Credidero #5: Inhumanity

When I was framing my Credidero writing project for 2019, I spent a fair amount of time and thought developing the list of 12 one-word topics that I intended to ponder and write about over course of the year. I clearly remember that the very last edit that I made to the final list was turning the possible topic “Humanity” into the actual topic “Inhumanity.” At the time I did that, the edit was largely to eliminate what I thought could have just produced a fuzzy wuzzy glurgey article, and to better balance what I considered innately “positive” reflections among the list of 12 with what I thought could be innately “negative” reflections, and thereby perhaps more intellectually difficult to parse. In other words, it seemed to me at the time that it would be easier for me to fall into writing piffle and tripe about the concept of “humanity” (“La la la, let’s all get along, people are great, yay!”) than it would be to consider its opposite, which could far more fraught with dark feelings and unpleasant realities and difficult realizations. Those seemed to be the spaces that would be more challenging for me to explore, and since this project was intended to be a personal challenge, that final edit stuck.

My sense of that potential challenge has proven accurate for me over the past month, and this is the first of five scheduled articles to date where I’ve missed my self-imposed monthly deadline (by just a few days, though) as I knocked the topic around in my brain housing group a bit longer than I have earlier installments before finally sitting down to organize my mental noise and write. One of the key difficulties for me has been that this topic is ultimately defined by its negation: you can’t actually consider or define “inhumanity” without considering and defining “humanity” first: basically and etymologically speaking, “inhumanity” is simply the absence of whatever its opposite is. Then, adding complexity, “humanity” itself carries two simple/common uses, one of a noun form (“the human race; human beings collectively”), and one of an adjective form (“humaneness; goodness; benevolence”).

But here’s the rub: by most objective measures, on an aggregate, macro, long-term, global basis, humanity (noun) does not practice humanity (adjective) very effectively, at all. Our history is shaped, defined and recorded not through long eras of benevolence and kindness and care, but rather through endless, constant, unrelenting war, subjugation (of our own species and others), depredation of resources, conquest and assimilation of assets, and a host of other day-to-day and century-to-century activities that skew far from the concepts of compassion, tolerance, goodness, pity, piety, charity and care that are embodied in the common adjectival use of the word “humanity.”

It’s almost like humanity (noun) hired some supernatural marketing agent to spin the emergence of the English word humanity (adjective) in the 14th Century just to make us look good and gloss over the horrors imminent whenever we rolled up into your forest or savanna or jungle or oasis. “Oh hey, look, it’s the Humans! Word is, they are kind and benevolent! Humanity, Huttah!” (Said the Lemur King, before we turned him into a shawl, and then killed all the other humans who didn’t have any Lemur Wear).

I kept knocking this conundrum around, not really getting anywhere with it, until it occurred to me that maybe I needed to parse the word “inhumanity” a bit differently. In its common modern form and usage, we think of it in these two parts: “in + humanity,” i.e. the absence of humanity (adjective), and we generally take the combined word form to be a bad thing, even though “humanity” (noun) is pretty awful, if we’re frank about our shortcomings. Perhaps a better way to consider the subject word, though, is to parse it thusly: “inhuman + ity,” i.e. simply the state of being not human. Plants exist in a state of inhumanity, when defined that way, and there’s no value judgment assigned to saying that. They are not human. Fact. Likewise all of the other gazillions of species of animals, protists, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and unseen and unknown entities (ghosts? angels? demons? gods?) that share our planet with us. Not human, and all existing in a state of inhuman-ity accordingly.

The collective set of inhuman-ity engages in many of the same practices that humanity (noun) does: its species and members eat each other, cause diseases, go places they shouldn’t, do harm, deplete things, despoil things, over-populate, over-hunt, over-grow, overthrow, fight, bite, copulate, propagate, locomote, respirate, expire. But their collective abilities to break things on a truly planetary basis, and their willful, ongoing, compulsive drives to engage in the mass exterminations of creatures of their own kind in pursuit of meaningless shiny things or mythical mental constructions or physical homogeneity all pale in comparison to the wide-spread horrors which Homo sapiens is capable of, and seemingly revels in.

Should some miracle suddenly and completely remove the biomass of human beings from our planet today, the other living and unliving things upon it would likely, in time, return to some slowly evolving state of punctuated equilibrium that would allow life to continue in perpetuity here, occasionally blasted and reorganized by comets or asteroids or other stellar detritus, until the time, billions of years from now, when our star explodes and incinerates the little rock we all call our home for the final time.

But I believe it would challenge the most optimistic human futurists to consider the trend lines of what our own species has wreaked upon our planet since we emerged from East Africa, and imagine a (mostly) peaceful progression where humanity (noun) practices care, compassion, kindness, and goodness in ways that promote planetary well-being, human dignity, respect for all species, equality, justice, brotherhood, and the peaceful distribution of assets to all who need them for billions and billions of years.

