Category Archives: Culture

Culture

Culture Gaming

Let Us Larp While We May

Nerds are destined to save secularism from itself.  In our unreasonably, some might say disturbingly, passionate hearts lies the missing factor in the grand equation of a new age.  A time when reason is married to a life worth the living.

 

That life is coming, and in the creation of it, we could learn a lot from a larp.  Larping, once the dirty secret of the gaming community, is busting out in a big way.  With documentaries like Darkon, feature films like Unicorn City, and books examining the past-time like Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania, larp has overcome its self-consciousness and is aimed straight at the hearts of a generation looking for a new sense of community.  For those unfamiliar, larp stands for live action role play, and encompasses a robust variety of rich mystical escapism.  At its most organized, it allows you to flee reality for a weekend and, dressed as a bard or goblin, live in a different universe for a while, playing your character in an elaborately crafted and exquisitely organized scenario with a couple hundred other similarly minded folk out in a forest or campground.  In terms of immersive interpersonal experiences, there’s really nothing comparable this side of, well, church.

It’s a beautiful thing, really, the crossroads of so many skills that we don’t get to exercise on a daily basis.  Leadership and drama, costuming and music, set design and social networking, all meet in this one concentrated burst of creative output that I think anybody with the slightest historical or whimsical instinct can’t hear about without secretly longing for.  In every way, it is that realm of total human recreation that the 1950s thought we would have accomplished twenty years ago, but which our own misplaced sense of quietist dignity has prevented us from acting on.

 

People cannot do without people, and since we no longer particularly need each other on a day to day or community-wide basis, something must fill the void.  Secularists, guided by their own lights, have come up with some notions, but the suspension of disbelief required to keep these secular “churches” afloat has been mighty, greater even than the relatively simple matter of believing that the forty two year old guy in a cat mask drinking Kool Aid across from you is, in fact, the King of Cats.  We secularists place so much stock in our intellectual purity that we tend to instinctively eschew situations where we might come off as silly, but in the long run that’s really only hurting ourselves.

 

Perhaps you don’t have a weekend a month to spare.  I certainly do not, and won’t anytime within the next decade.  You could still try a gaming convention near you, dip your toe in just for that brief bit of time and see what you end up doing when wearing a different face for a few hours.  It might give you a notion of what sorts of interaction you are missing that perhaps you were unaware of, what you need psychologically but were not willing to admit out of dedication to your stoic self-conception.  There are even purely online variations that attempt to capture the essence of the escapist-yet-somehow-more-psychologically-true-than-reality feel of live larping (or live-arping, as the case may be).  Whatever your commitment level, there’s some sliver of the experience available to you, and for creatures of a finite life-span, experience is the whole game.

 

Life is short.  Imagine vigorously.  Because if you don’t feel just a bit embarrassed about your passion in mixed company, then it’s hardly a proper passion, is it?

Culture

Humans Are Great 9: Drag Queens: Super Heroes of the 21st Century

Seventy years ago, amidst a world tearing itself apart every way it knew how, we needed super heroes of granite – unmovable objects of pure virtue to anchor ourselves in the thick of our diminishing trust of ourselves.  Well, we weathered that storm, and many since, and have finally come back around to the conclusion that, basically, we’re an ok lot, humanity.  And our new conception of ourselves requires a new set of super heroes.  I humbly suggest the Drag Queen.

I am completely in earnest – watch an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and, somewhere in between the cat fighting and tucking, you’ll find something utterly new and entirely necessary for our road forward: plasticity.  As Catherine Malabou has pointed out in her philosophical works, this is the trait which will, more than anything, define success in the coming world – the ability to take on any role at any time, as opposed to the “I worked for this factory for 42 years” stick-to-itsmanship of the twentieth century.  We need to conceive of ourselves less as unalterable units etched in stone, and more as exquisitely fluid creatures of chameleonish identity.

