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My preparations for seminary continue apace. Not only am I trying to ready myself spiritually, but I have had to divest myself of some material goods as well. Today was such a day, a sad one, wherein I sold a much-beloved piece of equipment: my Playstation 3. You see, for me, the PS3 was more than a simple gaming device — it was the hearth of my room, and I used it both for material entertainment — games, movies, television on DVD — but as a spiritual aid as well, using its slide show function to provide iconography for my prayer. Yes, it was a versatile device — as the slogan goes, it only does everything — and it was small and sleek and cool.
See, for the last few years, gaming has provided a meaningful social grease between my friends and I, a place where we could bond, and share and interact. The PS3 was really a social hub, a watering hole of sorts, and getting one sort of made me feel like more a part of the whole than I had been. I also have a sort of brand loyalty to Sony, much like I have to NBC, as the makers of something that always seemed a little more mature than your standard fare. The PS3 wasn’t ever just a gaming system. It was a storytelling device, something that allowed me to engage my senses with incredibly human tales.
I am, I suppose, ever a member of my generation, and games have been a big part. I have owned a gaming console consistently, but for a brief span, since I was four years old. To lose this one — irrevocably in the service of a greater whole — is a considerable loss to this worldly and sinful man.
I trust it has found a good home.
In a stifling July heat made worse by the fact that to live in a major city is to in fact live on a giant mirror, where glass and asphalt kick up the sun and only deaden further the bleary eyes of the sweat-stained rabble, I sit about five miles from the place where, in 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first holder of what was then frequently known as the chief magistracy. That building, Federal Hall, no longer stands, and the city in which it did stand is now unrecognizable. New York in 1789 was hardly a powerhouse; the largest city in the United States was still Philadelphia at a bone-shattering thirty-thousand people. Today, New York has over eight-million people, more than the entire state of Virginia, which was itself the single largest state in the Union at the time of Washington’s inauguration.
It’s the Fourth of July. It’s Independence Day, and as always, it is a day of immense conflict for me.
Longtime readers will remember my difficulties with patriotism, which I’ve written about at length in the past but boil down to an unwillingness to be quite as generous in my affection to my country as I am often told I should be. I don’t believe in American exceptionalism. I don’t believe in the five-thousand year leap. I don’t justify our every policy and I don’t think our banner stainless. To the contrary, for this blogger American patriotism has too often contained more arrogance and pride than I am willing to stomach. Further, I believe that being a Christian, being a Catholic specifically, certainly calls me to be more cosmopolitan than parochial — rather than elevate above others my nation, I should place it in its due position amidst the powers and principalities of history: as passing thing which today commands the awe of the world and will tomorrow crumble to dust and the day after be completely forgotten. The only eternal thing is God. The only human edifice God has guaranteed is the Church. It’s only in Christ are we rightly formed. He speaks more to human goodness and freedom than the American Revolution could ever have hoped to, and our irrevocable independence is in comparison to our baptism trite and meaningless.
For all that, I’ve tried and have been trying to reconcile myself to my country, to make sense of that constellation of stars, that expanse of mountains and plains and rivers full of discord and contradiction as its people struggle to play out and comprehend the creedal charge contained in this country’s birth. We don’t understand our freedom. We never have. From the earliest moments of the Revolution onward, we have tried without success to make coherent sense of liberty, of representative government, of the republic. We’ve vacillated over the role of work and of wealth, and our founders were at times diametrically opposed to one another’s vision for this new and wild country straddling North America like a bull.
Freedom is not independence. It never has been, and it never will be. Freedom isn’t liberation from a crown. Freedom isn’t casting off a tyrant. Freedom isn’t representative government. Freedom can’t be found in bills of rights or constitutions. Freedom belongs to and is only received from Christ, and only in Christ is man free. That freedom isn’t the right to do what we want, but to do what we ought. Freedom is moral in that freedom points to morality. Freedom invites us to be good. It demands it, even. And anything other than that is the basest slavery.