The accepted scientific consensus, in fact, is quite the opposite of that: the actions that a relatively small number of human beings in positions of political and economic power are taking, right now, largely for the short-term material gain of their own cliques and cabals, are forging an irreversible glide path toward long-term global human suffering that will be orders of magnitude greater than any experienced in the history of our species, and that will more than offset the benefits of centuries of scientific gains, e.g. disease mitigation, crop yield and nutritional density, etc. It’s bad, and it’s going to get worse, fast, and it’s going to take down a huge percentage of the collective set of inhuman-ity on its way. Our current government, to cite but one illustrative example, doesn’t even want its scientists to publicize climate forecasts beyond the year 2040, because the list of probable futures are so dire beyond that point. But they’re coming, whether they write about them or not.

Where does any classical sense of humanity (adjective) as a state of goodness and grace fit within that reality, and how does one reasonably envision the human species a thousand years or more years from now as anything but, at likely best, a small rump tribe of survivors holding on meanly after the vast majority of our species has perished, horribly?

That may be the inevitable progress of our unique species, and it is inherently human accordingly, but it’s certainly not inherently humane. So the linkage between those two uses of the word “humanity” grows more and more difficult for me the longer I think about them, because it really seems to me that, on many planes, humanity is at its most humane when it is being its most in-human, and humanity is at its most inhumane when it is being its most human. Oh, the humanity! Look how inhumane it is!

I suspect alien interplanetary observers would come to the same conclusion, and then might want to hire that supernatural 14th Century marketing firm themselves before they head onto their next assignations: “Oh, hey, look, it’s the Aliens! Word is, they are decent and good and fair, despite their different colored skin and hair! Aliens, huttah!” I mean, we English speakers are just really full of ourselves and bursting with linguistic bullshit when we use the very word with which we name ourselves as a synonym for all the goodness in the world, right? It boggles this already boggled mind.

Let’s pause and take a deep breath at this point. I certainly appreciate that this is high-minded rant that I’m embarking on here, and I certainly do not wish to imply that I am any better (or worse)(or different) that the rest of humanity, by any stretch of the imagination. While I may not be one of the 100 Human Beings Most Responsble for Destroying Our Planet in the Name of Profit (if you click no other link here, click that one, please), there’s still plastic in my trash can, and dead animal parts in my refrigerator, and hatreds in my heart, so I would not set myself up as any sort of paragon of the ways in which human beings can, actually, be and do good. I’m doing my part to destroy the planet too, whether I want to or not, because I am human, and that is what we do, collectively.

But even in the face of our unrelenting, unstoppable destructive natures as a collective, there are individuals around us who do good, and act benevolent, and show kindness, and practice care, representing that classical 14th Century marketing sense of the word “humanity” in their everyday lives and activities. There might even be some small groups of people who can do that on a consistent basis over time, but I think that it is an inherent flaw in our in species that when you put too many of us together, by choice or by circumstance, we become inhumane to all those beyond the scopes and spheres where our individual perception allows us to see individual goodness shining more brightly than the collective awfulness to which we inevitably succumb. Jesus’ teachings were sublime and profound, to cite but one of many examples. But most churches that attempt to teach and (worse) enforce them today are horrible and cruel, with the largest ones usually being the most egregious, inhumane offenders.

How many humans do you have to put together into pockets of humanity before our innate lack of humaneness emerges? I would suspect the number aligns with the size of the average hunter-gatherer communities before we learned to write and record stories about ourselves, and then justify why one communities’ stories were better or more correct than its neighbors’ were, and I suspect that in our twilight years as a species, after we’ve mostly destroyed the planet, we’ll rediscover that number again as we cluster in small groups, optimistically in our ancestral savannas, but more likely in the wreckage of our great cities, after they have spread to cover the inhabitable surface of the Earth, and implode upon themselves.

I found close resonances in my emergent thinking on this topic in the writings of Sixteenth Century French philosopher Michael de Montaigne, most especially in his essay “On Cruelty,” where he wrote:

Those natures that are sanguinary towards beasts discover a natural proneness to cruelty. After they had accustomed themselves at Rome to spectacles of the slaughter of animals, they proceeded to those of the slaughter of men, of gladiators. Nature has herself, I fear, imprinted in man a kind of instinct to inhumanity.

Along similar lines, St Anselm of Canterbury has served as a sort of a quiet mascot for me in this series, since I indirectly captured the word “credidero” from his writings, and I’ve been researching some of his major works in parallel with this project. In De Casu Diaboli (“On The Devil’s Fall,” circa 1085), Anselm  argued that there are two forms of good — “justice” and “benefit” —and two forms of evil — “injustice” and “harm.” All rational beings (note that Anselm is including the inhuman angelic caste in this discourse) seek benefit and shun harm on their own account, but independent choice permits them to abandon justice. Some angels chose their own happiness in preference to justice and were punished by God for their injustice with less happiness. We know them now as devils. The angels who upheld justice before their own happiness, on the other hand, were rewarded by God with such happiness that they are now incapable of sin, there being no happiness left for them to seek in opposition to the bounds of justice. Poor humanity (noun), meanwhile, retained the theoretical capacity to choose justice over benefit, but, because of our collective fall from grace, we are incapable of doing so in practice except by God’s divine grace, via the satisfaction theory of atonement.