The question, of course, is how to do that while still maintaining a core that is, essentially, yourself.  Just as our grandparents might have looked to Superman and Dick Tracy as stalwart exemplars to light their way in moments of doubt, so can we hoist up Pandora Boxx and Jinkx Monsoon as the heroes we look to when we need reassuring that we can change just about everything peripheral to us while still maintaining a fundamental core of self that is engaging and well-defined.

At the moment, the drag queen phenomena is riding high.  Drag Race is the flaship program of the Logo network, pulling in wonderfully high numbers, but phenomena have a way of dissipating in the cultural wind, and the lessons we can learn are too important to let that happen.  It would be easy to just allow distraction to dictate our next focal point of collective interest, leaving behind our fascination with drag queens as something “SO 2012″, but we stand to lose much if we allow ourselves that facile luxury.  These are brilliant, creative, emotionally aware individuals with a more solid conception of who they are than most of us are ever going to be likely to possess.  They are larger than life, and at the same time central to a notion of what everyday life might be.

They’re super heroes, if only we will let them be.

Culture Uncategorized

The Republican Atheist: Lost Cause or Missed Chance?

There is no way to start this piece without a confession.  Until the age of nineteen, if you asked me which political party I identified with, I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer Republican.  Having grown up first on a farm and then in the lap of Babbittish San Diego isolation, I didn’t even see my first Democrat until high school.  The only thing I really knew was that it was a Democrat who led the charge that killed the Superconducting Super Collider project, and that was enough to earn wrathful ire from a kid with grainy hand-scanned pictures of atomic physicists lining his wall.

To give an idea of how much things have changed, my justification for identifying as Republican was that I felt they were pro-science, as demonstrated by their support of the SSC and distrust of anti-positivist academic trends, pro-environment in a Roosevelt conservationist mold, and pro-reason, as I heard in their relentless snickering at the vogue of popular spirituality drifting about in the late eighties and early nineties.  I was president of our high school’s Teenage Republicans Club my sophomore year, and one of the first things I did was dedicate a meeting to the proposition that “Under God” should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, a notion that the four or five people gathered there didn’t really have any problem with.

 

 

My atheism and Republicanism seemed like natural allies.  I heard the pundits rage against self-indulgence, and nothing seemed to me more intellectually self-indulgent than Christianity.  Surely, all Republicans must be dead-set against an ideology which so blatantly pandered to people’s laziest fantasies of revenge and reward.  I was so sure, and received so little correction from my immediate environment, that I assumed it was the case nationally, when a pundit spoke of the need for more God in schools, that they were doing it out of a sense of historical antiquarianism, not an actual deep-seated belief.

The Republican Party claimed a profound respect for hard work over entitlement.  Again, atheism seemed the clear choice.  Atheism is hard.  You have to believe things you don’t really want to believe.  To maintain yourself against world opinion, you have to study science and math, philosophy and history, comparative religion and foreign languages.  It is a massive effort to maintain a set of ideas that you wish wasn’t true, and tends to produce rather straight-laced nerds who might talk graphically about the luscious hedonism they could theoretically partake of, but who in practice spend their time learning about Fourier Transforms and passive periphrastic structures.  Christians and atheists have the same basic sense of morality on everything that matters, but atheists have a towering academic responsibility on top of that which I felt was necessarily a draw for any self-respecting Republican.

The Republican Party I knew also had a keen sense of rigor and standards, that the road to truth was a scrabbly and difficult one, and all assertions made must be tempered in the fire of intense scrutiny.  Truth isn’t something a vocal gathering of people feels ought to be true, it’s something that has survived every possible test put to it.  When the Republicans hooted at the state of nineties academia, it was that very lack of standards they bemoaned, and whether or not they were right (I come in at a very unhelpful “sometimes”), it seems natural that that distaste for squishy epistemology should transfer to the realm of religious thoughts as well.

In short, the virtues of the perfect early 90s Republican (self-discipline, willingness to believe things that work against your own interest if they are logically plausible, intellectual rigor) were the virtues of the atheist, and it was utterly unthinkable to me that, secretly, the entire party wasn’t fundamentally atheistic in outlook.

