What good news do you bring?

Warning: this post is very long, rather serious, and takes a break from my ongoing series on Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. I will get back to that forthwith. But today, though, I want to write about something else, namely mental illness.


A talk by Peter Railton has been making the philosophy social-media rounds lately. The talk (“Innocent Abroad: Rupture, Liberation, and Solidarity”) deals with a familiar theme, the relationship of social engagement and the life of the mind, and develops it through a series of autobiographical vignettes. Some of these take place against the background of large public events — Sputnik, the civil rights movement, the Columbia student strike — and some of them belong to the more private domain of student advising, collegial conversation, and committee service. The common thread that runs through them all is the sense that, when we meet a moment of moral challenge, we cannot evade the responsibility to choose our response. Railton writes of following the news and seeing civil rights protestors being beaten and set upon by dogs, and also of the “existential inner voice” that asks, “OK, are you going to let this be the world? Then that’s who you are.”

So towards the end Railton takes an unpredictable turn and considers his lifelong depression, pondering how, in keeping quiet about it, he has often failed to heed that existential inner voice. Railton’s talk is itself an existential act of self-revealing; it is not only a talk about moral response but an instance of it.

Don’t forget, also, that this was a talk. I wasn’t there, and neither were you, probably, so we’re both experiencing this talk as a text. It’s something we found on the internet and are encountering in the abstract time of reading, which is to say, as a position taken, a fait accompli in the world of ideas, a place on the chessboard. But as a talk, this would have taken place in the concrete time of those individuals present in that room, at that time. It would have been an act unfolding in time, like the experience of waiting in a hallway at Columbia University in 1968, watching a cop coming for you with his baton raised, and thinking oooohhh shit! run? stand with my friends? decide now! Keep in mind, this was a meeting of the American Philosophical Association; care to imagine delivering a talk like this to the American Musicological Society? At that moment, standing there and coming out about his depression to his academic colleagues, Railton was actually risking something. This was, as I like to say, a Thing That Happened.

And as I often say, in Things That Happen the stakes are raised. Shit gets real. The pervasive who-cares feeling that so often pervades academic conversations goes away, because you aren’t just entertaining ideas anymore, and those ideas are no longer weightless: they refer to you, they bear on your life, and they matter. Little wonder that some people were crying openly during Railton’s speech.

Railton explains his moral obligation to speak openly and truly about his mental illness by way of an analogy with gay civil rights:

The stunning reversal of age-old attitudes toward gay marriage came about, not simply because the heterosexual population became “educated” about homosexuality so that they no longer “thought” it a stain on one’s character. It came about, I believe, through experience-based moral learning of the kind Dewey continually emphasized. Enough gay individuals courageously took things into their own hands and came out publicly. Within two decades the rest of the population had learned from this bold experiment that among their friends, neighbors, co- workers, children, parents, teachers, students, and favorite movie stars were many gay individuals. Were these people to be denied the rights of life and love the rest of us enjoy? How could we continue to view them as outsiders to the “proper” way of living while remaining faithful to the love, friendship, respect, and care we felt for them? Today, nearly a majority of Republicans favor gay marriage.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Well, it wasn’t enough. Because this very formulation suggests that there is still something to be ashamed of, that being gay should be a private matter. And of course, anyone is entitled to keep their sexual orientation as private as they like. But gay individuals and groups insisted that privacy should be a choice, not a social demand or policy or presumption. Being gay must have an equal place in the public world—it must be made visible, uncomfortable as this has been for so many people, so that heterosexuals could see their gay brothers and sisters for what they are, not for what their incomprehension and apprehensions had made of them.

Dan Savage has said the same thing again and again: coming out of the closet is not only something you do for yourself, it’s something you do for gay people generally. It’s much easier to hate an abstraction like “the gay agenda” than to hate the nice couple that lives next door and puts up such a great Halloween display for the neighborhood kids each year.

Railton, again:

So there’s nothing for it. Those whose have dwelt in the depths of depression need to come out as well. Some already have, but far too few adult men (big surprise!), and especially far too few of the adult men who somehow have come to bear the stamp of respectability and recognition, and thus are visible to hundreds of students and colleagues.

Hey, I resemble that remark.


Many times in recent years I have wanted to use Dial M to post this Achewood cartoon and write something about how that cartoon cat, Roast Beef Kazenzakis, expresses pretty much exactly how I feel. What I wish I could tell you. How I wish I had a shirt like that.


I never did post it. Well, I guess I just did.

To keep silent about mental illness is to enable it. Or, more precisely, it is to enable whatever complex of social attitudes and policy norms that prevented me from getting treatment until a couple of years ago and that prevents our students from getting help that might save their lives. As the old ACT UP slogan had it, silence = death.


I have thought about this many times, about my own depression and my fear of telling anyone but my friends and family, and every time I have been a poltroon and kept my thoughts to myself.* Because, you know, we’re all on the same page anyway, right? So why say anything publicly? It’s what you do in your private life that matters, right? Wouldn’t it be, you know, kind of unprofessional for me to go telling people about my private life? (As if I have not been doing that in this blog for almost 10 years.) Wouldn’t I be leaving myself vulnerable to professional discrimination? (As if I were not already a tenured professor at a major research university.)