At bottom line, then, Anselm ultimately found humanity collectively damaged, closer in temperament to devils than angels, and salvageable only by the intervention of the humane, though in-human, God of Abraham, and his Son, who became human, so that other humans could kill him. As humans do.

These two quotes eventually carried me back to the very first thing I typed on this ever-growing page over a month ago, and likely the very first thought that you as a reader had, when presented with the word “inhumanity:” the oft-stated concept of “man’s inhumanity to man,” which has become something of a cliche through over-use. Do you know where the phrase comes from? I didn’t, though I guessed it was likely Shakespeare, since so many eloquent turns of phrase of that ubiquity in our language come from his works.

My guess was wrong, though: it was first documented in English in Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge (1784) by Robert Burns:

Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Burns, too, accepts at face value the inherent awfulness “inwoven with our frame,” and notes that through our active choices and actions, we’re more than capable of becoming ever more awful yet.

Once again, we return to to the linguistic twist: humanity is at its most humane when it is being its most in-human, and humanity is at its most inhumane when it is being its most human. Can we extrapolate a statement of action from that conundrum thusly: the only way we will save humanity is to reject humanity, and the only way we will be humane is by being inhuman?

It seems and sounds absurd to frame an argument in those terms on the surface, and yet . . . human beings readily embrace the inhuman when they pray to God and ask his Son to come live in their hearts, guaranteeing their eternal salvation, and human beings embrace the inhuman when they accept a Gaia concept of the planet as a single living entity upon which we are analogous to a particularly noxious strain of mold on an orange, and human beings embrace the inhuman when we look to the cosmos around us in the hopes that we are not alone, and that whoever or whatever is out there might yet save us.

I could rattle off dozens of other examples of the ways in which humans embrace the inhuman in the hopes becoming more humane, and all of them carry more than a whiff of deus ex machina about them, as they all involve elements from outside a system being injected into a system to sustain a system. But you know what? That feels right to me. That feels like the one viable path out of an endless do-loop of inhumane humanity, and I suspect that’s why all cultures, throughout our history, have created stories and religions and narratives that seek to guide humanity’s future through the examples of non-human actors, be they other living things on our planet, or mystical beings beyond it.

I doubt that any one of them is any better or any worse than any other, so long as they focus individuals and small groups (remember, we get horrible en masse, always) on goodness at a scale perceivable to the perceiver, and receivable by a receiver. Maybe this explains why I feel compelled to speak out loud to animals when I meet them on my perambulations, as just a small personal act of embracing the inhuman around me, perhaps creating feelings and moods and resonances that might then make me a better human being to the other human beings with whom I interact. Maybe Marcia and Katelin embrace the inhuman in similar ways through their yoga practice. Maybe you embrace the inhuman in a church, or a temple, or a mosque, or in a forest meadow, or atop a mountain, or beneath the eyepiece of a massive telescope.

Maybe we all become better, more humane humans, the more we embrace the inhuman-ity around us. It’s a squishy proposition, sure, but my gut tells me it’s the right one . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this fifth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Seven: “Creativity”

“Nice flowers, Burns. Gimme ’em, or else I’ll sock you one . . . “

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

 

Best Albums of 2019 (First Half)

It’s been six months and 10 days since I posted my “Best Albums of 2018” report, so per my slightly forward-skewed rubric, that means it’s now time to see how the first half of 2019 is shaking out for new music. There have been lots of new (to me) artists thus far, along with some welcome returns to form by old favorites, so I’ve appreciated having a nice blend of high-quality tunes spinning from a variety of genres through the winter and (apparently never-ending) spring. I don’t bother with long form reviews at this point in the year, and the albums cited are just presented alphabetically by artist with no qualitative hierarchies, since I know this list will evolve significantly before I do the full 2019 year in review, and I will lock them all in then. That said, if you’re looking for good new music, and you know and trust my judgment (or don’t, I guess), then I highly recommend you explore any of this baker’s dozen of very good discs via the embedded links, as some of these are already knocking around in my head as potential “Album of the Year” honorees come November/December, and they’re well worth enjoying now. Happy listening, as always!

Clinic, Wheeltappers and Shunters

F-DORM, COMMUNE

Focus, Focus 11

Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs

Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken

Mekons, Deserted

Alice Merton, Mint

Piroshka, Brickbat

Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun

The Specials, Encore

Tronos, Celestial Mechanics

White Denim, Side Effects

Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit

One of a few serious early contenders for “Album of the Year 2019.”