I was, of course, hopelessly naïve.  I listened to Rush Limbaugh and, with all the concentrated narcissism of the teenager species, heard only the things that happened to apply to my small sphere of interests and none of the ones I had no direct experience of.  I knew nothing about larger social and lifestyle issues having never looked past my zero-diversity surroundings, rationalized away the growing presence of fundamentalists at party events, and carried on expounding a Republicanism that I pasted together out of invisibly thin strands of reasoning and wishful thinking.

But I was soon disabused of my fanciful notions.  The first election I had a chance to vote in was the 2000 contest between Gore and a candidate selected by my party as if explicitly to drive away people like me – a religious extremist, anti-intellectual, barely coherent, historically uninformed, massively self-indulgent, environmentally callous slug of a man who showed to me all in one moment how far the party was from the things I had believed it stood for.

My first vote in a presidential election went to a Democrat.

But here’s the thing – I left the party, as much for the selection of Bush, Palin, Hannity and other fumbling indulgence monkeys as the party’s pantheon as for what I learned about the world once released from my isolated cocoon.  About different people, their struggles, and how they deserve to be treated.  About my own over-bearing arrogance in judging certain areas of human achievement as “better” than others.  And about how human history actually works and what direction we need to go.  I left for good, but many stayed, and are there still, waiting quietly for a return to an environmentally responsible, scientifically literate, philosophically sophisticated platform that they can embrace again.  They say they believe in God, because that is what they have grown up with and because the public image of atheism frightens them.  But, intellectually, in terms of the virtues they claim to honor, this is where they need to be, and we need to realize that, not giving up every Republican as a lost cause and waste of resources.

They’re there, and they’re largely unhappy living a double life of constantly frustrated ideals.  And now that we’ve settled down a bit as an intellectual movement, maybe it’s time to reach out and say what we have to offer them and hear, perhaps, what they have to offer us that we didn’t even know we needed.

Culture Gaming

Humans are Great 7: Cooperative Board Games

“Hey guys, I’ve got a new problem.”

Back in college, those were the words that energized a hall.  People would stop what they were doing, grab a whiteboard, and all join together for a moment to try and break whatever thorny problem one of us managed to stumble across.  Sometimes it fell quickly, sometimes it took hours, but in those moments of working through a mathematical or scientific puzzle with a bunch of other nerds while shoveling candy and over-caffeinated soda into our maws, life was perfect.

There is nothing better than getting together with a small group of like-minded folk and tackling a problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything actually useful.  Unfortunately, life after college doesn’t present too many opportunities to engage in such activities.  Friends specialize out into their own branches, move off to different places, and so that singularity of purpose and expansiveness of time dissipate.

But humans are clever primates, and some of the substitutes we’ve come up with can, at their best, entirely approximate the cooperative intellectual rush of bygone days.  For a long while, that’s the place that tabletop roleplaying games occupied – Dungeons and Dragons, Changeling, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, and dozens upon dozens more all gave adults the chance to meet a few hours every week and put their resources together in a creative, spontaneous setting to solve the problems concocted by their much put-upon Dungeon Masters.

And those were (and are) fantastic, and if you are refraining from looking into them out of pride, you’re missing out on some truly memorable times.  However, the start-up on these games is pretty hefty.  You have to create your character, familiarize yourself with the often weighty core manuals, and get comfortable with carrying out character dialogue at a candle-lit kitchen table.  For those who love problem-solving but didn’t quite have the time to go in for the whole RPG experience, then, there rose the cooperative board game.

It used to be a somewhat rare breed in the board game genre, but has steadily grown in recent years so that a well-stocked game closet can now have a good half dozen quality co-op titles.  The rules are usually pretty simple to pick up, but the coordination and cleverness required can often deliciously strain a room full of the brightest brains.  Here are my top four picks, and if you have a favorite, do drop me a line!

