wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: March, 2018

Compromise and happiness; Living space.

(two posts dated 2010, a couple years after I got married but before my son was born. posted as-were, as it were; i wouldn’t write it this way anymore, and reading it gives me that ol’ familiar red-pen-itch, plus a weird sadness (was i always so angry?). but… –wa.)

Compromise and happiness.

Married couples learn to compromise out of necessity, but the scope of this necessity tends to be misunderstood. Compromise is often thought of as an invasion or reduction of personal sovereignty: the up-front price of a marriage’s survival. But in the long run compromise isn’t ‘judged’ correct or successful. Rather, the act of compromise is itself the substance of a successful relationship, which after all consists of (and is expressed in terms of) nothing more than the actions of those within it. Such category errors are common. You might say they’re the most human thing about us.

Some youngsters fear to take naps or relax, thinking they’ll miss out on ‘what’s happening.’ But napping doesn’t recharge you for work or play, it is itself a component of both, just as rests and silence are essential components of music. ‘What’s happening’ is nothing more than: rest. Adults who conceive of ‘me time’ as a vacation from the imposition and inconvenience of marriage make the same error. Time to oneself isn’t a break from the hard work of a relationship, it’s an essential component of it, and spouses who treat time apart as ‘a break from the marriage’ only stress the marriage further, by defining it implicitly or explicitly as the opposite of vacation, or of fun.

The same goes for office meetings and solitary work, or for standardized tests and individual study: the various parts of the job must share a purpose in order to be successful. Students aren’t given detailed feedback on their SAT performance, so the test stands outside the ongoing learning process, indeed it temporarily arrests that process. (Student skill mastery can only be reliably tested in situ, i.e. the best way to know whether you can solve chemistry problems is to solve chemistry problems, not recite vocabulary words.) Meanwhile, the effectiveness of office meetings increases dramatically when workers conceive of them as team work rather than mere institutional obligation. If a meeting is not ‘checking in’ but ‘working face-to-face,’ workers are less likely to shift into passive ‘meeting mode’ when the group is called to order, and can maintain their solitary intensity in the group setting. It’s the shift in intensity that’s costly and prone to malfunction.

The same goes for relationships, of course. If lovers can be honest with one another when they’re together then they can experience the full joy of being apart without assuming that they’re incurring some cost to the relationship. The leering alpha-cretin’s barroom refrain: ‘If only I were still single, y’know what I mean dude?’ The bitterness in his voice is real, but the problem isn’t being one thing or the other. The problem is that he imagines himself as something other than he is, and judges his experience in categorical rather than experiential terms. Of course married men also enjoy themselves in bars, and children wake from naps refreshed, and workers even return to their cubicles with a spring in their step.

Prerequisite to such happiness is the simple but difficult act of abandoning one’s illusions: I could not have been other than I am. I need to be away from you today so that I can be with you tomorrow, the next day I will carry into solitude the memory of our fellowship, what I am flows from what I do rather than vice versa, and no time is uncoupled from any other. John Lennon said something about life happening to us when we’re making other plans, but he had it wrong: life does not happen to you. It is only what you get up to, planning or acting or otherwise. If you compromise in order to be happy later you will never be happy. As someone or other said, be happy in your work (of love, art, labour, learning, etc.). Step one is accepting what you’re really doing and getting on with it. There is no step two. Joy is honesty.

Living space.

Let’s let the idea of ‘killing time’ stand in for the full sweep of modern American cultural thought, shall we?

Americans are raised to believe in the sanctity of work and so forth, but also to be suspicious of people who do nothing but work. The label of ‘workaholic’ combines both admiration and derogation, and adults are expected to maintain a ‘healthy work/life balance,’ as if work were somehow separate from ‘real life,’ whatever that means. Moreover, most adults have at some point responded to the question ‘What are you up to today?’ with a shrugging dismissal: ‘Nothing much.’ In the American language it’s possible to be awake, eat, use the restroom, even walk around town or read a book, yet still ‘do nothing.’ This phrase subtly denigrates solitary reflection and ‘idle’ thought, but such disparagement is reinforced throughout our culture. (The Dutch ride bicycles upright, so as to look around at their cities and countrysides; Americans put on athletic pants and ride quickly with their heads down, so as ‘get somewhere,’ or worse yet, ‘just go for a ride.’)