Sometimes I have taught Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament in the undergraduate music history II class and gotten to the bit where he writes

[although I was] born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others . . .

and thought, I can relate. And so can at least half of the academics reading this.** Depression is like those handcuffs that tighten on your wrists the more you struggle: you find yourself unable to function socially, so you become isolated from your fellow human beings, and then, because you can’t say anything about why you can’t function socially, you become even more isolated, and thus even more depressed, etc. And you can’t reach out to people and tell them what you’re feeling because you can’t reveal a weakness in the one area where you’re supposed to be strongest, which, for an academic, is the mind. And given that I’m writing a lot about magic and mysticism these days — which from a rationalist point of view is crazy anyway — I really don’t want to wear that jacket. But none of us do. To admit to mental illness would be to admit that the intellect is not sovereign, that the foundation of one’s own power is build on sand, that one is vulnerable in ways that feel especially shameful.


In case you’re wondering, I’m OK right now. I’m getting proper treatment, which in my case means both therapy and medication.*** It took me years to work up the nerve to try medication. I always thought, there’s no shame in taking medication . . . if you’re someone other than me. Contrary to a popular myth that until recently I believed, meds are not an easy way out: they don’t make you happy (at best, they can make you healthy enough to start working towards being happy) and they have side effects, which can be nasty. But even so, I’m in a place now where I’m looking forward to a sabbatical to write my new book, teaching is a joy to me, I am serving as interim Director of Graduate Studies this semester and actually kind of enjoying it . . .  I’m OK. If you’re depressed, untreated, and reading this, understand that you can be OK too. And that right now it’s OK to not be OK. Depression is a goddam illness: are you going to feel bad about having a broken leg or diabetes or something?

My symptoms are pretty typical. I’m going to tell you about them, on the off chance that you see some similarity to your own condition and might thereby feel a bit less alone. Hearing other people’s stories has helped me; I hope this helps you. (Keep in mind, though, we’re all different: your mileage may vary.) Anyway, for me, having major depressive disorder means that every few years I have an episode where, for a period of weeks or months, my body feels like a bag of broken glass, I move like I’m underwater, I can’t sleep (or I sleep way too much), I don’t give a shit about anything, I cry at everything or nothing (kind of problematic when you’re teaching a class), I can’t remember anything, I can’t think straight (also problematic when you’re teaching a class), decisions seem impossible, I have horrifying and tormenting dreams or sometimes outright panic attacks in my sleep . . . . and above all, I feel empty, hopeless, and self-hating. The old pattern was, this would continue for while and then something would happen — I would get in a new relationship, or move somewhere, or get into something like meditation and decide I had found The Answer. Oh my god was I an insufferable meditation-is-the-answer-to-everything asshole a few years ago.****


Fuck this shit.

And then I might be OK for a while. But sure as God made little green apples, it would all happen again. As I’ve been getting older, the episodes have been getting longer, closer together, and tougher to deal with. At a certain point, I had to get real about what was happening to me.

A couple of years ago I got tenure and published a book I had been working on for 10 years, and this predictably triggered another episode. (This is hardly unusual.) I didn’t know it at the time, though, and even when depression had me firmly in hand I was still slow to acknowledge it. Only when my wife insisted that I take an online quiz did I see how far things had come. That was a positive turn—at this point I knew where I was and could start making changes. As alcoholics in recovery know very well, admitting you have a problem is the first step, the one step that makes all the other ones possible, and I had to face up to the fact that I have been depressed on and off since I was a teenager. This was not easy. I had a lot invested in not being mentally ill, just as a lot of people will have a lot invested in you not being mentally ill.

The thing about depression is, it takes on protective coloration, it blends in. When I look back through my life at times when I’ve been depressed, there had always been something going on in my life that offered itself as an explanation for it. Like, I don’t have depression, I just had a bad breakup. Or I hate the place I’m living and everything will be better when I move. Or I’m stressed out because I’m a grad student. What was different in 2013 was that I couldn’t really blame it on anything. Things were going great: I had gotten tenure at a major research university, I had published a book, I had a loving family in a nice house in a great town. I couldn’t say what I had always said before—“I’m not depressed, my life just sucks.” My life clearly did not suck, and so I was forced to face something I had avoided noticing for more than three decades.

An early episode: I was 17 and it was the year after my parents split up. I moved to Toronto and spent my last year of high school uprooted from my whole life up to that point. I was at first happy and excited to be free from the endless anxiety of my parents’ destructive marriage, but after a while a pervasive apathy set in. I was supposed to be getting ready for college piano auditions but my playing sucked and I didn’t care. I skipped school, faffed about ineffectually on the piano, started eating and sleeping too much, and felt lonely and bored most of the time. But I could say, I’m not depressed, it’s just that I moved to a new city in my last year of high school. Or for that matter, I’m not depressed, I’m just in high school.

I somehow pulled it together enough to get into the IU school of music, and going to college snapped me out of it—I lost weight, made new friends, got a girlfriend, started spending all my time playing music, and generally thrived. A couple of years later the apathy, anxiety, sadness, and scattered focus returned. But this time I had gotten way too deep into a doomed relationship, and I could blame it all on an unhappy love affair. And then I got another girlfriend. Problem solved!

I’ll skip some other stuff and get to graduate school, which is unsurprisingly a particularly fertile ground for depression. I’d been in classes for three years, I had married the woman I love, and I wanted to get on with my life and be a grown-ass man. I wanted to embark on a course of life that would provide for us. Being a graduate student didn’t feel like it could do that, and in any event my advisor was leaving and I didn’t want to follow him across the country because I felt burned out on studying and teaching. I was uncontrollably anxious about how I could ever find a job with a Ph.D. I could not shake the feeling that real life was happening somewhere else and I was being left behind. I felt a wild yearning for escape and briefly decided that moving to Winnipeg, of all things, would solve all my problems. After the customary period of anxiety, apathy, smothered rage and bitterness and sadness, etc. (I’m talking about a months-long period that assumed a generally dark tone, rather than the usual day-to-day striation of light and dark, which I think of as “normal”) I dropped out of graduate school for a couple of years, felt better, and then, after my Dad died (with predictable emotional consequences), dropped back in again. Problem solved! Quitting graduate school was my solution to one episode and going back to graduate school was my solution for the next one.