“Gastwerk Saboteurs” by Imperial Wax

It’s been 16 months since legendary Mancunian musical genius and cancer victim Mark E. Smith stubbed out his last cigarette and shuffled off this mortal coil, at the sadly premature age of 61. Seven months before he flew away, he released New Facts Emerge, the final album by The Fall, the group which he had fronted through four decades of brilliant studio releases, storming live concerts, and a series of ongoing lineup changes that had long become a music critic cliche by the time he last took a stage before an audience.

That final studio document of his life’s work found Smith supported by his longest-lasting and most stalwart musical crew, guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling. The instrumental trio had worked together with Smith for eleven continuous years by the time of The Fall’s final bow, most of that time spent with Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou on keyboards and backing vocals, though she was absent for the muscular all-lads New Facts Emerge, having re-emigrated to Germany, where she is now recording excellent droney noise with NOHE NOSHE.

Greenway, Spurr and Melling were left in England to handle the obligatory interviews, and my admiration for them (already high based on their no-nonsense musical chops) increased several orders of magnitude as they gracefully, graciously handled the press in ways that honored and humanized the easily-caricatured Smith, without clutching the spotlight closely in any self-aggrandizing or self-promotional ways. They made it crystal clear that The Fall had died with Mark E. Smith, while also resolutely and accurately noting that they’d become a formidable group over a decade together, and that they had more to say in their own rights. Other key tenets of the last years’ worth of interviews with the trio tended to focus on four key themes: (1) Mark E. Smith was their friend, (2) He was funny, and they had fun with him, (3) He instilled a tough work ethic in them, and (4) They had a process for making music, and it worked with and for Smith, and they believed it could work for them without him.

Based on the audio and video evidence of their new debut album, Gastwerk Saboteurs, Imperial Wax (as the group are now known, invoking the 2008 Fall album, Imperial Wax Solvent, where they first worked together) still hew to that tough work ethic, with a proven process for producing noisy, clattering rock and roll built on titanic riffs with abrasive, creative soundscaping, and they’re having fun still, both as old friends, and with a new colleague, singer-guitarist Sam Curran of post-punk garage rockers Black Pudding. You can certainly hear the sonic connections to the punchy, muscular and weird New Facts Emerge (most clearly in Greenway’s amped up psycho spaghetti western guitar stylings and the Motörhead crunch of the Melling-Spurr rhythm section), but Curran’s strong voice and the heft of the twin-guitar attack clearly mark Imperial Wax as a different sort of beast than its forebears, to everyone’s benefit.

Album opener “The Art of Projection” (which has a dugga dugga dugga Wire vibe about it) and lead single “No Man’s Land” have been floating around online for awhile before the rest of the album’s release, and they provide a fine introduction to the new group’s charms, as evidenced by their entertaining videos, linked herein. Imperial Wax would have been ill-served in recruiting a Mark E. Smith mimic (if one could be found) to handle microphone duties, and Curran shines as a front man, not only just as a different type of singer, but also as a strong and confident vocalist in his own right, with a fresh approach and a range that allows him to deliver shouts and croons as and where needed, with aplomb. He’s got a different lyrical style, too, and Gastwerk Saboteurs is a word-rich album as a result, engaging and direct in the spaces where Smith was often verbally obtuse and elliptical, (wherein lied many of his own unique and irreplaceable charms, of course).

Gastwerk Saboteurs features another ten songs beyond those two teaser tracks, with a pair of short jammy instrumentals (“Wax On” and “Wax Off”) serving as previews of an unexpected album closer, the wordless nine-minute epic “Night of the Meek,” which builds and stomps with the sorts of mecanik precision and power in which Fall-inspirations CAN once specialized. Another long highlight is “Rammy Taxi Illuminati,” a wonderfully weird two-parter that opens with a storming, shouting roots rock rave, then pivots into a lugubrious, syrupy, effects-drenched groove that would have done Hairway to Steven-era Butthole Surfers proud. (Interestingly, Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus forged the link that got Imperial Wax signed to the Texas-based Saustex Records label; they’ve been doing a great job with early marketing of the disc, so it seems a sound connection).

“Turncoat” and “More Fool Me” turn the tempos down a bit, but not the grooves, and they both merge memorable rock riffing with unusual and unexpected production approaches that pop sonic surprises into unexpected crevices. “Plant the Seed” is a classic chugger, and “Barely Getting By” is an inverted blues lamentation anchored in a timely and recognizable sociopolitical setting, rife with dismay and disappointment, delivered with demon intensity. Group backing vocals and processed guitars and keyboards (?) are prevalent throughout, adding density and variety to the record’s sound, which is spacious and warm and invites, nay, demands loud plays on the family hifi, on repeat.

All in all, a wonderful and exciting debut record from a new band forged in the crucible of an old one. It’s not The Fall, not at all, and much credit to its creators for recognizing that the best way to honor their fallen Chief is by forging forward, with the new album, if not the next album after that, standing as the one that excites them most. Bless them for sharing that excitement with us, and kudos for a job well done, under circumstances where most others would have faltered and failed.