Our government may be good, but it’s good only insofar as it provides a space wherein man might be good. It doesn’t give us our freedoms — it recognizes them. That’s important to remember. We aren’t free because “Congress shall pass no law…” We either are or are not free before those words come into play. Either we have freedom in Christ, the freedom that points to God and to moral and spiritual greatness, to meaning and grace and beauty and truth — or we have no freedom at all, and the only use we may make of the space a civil constitution provides for freedom is to debase ourselves and subject the world to our chains.
May God bless America, because we cannot bless it ourselves.
I have had these past two weeks much on my mind. If I might be permitted a respite from the usual fare of this blog (gentles, do not reprehend), I would like to share my thoughts on what is, I believe, a most important matter, that which appears to have the countenance of an approaching crisis which I would rather we enter into, if we must, with minds and consciences fully formed. If it must be demanded, it must be understood.
As we are all aware, the healthcare legislation has provoked something of an uproar among its opponents; regardless of the act’s passage, the opposition to it has hardly abated. It surrounds itself with fire and vitriol, and we, the weary bystanders, must still sit and watch the violent circus that continues to play before our eyes. There is a particular tenor to it, though, that rings unfamiliar and strange to those who have not made a hobby of following fringe politics; of course, my own fascination with such movements may give me a sense of a false heightening of rhetoric, being that I, in fact, pursue these stories, this news. But the stories I have found trouble me with that odd and tense excitement bad news can often bring.
The issue under discussion now is the so-called Obamacare health act, which does lots of things, among them obliging people to purchase health insurance under penalty of law, which is the key complaint against it. Seventeen states, if I recall correctly, including my own old home of Virginia, have filed suit against the federal government charging the statute to be in violation of constitutional law. This is a perfectly valid — and I daresay the preferred — manner of bringing this sort of grievance to the government; it proceeds through proper channels, and when a decision is rendered it is abided by.
But other states, most notably Louisiana and apparently Texas, have taken a distinctly different approach. Louisiana governor Jindal has backed a proposal (which according to the New York Times mirrors proposed legislation in over thirty states) which would declare that the state will not enforce the health act within its borders, that it is null and void in Louisiana, and not to be considered law, because it is held to be unconstitutional.
This is nullification, the states’ rights doctrine which maintains that a state, as a constituent member of the compact forming the Union, has the role of Constitutional check on Federal action distinct, and inevitably above, the Supreme Court. It works from the fundamental political concept that authority derives via consent of the governed, and the more uncertain one that the Constitution is a contract between states who together agree to form (and be formed by) a common Union. Thus, the doctrine of nullification holds that a state may, if it determines legislation to be unconstitutional (and thus in violation of the interstate compact which it holds the Constitutional to ultimately be), it may nullify or abrogate that law within its own borders of its own initiative until such a time as the law is either repealed by a subsequent statute or in fact made constitutional via the amendment process.
This is the broad principle; much has been written and debated about this over time, especially considering that the United States already faced the issue of nullification way back during the presidency of John Adams, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison authored the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts, of which nothing came as the laws were eventually repealed, but which laid the philosophical groundwork for a much more impressive challenge in the 1830’s, during the Jackson administration. The same principles as articulated above were maintained — that an act deemed unconstitutional could be nullified as law within the boundaries of the nullifying state, in this particular case the tariff of 1828.
The trouble with nullification is twofold: 1) it is a reasonable position that 2) is immensely dangerous. It’s reasonable because, yes, one can view the nature of the Union as deriving its authority from the states and thus subject to the states, the states being the signatory parties to its foundational document. There are, however, to that view dear and dangerous consequences. If the Union is subject to the states, and derives it’s sovereignty from them as legal bodies and not from the collective popular sovereignty of the people, then the Union is meaningless. It is a mere league, and confederation, and not a government
If Louisiana, now, passes this legislation, what it does is singlehandedly challenge the very nature of the United States as a body. If a state has the power to abrogate federal authority at will (and the wildly differing interpretations of constitutionality make the proviso that it will only do so if an act is unconstitutional virtual gibberish), then the federal government has no authority at all, and cannot govern. Let me repeat that: nullification means the government cannot govern. Federal supremacy — itself a constitutional principle and mandate — is essential to the existence of the Union; it ensures that there will be unity of law and administration, that the Union is capable of exercising power over the states, and that that power is not exercised at the point of a gun; it is done by mutual respect for law.