From 2005 to 2007, I lived in Austin, Texas (actually, in a totally anomic and anonymous suburb of Austin—I can’t even remember what it was called) and had my first tenure-track job. Again, I felt apathy, chronic anhedonia, feelings of being trapped, feelings of worthlessness and pointlessness. Again, I got fat and had sleep problems. Again, it was hard to see it as depression: at the time, it just felt like we were stuck in a depressing place. But it’s hard to say what is cause and what is effect. Was I depressed because I hated Texas, or did I hate Texas because I was depressed? At the time I would have said the former; now I’m not sure. Maybe both? To be sure, I started feeling a lot better when I got a new job at Indiana. But there’s a problem with the causality: you change your life circumstances and feel better, so you think that you’re doing better because your old life circumstances were shitty. But I think there is another, equally plausible explanation: you feel that there is nothing to look forward to in your life, so a big change—any change—feels liberating, because it represents some kind of movement. A revolution. You are motivated by the feeling of revolution, not by the revolutionary cause. But you think that you are motivated by the cause, which (in this case) was the cause of getting the hell out of Texas and back to Bloomington, where I had been happy long before.


And on and on it goes. I’m leaving out a ton of stuff, and even so I’m worried about making this whole post about me and how much I suffer and all that. That’s not my point. My point is to say, this is my story, and if it’s anything like your story, then you just learned something very important:


This is what Paul Gilmartin says at the end of each episode of his podcast,  The Mental Illness Happy Hour. If you can relate to any of the stuff I have written here, I strongly suggest you listen to it. There are more than 200 episodes full of riveting, heartbreaking, heartlifting interviews with people both famous and obscure, all of them coming out of an amazing diversity of experience and suffering from an astonishing variety of symptoms. And you will learn (1) that each story is unique, and we must all stretch our imaginations and moral understanding a little to encompass the endless and perplexing manifestations of what it is to be human. And (2), that each story is also not so terribly different, that we all have some fairly large things in common, and that we can all learn from one another. We are not alone.

This is the longest blog post I have ever written, and I’ve written some long damn blog posts over the years. It’s almost over. But first I want to tell you a story that Peter Burkholder told me.

Peter might have been the first truly out gay man I ever met. As someone who hung out with artists and musicians, I had known plenty of gay people even before coming to college, but in Peter I encountered someone who lived out an absolute integrity between his private and public lives. I had never met anyone like that before I first showed up in his office one morning, a disheveled 19-year-old kid who had just slept through his first music history exam. This was the 1980s: this was a time when being out would cost you something.

Anyway, when I told Peter about my depression some time ago, I mentioned that it actually felt pretty good to be telling people. It was kind of a relief, and I wondered aloud if it wasn’t a bit like the relief you’d feel coming out. He responded by telling me about a time in 1979 or 1980, only a decade after Stonewall and still the early years of gay civil rights, when he was having a lot of conversations with people in his life about who he is. He was working with a Quaker group, Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, and was dealing with a certain amount of resistance from people in his Quaker Meeting. One person in particular didn’t see why Peter had to tell the Meeting he was gay, or why FLGC wanted official recognition from the Meeting. Why can’t you just be gay and not involve us? What good does telling us do? And so he asked Peter, “what good news do you bring?” The “you” here being both Peter himself and FLGC, and the “good news” being both relative and absolute, your own personal good news and the Good News, as in the Gospels.

It is entirely typical of Peter that at this point he told me how happy he was to be asked that question. It gave him a chance to say, the good news is that I am like you: all of us are closeted in some way. He said, “We all have something we think we have to hide from other people because they won’t accept us if we tell them, but the truth usually is that they will still accept us and may feel even closer to us because we are no longer hiding.”

This might mean that you can leave your closet and both you and everyone else will be better for it. But then again, it might not: perhaps you are suffering from mental illness and have to keep quiet about it because you can’t trust the people around you to be cool or supportive. We’re all doing what we can, and sometimes just going to MacDonald’s is a ringing act of heroism. But my point is, the good news here is our shared condition, and the possibilities of compassion and healing that grow from that. Even more, though, the good news is that you bear good news, too. So I ask you: what good news do you bring?


*In our house we disfavor calling a weak, cowardly person a “pussy.” My son and I prefer to use a piece of archaic invective, “poltroon.” A cuss word has to have a satisfying mouthfeel, and calling someone a “fuckin’ poltroon” works in a way that Dan Savage’s suggested alternative, “scrotum,” does not.

**Make no mistake, academics and intellectuals are particularly prone to depression and anxiety, and this has been noticed at least as far back as Marsilio Ficino, who blames the influence of Saturn. (A friend of mine calls us “children of Saturn,” which I rather like.) I suspect that academics get mental illness the same way athletes get training injuries, because we are exercising a part of our body way more than it is equipped to handle. Or maybe (and this would be most typical of depression) there is no one simple cause, but a host of causes. And maybe it doesn’t matter, really. All I know is, when I started opening up about my depression to friends in the biz, I was astonished at how many said, oh yeah, well, me too.

***This can be a challenge in the U.S., even for those, like me, who are lucky enough to have health care. I don’t want to minimize how hard getting even basic care can be. It’s a national disgrace.