Listen/Purchase Here: Gastwerk Saboteurs by Imperial Wax

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Into The Woods (Again and Again)

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the May 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

When I was a kid, the woods were my second home. My friends and I would come home from school every day, get handed a snack, and then get thrown out of the house until dinner time, expected to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t bother any grownups. Most days, we’d trot down the well-worn trails into the woods behind our neighborhood, where we’d climb trees, build forts, splash about in creeks, investigate the detritus dumped in the woods, and otherwise have unstructured fun beneath the untended wild canopy that’s fairly typical of most suburban communities.

Years later, when I lived near Albany, New York, I kept on exploring my local woods, eventually creating a photo essay series called “Hidden in Suburbia.” The premise behind this project was that I did regular deep dives into the woods around my community, never going more than five miles from my home, essentially recreating those childhood days of walking into the woods and being receptive to whatever I found there. Given the deep history of that part of Upstate New York, there were truly some amazing, forgotten finds back in those woods, which I was always happy to share.

Fast forward to 2019: I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple of months ago. My daughter (mostly raised in New York) and her boyfriend (a Des Moines native) live here, so it’s been wonderful to be close to them again. Last week, on one of the rare nice days we’ve had here this spring, my daughter’s boyfriend and I decided to go on a trek through the woods where he spent his own time as a kid. We had a great day, slogging across creeks, pushing through brambles, scaling post-industrial escarpments created by generations of landfill dumping, investigating all sorts of illicit detritus left in the woods, trekking across a meadow that generations have used for dirt bike riding, quietly tiptoeing away from a homeless camp we found, and just generally enjoying being in the moment, there in the woods. It was a full, rich day.

But you know what we didn’t see while we loped about in the woods? Young people, nor even any signs that they’d been there. We saw no tree forts, no stones placed to facilitate creek crossings, no cairns, nor any other evidence that these woods were routinely accessed by the kids who live around them. That seems sad to me, on some plane. Yes, I know that today’s children have opportunities for all sorts of global engagement via their televisions and phones and tablets, but still, I can’t help but think that climbing trees and damming creeks and building forts gave me more meaningful, resonant life skills than anything I’ve ever accessed on a computer, and what a loss it is if kids don’t get to have such experiences anymore.

Do you have a young person in your life? If so, here’s hoping you have some woods near your home, and that you can take them out for an unstructured adventure therein. I guarantee they will love it, and 50 years hence, they may be writing about it as I am today!

As a kid finding this in the woods, I’d have immediately been trying to figure out how to get that engine block out, and what I could build with it . . .

Space Madness

Marcia had a work conference last week, and I had work in Charlotte Monday and Tuesday this week, so I decided to head down to Florida for a few days of warmth with her before returning to the dreary Midwestern weather last night. Rather than staying at her conference hotel when her meetings were done, we decided to head over for a couple of nights in Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic Coast. For folks our age, if we know anything about that seaside community, it’s likely the fact that it was the fictional home of Major Anthony Nelson (an astronaut) and Jeannie, from the deliciously cheesy television program, I Dream of Jeannie.

As we were headed up to our room on Friday night, we noticed a schedule of events in the elevator, and there was a paper sticker on the very date of our arrival showing a cartoon rocket. I pulled out my phone and, hurrah, was pleased to discover that SpaceX was, in fact, launching a mission that very night, at 245am. When we arrived in our room on the seventh floor, I happily noted that our private balcony was aligned in such a way that we had almost a straight-shot view of the pad where the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station would be launching. Double hurrah!

We set alarms and went out on the balcony at the appointed hour, and like clockwork, got to watch (and hear) my first orbital launch ever:

If you know me well, you know I’m a hardcore space nerd, so this was a real treat, and a great appetizer to our already planned Saturday adventure to visit Kennedy Space Center, where I got to snap a selfie at the business end of the mighty Saturn V Rocket.

Marcia also snapped me with my second favorite of all possible rockets, the Titan-Gemini stack.

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Back-tracking a bit, Marcia had work meetings during the days in Orlando while I was there, and I also had a night alone there as she flew out on Sunday, and I didn’t head to Charlotte until Monday morning. So I spent the time making friends, as one does:

I also got to embrace my inner redneck with a visit to my favorite greasy spoon destination in the world, for some delicious carbs and fats.

The business part of my trip to Charlotte was great, too. A board meeting and a research workshop at the Bartlett Research Labs, a glorious location near the area where my Dad was born and raised. We had wonderful fellowship and got a ton of work done with good people in an amazing setting. Win, win, win, win and win, with thanks to Bartlett for hosting us.

