’s backyard). It’s a natural anxiety for a patriarchal society to have, anyway: “Hey, maybe instead of feeding nutritious and hearty stews to the children, the ladies will start thinking that the children might make tasty ingredients in those stews…” It’s the essence of so many witchy fairytales (see “Hansel and Gretel”).

I’m not saying I’m personally beset with these anxieties—I don’t routinely walk around, wondering, “Is the womb fundamentally identifiable with the tomb???”—but I accept that it’s apparently some sort of primordial terror, buried in the subconscious. (Lest we think witchcraft panics were restricted to Salem and environs three hundred years ago, recall the unfounded “Satanic Ritual Abuse” panic of the 1980s).

The movie’s other central fear involves non-conformity, and this likely has even more modern resonance than the “womb = tomb” thing. The father’s decision to sever his family’s connection with its natural group—the Puritan colony—leaves it open to an assault by the forces of evil. In our social media culture, there are plenty of people who feel cast into outer darkness, torn from the Community of the Saved, by their inability to meld with the cult of relentless likeability, awesomeness, and forced positivity that crowds us whenever we go online (unless we start reading comments sections). The contemporary “fear of missing out” is a much milder version of this Puritan family’s isolated terror, but it’s still a prominent piece of our collective psyche. Huddle together, or be damned.

In the end, despite my inability to love it, I have to recommend The Witch. It provides ample food for thought—seasoned with crushed baby bones fresh from the mortar.