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:: Wednesday, September 02, 2015 ::

Our Cicada Culture 

:: Posted by Edward Cline at 4:15 PM

After mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, fleas, flies and other tiny disease-carrying insects that seem to exist solely to cause human misery and pain and which are otherwise expendable, the cicada is the next most useless creature in the animal kingdom. Ants and worms aerate the soil. Bees distribute pollen.

The cicada, however, does nothing. It doesn’t even transmit a disease. It’s also so ugly it resembles an alien life form. I’m surprised that no independent film producer has shot and released “The Attack of the Flesh-Eating Cicadas From Planet Xylophone.” It’s noisy. The mating call of the American cicada, as anyone who has ever heard one (or a forest full of cicadas) can testify, is a shrill, high-pitched, compressed clicking similar to the sound of a car’s gears being stripped. Or a DVD player spinning its wheels. Or a badly designed alarm clock. It can outshout the mating call of a tree frog.

I’d rather listen to a forest full of crickets. That can be deafening, too, but at least I know the crickets are not coming after me.

Basically, the cicada provides an “ecological” service to everyone and everything by just dying. It is basically a parasite. It doesn’t even feed on other parasites. Like the equally useless bagworm, It sucks on tree fluids, becomes an adult, reproduces, and dies.  It is only good for being mulched in soil after it dies, or being consumed by ants and other insects, and by squirrels, birds, and other animals when they’re desperate.

All the websites on the cicada say that it is a nutrient-rich delicacy. There are actually cicada recipes. No, thank you. I have a hard time picturing people chowing down on chocolate-covered ants and snails.

One can’t say about the cultural cicadas that make a lot of noise on Netflix that they’re “nutrient-rich.” These movies and TV series are not nutrient-rich – at least not for one’s souls – and are otherwise useless as esthetic and/or moral experiences. They are not produced for “uplift.” They do not provide what novelist Ayn Rand called “emotional fuel” for one to pursue one’s values. They are a hybrid cicada, and can burrow into one’s mind and soul to lay eggs. They are produced, consciously or unconsciously, to inculcate an enervating epistemological and metaphysical drone that life is pointless, that happiness is random and arbitrary, and that existence is just one long sentence of spiritually eviscerating numbness with no chance of relief or commutation.

In her essay, “Art and Cognition,” from The Romantic Manifesto, Rand writes about an artist’s choice of subject:

For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.

And, in her essay, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art” in the same volume, she observed:

Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life—or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics. And although metaphysics as such is not a normative science, the answers to this category of questions assume, in man’s mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all of his moral values.

Finally, in that same essay, Rand clarifies the purpose of art, whether it is written, auditory, or visual:

Since man lives by reshaping his physical background to serve his purpose, since he must first define and then create his values—a rational man needs a concretized projection of these values, an image in whose likeness he will re-shape the world and himself. Art gives him that image; it gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.

Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.

Our cicada culture offers drama that doesn’t let one rest, tells one that the achievement of values is irrelevant and perhaps even discriminatory against those who have no life-affirming values, and that the ideal world is one of chaos, anarchy, and medieval monsters. Cases in point:

House of Cards:
I have written about the American version of House of Cards (HOC) before, here, here, and here. Its star and co-producer, Kevin Spacey, is a committed Democrat, but in this series, being filmed now for its fourth season, all the villains are Democrats together with a handful of Republicans. A man is known by the company he keeps.

He is a Democrat and a friend of Bill Clinton, having met the former U.S. President before his presidency began. He described Clinton as "one of the shining lights" of the political process.[9] According to Federal Election Commission data, as of 2006, Spacey had contributed $42,000 to Democratic candidates and committees.[45] He additionally made a cameo appearance in the short film President Clinton: Final Days, a light-hearted political satire produced by the Clinton administration for the White House Correspondents Dinner.

In September 2007, Spacey met Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Neither spoke to the press about their encounter, but hours later, Spacey visited the government-funded film studio Villa del Cine. In December 2007, he co-hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert with Uma Thurman.

Spacey is doing the Democratic Party no favors by portraying his party as a gang of liars, thieves and frauds. So one wonders what his ulterior purpose is in producing the series.  There are no heroes in this series, only a few patsies and pawns and other victims of the power-lusters, the politically and pragmatically ambitious, and the social climbers. In HOC, Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a ruthless Southern politician who rises to occupy the White House. He is a murderer and an adept manipulator of others’ lives and values.

There is no “uplift” or metaphysical reification of rational values in HOC. Many politicians and fans of the series have claimed that HOC’s dramatization of Washington politics is realistic and spot-on. Significantly, President Barack Obama is a fan of the series, as is former president Bill Clinton. No surprises there.