In closing, if you don’t know the source of the title of this post, you need to watch the following video, perhaps the finest fifteen minutes of animation ever created for television. It was life-altering the first time I saw it, early one Sunday morning sitting in a hotel room with an infant Katelin, trying to find something amusing to do while Marcia was trying to sleep in. I do not think all of my tearful laughter helped the situation on that front, but Katelin and I did have a new favorite cartoon series for many years afterward, so a reasonable trade-off, I think.

Credidero #4: Absurdity

My father was born and raised in Albemarle, a North Carolina Piedmont mill and rail town near the Uwharrie Mountains. He left there after college to embark on a long and successful Marine Corps career, living and traveling around the world, but his parents stayed on in the same house on Melchor Drive until they died, Papas before Grannies, both passing when I was in my twenties.

While I never lived in Albemarle, I had two decades’ worth of grandparent visits there, with many fond memories still held dear of those mostly gentle days. Until I developed teenage cynicism and ennui, one of my favorite things about going to Albemarle was hunkering down in a comfy chair to read my grandmothers’ copy of The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. I have that battered copy of the book to this day, as my aunt gave it to me after my grandmother died, knowing that no one else had ever read or loved it as much as I did.

(Amusing [to me] side note: The book was given to my grandmother by her friend, who everyone called “Miz Doby,” in June, 1966. I opened it today and looked at the front-piece inscription and smiled to realize that I still do not know what Miz Doby’s first name was, since she just signed it “E. Doby.” They were both elementary school teachers, so presumably the book was originally intended for my grandmother’s students, before I laid claim to it).

As is often the case with big hard-covers that are regularly handled by children, the spine of the book is cracked, there are stains throughout it, and it’s clear to see where the most-loved, most-read pages were, as they’ve been bent back, breaking the glue that held the pages to the spine. If I just set the Untermeyer book on its spine and let it fall open as it will, it drops to pages 208 and 209, containing Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and “Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation.” If I flip to other broken-open pages, I see these poems:

  • “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and “Calico Pie” by Edward Lear.
  • “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash
  • “Old Mother Hubbard” by Sarah Catherine Martin
  • “The Butterfly’s Ball” by William Roscoe
  • “How To Know The Wild Animals” by Carolyn Wells
  • “Poor Old Lady, She Swallowed a Fly” by Unknown

Some of these poets and some of the poems are better known than the others, but they all do share one prominent recurring similarity: they are all nonsense verses, rhythmically engaging to the ear, deeply earnest in laying out terrific tales without any meaningful anchors in the real world whatsoever. They and others like them could readily be described as “absurdities,” which my desktop dictionary defines as “things that are extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.”

I can still recite “Jabberwocky” by heart half a century on, and my early love of the absurd has pervasively infused both the inputs into my intellectual development, and the outputs of my own creative work, throughout my entire life, and likely through however many years I have remaining before me.  Indulge me three examples on the output side, please: these are short poems that I wrote when I was in my 30s or 40s, clearly related to, and likely inspired by, the doggerel, wordplay, and rhythmic whimsy of those gentler children’s poems in the Untermeyer collection:

“Tales of Brave Ulysses S. Vanderbilt, Jr.”

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
James Monroe won it in the hammer throw
Won it very long ago
Won it in the hammer throw

Time goes by while we’re learning how to fly
William Bligh dreamed of sour rhubarb pie
Dreamed it with his inner eye
Dreamed of sour rhubarb pie

On the sea, Bligh and Monroe sail with me
One degree south of Nashville, Tennessee
South of Rome and Galilee
South of Nashville, Tennessee

Home at last, feeling like an age has past
Thomas Nast drew us through his looking glass
Drew us as we crossed the pass
Drew us through his looking glass

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
Even so, sell it quick to Holy Joe
Sell it painted red Bordeaux
Sell it quick to Holy Joe

Sell it with a piping crow
Sell it for a load of dough
Sell it at the minstrel show
Sell it, man, and then let’s go

“Field Agents”

“Let him out, he’s coming now, he’s alone,”
(I can not tolerate the taste of this megaphone).
Deep in the coop, the fox, he sees that some hens have flown,
his cover’s blown, (tympanic bone, Rosetta stone).

And then the hawk drops down from his perch on high,
(spearing the fox through, he lets out a little cry),
Justice is quick here, we stand and we watch him die,
I dunno why (fluorescent dye, blueberry pie).

We pull the poor poultry out from the killing floor
(some of the pups get sick there in the feath’ry gore),
out on the lawn, we stack them up and note the score:
it’s twenty-four (esprit de corps, espectador).

Back in the barn, now, safe in our little stalls
(I watch those damn bugs climbing around the walls),
We sleep and eat hay, waiting ’til duty calls,
as the time crawls (Niagara Falls, no one recalls).