4. Shadows Over Camelot:  You and your friends take up the role of the Arthurian knights as take on the manifold challenges threatening Camelot.  It can be a BRUTAL experience, as no sooner do you tie up one quest than three others go absolutely critical requiring all of your combined mental dexterity to resolve.  Definitely the hardest coop game I’ve played, but every time you end up winning you feel like you definitely EARNED your bowl of pretzels.

3. Ultimate Werewolf:  Sort of co-op, sort of not.  It’s basically the old campfire Mafia game (sit in a circle around the fire, two people are secretly appointed as mafia goons, and one as a police officer, and the game is to communally find out who is who) but with a supernatural twist and a lot more specialty roles, so that the game can actually support up to 68 players.  When I had game night with my students, we tried it out and had a marvelous time piecing together the bits and pieces of psychological clues we found, or thought we found, in each other’s behavior, leading to wild accusations and much fun.

2. Arkham Horror: A classic in the Cthulhu universe, in which you and your fellow investigators have to navigate the twisting hellscape of a city slowly giving way to the invasion of the Old Ones, trying to stop the incursions of monsters and corruption before a supreme embodiment of evil awakes and wipes you off the board.  Like Shadows, there’s a lot here to punish you if you’re careless with your abilities and movement, which means that every turn is open for intense discussion about how to achieve mutual optimization.  So, there’s that same intense manipulation of lots of variables, but in a really cool, creepy setting.

 

1. Pandemic:  You and a team of disease specialists are running around the world, trying to cure outbreaks of four different diseases as they arise and spread across the globe.  The rules and actions are much simpler than Shadows and Camelot, so it’s a good game for people who aren’t used to board games, the challenge being how to pool your limited array of abilities to halt the steady spread of plague.  It takes all of 5 minutes to explain, and a typical game only lasts about an hour, but there is a lot of subtlety there so you always feel that you are being challenged as a group to find the most elegant use of moves possible, making it the ideal starter co-op game.

So, there you have it.  If a bit of group intellectual challenge is something you feel missing from your life, grab any one of those, two or three friends, and have a go if only to taste  again for a moment those days when all you had was time and all you needed was a delectably devilish problem to while it away with.

Culture

Atheism’s New Year’s Resolutions

It was a fine year for atheism.  At the risk of being a bit tartish, I’d even call it VERY fine.  American Atheists celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Sylvia Broeckx made a beautiful film showing the world the day to day struggles and triumphs of your average atheist, Tombstone da Deadman and Shelley Segal both released elegant albums on atheist themes… we even got ourselves a new Doctor Who (not directly related to atheism, granted, but Whovianism seems to be the new common denominator amongst Our Kind, doesn’t it?)

There were, however, some embarrassing moments amongst the general progress, and as it’s a time of resolutions, here are three notions that might serve us well moving into 2014:

 

  1. Let’s stop letting ourselves get drawn into petty fights.

 

Obviously, I’m thinking of the Billboard Wars.  I wrote about this in the last Freethinker – how we let a stupid, stupid billboard (“Thank God you’re wrong!”) draw us into responding with a monumentally stupider one (“OMG: There is no God!”).  As atheism grows more successful as a way of looking at the world, it’s also grown cockier, and one of the unfortunate side effects of cockiness is that it occludes your ability to figure out what fights are worthwhile and which are not.

 

My hope is that, in 2014, we’ll be able to watch Christians do deliciously self-destructive things in mis-guided attempts to regain their groove, and resist the urge to respond in turn at the cost of dignity.  Clever we might be, but nobody is clever enough to enter that battleground without looking the worse by scuffle’s end.

 

2. Argue less, live more.

 

One of the peculiar things which has happened with atheism is the drawing of a causal link between two events that were merely temporally proximate.  We saw that the numbers of atheists surged as more books came out Arguing about the weakness of theism’s proofs, and thought that the latter must have caused the former, and that the way to grow even bigger is to be seen to argue MORE.