****Don’t get me wrong, meditation is great. So is exercise, good hydration, proper nutrition, good sleep, doing things you enjoy, hanging out with friends, listening to music, etc. But in my experience, neither meditation nor any other one thing can “cure” depression all by itself. That would suggest a simple causality: depression is caused by X, so to relieve it you need to do Y. But depression is classically overdetermined: it always has more causes than you need. Healing, too, does not progress in a straight line, and what makes you feel better will often occur by accident. So my only advice is, do things (exercise, meditation, etc.) that will make you more accident-prone.

Posted in Ethics, Life | 7 Comments

Sun Ra vs. The Overseer, Round 1: Judgment

Where we ended up last time:

 various commentators [have] compared Space is the Place to The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays a similarly high-stakes chess game with Death. The chess game in The Seventh Seal is realized fully enough for chess fans to reconstruct it and comment on its relationship to the themes of the film. So far as I know, though, no-one has yet tried this approach with Space is the Place . . . 

. . . UNTIL NOW.


So, Sun Ra’s game with the Overseer begins. (You can watch this scene starting at about 10 minutes into the film.) We never know what the rules are, exactly. It’s something like the Sandman’s Game of Forms, a.k.a. the Oldest Game of All, where one player tries to trump the other by imagining a superior form.


A page from Neil Gaiman’s “Preludes and Nocturnes”

But here the forms are given by tarot cards, albeit cards from a strange deck whose forms are mirrored in the earthly plane (i.e., Oakland) where the film’s main story plays out.

The Overseer shuffles, deals, and draws. He seems to know what the cards are before he picks them up. He gloats as he draws trump no. 21, The World. Ra doesn’t react.

the world

The World (or, in Aleister Crowley’s deck, The Universe) is, well, the form of all forms—everything. Das All. The completion and culmination of the whole 22-card series of the tarot’s major trumps.*

You can’t beat that. But just for good measure, the Overseer pulls another card, the Chariot, trump no. 7, a card of earthly power, material glory, ambition, and pride.

the chariot

And here the Overseer shows his limits, because it is clear that “the world” here is merely the world as he understands it — the world of cars, clothes, cash, and ass. The world of matter, the world as it is, not what it might become, not what transcends it. And what is that?


It’s Judgement, trump no. 20. The card here is an image of the spaceship in which Ra and his Arkestra travel to earth, with its bulging double hull painted as burning eyes . . .


. . . which, when you think about it, paraphrases the central form in the traditional Judgment card of the old Marseilles tarot, an otherworldly figure that floats in space, staring right at us. And, now that I think of it, it’s playing a musical instrument, the only one to be found anywhere in the traditional deck:


Le Jugement, from Yoav Ben Dov’s reconstruction of Nicholas Conver’s 1760 deck

So, who wins that round? Sun Ra is the one who’s laughing. But after the subsequent scene, where Sun Ra’s spaceship touches down and becomes the center of the usual tornado of media bullshit, the Overseer calls it even. There’s the higher vision (what Sun Ra calls the alter-destiny) and there’s the world in which that vision must manifest—which is to say, a world that for the most part doesn’t care about higher visions. Or wouldn’t understand them even if it did care. Or wouldn’t do anything about them even if it understood them. Or would do the exact wrong thing even if it could bestir itself to action, which it almost certainly wouldn’t.

This is something of a perennial problem for religiously- and philosophically-minded persons. Kant remarked that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Religion, among other things, is about the miracle of straight things appearing in a crooked world.** Everyday life offers us boundless evidence against straight things, and yet at the end of the day we still find ourselves calling it even. There is always that voice of . . . what, faith? Hope? The alter-destiny? telling us that things could yet be otherwise and willing to gamble on the possibility that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we might pull something off in the end.


New Yorker cartoon by Dana Fredon

This is Ra’s gamble. How that gamble plays out remains to be seen.

*I know, I said it was trump 21. But there is one unnumbered trump, Le Mat (usually translated as The Fool), which doesn’t really belong in the series. More about that later.

**This is the meaning of the well-known Buddhist symbol of the lotus: it is an image of something beautiful growing from the mud.






Posted in Film, Jazz, Magic, Religion | 1 Comment

The Alter-Destiny


Ron Regé, “Sun Ra.”


So I’ve been saying that the Cold War never ended. In the last of my four installments on this theme, I finally got to my point: it’s not the Cold War that has continued in some new form, but a force that impelled the Cold War and that still, 26 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, can be felt in a certain collective mood. I called that mysterious force The Fear, suggesting that it “lives in each world crisis like a parasite in a host, and when the host dies The Fear moves on.” Both in its portentous capitalization and the way I described its behavior, The Fear comes off as an entity — an intelligence with its own malevolent will and designs, though not necessarily an intelligence like ours, or an intelligence we can readily understand. If we were in a occult frame of mind, we might call it a demon.


But that’s just a figure of speech, right? Some kind of literary-nonfiction rhetorical flourish? Surely no-one thinks that there really is an evil spirit loose in the world, spooking us with one world crisis after another. The unspoken deal that we make with academic or literary or otherwise respectable writing (you know, not the stuff you find in the “New Age” section of the bookstore) is that we will understand all talk of magic, demons, and whatnot as metaphor.

But to think in this way here would be to make the Philip K. Dick line I used as a jumping-off point (“the Empire never ended”) far more reasonable than it really is. When Dick said that the Empire never ended, he was ascribing agency to whatever intelligence it was that would make us believe otherwise. The nature of that intelligence was what really concerned Dick, and he never stopped theorizing about it. Those who are interested in following Dick’s exhaustive (not to say obsessive) metaphysical investigations should pick up his Exegesisin the handsome new edition edited by Jonathan Lethem. If anything is clear from even a quick glance through this thick volume, it’s that Dick believed that the doings and happenings of the everyday world are rigged up to invisible strings, pulled by unseen forces. Dick’s ideas changed constantly throughout the eight years he worked on the Exegesis, but for the most part he understood the players in the eternal contest as the Black Iron Prison and VALIS. Dick had a characteristically sci-fi way of understanding those entities (as “living information” that can reprogram reality and its inhabitants), but the basic worldview is the occult view of the world as a shadow play of Powers beyond ordinary perception.

So Dick was nuts, I hear you saying. I’ll leave that off to one side for now. I will also leave to one side the question which, if you take what I’ve written seriously, is the only one that matters: who or what is messing with us? Let’s just remain agnostic about that too. I don’t know (or for now choose not to decide) if The Fear is an intelligence or entity or world-historical force or whatever, or even if it really exists at all. For the time being, I want to think a bit more about this occult worldview, which is hardly unique to Dick.

So yesterday I re-watched Sun Ra’s sci-fi/blaxploitation film Space is the Place. I don’t know what the consensus view on this film is, but I’m guessing that most people don’t even know it exists while the hip cognoscenti treat it with indulgent affection. It seems like a goofy artifact of a musician with an endearing, way-out schtick, a free-jazz version of the Ziggy Stardust/Mothership Connection spaceman persona. But just as we tend to assume that an expression of magical thinking in serious writing will be a metaphor, likewise do we tend to assume that a musician’s talk of cosmic travel will be a persona — that is to say, a put-on, not to be taken very seriously.

But if Sun Ra’s identity was a put-on, it was surely the most sustained and serious put-on in memory. Which is pretty much the same thing as saying it isn’t a put-on at all. You might ask, “did Sun Ra really believe he travelled to Saturn and spoke to aliens?” And you might figure that the answer is either “no,” in which case he’s just pretending, or “yes,” in which case he’s nuts. But as Ramsey Dukes (a fascinating thinker you’ve never heard of) once wrote, “‘really’ and ‘believe’ are not words that go happily together in magical thought.”* One might say that magic hangs out in the in-between space denied by that “really.”

In Space is the Place, Sun Ra hatches a plan to use his music to transport African Americans to a new planet. In his earthly manifestation (“Sonny Ray”), Sun Ra plays piano at a burlesque nightclub and displeases his boss when the music destroys the club. It becomes clear that the boss — a pimp resplendent in a white suit with a gold-headed cane — is no more an ordinary hustler than Sonny Ray is an ordinary piano player. Each knows perfectly well who the other is: they are earthly incarnations of cosmic players who are locked in a duel for the souls of black people. The boss challenges Sonny and asks him to name his game; Sonny suggests the End of the World. “Now that’s what I call cooking with grease,” the boss cackles, and as Sonny tosses him the cards we see them transform into their true forms, Sun Ra and the Overseer.

between realms

Sun Ra and the Overseer now face one another across a gaming table in a wasteland that feels a little like the white room in The Matrix (1999) — a plane of reality that lies outside space and time but determines everything that manifests there. For the rest of the film, Sun Ra and the Overseer will play a game with tarot cards that determines the destiny of black people on earth.

The story shuttles between the game and the terrestrial goings-on that the cards play out. Thus have various commentators compared Space is the Place to The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays a similarly high-stakes chess game with Death. The chess game in The Seventh Seal is realized fully enough for chess fans to reconstruct it and comment on its relationship to the themes of the film. So far as I know, though, no-one has yet tried this approach with Space is the Place . . . 

More soon.

*Ramsey Dukes, S.S.O.T.B.M.E.: An Essay on Magic, 96. I’ve written about this style of thought at length in an essay, “Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica.”

Posted in Avant-Garde, High Weirdness, Jazz | 2 Comments

The Cold War Never Ended IV



So to recap: I started off by saying that the Cold War never ended and just let that hang there for a while. I went on to consider the situation that the Cold War introduced to human affairs—the pervading awareness of impending species death. I then wrote about how Norman Mailer considered the Cold War primarily as an event in mass psychology shaped by this awareness. And here I would like to suggest that if you consider the Cold War from Mailer’s point of view, as an existential rather than geopolitical phenomenon, then my thesis that the Cold War never ended becomes a bit more plausible.

Consider our lives in the 21st century. 9/11, the War on Terror, and the attendant expansion of the surveillance state have replicated Cold War structures of daily experience. In the public imagination, terrorism always took the form of a dirty bomb, bioweapon attack, or some more shapeless horror—always something unimaginable or at any rate unimagined, because that’s exactly what 9/11 felt like. Before 9/11, no-one aside from Tom Clancy ever imagined using airplanes as flying bombs, much less envisioned such weapons bringing down such a vast structure as the World Trade Center. Much of the terror of that day lay in the feeling that no-one saw this coming and that you would never see the next shot coming either. Terrorism is not like conventional warfare, which we might liken to two fighters slugging it out in the ring, throwing feints and jabs and the odd hillbilly haymaker. This was like standing in a pitch-dark room with someone intent on doing violence, waiting for the next blow to fly out from the darkness.

It was not at all the same power dynamic as the Cold War, which presented us with a world divided between two superpowers and two visions of society. On 9/11 we were in the post-Cold-War world and one of those options had prevailed, but a mutant ideological strain had escaped the Cold War and come back to infect our lives with something like the same old fear. The U.S. was again locked in a conflict, not over territory or resources or any other measurable gain, but ideology.* The enemy could not be confronted directly, not because the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction prevented it, but because the enemy was no longer a concrete entity. Unlike the state Communism of the Soviet Union, the enemy was imperfectly embodied in the nations the United States identified as its enemies (Iraq, Afghanistan) and might be just as present in nations the U.S. identified as allies (Pakistan). It called itself Islamic but had nothing to do with the vast majority of Muslims and, in its illiberal and antimodern aims, remains practically indistinguishable from various toxic strains of radical Christianity. At the dawn of this new era of conflict, the U.S. government was reduced to declaring a war on an abstract noun (“terrorism”), which is the kind of war for which victory can never be finally and conclusively declared.

So U.S. citizens had an ideological enemy they could not face directly and so had to content themselves with proxy warfare. And, as in the Cold War, one knew that the real fighting went on behind the scenes, either in dirty and deniable encounters one learned about long after the fact (if at all) or in military actions (drone strikes, especially) so removed from daily life by so many levels of abstraction it was hard to understand what relationship anything that happened “out there” might have to anything “in here.” Unless, of course, something apocalyptic happened, as it had on 9/11, and again, as in the Cold War, one did not and could not know when or if that fateful stroke would land. The peculiar fear born of this condition was the alibi for the abstraction, for the general sense that horrible things were happening to people in another part of the world but that the moral responsibility for these things, like the true enemy itself, was impossible to pin down anywhere. The anarcho-pacifist intellectual Dwight Macdonald wrote about the same feeling in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. I wrote about this in my book:

Macdonald marveled that few of the American technicians who helped build the Bomb knew what they were making, and only three of the plane crew that dropped it knew what would hap- pen. “What real content, in such a case, can be assigned to notions like ‘democracy’ and ‘government of, by and for the people’?” Macdonald asked. The idea of individual agency or consent withered in an age when a hypertrophied scientific rationality, bursting its natural boundaries and set to the organization of society, could separate all the links in a chain of action and assign them to separate individuals, each insulated from the actions of the others and thereby from the moral consequences of the whole. The pilots would never witness the deaths of those they bombed; the scientists and technicians who designed and built the bombs would never know the pilots or the dead, or even one another; the managers would only ever talk to other managers; and the American people, in whose name this killing was carried out, would read about it in the papers.

So that feeling of abstraction, along with the related feeling of unreality, was the shared condition of Americans in both the Cold War and the War on Terror. When asked what ordinary Americans could do about the new War on Terror, George W. Bush suggested they go shopping. He took some heat for that, but what else was he going to say? What were we going to do, save string? Start a bond drive? The state didn’t need us to do anything except continue to consume, because this was no longer that older, WWII kind of war. Consumption is a war aim. What is an American for, anymore? Not to struggle, not to die, not to suffer, not to believe, not to protest, just to feed your little quantum of monetized energy into the grid. Abstraction.

Daily life in the shadow of abstract warfare is marked by the abiding awareness of the possibility that at any moment an act of apocalyptic violence could completely alter the routines of daily life, even as daily life continues on as before, eerily unchanged. The feeling is of being stuck: the irregular drip-drip-drip of terrorist violence prevents any return to sense of status quo ante, but it’s never quite enough to change anything, either.

At a certain point in such abstract conflicts, it becomes impossible to stay quite so scared. I know that there are some people out there, the ones who think Obama is the Muslim Manchurian Candidate, who live in a Groundhog Day loop in which every day is the day after 9/11, just as in the Cold War there were those who lived well past the 1980s in undiminished fear of communism. But for the most part, people move on.

But the strange thing is, the fear did not move on. Has never moved on. Actually, it was never my point to write about the War on Terror. At least, my argument is not that it’s the War on Terror that carries on the Cold War by other means. My point is this: the specific kind of fear peculiar to the Cold War—let’s call it The Fear, to distinguish it from any number of lesser and more individualized fears—carries on regardless of the world crisis it inhabits. It lives in each world crisis like a parasite in a host, and when the host dies The Fear moves on. I guess the War on Terror still goes on (how could it be otherwise?), and while horrible things like the Charlie Hebdo massacre still spring out at us from time to time, they offer us fears, not The Fear.

Actually, it’s not that the Cold War never ended; it’s that The Fear never ended. The Fear no longer really resides in terrorism. It has found a much better host in the global environmental crisis. Here, again, we are faced with a true existential threat, not just to any particular group of people but on the species level. Again, our extinction is threatened in the realm of science, in objective fact, and again it triggers the same collective malaise. We’re pretty sure that our days are numbered, but we just don’t know the number: science deals in probabilities, not forecasts. Time itself becomes like the Cell of Little Ease, in which one cannot find any position to rest. We can’t live it up like it’s the end of the world, but we can’t really give our present actions any meaning from their assumed participation in some larger design. As in the Cold War, our existential absurdity, the absurdity of living on borrowed time, infects every single moment of time. We get that deus absconditus feeling all over again. It’s interesting that the most vehement climate-change denialists are fundamentalist Christians. I wonder if it’s partly an emotional reaction to the possibility that climate change represents: God just doesn’t care anymore. What a horrible thought. Maybe the most horrible thought there is. That’s The Fear right there.

*Not that resources and territory don’t enter into it; obviously they do. It’s just that this kind of quarrel cannot be settled through any particular territorial conquest, because its animating force, an idea, being a thing of information and not matter, transcends any particular manifestation in space and time.