“Natural History”

The ammonites farmed with diazinon
to kill eurypterids beneath the soil.
Which perished there in darkness ‘neath the lawn,
but rose in eighty million years as oil,
which dinosaurs refined for natural gas
to cook their giant land sloths on steel spits.
As sloths were butchered, forests made of grass
rose from the plains to hide the black tar pits,
where trilobites would swim to lay their eggs.
Their larvae flew and bit the mastodons,
while tiny primates scampered round their legs,
feeding on the fresh diazinon.
At night, the primates fidget as they dream
of interstellar rockets powered by steam.

What do these, or the many other poems like them that I have written over the years, mean? Damned if I know. But damned if I also don’t think that they provide better insights into my own psyche and mental processes than the more lucid prose I write professionally and for pleasure. My brain’s a messy thing, and there’s a lot of stuff going  on inside it that doesn’t make a bit of sense, but which nevertheless consumes a fair amount of internal attention and firepower. These absurd little nuggets spill out of my brain easily and frequently, and I enjoy extracting and preserving them. They seem to reflect a particular lens through which I often view the world: it’s astigmatic, has finger-prints on it, is lightly coated with something greasy and opaque that can be rubbed around but not removed, and there are spider cracks latticed throughout its wobbly concave surfaces.

So many of my tastes in the various arts align closely and clearly with this warped view of the world, as though my internal center of absurdity vibrates in recognition and appreciation when presented with similarly incongruous external stimuli. Examples: I have been drawn to surrealist paintings since early childhood, I regularly read books in which language and mood are far more important than linear plot or narrative, and I once did a little feature on the films that move me most, titled: My Favorite Movies That Don’t Make Any Sense At All.

I must admit that since rolling the online dice three weeks ago to decide which of my Credidero topics I would cover this month, I have had to repeatedly tamp down the very strong urge, prompted by the word “absurdity,” to merrily write 3,000+ words of absolutely meaningless gibberish wordplay and call it “done,” rather than actually considering what “absurdity” really means, and processing what I really think and believe about it. And that initial, innate reaction to just be absurd, as I do, has made this a more challenging topic for me to write about than ones that have come before it. Whenever I thought about how to frame the narrative, I always found myself in some sort of “eyeball looking at itself” scenario, an impossible infinite do-loop of self-reflection where I know the mirror and the object reflected within it are both irregularly warped and pointed in different directions, and I don’t (and can’t) quite know what the true image is.

I must also admit that this isn’t the first time I’ve reflected on such matters, even without the formal structure of a public writing project. I have long found that the easiest way to break out of a wobbly self-reflective do-loop has been to create and export a new loop, so I can look at it from the outside, not the inside. When I read the poems reproduced above today (and there are a lot like them in my collection), they strike me as relics of just that type of act or urge: I wrote them as absurdities, I see them as absurdities now, I embrace those absurdities, I know that I created those absurdities, I know that the act of creating them was absurd, and that any attempt to explain them would be equally absurd.

But at least those bits of absurdity now reside outside of me, self-contained and complete, where I can see them more clearly, rather than having them whirring on blurry spindles within me, occasionally shooting off sparks that ignite other bits of weird kindling lodged along the exposed and frayed wiring of a gazillion neurons packed inside my skull. They mean nothing to me objectively, but they mean everything to me subjectively, because they’re so closely aligned with the ways that I think, and what I think about, and how I view the world around me — or at least how I view some world around me, even if it’s not the one I actually live in.

Pretty absurd, huh?

When I do try to order my thoughts on this topic in ways that can be meaningfully communicated to others, I’m struck by the fact that many of the poems in Untermeyer’s great poetry collection for young people are just as absurd as mine are, and just as absurd as the playground chants that kids around the world somehow seem to learn by osmosis, or the songs we sing to little ones, or the goofy talking animal imagery of countless children’s films and television shows. Utterly absurd! All of it, and all of them! But they love it, don’t they, and we seem to love giving it to them, don’t we? When we describe the whimsy of those ridiculous art forms as “absurd,” we imbue the word with fun, and frolic, and laughter and light. Look at the smiles! Look at them! Joy!

Then minutes later, we turn from our young ones, and we check our Twitter feeds or pick up news magazines or turn on our televisions and are confronted with words, actions, or events precipitated by political figures with whom we disagree, and we may scowlingly brand their actions or activities as “absurd” with vehemence, and bitterness, and anger, and darkness in our hearts. Absurdity is somehow colored in different hues when it manifests itself in real-world ways outside of the acts of the creative class, or outside of the bubble of childhood. And rightly so, as is most profoundly illustrated in our current political clime, where elected or appointed public figures routinely engage in acts or spew forth words that are (to again quote the dictionary) “extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.” 

It is to our own peril, unfortunately, when we don’t take such manifestations of public, political absurdity seriously. Talking animals don’t kill people. Absurd public policies do. Nonce and portmanteau words don’t break people’s souls. Propaganda and hate speech do.  Surrealistic imagery does not poison minds. Unrealistic demagoguery does. Absurd fantasy stories about non-scientific worlds do not destroy the real world. Absurd fantasy policies anchored in non-scientific worldviews do — and there is only one real world within which they function and do harm, no matter how fabulously untethered their sources may be.