Unfortunately, in any nullification crisis — be it the one Jackson confronted in the early 1830’s or the one that seems to be brewing now — the point of a gun is the only power the Union will be able to muster. The functioning of the United States is incumbent upon all parties agreeing that, absent major constitutional reform, federal law trumps state law, and that the process for challenging that law is the judiciary. This keeps battles in statehouses and courtrooms, and outside of armies.
If this is not the case — if a state is free to follow its whims and deny federal authority wherever it happens to disagree with opinion in its legislature or governor’s mansion, then the Union has fallen. It means the Union isn’t binding. It means federal sovereignty is subject to that of the states, and thus has and can have no real power over them but that power which they agree to cede on a case by case basis; the moment this becomes even a prevailing theory, the next logical step is to contemplate secession.
This has already happened. This is the same pattern it took when the Union seemed to be hurtling towards its doom in the 1830’s, and here it is, again: the logical next step from nullification is secession. The abrogation of federal authority in a state in one instance must lead to its abrogation in all instances. There is no “Union, with limits;” option here. A state can’t determine what laws it does and does not wish to follow. To be a part of the Union is to be subject to its laws and methods, and to allow the sovereignty of the state to be subsumed into the sovereignty of the whole. It’s Union, or No.
A conversation has been ongoing on the message board I admin as to the definition and substance of hipsterism. This is not a topic we have failed to cover here, but I figure it might be time to bring it back under discussion; after all, I am now myself a resident of Williamsburg, the hipster capital of the Eastern Seaboard, and they are frankly everywhere. I don’t look down on them — much as my brief exposition soon to follow might indicate otherwise — and I am sure they are largely, to the best of their ability, honest and sincere, hapless, if you will, victims of a personal and cultural crisis.
The discussion has been wending as to whether or not a particular poster is, in fact, a hipster. I’m not sure I could answer that question, because it is, in perspective, a fairly large one. It hinges on social identity, which is a pretty complex construct (about which much has been written already, and I am sure I offer little if any substance to the conversation) — it’s how one relates to society-as-society, society-as-culture, and to yourself.
I propose hipsters are existential monsters, unable to engage the concept of a meaningful world with regards either to themselves or others.
We in the twenty-first live in a post-production, almost post-consumer society. Our lives are completely automated, and we know how to do little, neither how to wire a circuit board nor build a treehouse nor distill shitty rubbing-alcohol gin. We devote ourselves largely to recreation, and find little if any identity in our work, coasting from employer to employer, and often profession to profession. We are unskilled specialists, trained for an information economy that expects little from us but to soak up the stream. Because of this, we don’t know who we are.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon; the postwar generation, the Boomers, ran into a similar situation. The first generation to grow up almost entirely free from material want, intensely educated, and obscenely wealthy, they lived in the shadow of a generation that had endured the Depression and managed to kayoh Hitler. Their existential angst was directed outward, and the Boomers dealt with their giant identity crisis by launching all-out war on social mores and hangups, and largely succeeded — but as a result, we have no such outlets. We aren’t political because politics no longer seems relevant, and if we are political, we have to struggle to find issues, but ultimately, we want less to correct injustice than we want to feel like our lives possess some kind of moral force, and so seek out injustices.
Because we have no collective outlet through which to vent our frustrations with ourselves, frustrations essentially caused by our lack of social identity, we pour ourselves into — well — ourselves. The result is a bizarre memetic collective, a latching onto irony and authenticity and a marked inability to determine which is which. Hipsters appropriate anything they can find, suck the meaning out of it — because they don’t know what meaning is and function as pure, if shallow, aesthetes — and leave mere wraith, a superficial facade where once was something true. Something ugly. Something false. Kitsch.
My favorite example of that is the kheffiyeh. It’s a Palestinian garment, and rose in prominence as something worn to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But now, it’s nothing but an accessory, available in every color of the rainbow. Kitsch.
Kitsch, more than anything else, defines the hipster ethos.
Everything is kitsch.
I like to think I have, to some extent, avoided this, but I’m not sure if that’s true. If I have, it has been only because I found my identity in Christ, and didn’t need to find it in pouring everything down the gullet to see what I shat out in the end. Christ is ultimately the answer to the question that plagues the Millennials more than it has likely plagued any generation before it. Who am I? What am I here to do, when it seems there’s nothing left to do at all?