Posted in Cold War, Current Affairs, Politics | 1 Comment

The Cold War Never Ended III

So last time I wrote another installment of my “Cold War Never Ended” series and tried to unravel something of the weird collective psychology surrounding the Cold War. Norman Mailer covered much of this ground in his 1957 essay The White Negro, which you probably know (if you know it at all) as an overheated and arm-waving piece on hipsters and race.*

Now, you might not give a damn about hipsters and probably find Mailer’s racial attitudes retrograde and weird, but The White Negro is still required reading, because (for my money, anyway) it is the best piece thing ever written on the Cold War as a phenomenon of mass psychology. Mailer defined the Cold War not in geopolitical terms, but as a unique event in the history of human consciousness:

Probably, we will never he able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. for the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization—that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect—in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed be subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.

The phrase that sticks with me is the last one: “the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.” If you live within an abiding awareness that human time can and probably will end, and end for no reason and to no purpose, then that finitude and absurdity infects every segment of time that we can experience. What can it mean to pursue a career, fall in love, raise children, care for gardens and pets, build a community, etc., when all these things are bracketed within an immense absurdity? What must we feel when we know that we have made this absurdity ourselves?

In these circumstances, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you are just waiting around to die, and so anything you do feels like a distraction from the thought of death. (It has often been said that postwar consumerism was the flip side of postwar anxiety.) You do not really believe in anything, because nothing can go anywhere. Everything has the quality of dumb-show; activities feel like reflex actions, like movements made for the mere purpose of moving, not for any particular end. If there’s no future, what’s the point of doing anything now? Why work for a promotion? Why save for junior’s college fund? And yet here I am, doing things, filing reports or cooking hot dogs for the kids or taking the train to work, as if any of this will be here in 5 years, or even 5 months. The world becomes a little less real.

Under such circumstances, you’d think we’d all be running around having orgies and doing coke and murdering our enemies and generally living it up, but no, it turns out you just keep doing the usual stuff, just hanging around, waiting for the executioner to deliver the fatal blow. Maybe we would be living it up if we knew when that blow would fall, but the hellish ingenuity of the trap is that you can’t know. It might fall anytime, or never. It’s like the threat uttered by the Mystery Man in David Lynch’s Lost Highway: “In the East, the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them, and fire a bullet into the back of their head.”


It turns out that, in the Cold War, the fatal shot was never fired. But how would you have known that in 1957? So you couldn’t even give yourself over to real excess. But neither could you live in a present made meaningful by its place in an unfolding pattern to be realized in the future. Mailer admired hipsters because (so he thought) they were the ones who really did live as if there was no tomorrow; they just cut through the Gordian knot by accepting the executioner’s terms. But to do that would be to turn one’s back on everything, on career, family, home, security, everything. And it turns out that not too many people have the stomach for that. Mailer saw quite clearly that the Cold War was above all a challenge to the courage of human beings, and perhaps the most intolerable thing about it was that we could see, quite clearly, that we fail that test. It’s easier to carry out a dumbshow version of our lives, to perform an unmeaning series of rote actions intended to simulate a purposeful life, than to live out the truth of our condition.

This is the psychological condition that Mailer wanted to understand. The question his essay sought to answer is the obvious one: what is to be done? How can we make ourselves at home in this impossible state? Mailer’s answer was that it was that hipsters alone could live within this collective psychosis since they were themselves “psychopaths,” which is to say, they were themselves unmoored from time, purpose, history, and conscience. I will admit that I find this thesis interesting but basically wrong, for reasons I discuss at length in my book. But for my purposes here I’m only interested in his insight that the Cold War is primarily a historical moment of mass consciousness and only secondarily a military/economic/political clash.

The Cold War never ended, and neither has this series. Stay tuned for installment no. 4.

*BTW, check out Frank Conniff (you know, TV’s Frank) pretending to be Mailer, bantering with Lord Byron (Dana Gould), and reading from The White Negro on Paul F. Tompkins’ Dead Authors Podcast. LOL, as the kids say.

Posted in Cold War, Criticism, Hipsters, Historiography, Politics

The Cold War Never Ended, II

OK, so what I was saying last time was that


Actually, from one point of view, saying that the Cold War never ended is not so far from common sense. Putin’s Russia has been pursuing the same kind of authoritarian and bellicose policies as his Soviet predessesors, and op-ed columnists are saying it’s the Cold War all over again. And maybe there’s something to that. But I’m not saying that the Cold War has returned, I’m saying it never ended.

We ordinarily understand the Cold War as a geopolitical conflict between adversaries motivated by that characteristically modern thing, ideology. Or perhaps it was not so modern at all; the conflict of social philosophies might find its echo in the religious wars of the Middle Ages. But no matter; we understand that this was a conflict over ideology between adversaries equipped with weapons that, if used, would destroy all human life forever. This, too, was a modern situation, and unarguably so: many times before had the religious imagination conceived the end of the world through the intervention of some god, but at no other point in human history had the end of the world been grasped in a scientific way.

Science is (among other things) a way to understand reality as reality. Perhaps its greatest single contribution has been the idea that there is an “objective truth” that brackets and transcends individual human experiences (which are “subjective”) and in which things exist and events happen whether or not people are there to experience them or believe in them or otherwise participate in their reality.*

And what was different about the end of the world that nuclear weapons promised was that it would take place in that realm, in objective reality. This meant mass death for real, the final death, no kali yuga and the turning of the great wheel back to the beginning, no Last Judgment and afterlife, but a kind of Satanic inversion of the Last Judgement, with the arrow of time going thunk into the end of human history but without the long sought-for goal of theophany, without any goal at all, in fact, without meaning and without redemption. The scientific worldview had given the individual this idea of death (which was hard enough), but now death-as-the-end, the true terrifying nothing of death, was encountered on the species level.

What nuclear mass death promised was very modern indeed: human death without human meaning. Death would come at random: someone somewhere in the vast military-industral apparatus would screw up, push the wrong button or something, and the missiles would fly. You would never find out what it was, of course, because you would be dead. So all you knew was that you could die at any time, with no warning, for no cause that you would ever discover, and that your death likewise would cause nothing to happen, because all causality, all the affairs of human beings, would have come to a complete and eternal stop.

And above all there was nothing you could do to stop this from happening. The Cold War created vast superstates, but it also created the possibility for its citizens to glimpse (however fleetingly and partially) their true vastness. The Cold War state was its own aesthetic, a Cold War sublime. The state had its own ends, and if they were not yours it didn’t matter, nothing you could do would budge the state one iota from its blind and irresistible movements. And if you tried to deflect the state from its course, to try your strength against this Leviathan and fight its purposes, nothing would happen except that, for a terrible moment, the state might return your gaze, and you would then see (just for an instant) the true size and strength of the animal you had just provoked.

The state, then, was the god of the new age, or rather the demiurge: a blind, cruel, destroying god that (through some meta-historical reversal or enantiodromia) had reincarnated the God of the Old Testament, “the great fuming dyspeptic God who raged round his punishment laboratory.”** But the Biblical God is bigger than any destruction He can propose; He will always outlast us. When the bombs drop, though, the state will die like everything else. The state is godlike in its power and reach but in the end is merely what Freud called the prosthetic god, the human being extended and amplified by his technologies, like Ripley in her mech suit.

Being destroyed by God is comforting, in a way: at least He noticed. At least He cared enough to kill me. But the terror of the Cold War was the possibility of death at the hands of the prosthetic god we had made of ourselves, the state, which had taken the place of God. Maybe we killed God, or sent Him packing, His services no longer required. Most likely, He never existed in the first place. But (and this is the worst thought of all) maybe He did exist, and maybe He once cared for us, but that’s over now, he’s given up on us, he’s walked out and has left us alone to kill ourselves. Deus absconditus.

*Then again, maybe you don’t think that anyone had to invent that way of thinking—it just seems unproblematically there, like clouds and feeling hungry at lunchtime. “But isn’t reality, uh, reality?” I hear you asking. Well, no, for most human beings throughout most of history this is a very strange way to view the world—actually, an unthinkable one.

**Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God, 59.

Posted in Cold War, High Weirdness, Politics, Religion

The Cold War Never Ended I

*shuffles papers awkwardly after long and unexplained silence*


After he got shot with a pink laser beam from space, Philip K. Dick realized that time was an illusion created by some malign force to blind us and keep us in bondage, and that we are living within a “black iron prison” of occlusion and unable to perceive the true nature of reality. Time had in fact ceased in 70 A.D., and everything that had transpired since was just an illusion. In fact, it was still some time in the first century of the Roman Empire. This is why Dick liked to say that “the Empire never ended.”


R. Crumb, detail from “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick”

I guess that sounds kind of weird when you just write it all down like that. I’m not really going to write any more on the nature and possible explanations for Dick’s “2-3-74″ theophany, especially as it has been written about so well elsewhere. (Go read VALIS.) What interests me here is the resonance of that phrase, “the empire never ended,” and the weird kind of time-perceptual hiccup it induces. What if things we thought were history were really still present? In a sense, that happens all the time. Causality has a long reach, and we’re still dealing with fallout from the Cold War, the World Wars, the age of empire, even (more distantly) the Roman Empire. But that’s not the same thing as saying the Roman Empire never ended. The latter claim only really makes sense if (a) we are “occluded” (one of PKD’s favorite words), i.e. we have been deceived in some way so comprehensive it amounts to some kind of brainwashing or Matrix-like virtual reality long con; or (b) the power that might wish us to remain occluded has not messed with our perceptions, because it has not had to. It has simply disappeared from sight and continues its unofficial work through its official proxies—though of course to maintain the illusion of not existing, the secret sources of power must pull the odd string and kill the odd witness. The first explanation is prime PKD thematic territory; the second is the stuff of Illuminati conspiracy theories.

This kind of thinking is not very respectable for a humanities academic. I can get away with writing about it in my usual historicizing way, but if I start actually making this kind of argument myself I will revoke my scholarly immunity and find myself exiled to Cranksville, shelved in the New Age/Occult/Paranormal section of the bookstore. But what the hell, I’m going to go right ahead and make exactly this kind of argument. I’m not 100% serious, but then I’m not totally kidding, either. Think of this as what Marshall McLuhan called a probe, a thought-experiment whose usefulness we may measure not by asking “is this really true?” or even “are you kidding me?” but “is it useful for stimulating fresh thoughts and perceptions?” And in the end I want to suggest that this argument is not quite as weird as I am making it out to be at the front end. Maybe something of this idea can be assimilated to respectable thought after all. But we have to start out weird.

Actually, no, we don’t have to, but it will be more fun if we do.

So here is my thesis in occult historiography:


OK, there’s a teaser (for anyone who’s still reading, that is. Are you still reading?). This whole thing (much of which I’ve already written) is pretty long, so I’m going to post it in installments over the next few days.

Posted in High Weirdness, Historiography, Politics | 2 Comments