And so we find ourselves killing time: struggling to fill the minutes or hours between scheduled or anticipated activities. ‘I have three hours to kill,’ we say, and our intonation depends on our attitude — not toward time as such, but toward the actions we imagine we’re going to take in that time. We even reserve a class of actions for ‘dead time’ — the space in our daily schedule not yet full with appointments. Such ‘time-wasters’ or ‘downtime activities’ are less honorable than proper action — picking up trash for one minute (during a TV commercial, say) doesn’t count as ‘real cleaning’ unless it’s part of an hourlong string of such maintenance tasks.

The same dynamic is readily observed in American sexual culture. The adulterer chants to himself that his transgression is ‘only sex’ and not, say, lovemaking (‘I told you, dear, she doesn’t mean anything to me’); the closeted fundamentalist preacher can have sex with his male meth dealer without believing himself a homosexual; more benignly, young lovers go on weekly dates but insist they ‘aren’t dating.’ This self-delusion stems from something like the intentional fallacy: if we don’t ‘mean’ what we’re doing, it doesn’t ‘count.’ The delusion serves to defend against true recognition of our acts, which would induce guilt and despair.

Yet the delusion itself obviously isn’t doing us any favours.

Many (most?) Americans are evidently unhappy, but so much modern experience consists of avoiding unhappiness — or at least putting off confronting it — rather than ensuring happiness. It’s widely known that working in a focused way for long stretches of time on tasks we believe in produces feelings of peace and fulfillment. The arbitrary segmentation of each day into ‘work life’ and ‘home life’ and ‘play time’ and ‘downtime’ and ‘free time’ necessitates jarring mental shifts, which damage our focus (and in turn our serenity). But this segmentation alone is bearable; plenty of people benefit from sticking to a schedule and so forth. Rather, it’s the belief that some times, some actions, are more ‘real’ or meaningful than others — our belief that some time deserves killing — that leads to despair, because when we review the work of the day we can no longer hide behind the false distinction between what we’ve done and what we meant by it. If you work for two hours and end up ‘killing’ three, do you count it a successful work day with periods of waste? Or a ‘lazy’ day in which you managed a little work?

Is a school day ‘busy’ if fully 30% of it is brief idle periods separating distinct work practices and environments? Can that possibly be the optimal way to nurture a child’s vitality?

Taking a nap is a specific, conscious use of time rather than a failure to use it, ‘killing time’ is a conscious decision to perform a specific action — just like going to work, reading a book, plucking a chicken, painting a portrait, or sleeping around. ‘If you choose not to decide / You still have made a choice,’ the man said, and the time we kill is as much a part of our life as the time we fill. We go on dying at the same rate, regardless.

But never you mind! These are only idle thoughts. You haven’t really read them and, honestly, I didn’t mean even a word. I feel better. Do you feel better.


The X-Files, ep. 4×17 and 4×18: ‘Tempus Fugit’ and ‘Max.’

Note: I normally post these over at Medium, where the rest of my X-Files writeups are. But I’m feeling self-conscious about this site’s barrenness, so here you go.

Max Fenig returns.

In light of our present fallen condition, two bits of dialogue from ‘Tempus Fugit,’ one of the highlights of the strong but uneven fourth season. First, Mulder and Scully walk’n’talking while investigating a downed airplane which seems to’ve been the site of a (botched?) Grey abduction:

SCULLY: Mulder, why can’t you just accept the facts?

MULDER: Because there are no facts, Scully. What they’re telling you, what they’re going to report, they’re the opposite of the facts. A claim to ignorance of the facts. Claimed steadfastly, ignorance becomes as acceptable as the truth.

Second, the frightened Air Force air traffic controller and Scully talk in her apartment after he confesses to his role in downing a civilian airliner:

FRISH: You think I’ll be prosecuted?

SCULLY: For what?

FRISH: I gave the coordinates.

SCULL: You didn’t bring that plane down, Louis.

FRISH: I lied. I misled a federal investigator, I misled you. A hundred and thirty-four people, Sgt Gonzales…they’re all dead.

SCULLY: It wasn’t your fault.

FRISH: But I’ll have to live with it. I watched that plane fall out of the sky. It was just a dot on the screen, just a…set of numbers. The wreckage… I can’t get that out of my mind. How those people died — how easy it is to lie, just to say it was a dot on the screen…until you see it.

One of the strongest running themes of the show was the ongoing betrayal of America’s veterans, not by ungrateful citizens (one of several dangerous reactionary myths of Vietnam), but by the government. The ‘super soldiers’ storyline of later years is sometimes derided for coming out of nowhere, but haunted and betrayed vets were all over the show from the beginning — and of course federal employees Mulder and Scully are cast out and trod upon by the government.

This goes to a point that I’m sure I’ve made several times already: Spotnitz said ‘Every episode is a mythology episode,’ and critics do well to take that claim seriously. The show’s parade of scarred and damaged veterans (Deputy Director Skinner among them; ‘Tempus Fugit’ followed on the heels of the Vietnam fable ‘Unrequited’) is a metaphor for the same culture-wide alienation, the same pervasive dissatisfaction with received narratives, the same distrust of ‘rational’ authority, the same horror of demythologization which animates the show’s other narrative threads. I write this only days before Donald Trump is inaugurated as President. In this dangerously fallen era, the authentically subversive message of The X-Files — Trust no one but one another, and while we’re at it fuck the US government — feels like a strong tonic, a genuine curative. Maybe Chris Carter believes ‘alien abductions’ really do involve grey-skinned extraterrestrial dwarves, but his show argues something deeper and more upsetting: we’ll never know (much of anything) for certain, and the systems of authority which supposedly protect us are mechanisms of control and subversion…so the only authentic life left is a visionary journey to outer/inner space. And to take that journey, to assume the mantle of holy fool, of seeker, is to abjure ordinary living and become in a sense ‘uncivilized.’ It is to resist colonization (of mind and spirit, of social order) by avatars of control.

Perhaps this sounds silly. No: this definitely sounds silly. Even the parts that sound sensible sound silly.


Aliens almost certainly aren’t real, there’s almost certainly no such thing as the ‘astral plane,’ and only a proper epistemological humility keeps us from dismissing these somewhat silly possibilities out of hand. But as Uncle Joe (Campbell) tried over and over to remind us, the meaning of all myth is the journey from suffering and self-deception toward authentic being-in-the-world. The X-Files was explicitly mythological, not just in the ‘mythology==backstory’ sense of today’s fan/critics, but in the way it recurred endlessly to ancient narratives of visionary transformation. Visionary experience is real, the transformations it generates are real, even if the content of the vision is culturally contingent fantasy (fiction).

That was one of the undercurrents of Couliano’s generous, far-ranging Out of This World, a comparative study of ‘otherworldly journeys’ in myth, fiction, and firsthand testimony. Couliano correctly hedged his bets about the sources of mythic content, but he was clear on the continuity of visionary narratives from Gilgamesh to Dante. Visions come from the same place as gods: the eternal desire to escape the ‘human condition’ (need, struggle, death). They’re imaginative tools for social/emotional problem-solving, generated under more or less conscious control. The desire remains the same, and mythic figures and structures have proven remarkably effective at addressing that desire. The genetic algorithm which sorts and selects narratives over millennia has produced our assortment of distinct but thematically and typologically related mythoi. And The X-Files, from the very first episode, was a documentary rendition of the darkest American dreams, which is why it’s both silly and serious, political and wigged-out, superstitious and skeptical.

That said, it’s also a mess.

Much of the time, I don’t think The X-Files holds up as drama; in terms of scene construction, narrative interconnection, and ‘mytharc’ construction, it now feels primitive — even inferior successor shows like Lost (cripplingly indebted to The X-Files) assumed a level of audience sophistication which Chris Carter and his writers, in that time after the VCR transformed film editing but before the DVD permanently changed expectations about information density, couldn’t yet assume. ‘Tempus Fugit’ is, I think, a good strong draught of X-Files weirdness, but it’s a clunky hour of television. And of course Chris Carter’s dialogue is simply embarrassing. Look again at the quoted exchanges above: Mulder’s ‘claimed steadfastly’ line sounds like a bad machine translation. In terms of screen craft, The X-Files remains impressive compared to its contemporaries, but it does feel like a prototype rather than a finished thing.

Yet it still strikes me as one of the only mature visions of our hallucinatory premillennium culture ever presented onscreen in America. The content of its myth was balderdash, but you and I aren’t stupid enough to take mythic content literally, are we? Leave that to the critic-dilettantes, the cultural-politics bloggers, the quick-take thinkpiece club. Even Freud knew the difference between manifest and latent dreamstuff.

The latent content of the dream/vision/hallucination called The X-Files is: the secret history of 20th-century America, a crime story in which every citizen is the victim.

I think of the end of Whedon/Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods — the Virgin and the Fool refusing to propitiate the gods who demand their suffering, refusing to trade their tiny lives for Life in the unseen abstract, and incidentally sharing a well-deserved joint while the bad guys’ base burns down — and perceive a subtle continuity with the endless deferrals and digressions of The X-Files‘s evolving narrative…and with Chris Carter’s sweetly empathetic vision of a nationwide meshwork of loners and outcasts, scholars and kooks, dishevelled angels and prophets with honour. The hell with ending the story on their terms, right? Trust no happy ending. Trust no one but each other.

Not for nothing do Mulder and Scully look an awful lot like Men in Black.

Mulder’s moment with Max’s body in the hangar — that spasm of grief. I’m not convinced that Duchovny’s any sort of great actor, but that moment…

A lazy critic can find a way to say something about CSI. They shouldn’t — laziness is a mistake at best, keep it to yourself — but CSI demands nothing of you and gives nothing back, and the obvious criticisms, while insufficient, must nonetheless be delivered. It really is magical thinking in a box; it really does steal wisdom from its viewers. Calling out its emptiness is easy, but it’s a service.

We shouldn’t be lazy talking about The X-Files, I think. It’s up to something that can’t be understood without at least a little effort. Not a years-long project of Talmudic interpretation, no, and not the kind of fannish nitpicking that comes so easily to young poorly socialized obsessives. I’m just asking you to watch the show, if you’re watching, without recourse to the boring and banal and imagination-deadening interpretive frames which Cultural Critics deploy in order to score Experience Points in the Standard Discourse. Please consider the possibility that it wasn’t playing the usual game. Consider the possibility that entertainment isn’t the only goal of a TV show — even a monster-of-the-week anthology show about two crimefighting feds and their wacky ideas. I’m not saying it’s scripture, for God’s sake. I’m saying we can get more out of it by taking a long weird look inside.

4×18 Max

The second half of a two-parter — keep your expectations low.

It’s good that Chris Carter runs shows and tells his great big scary stories, but he shouldn’t be allowed to write scripts. His monologues are embarrassing, and his infodump ‘dialogue’ is artless, tedious masturbation.

That said, it was nice to see Max again.

The Third Man speech barely touches me because I’ve long assumed that half of Washington thinks in exactly those terms, and that’s all I’ve got to say about this flaccid hour of TV.

theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor

Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’

She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part.’

–Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

THE WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE (GRR Martin et al., 2014)

N.B. Didn’t actually read this recently, but I figured I’d write it up — I think I’ve drained the whole book sip by sip, anyhow. –wgh.

I expected nothing out of this tie-in gazetteer/history when I got it as a Christmas gift shortly after it came out in 2014. But it’s excellent: a pure hit of Martin’s expert ‘worldbuilding,’ digging into questions suggested but unaddressed by the novels (who paid for the great tourney at Harrenhall? what’s with all those black stone structures? what was Valyria like at the end?) and suggesting entirely new ones (why are there no children in Asshai?). The history of the Targaryens and gazetteer fly by — this is one of the best D&D setting books yet written — but it’s obvious that extraordinary pains have been taken to ‘make sense’ of the world. Martin clearly relished his chance to place the deep history of Westeros and Essos front and center, and he’s done much more than dump his campaign notes here; by his own account, he contributed about a quarter-million words to the manuscript, and obviously put enormous energy into the work.

The story of Aerys and Tywin is perhaps the most affecting part of TWOIAF — there are hints in the novels that Tywin was once a happier, less cruel man, and the tragedy of his failed partnership with Aerys (later ‘The Mad King’) is one of the axes on which the entire series turns. Martin’s recounting of that tale, like several portions of this ‘tie-in’ book, feels like a necessary part of the Westerosi saga; the novels are in retrospect incomplete without the ‘backstory’ related here.

I’ve long felt that ASOIAF’s historical consciousness is its most impressive attribute: it seems simply correct to me in its depiction of political transition, cultural reaction, and generational turnover, and unusually broad in its cultural perspective. Martin has joked that the origins of the saga lie in the question How Did Aragorn Set Tax Rates? Indeed, ASOIAF has often been called ‘realpolitik Tolkien.’ But I’m less concerned here with the ‘realism’ of the books than with their scale and scope, the way they take in every aspect of Westerosi life: the politics of mercantile exchange, sex roles and knighthood, and — yes — taxes/levies and the ‘smallfolk.’ The center of the novels isn’t the present-time action, exactly, it’s Robert’s rapidly mythologizing Rebellion, the event which ends the Targaryen dynasty and, as it metastasizes into the rule of the almost accidental king Robert Baratheon, sets the stage for the destructive War of Five Kings a generation later. At every turn, Martin depicts major fantasy-world-shaking events as messily connected to everyday Westerosi lives, explicitly rejecting (say) the Tolkienesque frame in which victory in a war of wizards and gods magically and instantly transforms the land. Westerosi magic doesn’t work at the setting-level, so to speak, minus of course the hyperextended magical winters — peasants and kings are bound up in the Big Magical Plot Events, but they react to them continuously, day by day.

(I’ll note here that Tolkien was smarter than his critics gave him credit for, in this regard among others: his hobbits represent the mundane-historical, connected to, but also insulated from, the mythic-magical world beyond the borders of the Shire. The ‘anticlimactic’ Scouring of the Shire reconnects the transhistorical events of the War of the Ring to the mere physicality and historicity of northwest Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s conception was far more sophisticated than checklist-‘critics’ are permitted to admit in public.)

The World of Ice and Fire foregrounds the ‘backstory,’ the historical texture, which elevates the novels’ present-time shenanigans. When I say the novels aren’t complete without this additional text, I don’t mean you can’t pleasurably read them without knowing all this extra material — of course you can, decades of readers have. (The first three volumes of the series are unimpeachable.) But TWOIAF makes it clear that the slow-rolling historical transformation of Westeros, the complex interplay of historical forces over decades and centuries rather than the few years of the novels’ plot, is where the real action is, in Martin’s conception. You’re supposed to maintain that historical awareness as you read, not because GRR Martin has all this backstory to share, but because the argument of the novels is about history rather than destiny or species-character or the buried mythic character of a nation. Characters move through the story like figures in an historical narrative rather than Protagonists, for the most part, and their own historical awareness reflects the way real people relate to history.

Martin aims, in other words, to be ‘true to life’ with these stories in a crucial sense, and TWOIAF furthers that aim. It’s not as purely entertaining as the novels, but it makes the Song considerably richer.

(And of course, TWOIAF’s formal conceit — a maester’s history and gazetteer — allows Martin to play a Borgesian game of imaginary scholarship, with various dead masters’ competing theories building to a mutually contradictory polyphony. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m programmed to love, and Martin’s good at it. Indeed, he’s good at nearly every aspect of his job, except making his weekly pagecount…)

Some lately-reads.

‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ (Fritz Leiber)

Pure pleasure — and surprise at the (scattered) moments of heightened emotional intelligence that this boys’-own-adventure unexpectedly displays. The easy fellowship between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser is the point: they deal with the creeping sickness of Newhon by striking a devil-may-care attitude, which (along with their swords) is their primary problem-solving tool. Satisfying, and clarifying for the D&D-curious. Not exactly ‘progressive,’ if that’s a useful metric for you.

Fever Dream (Samanta Schweblin)

An hour’s intense, unsettling read. I spent the last 30 (very sparse) pages leaning forward over the book as if doing so would bring me more quickly to the end — desperate for both revelation and escape; it’s no spoiler to say this little fairy tale offers just one of those things.

The ‘point,’ if good books need or indeed have a point, seems to be tonal rather than didactic: parallel strands of parental, ecological, psychological, and paranormal (not to mention literary-formal, which is to say epistemological) unease, expertly woven together. The word ‘hallucinated,’ casually dropped into the story toward its end, hits like a fist.

I must say, I’d’ve overlooked or misunderstood its darkest hues before my son was born. But that’s my limitation, not the story’s.

Yes, there are plenty of ‘genre’ novels that engage in similar exercises — I was reminded of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach right at the beginning and throughout — but this book has a dark beauty all its own. Expertly done and highly recommended…especially to the parents of young children, who’ll enjoy an extra helping of anxiety. (xposted to Amazon)

Four Quartets (T.S. Eliot)

I hope I’ll be rereading these poems for the rest of my life.

Faust, Part One (tr. Randall Jarrell)

Faust, like Dante’s Inferno, seems like one of those things I’ll just never connect with — though Walpurgisnacht, even in Jarrell’s weird translation, attained a vivid strangeness from time to time. (Recommend a better translation?)

Beneath the Underdog (Charles Mingus)

Furiously devotional and profane, like Mingus’s music, but also much less interesting, especially past page ~150, as it sinks in firstly that this really is a curious beat novel about a sex-addled pimp rather than a memoir in any but the loosest sense, and secondly that Mingus was a compellingly weird writer rather than a great one — whereas he was both and more on bass and as bandleader. Took me a long time to get through the middle because I was waiting for the real story to start, not realizing that furious devotion and profanity was an essential story for a black genius in the 1970s. I don’t want to reread it, but I want to want to. Maybe I might. Meantime there’s his imperishable musical art, which I’ve spent 20 years learning from and will never stop.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

Unsettling. Over the last 100 pages the mood of oppressive loneliness, distrust, and intimate estrangement became both unbearable and achingly familiar. Jerusalem’s Lot reminds me in so many ways of the village where I grew up; King makes up for his sentence-to-sentence shortcomings with an uncanny knack for depicting small-town life down to its tiniest details. This is an excellent novel in some senses. Execrable dialogue from the leads (better from the day players, who don’t need to bear Dracula parallels), but the ‘plot’ is fascinating: a bitterly cynical, almost satirical take on what it’d be like if Dracula camed to Shittown USA. (King’s answer: The town would die a little faster than it already was.)

I liked it. It creeped me the hell out. King has got something.