You’re a son or daughter of God, and you’re here to love. Call it kitschy if you want, but at least it’s something true.
Guest post by True Burns of the Blarg, which I’ve been sitting on for three weeks. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
It seems the city of Ladero, Texas is now utterly without a bookstore. I’m not going to use that opening to make a “Texans are illiterate” joke. I’ve decided to instead make a horrible pun. While this sounds like a tragedy on paper, especially to the intellectual class, something else needs to be considered. The matter may not be so much “people aren’t reading” as much as “people aren’t reading books“, or at least not in the traditional sense. Discussion of the fall of print media has to this point largely been confined to newspapers and their struggle to find a newer, more profitable business model as exemplified by the recent misadventures of the Gray Lady. Despite the article’s immediate lament that people aren’t reading, it may be more instructive to consider instead WHAT they’re reading.
If this article had been written as few as 10 years ago I’d probably be jumping on the bandwagon to mourn the fall of literacy. But in that time several things have shifted, chief among the sudden commercial viability of the E-reader. Sales of Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook have been explosive, along with their respective e-book catalogs. Additionally, Google has taken a “forgiveness rather than permission” approach to it’s mission to digitize as much of human literature as possible, and seems to have won out despite serious initial concerns over intellectual property from such parties as the estate of John Steinbeck and France. Along with the incredible degree of mobile web access provided by the iPhone, all these contribute to an environment of what can be described as bookless literacy. As video killed the radio star, once more we’re in a transition period as an old medium gives way to another. You don’t need a book or newspaper to access literature or daily news when both are easily accessibly online . Even those in the lowest income brackets can still take advantage of free web access provided at any public library in the country. As such, books are simply passing as the primary vehicle for the transmission of literacy.
But then the preceding points ignore several important facts: As of 2003 Texas actually DOES have the highest illiteracy rate nationwide, with 19 percent state wide lacking basic prose literacy skills. In Webb County, where Laredo resides, that rises to a horrifying 48 percent. In opposition to my earlier sunny optimism, people may not be reading in Laredo simply becausethey can’t. To say nothing of the fact that, while reasonably priced given all they can do, both the Kindle and the Nook, both at $260, are still expensive enough to be considered luxuries for most people in the current economic environment, let alone lower income people who could gain great benefit from free wireless access and the much lower price of ebooks compared to their physical counterparts.
So, a few days ago, my friend Dustin over at The Paper-Thin Hymn, did a pretty compelling write-up about how we, societally, approach Christ and the Gospel. I’ve covered some of this territory myself in the past, but I think Dustin’s approach is very insightful. Whereas I hopped on what is an admittedly-crowded bandwagon of people voicing their frustrations with the way Christ is treated in popular culture, the jokey efforts to strip him of all power and dignity and gravitas, Dustin points out something quite a bit more insidious: we do it to him, too.
Obviously, without the same fervor, moxie, or motive, we still strive to thrust Jesus into some sort of cultural construct so that we might better understand him. It’s the inevitable effect, I suppose, of how we have all been socialized into an anti-establishment narrative. There is a very strong undercurrent — even an over-the-top overcurrent — in praise of chaos. We stare at people like Sid Vicious with a sort of wide-eyed fascination and wonder, thinking a part of me wishes I could be like that, too. Anarchy in the UK, and all that. It’s the love of the wild, the rebel, the flaw, that backalley monster who writhes about on stage, or takes to the woods like Robin Hood. Politically, we’ve got our Che Guevaras, our Mumia Abu-Jamals, our anarchists and Red Brigades and part of us, part of us admires it. Because we admire courage. Because we admire bucking the system. And so, we make Christ the same thing.
He was a radical, a revolutionary, an activist bent on social justice and mercy and showing love to everyone unconditionally. He was doing things completely against the rules of the day, and that’s why “the man” had him killed. Hence the picture is painted as Jesus being some mythic cross between Mother Theresa, Ghandi and Che Guevera.