 

Arguing is fun, and familiar, and changes minds just often enough to keep the whole structure rumbling onwards.  It is lifestyle, however, more than argumentation, which have swelled the ranks of the non-believing.  A surging mass of humanist sentiment refined to perfection in the 19th century, dashed upon the rocks of the 20th century’s excesses, and only now coming back into its own.  It’s about the personal thrill of engaging with humanity face to face even as the maw of mortality threatens to swallow you, the planet you’re on, and everything else.  That boundless, dark-edged optimism of a Doctor Who that is infectious and life-sustaining in a way that our arguments never have been.  Enthusiasm, happiness, curiosity – the sight of people living by those watchwords is intoxicating and attractive, and we need to be seen doing more of that.

 

3. Support our pragmatic efforts via a mass of creative ones.

 

This really goes with #2.  After decades of slogging up the political and legal hill, our intellectual forefathers having fought and scraped for every bit of ground, we are finally just able to poke our noses into the rich valleys of pure creativity beyond, to evaluate who we are, what we mean, and how we WANT to live.  And the proper medium for those questions is the creative arts – in movies and novels, comic books and songs.  These aren’t fluffy side-pursuits that distract from the Serious Work that atheism has before it.  Rather, they form the absolutely crucial foundation of self-understanding without which all of our future pragmatic acts can’t sensibly constitute themselves.  They’re the place where we’ll find out what is, fundamentally, important, and thus will form the rudder for future action, galvanizing the movement (though I hate, hate that term) in ways we can scarcely imagine now.

In short, we need to live, and to create, and do both with the dignity of the humanity whose virtues and vices we have made our business.

Books Culture Music

Humans Are Great 6: Stopping Time with Anton Bruckner and Knut Hamsun

“One of the things you’ll never know without God is what it feels like to be completely outside of time, submerged in something both boundlessly immense and profoundly personal.”

It’s one of those things you hear at the end of a long, circular night – all of the standard arguments and counterarguments have been batted about the table, all the requisite statistics recapitulated, and, bleary-eyed and hoarse, the real issues that separate believers from non-believers start making their quiet voices at long last heard.  And what those issues often amount to is a personal unwillingness, on both sides, to renounce a whole category of human experience as merely the phantoms of neural fancy.

For the religious, that depth of feeling that they get when they feel Jesus over their shoulder must be real, and they cannot comprehend how we stumble through our day without its eternally fortifying presence.  For us, that wild rush of pure intellectual freedom that stands before the towering maw of entropy and says Go Ahead, Bring It, and which we can’t imagine another thinking creature mangling in the name of comfort.  These are experiences that each side thinks as unknowable to the other, experiences that keep them reconciled to the rest of the intellectual contract they’ve signed.

The experience of altered time is one I hear rather a lot, and have always felt as something well within the confines of secular culture to accomplish.  Some of my favorite bits of artistic production revolve around just this ability to take our experience of time and twist it, alternately suspending us in pure timelessness or otherwise diverting our sense of its pressing linearity.  For the former, you can hardly do better than the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.  There is a great deal of wonderful classical music out there, but no composer has his ability to craft a tonal landscape that simply arrests time in its tracks.  You stop noticing the things that Desperately Need Doing, stop even really analyzing the music as music, and instead just let it grow over you, an insulating layer of lush moss that keeps space and time at bay for an hour.

You can really pick any symphony to feel this (though 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are perhaps slightly more effective than 1, 2, 3, and 5), but for me it doesn’t come any better than the third movement of the 8th symphony (and if you’re of an impatient sort, but want to hear an absolutely perfect musical moment, fast forward to 1:58):

I would pit that against the most intense moment of prayer any day and never feel myself the loser.  But it’s perhaps easy to hypnotize with music, to do so with words on a page is a whole different level of artistic sorcery.  And precisely that is what Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) achieved on a regular basis throughout his long career.  From the scratching, morphing staccato of Hunger to the sense of cyclical death and regrowth in The Growth of the Soil to the drifting euphoria of Wayfarers, Hamsun is the guy to go to when you want mere sentences and paragraphs to change the very beat of your heart, the way you walk through time after having put the book down.  And not a word of it relies on the neurological cocktail that religion leans on to pull off its hallucinogenic spurts.