The “message” of HOC is that, for those who are not in the power game, who have no connections in Washington, D.C., and who wish to live their lives unimpeded and uncontrolled by government and conniving politicians, your life is hopeless, futile, and owned by the likes of Frank Underwood, his wife Claire, Doug Stamper, and other nightmarish creatures. Spare them the “fiction” that your life is your own. HOC goes out of its way to drill into one’s mind that one is merely a gnat to be crushed or manipulated by efficaciously evil men (and women).  

Orange is the New Black:
This is, basically, the feminist depiction of American society, which, according to the series, is nothing but a larger, minimum security prison, in which all men are contemptible liars and philanderers and exploiters. Or they’re wussies. In the series, most women are okay, a few are exemplars of the superiority of women, and a few not so much. Some are absolutely crazy. The series is billed as a “comedy drama.” I have not laughed once. I have previously reviewed the series here and here.

The series revolves around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a woman in her thirties living in New York City, who is sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security womens' federal prison (operated by the "Federal Department of Corrections", a fictionalized version of the Federal Bureau of Prisons) in upstate New York. Piper has been convicted of transporting a suitcase full of drug money for her then girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), an international drug smuggler.

If you have a strong stomach and want to see a cast of some of the homeliest, unappealing, repulsive women ever to enter the acting field and then be assembled under one camera, and also get graphic lessons in lesbian and bisexual sex, then this is the series for you. There is even a token black/transgender/father/ex-firefighter hairdresser character. There is quite a lot of #BlackLivesMatter and #HispanicLivesMatter racial conflict for your delectation; whites get trounced, of course. There isn’t a single character in the series whose circumstance or fate should concern anyone with the least quantum of self-respect, or whose gaze is fixed upward, and not down on the sewer.

Believe it or not, the series is produced by Jenji Kohan, who looks like the man-hating dyke that would produce it, but who is actually married with children. Nevertheless, it is a man-hating series.

Mad Men:

This series, starring John Hamm as Don Draper, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, has reached its nadir. I watched a bit of Season 7, and yawned so much that tears began sting my eyes. I devoted some words to the series here. I had watched it infrequently up to the last episode I could tolerate, which wasn’t the series conclusion. Don Draper is a boring non-entity. Literally. He took his name from a soldier killed in Korea. Much of the story is about his hiding his stolen character, or doing penance for it. The series is also as much about the pseudo-fraudulent mechanics of advertising as it is about “sexism” and adultery and even, occasionally, about racism and homosexuality. All of the main characters attempt to escape from their predictable and boring lives by having affairs here, there, and everywhere, and, of course, by drinking gallons of high-octane liquor. This is a “slice of life” series.  I am done with it.

The Walking Dead:
This hit series about a zombie plague, The Walking Dead, ironically has interesting conflicts between its principal characters, and some interesting characters, as well. Overall, most of TWD’s dramatis personæ are more fascinating and addictive than are the “slice of life” ensembles of HOC and Orange is the New Black. The series is an extended if unpleasant study in emergency ethics, and will debut its sixth season in October. I am not a horror-film fan, not in the least. I have argued for decades that the director who made horror films “respectable” was Alfred Hitchcock, with The Birds, in which reality revolts against man in metaphysical chaos. This film could also be deemed the first environmentalist horror tale.

The series has grown an enthusiastic “cult” audience that surpasses even that of HOC or Orange is the New Black. This is basically because the various directors and cast members have developed characters whose actions and fates viewers actually care about. So, the series is not just about plague survivors lopping off zombie heads. It is also about their having to deal with survivors who have turned rogue killers whose specialty is killing other survivors. The basic survivor group, lead by Georgia ex-deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), at first holes up on a farm (overrun by zombies), then in a maximum security prison (attacked by the residents of another survivor enclave), and encounter a “safe” haven, Terminus, whose residents turn out to be cannibals who serve up anyone luckless enough to think they’re “safe.” The series is not without its plot holes and lapses in consistency, but in a culture ruled by moral zombies on TV, in film, and in literature, this is, by my own standards, the “best” there is to watch.

A final note on the absence of “nutrition-rich” art in our culture, by Ayn Rand, in her essay, “Our Cultural Value Deprivation”:

The form in which man experiences the reality of his values is pleasure . . . . A chronic lack of pleasure, of any enjoyable, rewarding or stimulating experiences, produces a slow, gradual, day-by-day erosion of man’s emotional vitality, which he may ignore or repress, but which is recorded by the relentless computer of his subconscious mechanism that registers an ebbing flow, then a trickle, then a few last drops of fuel—until the day when his inner motor stops and he wonders desperately why he has no desire to go on, unable to find any definable cause of his hopeless, chronic sense of exhaustion.

There is no enthralling pleasure to be experienced in any of the works discussed here, except in the brief twinkle of light seen through a gray overcast sky or through an impenetrable and increasingly poisonous fog.

Rand noted in her essay, “Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto:

Potentially, motion pictures are a great art, but that potential has not as yet been actualized, except in single instances and random moments. An art that requires the synchronization of so many esthetic elements and so many different talents cannot develop in a period of philosophical-cultural disintegration such as the present. Its development requires the creative cooperation of men who are united, not necessarily by their formal philosophical convictions, but by their fundamental view of man, i.e., by their sense of life….

The movies are still in the position of a retarded child: born into a collapsing family, i.e., a deteriorating culture, an art that demanded Romanticism was left to struggle blindly in the midst of a value-desert. It produced a few rare, almost accidental sparks of true greatness, displaying its untouched potential, then was swallowed again in a growing tide of mediocrity.

I love movies. More and more, to watch them, however, I must go back in time to enjoy them, to a time when the cicadas did not rule the roost, as they do now. But were Rand alive today, doubtless she would conclude that films are not governed by a tide of mediocrity, but by a mob of medieval monsters. I don’t take these monsters for granted, as the norm, as the expected. Anyone who has read any of my fiction, will know that.

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:: Monday, August 31, 2015 ::

Excerpt from An August Interlude 

:: Posted by Edward Cline at 3:05 PM

An August Interlude, set in August 1929, takes Cyrus Skeen to a notorious “upper class” brothel, the Turf Club, and to the Catholic convent next door to it , in this twelfth detective novel  set in San Francisco. He is on a quest to clear the name of a valued friend accused of a horrendous murder five years go. In the Turf Club he meets Lachlan Figgis, its personable manager, and his alluring twin sister Lachina. In the convent he talks with Sister Mary Joseph, the Mother Superior. 

Chapter 6: Misery Loves Company 

Well, thought Skeen as he walked up the street to the convent: All I had to do was endure Lachlan Figgis’s hospitality and his sister’s circumspect flirtations, to get an answer to a few questions. The brother and sister were an astonishingly peculiar couple.
He didn’t bother showing Figgis or his sister the photograph of Valda Redfern. He doubted they would have recognized her, if it was true that they didn’t follow the story past the finding of Willowman’s body the next day. He wondered if the newspapers had carried another photograph of her.
He also wondered what he would need to endure now when he visited the convent. Probably expressions of piety, humility, and sanctimony. And reproof. He strode stolidly and determinedly up the sidewalk past his roadster to the home of the Sisters of the Apostolic Faith.
Skeen mounted the brick steps two at a time. Just as he reached the extended portico, the bells of St. Joseph the Carpenter struck twelve. Before he could step into the cloister and knock on the single arched oaken door, from his left a column of nuns in twos came from a door on the far end. He stopped and watched the procession.
It was led by a handful of older nuns – one of them using a cane and being helped along by a much younger woman – with hunched backs and downcast eyes, arms crossed and hands hidden in the oversized sleeves. Next came some younger nuns in their thirties or forties. Following them like a passel of ducklings were the novices, or novitiates. Some of the girls were in their late teens.
One of the girls noticed him and braved a quick glance at him before resuming her humble mien.
The parade passed as quickly as the hobbling, and probably arthritic older nuns allowed. He guessed they were going to some sort of service. The column rounded a corner and disappeared.
There was a brass knocker on this door, too. Skeen lifted it and hammered it three times. After a moment, he heard a latch turn and the giant door creaked open. A little pinched-face woman of about sixty years, not in a habit, but in the drab garb of a housekeeper, looked at him with puckered lips and a furled, disapproving brow. “Yes?”
Skeen removed his trilby. “My name is Cyrus Skeen. I’m here to see Sister Mary Joseph. I believe she’s the Mother Superior.”
“Men aren’t permitted in the convent. And you need an appointment.”
“I think she’ll see me. It’s about Valda Redfern, a missing novitiate.” Skeen took out his wallet and showed her his private investigator’s license.
The woman studied it – longer than did Howard Li – with some comprehension of what it meant, blinking only once. Then she glanced up at him with an even more disapproving look. “Wait here outside. I'll ask if she can see you.”
The door slammed shut and the latch was turned. Skeen lit an Old Gold, twirled his trilby around on one finger, and paced back and forth on the stone walkway. Men weren’t permitted in the convent? No priests, either? Bishops? Cardinals?
He had just pitched the nearly finished Old Gold into a nearby rhododendron when he heard the latch turn again. The door opened and the housekeeper stood on the threshold, glowering at him. But she waved a hand at him. “This way, sir,” she commanded.
Skeen stepped inside. The woman slammed the door shut and turned the latch.
They were standing in what Skeen surmised was a visitor’s waiting area. There were some benches and chairs pressed against a bare cement wall. There was a table with some kind of literature on it, probably, Skeen guessed, about the Apostolic Faith order and the church.
But the first thing that struck him about the place was a dank, lifeless odor in the air. The hall they had entered had the same basic interior layout of that of the Turf Club, except that there were no amenities like couches or chairs or benches. No potted palms. And certainly no ash stands. Half the hall had been partitioned off with a series of unpainted plaster walls. He glanced up. There was a no mezzanine, just a series of unlit chandeliers. If there was anything else up there, it was hidden in darkness. No rotunda. He could not guess the layout of the rest of the building.
The housekeeper shuffled ahead of him. He hung back a few steps to look into an open space. He saw pews of raw, unfinished, unvarnished wood and a plain, unembellished altar. Nuns were sitting in them. An older nun was standing at a pulpit, leading them in prayer, in Latin. He guessed this was the convent’s chapel. It was nothing like the glittering French church on Bush Street he had had occasion to visit during the Enoch Paige case in May, Eglise Notre Dame des Malheurs
He felt a tug on his coat sleeve. He turned. The housekeeper was glaring furiously at him. She nodded with her head to continue following her.
Skeen shrugged and obeyed. A chant came from the chapel.
The housekeeper turned left at a detour, then into another long corridor. They came to the end of it. He supposed they were in the vicinity of where Lachlan Figgis’s office was in the Turf Club. A plain wooden sign on a plain wooden door read, “Sister Mary Joseph. Mother Superior. Please knock before entering.”
The housekeeper knocked once, then opened the door and went in. “Mr. Skeen, ma’am,” she announced.
A voice that sounded like crumpled up paper being squeezed into a ball as tightly as possible said, “Show him in, Hortense.”
Hortense stood aside. Skeen went in. The housekeeper waited to be dismissed.
“That will be all, Hortense. Thank you.”
Hortense sort of curtsied, left the room, and closed the door behind her.

Skeen found himself in an office that was about the size of Lachlan Figgis’s office, but it was so sparsely furnished it may as well have been empty. There was a large desk, a bow window almost hidden by a black curtain behind the desk, some wooden filing cabinets, and armless chairs strewn about the room. There was no carpet on the wooden floor. There was a single colored picture under glass of Christ on a wall to the side of Sister Mary Joseph’s desk. It looked like it had been cut from a newspaper’s rotogravure section and cheaply framed.
There was a overly-ornate marble fireplace in one corner, with a large crucifix sitting on its mantle. A cradle-shaped rack holding firewood sat to the side, together with a black iron poker. But otherwise there was no statuary, not a single plant, no tapestries. Not even a plaster statue of St. Joseph. Nothing to absorb the sound of one’s voice in the vast room.
A weak overhead light in the middle of the room fought to dispel the gloom. The rest of the room was in darkness. He could see what there was in the black space in the rear.
Practically the only “luxuries” Skeen noted were a typewriter on a rolling stand next to the nun’s desk, a small desk lamp, and a candlestick telephone on her desk. That was all.
Sister Mary Joseph rose as he approached her desk. She was nearly as tall as Skeen, but seemed taller because of the headdress, which was a wimple that was just a black veil of voile attached to a cornette or kind of curved white crown of some scratchy fabric. A white coif completely enclosed her neck, ears, presumably the back of her head, and her hair. Skeen could detect no strands of it peeking out from anywhere in the gear.
There was a weak overhead light and a lamp on the desk, but the glare from the white guimpe that flowed down from her shoulders clear to her abdomen nearly blinded him. It looked so thoroughly starched that he imagined using it as a weapon, or as bullet-proof armor.
Her blouse and skirt looked like heavy black serge. A crucifix on a rope dangled from beneath the quimpe, and a rosary with another crucifix hung from her waist.
The woman exuded a strange, pungent, and unpleasant antiseptic odor that complimented the dank smell of the place. Perhaps Sister Mary Joseph bathed in ammonia, too, Skeen thought. Or in a tub of mothballs. She must be in her late forties or early fifties, he estimated. She was once a handsome woman. Not pretty, just handsome. She wore round rimless glasses. Her face was sallow, almost anemic looking. He was certain it did not see much sun or even fresh air. When she was not speaking, her mouth and thin lips were set in a prim bitterness. He did not imagine she smiled much, either.
The white fabric of the coif that enveloped her face was fixed high enough to reveal a one-inch scar on her forehead. It looked like an incision, or a burn. Skeen did not think this was the result of a violent encounter with an open door.
And all throughout their conversation, Sister Mary Joseph, Mother Superior and boss lady of all the other wrecked, humbled souls here, never once looked at him directly. Instead, she peered askance at him through her glasses with a glint of pious fanaticism, as though she suspected him of being guilty of the most horrendous sins. It was the look of doubt someone gave you if he was certain you were lying.
Skeen said, “Thank you for seeing me.”
Sister Mary Joseph nodded and said, “The only reason I’m seeing you, Mr. Skeen, is because you have some notoriety as a detective. We read the newspapers here. You were the one who got that atheist rogue acquitted last May, weren’t you?”
Skeen replied, “He wasn’t acquitted. The charges were dropped.”
Sister Mary Joseph frowned. “Regardless. He was the devil.”
Skeen said, “He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, ma’am.”
“Excuse me?”
“He was something like Hamlet, too morose at times, but with a happy ending.”
“I don’t think I appreciate your humor, Mr. Skeen,” Sister Mary Joseph scolded.
So much for her sense of irony. “That’s all right. I don’t think I’d have much of a career in vaudeville, either.”
“Then please confine yourself to the purpose of your visit, sir.”
 She sat down and folded her hands over some papers on a brown blotter and waited.
“May I sit down?”
“I’m not stopping you, Mr. Skeen.”
Skeen shrugged. He grabbed one of the armless chairs and sat it in front of the nun’s desk.
“Hortense gave me to believe that you mentioned a person by the name of Valda Redfern.”
“Yes,” said Skeen, sitting down. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a photograph of Valda Dilys had taken from the model’s portfolio. “To make sure we're speaking of the same person, is this the Valda Redfern who apparently was a member of this convent?” He handed the photograph over the desk to the nun.
The nun took the glossy image and studied it for a moment. Her mouth bent in distaste. It was a head shot of Valda in a strapless gown smiling a toothy, friendly, almost “come-hither” grin. Then she handed it back to Skeen and refolded her hands on the blotter. “Yes, that is the same person. That was Sister Clare Lawrence. What about her? She left this convent and abandoned Christ under the most disgraceful circumstances, and without any notice to me or to Father Brendan.”
“Father Brendan?”
“The pastor of St. Joseph the Carpenter church, with which this order is affiliated. It is just down the street.”
“I noticed it,” said Skeen. “It doesn’t look like a Catholic church.”
This remark surprised Sister Mary Joseph and opened up the conversation, and Skeen led it in virtually any direction he chose.
“It was once a Unitarian Universalist place of worship. I would never have called it a church. It did not have much of a flock and the people who ran it decided to sell it. Father Brendan’s predecessor bought it for a fraction of its worth. Before then his parish met in a less commodious church elsewhere in this district.”
“How long has your order occupied these premises?”
“For the last eight years. The order moved here from its convent in the Mission district. But it seemed it was built over what eventually became a sinkhole. The convent had to be demolished. We had to move, and applied to Father Brendan to have a new convent built here. He bought this building from its former owner, some sort of oil plutocrat who decided he did not like it enough to live in it.”
Skeen said, “It’s a fine looking building, ma’am.”
“That is your opinion, sir. When it was bought, it was renovated to remove all the temporal facilities that would appeal to people in the clutches of material wealth. According to Father Brendan, all the furniture, artworks, and other ostentatious and wicked items of comfort and convenience fetched a sum that helped to reimburse the parish for the price paid for the building.”
Skeen feigned concern. “I hope that didn’t include bathtubs and plumbing, ma’am.”
Sister Mary Joseph would neither confirm nor deny the idea. “I sense you are mocking the Apostolic order, Mr. Skeen,” she said. “But you must understand that we Sisters of the Apostolic Faith are in many respects much like Amish women. We place God’s wishes, the spiritual integrity of our order, and the community of Christ our Savior far above the needs and comforts of the flesh. We disdain any instrument, device or practice that relieves us of the stain and guilt of our original sin.
“Our moral code is apart from and opposed to that of the temporal world beyond our doors,” continued the Mother Superior, as though Skeen needed a better explanation.” Our sisters are taught to strive daily to minimize their individual needs, spiritually and physically. As daughters of God and brides of Christ, we are committed to asceticism and the hermit’s life in the midst of this modern Babylon.”


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