The phrase “Jesus was a rebel” means different things to different people. Some tend to play up the “judgment” side of things, imagining a warrior Jesus in the vein of Mark Driscoll’s infamous “Jesus is a prizefighter with a tattoo down His leg” portrait. Others, like the Shane Claibornes and Rob Bells of the world, emphasize the “turn the other cheek” peace-love-and-harmony Jesus. I could say that both types are subversive, both are rebellious, and that thankfully Jesus is dynamic enough of a figure to be an icon of rebellion/activism/subversion for pretty much any type of person or cause—whether you’re a hippie, a CEO, or an immigrant farmworker. But that’s not where I’m going with this, though that picture is curious and intriguing enough. Of all the marketing tactics wannabe hip churches might be engaged in, “Jesus was a rebel” is one of the more legitimate in a certain sense, but even then that framework is still far out on the fringe of the issue. It’s missing the point.
Of course rebellion is attractive. Rebellion is proud. It’s the epicenter of pride, its purest expression. It’s the place where we take the throne, where we demand it, where our voices carry and our power must be recognized. Rebellion is about us — and what’s amazing is how we try to fit Christ into that narrative, where he doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Because Christ isn’t the rebel; we are. When you consider what Christ came to accomplish, what Christ came to do, it wasn’t to tear down tyrants, but to rule over them. And he didn’t bring a parliamentary republic, he brought a kingdom. He’s a king, a prince, a power unto himself. And if he’s against the powers of the world, it’s because they have rebelled against him. His is the standard. His is the flag.
So, while Christ might have things too say to Caesar, to Rome, to Washington about how to treat the poor, about how to wage war, about plowshares and pruning hooks, he does this the way a king makes law, because the world is his, and his rebellious children need to be brought into line. He doesn’t endorse rebellion as such, although he can make use of it for his greater ends. But he isn’t some prototypical rebel. He wasn’t an anarchist or a guerrilla. He’s sovereign and lord, reclaiming his throne.
If I might make an aside into politics, I feel the need to say something: I’m not entirely sure what’s going on these days. This is not for lack of trying.
I used to be extraordinarily good at predicting the future. This isn’t to claim any sort of psychic ability — we both know that’s not the case — but I certainly had a talent for understanding politics to the point of being able to predict pretty well the broad strokes years ahead of me, with reasonable accuracy on the particulars. Politics was my forte, my hobby, my passion. I loved to count electoral votes and look at demographic blocs. I thrilled to contemplate ideology colliding with reality and the resulting fallout at the ballot box. I followed the Veepstakes in 2008 with an almost obsessive fervor, and dammit if I didn’t call it.
Some of my accurate predictions?
- The Bush-Kerry brawl in 2004 and its outcome;
- Kerry’s selection of John Edwards as his running mate (I thought the Post’s announcement of Gephardt was completely incoherent);
- the results of the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race (and the 2009, too) and the 2006 Senate race pretty far in advance;
- the ascendancy of Barack Obama (which I followed with great interest);
- the necessity of a McCain victory in the Republican primaries (although I was doubtful as to his chances in both the primaries and the general);
- and most bizarrely, the selection of Sarah Palin as his VP.
All of these are things that could have been seen by anybody paying attention in the right spots, so I’m not claiming particular foresight. But the last year has been nothing like I predicted it.
For one, while I anticipated opposition to Obama’s policies by the GOP, and even expected some fracturing within the Party as it tried to ply a course that would satisfy its base at the same time it tried to reinvent itself to remain competitive, I did not, in a million years, see the Tea Party coming. Oh, when it started I could recognize its influence, but the strange beast itself remained far off my radar screen. This sort of active, frustrated populism seemed like a thing of the past, not likely to rear its head again. And while I predicted a prominent career for former Governor Palin, her decision to resign from office was a blow to the head. What was she doing? Why wasn’t she parlaying her popularity into a Senate run against Lisa Murkowski? What in holy hell was going on? Instead, she pens a memoir and tours the country and seizes what reins there are of this newfangled populist movement.