People with severe mental illness may act publicly in absurd ways, and we sympathetically view that as a part of their pathology. But what are we to make of people without such pathologies who consciously, actively engage in absurd behaviors specifically designed to remove value and meaning from the lives of others? I’d move them from the absurd pile to the evil pile, frankly. And we’d all be better off were we to rid ourselves of their noxious influences, which is why the fact that 50%+ of our country-folk don’t bother to vote at all is, in itself, utterly absurd.

There’s a vast repository of philosophical thought and writing (from Camus and  Kierkegaard, most prominently) dedicated to understanding absurdity and the ways in which it manifests itself in our lives, and how we are supposed to respond to or function in its grip. Not surprisingly, the philosophy of absurdism is built on the same “dark” theoretical frameworks as existentialism and nihilism, where there is a fundamental conflict between our desire to imbue our lives with value and meaning, and our inability to find such objective worth within an irrational universe that has no meaning, but just is. Once again, the nonsense that is charming when fictionalized for children is often appalling when framed as the architecture within which adult humans function. Why try, when in the end we all die, and we will never know why?

It’s easy for me to embrace and understand my own sense of inner absurdity as an adjunct to the whimsical absurdity of youth, but not so easy to reconcile my inner landscape with the often awful external vistas associated with public, political, and philosophical absurdity. Can I love one and hate the other, or is that in itself an absurd mental position? Is there meaning to be found between those poles, or is life just a pointless, endless Sisyphean push up a hill until the rock crushes us for the last time?

I took a stab at framing my thoughts on why we are what we are some years back, and, of course, I framed it as an absurdist piece called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks.” If pressed about the article and what it says or means, or why I wrote it, I’ll usually frame it as something more akin to the absurd whimsy of youth, ha ha ha, but if I’m honest here, it’s really a bit more than that, and there’s more objective truth about what I believe, or what I will have believed (credidero) within it than there are in most of my absurd writings. It begins thusly . . .

There’s an explanation for why we exist in the form we do, and I know what it is.

We are all about moving little pieces of the ocean from one place to the other. That’s all we are: sacks of seawater that can convert solar energy into locomotive force, so that we can move our little pieces of the ocean around. Unlike most seawater sacks, though, we are conscious of our selves, and this consciousness leads us to question our primary universal role as movers of hydrogen, oxygen, salts and minerals.

Consciousness is an electrochemical process that our particular strain of seawater sacks have evolved. No better or worse or different than a tail, a gall bladder, or an appendix. Because we don’t understand how this electrochemical process works, we use the very same electrochemical process to create mystical, non-biological explanations for its workings.

And it ends with this . . .

I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?

I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.

Is that absurd? Yes. Is it a “good” or the “bad” manifestation of absurdity? I think the former, but I know some would say that if I shared it with a child, I’d inflict harm, and some would say that walking around as an adult thinking such thoughts could readily slot me into the pathological spectrum of absurd beliefs and behaviors. And they may be right. I am absurd, I admit it, inside and out — but I am not a philosophical absurdist. I do believe we can glean meaning and value in an unfeeling, unthinking, and unknowing universe. And I do not believe that a fundamental conflict between the quest for meaning and the universe’s indifference to it drives my own inner absurdity.

When I start thinking about these Credidero articles each month, one of the first things I do is to look at the etymology of the word to be considered. “Absurdity” surprised me in its roots: it is a Late Middle English word derived from the Latin absurdum, meaning “out of tune.” That elicited a “huh!” moment from me, as I am also actively, eagerly drawn to “out of tune” music: the first time I ever read about Arnold Schoenberg’s dissonant 12-tone music, I had to hear it; the first time I ever read about the tritone (“The Devil’s Interval”), I had to find a piano so I could play it; my listening library of thousands of songs contains a high percentage of music in which standard, pleasing Western melodic structures are in short supply. I didn’t realize it, but apparently my musical tastes are absurd too. At least I am consistent.

When I considered the concept of internal and external absurdity as a form of musical expression, I was immediately reminded of a wonderful, favorite song by Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk), called “The Tuning of the World.” In it, Bartos writes about wishing that he could believe in God after seeing a haunting Laurie Anderson concert, noting:

I connect to the sound inside my mind
Closer I can‘t get to the divine
I wish I could believe in God
Life would be just safe and sound
I‘d build my house on solid ground
It‘s rather hard to understand
Why some believe and others can‘t
Who rules the tuning of the world?

I don’t know the answer to Karl’s final question there, for Karl, but to whoever rules the tuning of my own world, I am thankful that you left things in a state of wonky intonation with a lot of busted keys and clammed notes and buzzing frets, since I honestly like it better that way, absurdly enough.

Note: This article is part of an on-going twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this fourth article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

12die

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Twelve: “Inhumanity.”

Caution: This book may detune your world.

 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity