In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil on the serpent’s advice, “know their nakedness,” and are thrown from the garden to a life of toil and want – the original sin that in Christianity, Christ died to forgive.
This sin of the apple is such a tortured and joyless reading of the story that I (nominally atheist, though also not) had to wonder how it has taken hold. Perhaps because we learn it as children, when banishment seems impossibly hard, when knowing nakedness only connotes embarrassment.
If you let go of this reading, the story is a much better message for adults than for children. It’s an obvious metaphor for adulthood, and of the need to separate from any parent – if you’re gonna have sex under My roof, God tells His creation, time to get your own roof.
If you are anthropologically minded, it represents the transition from the hunter-gatherer life to stabler but more labor-intensive agricultural life. A fall from grace, perhaps, but with the planet’s grace, hewing our own structures and spaces out of it, using ever more of it, removing ourselves from it with the flaming swords of burning wells.
Eden is garden, always a garden. Gardens are safe. You don’t worry about running through thorn bushes from lionesses in a garden, but you can still pick a strawberry. We take this idea into our names for safe child spaces, real or imaginary – kindergarten, A Child’s Garden of Verses.
A garden is a managed space. Adam and Eve don’t mow their lawns or trim the verge – who does? Maybe this is why the angels rebelled.
To a gnostic, of course, the serpent is the true good in Eden, the pirate message from outside the garden, warning the garden is unreal and pernicious. Think of the clones in Never Let Me Go, or Neo in The Matrix. They know something’s not right in their managed world. The serpent is the path out, and a reassurance that maybe what is beyond isn’t nearly as terrifying as they tell you.
Maybe you don’t need forgiveness for wanting to leave. Maybe you just grew up. Those flaming swords keeping you from that past? They’re just time.
The Promised Land, and its malcontents.
In the story of Moses, the aging Moses needs water for his people. Jehovah tells Moses to speak to a rock, but Moses strikes the rock twice. Jehovah lets the water flow, so the Jews can drink, but the cost is that Moses can’t enter the Promised Land.
This story is a cliché now, but I think we use it wrongly. It’s not about authority punishing misbehavior, but about the failure to change.
When the Jews are enslaved, anger and rebellion free them, at a horrible cost. One wonders if Jehovah, who created the Egyptians too, actually chose the angel of death. Maybe Jehovah just let Moses into the divine armory, to choose whatever weapon he thought best – and at the time, “by any means necessary” was enough justification for Jehovah to accept his choice.
Forty years later, not so much. For the independent Jewish people, forced by their years in the wilderness to survive on their own, now ready to build a new land, rebellion risks their new social order. Moses’s anger and rebellion have no place here. They are no longer liberating, only destructive, for there is no longer an other to escape, to destroy. This is not to say that the Jews will never need rebellion, but as the story of David later shows, it will never again be an unalloyed good.
I am an angry person. Continue reading →
Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.
From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.
It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. 🙂
This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading →
Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.
Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.
It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.
Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education. Continue reading →
If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”
I noted recently that writing has become a performing art, one where we writers all have to be promotional and public. I’ve been mulling that over in regards to social media. Specifically, Facebook.
I made my first business career developing the consumer side of what we once called “cyberspace,” but I was quite late to Facebook. Most close friends who wanted to keep up with my personal life soon wised up and Friended my wife. My main reservation was Facebook’s awesome store of personal data (even now, my Facebook account is still under a different computer login than my work or personal logins), but it seemed harmless enough — shared humor, family updates and the occasional expression of political dudgeon by people whose politics I knew well.
When I signed up for the Superstars Writing Seminars, I joined their very active private Facebook group for news and updates on the seminar, and by extension, on the writers’ individual careers. To my great surprise, a lot of those people Friended me on Facebook — most before ever meeting me, and the rest after a very limited interaction (though you learn a lot playing Cards Against Humanity, and none of it good.)
I was bemused. Why on earth would these people want to Friend me? Did they care about my son’s new style of dancing to 80’s pop? Would they be as thrilled by the new retaining wall we’re getting as I am?
My folly was in not recognizing that Facebook has become a public space to the exact degree that one is a public person — and performing artists are public people, and writers now performers. This for me makes Facebook an increasingly staged and risky place. In Soho where she lives, a major fashion model can go shopping without makeup and in sweatpants — but when that same model hits the stores at Mall of America, she is not shopping. She is making an appearance, as rehearsed and planned and calculated as any Oscar Wilde bon-mot.
Thing is, I have plenty of friends, and extended family, for whom Facebook is not that space, and whose socializing there is more honest, more mundane, and in some ways more substantive. If I actually become a successful writer, commenting to me on a Facebook post will be the equivalent of meeting your friend for coffee when your friend is on a reality-TV show and has a camera following everywhere. Little-f-friends, are you ready for that? Am I? Continue reading →
Some years ago I attended a conference at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington DC on art and democracy. Along with the artists and patrons and at least one historian, many who came were national and local activists for marginalized communities invisible to national culture. They made impassioned pleas for the assembled artists to take the time to bring them and their needs into the spotlight.
I wasn’t kind to the idea. Its fine for people outside to express concern, to channel aid, but artists can’t be anyone’s mouthpieces. Culture requires imagination. It demands oblique correlatives, odd connections, and fantasy, a voice not determined by big-picture grandees but the kind of misfits who stay up all night sweating the details.
I’m not saying writers should be divorced from their societies but they should not try to confuse their role as entertainers and provokers of thought with measurable social value. Continue reading →
After the Newtown massacre last month — yes, remember Newtown? Twenty-six dead, twenty of them children? You’d be forgiven for forgetting. Our news media certainly have, now that the dead are buried and lawmakers moved on to arguing about money again — Sorry.
After the massacre I tried to use the — is it horror, or dread, or just the sinking feeling for a parent of all that time and effort and love robbed in a moment? Maybe we don’t have the word in English yet, like schadenfreude (though from what poor bastards would we borrow it?). But if you’re a parent and very likely if you weren’t, two weeks ago Friday you knew what it meant.
Again, sorry. As you can see, it’s hard to write about. It wasn’t just the walls of emotion that were hard to scale. There really seemed nothing to say. Easy enough to blame America’s culture of guns and the nonsense of the gun-show loophole, but the Newtown killer borrowed his mom’s guns and there’s absolutely no policy prescription for that. Short of banning automatic weapons, banning them and taking them away like I would a hot poker from my three year old — except gun people are addicts to a drug that can kill others. Just try to take away their fix by force and might of law. The insane hunting of first-responders will soon seem normal, the anarchy of The Dark Knight Rises as quaint and dreamy a social vision as Flash Gordon.
And that’s what unclenched my thinking. Continue reading →