I am, then, I suppose, no prognosticator among prognosticators, and this humbled diviner has been trying to make sense of the Tea Party for some time. Because I still don’t really get it, and when I don’t understand something, it frustrates and worries me. What is it about this gaggle of angry patriots that so rankles and confuses? I suppose it’s that it’s a movement built on heat. It’s a frustrated uprising, a could and boldly incoherent “No!” to the excesses of the administration. It’s not entirely composed of the fringe birther movement — or adherents to any other conspiracy theory — but still seems directed by fear as the primary mover. Again and again I hear it — “I am afraid for my children. I don’t want to think of the future they’ll have to face. I’m scared.” Again and again and again — “I’m scared.” Fear is a powerful thing.
This isn’t to knock fear as a bad thing. It makes us cautious. Fear can certainly help save lives and avert disaster. But it’s also entirely reactive. It’s not a positive thing; it proposes nothing but doom, and offers nothing but death.
Where, in any of this, is faith? I don’t mean belief — I mean honest trust in God. So much is predicated on the insistence that this is destroying America, and that that would be a catastrophe and tragedy the likes of which the world cannot conceive. But I have news: Heaven and Earth and the United States will all pass away, but Christ’s words will never pass away. The things of the world are just that — worldly. The are temporary, ephemeral, and will ultimately fail. Obama could turn out to be the return of Stalin, and that wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference when it came down to what it means to be a Christian. Neither death nor life, neither socialism nor illegal immigration, neither hurricanes or earthquakes or secret police can keep us from the love of God.
And yet, this movement — which is so rooted, as it were, in Christian heritage — is bereft of Christian thought. In none of it do I see the healthy, holy love of enemy or disinterest in earthly things which is supposed to characterize the believer. Instead, it’s viciousness and vitriol and panic.
Do your worst, world. The Church will still survive. Don’t you know the gates of hell shall never overcome it?
It seems to me that every time Glenn Beck opens his mouth, what issues forth is a cogent analysis of why what Mark Shea calls “the Thing That Used to Be Conservativism” is a violent enemy of the Gospel. I am sure this is not his intent, but there he is, spouting the sort of secular messianism that defines so much of American political discourse. Speaking at CPAC, the annual meeting that sets the agenda for conservatism — an immensely influential and important gathering — Glenn Beck made the following execrable pronouncement: “America is an idea that sets people free.”
Now, to be charitable, I know what he was trying to say, that America’s position as leader of the free world serves as a symbol and inspiration that makes others aspire to the same political liberties and material prosperity. This is undeniably true, and history has borne witness to it time and again. There’s a reason our immigration rate has historically been so high. There’s a reason it’s something that still causes consternation among nativists. We do attract people from all over the world who want what we have, and that’s a good thing, because it means that despite all the shit we’ve tossed out there, we’re still sort of doing something right. So I am not here to deny any of that.
But he’s still dead wrong, because America doesn’t set anybody free. Perhaps I should let this slide as minor quibbling, but I think it’s a fundamental mistake of a sizable magnitude. It is in fact nothing short of the messianization of the American enterprise, and that’s a dangerous path down which to walk. America is not now, nor has it ever been, the people chosen by God to bring the gospel of material wealth and political freedom unto the nations. We are not the Christ among nations (we would have to be willing to undergo far more sacrificial suffering to even approach warranting that title). We’re certainly not the new Israel (the Church). So how exactly are we setting people free? Or rather, how exactly is the mere idea of America setting people free?
Freedom is a spiritual reality and not a political one. Freedom exists in the heart, first and foremost, and is brought to its fullness in man’s freedom in Christ. Any liberation from a tyrant must first proceed from the heart, and ultimately thence from God. Man is converted and thus freed. He does not look overseas at the Stars and Stripes and there become free. A free man is not the man who has to set himself adrift on a raft to find his liberty, hoping to wash up on Florida’s shore; no, the free man is the one who precisely does not need to do that. His freedom is interior, and not found in civil rights.
Beck elevates, though, America to the position of the shining beacon, proclaiming human freedom above all others. In this, he turns America into the Gospel. The message is America. The goal is America. The preacher is America. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was spelled “America.” There is little room for Christ in such a vision.
Of couse, that’s okay. America is our secular religion, and object of our secular worship. Our spiritual faith, well, that’s incidental to the great project of human liberation. Whatever Christ preached, it’s useful only insofar as it makes people better capable of living in a democracy. It’s not quite irrelevant, but really, the Truly True Truth of America’s Amazing Brilliance is the real message we’re sending out. Be free! Look at us! Be like us, and be free!
This is the violent sin of creedal nationalism. Ours is a country built on exporting its vision as much as its wheat. We’re the heretical evangelists, and not the Twelve.
Inevitably what we read infects what we write and how we think, and I, at the insistence and grace of my good friend and old roommate True Burns (of the Blarg) have been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Gaiman is one of those stellar talents to whose existence the rest of us hacks must somehow reconcile ourselves. What’s so distracting about Gaiman is — how do I say — ubiquity. He has a very peculiar voice and vision coupled with an impressive ability, and in the twenty-or-so years of his career, has built a following. Not only does one warrant stares of stunned silence and mocking disbelief for not appreciating his work, but his massive popularity amongst a particular subset of fandom has made his peculiar vision decidedly commonplace. This is not his fault, and I don’t hold it against him. But it does limit the extent to which I can be amazed at the world he created.
His vision of the supernatural was so strange and original when it appeared, and now, it seems, anyone doing anything else is charlatan and liar. But every writer is a charlatan. Every writer is a liar. We lie for a living. We lie to get ourselves through the day. We invent strange stories about everyday things, or everyday stories about strange things, and hope people find in them some kernel of truth we ourselves didn’t know was there. We lie to be believed. Gaiman achieved that — and again and again and again. He writes and writes and his followers fall over themselves, and with good reason! He’s brilliant and strange. But somehow it all felt very familiar, and I realized what it was.
He’s been copied.
Like everyone who read The Lord of the Rings decades after it came out and found the story a little cliche, what with its orcs and ogres and dwarves and Elvish archers, it can be hard to separate the dreaming — the first cause, the startling and strange first thing, the act — from the dream, the vision which can be examined and broken down and admired and, most importantly, copied. I grew up, I came to maturity around people whose love for Gaiman’s work knew no bounds. He formed, alongside Tolkein, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams — the spine of a heretic’s literary canon. The people who — like myself — found themselves counter, original, spare, strange found in these writers something essential, a fathering-forth of a world we could claim and own and whose values and splendor we could take for ourselves. Everyone’s canon was a little different; mine favored Chuck Palahniuk and Jack Kerouac, in particular, but these books were there and they presented us with a world that was new and frightening, and that fear was itself a little comforting. I suppose it’s similar to how my dad and his generation read the science fiction of the day, how they felt when the stumbled clumsily and lazily through Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov. They were the lights that set the boundaries, established with broad strokes the lines in which the other writers would function, and more to the point, gave the readers the words and worlds they’d claim and live.
So when the Weird Sisters showed up — a trio I first encountered in Gargoyles — I wasn’t shocked. Of course Shakespeare is going to be plundered and reappropriated; it’s only natural. When Death presented herself less a Grim Reaper than an eighties punk with an ankh pendant, my surprise was abated by my personally knowing girls who mimicked that look. While individual stories could be terrifying, unsettling, and odd, the aesthetic and mythology had largely been picked up and adopted by a generation of outcasts. The conformity of nonconformists, I suppose; there are few original minds, and in the end, we want less to forge our own path than to fall into the embrace of those who understand us. And key to understanding someone is sharing their mind — something a shared literature makes probable, if not virtually certain.
I tend to think, too, that part of the appeal is that these books give people a space in their lives wherein they can engage their supernatural faculty, that part of us capable of recognizing the breadth and depth of the world. I can’t tie this to any specific theology, but fundamental to much of Gaiman’s work — from Sandman to Stardust to Coraline to American Gods to Anansi Boys — is that there is so much more than what we can and cannot see, realms in-between waking and sleeping, worlds through the corner vent, places where the rules that afflict the everyday break down and, instead, a sort of managed chaos barely comprehensible to the human mind finds toehold, then foothold, then stranglehold. And each of these places has its own sovereign, a figure both sympathetic and foreign, with whom we can identify, before whom we tremble. Gaiman doesn’t just give us worlds. He gives us gods.
To the sensible, the senseless. To the rational, insanity. To the believers, heresy, and to the heretics, faith.