 

 

We are, persistently and mostly fortuitously, creatures of linearity.  We armor ourselves in the past to deflect and absorb the shocks of an unknown future we cannot reach fast enough.  But, from time to time, it doesn’t hurt to place ourselves in the experienced hands of one of our great creative minds to know time’s flow in a way that defies the strictures of pragmatic necessity.  Religion can do that, but never forgets to charge heftily for the pleasure.  Bruckner, Hamsun, and the dozens of others who found in them models for a new temporal sense in art, give us variations upon lived time of exquisite refinement, and the only criteria for admission is Being Human.

Culture Music Science and Math

Humans are Great 5: Mathematicians and their Music

I was chatting with a Ukrainian friend the other day when she asked me, “Do you play any musical instruments?”  I admitted that I could, by certain not terribly high standards, be called a piano player.  “A-ha!  I knew it.  Math people are always music people,” she responded triumphantly, and started to list off all the people she knew who had a combined love of math and classical music.

Of course, we in the United States are bound to take all utterances from Ukrainians on the subjects of music, math, and ballet as unquestionably true.  But there’s a lot of supplementary evidence as well, from great mathematicians and physicists who either played an instrument or had a deep and profound love of music, to the necessary connections between what is great about math and what is great about music that attract one and the same mind.

 

 

It’s the structural similarities that get me.  Mathematics is the art of saying a universe while bound by formalist fetters of the toughest stuff.  Every word, every turn, has to bear the scrutiny of an epoch of rigor.  When you find something new to say within those confines, you’ve pulled off an unparalleled act of creation.  A stunning proof can get me positively teary-eyed, and it’s that exact same structure of finding creativity in the face of impossible restriction that touches me in classical music.

I’m going to take an extreme example because, hey, it’s the Holidays.  Consider the last movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata.  It is from his stormy middle period and is often used in film when they need a piece of piano literature for an unhinged virtuosic criminal mastermind to thrash out in the solitude of his mountain fortress.  Or maybe I just feel like it should be.  In any case, the restrictions are profound.  Leave out a note, and you’ve ruined it.  Ignore a dynamic marking, and you will be dropped from all men’s esteem.  Considering the freedom that you have as a pop star when covering a song to do pretty much whatever you damn well please as long as something like the melody of the chorus creeps through, it seems like there would be nothing left to individual human creativity when playing this piece of music.  We should have a hundred recordings, each a metronomical copy of the other, the only difference being the quality of the sound equipment employed.

And we do have a hundred recordings, but the amount of variation that the performers have squeezed out over the years within the constraints set by Beethoven is astounding.  Here is Wilhelm Kempff, one of the greats, performing it with his immaculate attention to the possibility for dynamic change within each measure (fast forward to 15:43 to get the third movement):

 

Now, compare that to Sviatoslav Richter’s performance, which basically conceives of the movement as an exercise in titanic thrash metal.  He is about speed and ferocity.  All the notes are the same, but the philosophical center of the piece is wildly different.

 

 

As I said, these are two extremes of an already extreme piece of music.  Part of the endless joy of classical music for my math-snuggling mind is sniffing out moments where performers do something unspeakably subtle that is entirely within the rules but that changes utterly the flavor of a piece, savoring that human ability to express individuality in the most seemingly unpromising situations.  Those moments have all the thrill of finding buried treasure, precisely because they are so hard to accomplish.  Further, once that new variation is discovered, it is added to our total experience of the piece, always there in the background, defining what comes after, so that each new performance is really a communication with all those that have come before.  Just as a mathematical proof is a conversation with Euler and Lagrange and Hilbert, so is each new Appassionata recording a piece of art that bears with it the decisions made by Kempff and Richter and thousands of others, and the more records you listen to, the better and richer each new record becomes.

So, get listening!

Books Comics Culture

The Lucifer In Us All

There is something deep within the structure of our ape-bequeathed brains that ever strains against the necessity of buying safety in the coin of freedom.  That call to mad, independent flight is the source of some of our greatest stories, and the characters who draw our rapt attention, generation upon generation.  And of those champions for pure freedom, none rings so elementally true as Lucifer, the angel who challenged his creator.

 

Of course, he failed, but the nobility of that failure, the humanity of it, have made him impossible to forget.  And so, from Dante to Milton to Goethe, Lucifer stands at the center of the story, the horror of his realm and the degradation of his fall sparking our curiosity and respect in ways that the subsequent, party-line marshaling of Heaven’s glories have never quite balanced.   We read Inferno out of a desire to understand our true stars.  We read Paradiso largely out of obligation.

 

 

 

At its best, fiction centering on Lucifer brings us to foundational grips with the tension between the lip service we pay to our love of freedom and our more commonplace (but civilization-building) need for things to be in proper and expected order when we wake in the morning.

 

At its worst, it is titillation mongering, and I admit I’m largely okay with that too.

 

But we are here to discuss an instance of the former case.  This year, Vertigo Comics has begun its long-awaited re-release of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s Lucifer, which ran for seventy five issues from 2000 to 2006.  The first two books cover issues one through twenty-eight, with a third scheduled for release in March 2014.  I remember catching from issue fifty onwards when it first came out (which is saying something in light of my extreme Marvel partisanship at the time), but didn’t bother to hunt down the earlier trades until it was too late, so this was my first time laying eyes upon those first story arcs.

 

And they are exquisite.  Picking up where Neil Gaiman’s epochal Sandman left off, Lucifer has given up ruling Hell and runs a piano bar in Los Angeles from which he is turning over schemes to be free of Heaven and its determinacy at last.  That’s all you really need to know, and people coming to Lucifer without having read Sandman won’t be missing out on too much other than those “That guy we perceive dimly has some pretty spikey hair – I bet I know what that’s about” moments which are eventually made explicit anyway.

 

So, yes, you can come to Lucifer issue one, page one, with no continuity at your back and be well served.  Truth be told, Lucifer and Sandman are two very different beasts, the former an intense study of the character of rebellion and the philosophical thorniness of causality that is pure ambrosia to the likes of we humanist sorts while the latter allows itself to wander more broadly along the roads of its fancy, which is also exquisite but without the same rash, cocksure angularity that makes Lucifer so unique.  Lucifer Morningstar seeks one thing, and the comic is drawn along swiftly in the wake of that quest, and we as readers are hurtled briskly, breathlessly along, gasping to ourselves, “Can he?  Will he?  Should we be hopping off now, while it’s still safe?”

 

It’s precisely that vertigo-inducing sense of wishes fulfilled that perhaps oughtn’t be that I love so much about this comic.  Lucifer has the courage of his vision and the power to see it to its conclusion that we do not, as a day to day rule, share.  Nor should we.  Humanity would shake itself to pieces if our brains didn’t quell our Lucifer boldness in the oxytocin glow of community.  But thinking about where the boundary lies, between that need for permanence and the instinct to tear a hole in space and create our own kingdom in the void beyond, is the most important thing we can do, and Lucifer excels at ruminating on these issues.

 

 

I realize all of this focus on the book’s philosophy makes the comic sound perhaps like a ponderous slog through The Illustrated Heidegger.  But Carey is far too good a writer to let the philosophy ossify the story.  There are tales here of incredible scope and virtuosity – stories of demons turning to addiction in the absence of leadership, of the cards of fate inhabiting a cabaret performer, of a new Adam and Eve given the sole command to never bend their knee in worship of anything, of angels callously cutting a swath through innocence to maintain their hold on power, and of a dream walking girl having to fend off a creature armed with a thought-sucking straw.  It’s in every way marvelous, and Peter Gross’s art is perfectly matched to bring out the Baroque-modern harshness of Lucifer’s new plans for rebellion.

 

I suspect we’ll continue telling stories about Lucifer even after we have ceased being a religious species, because the point here is not religious.  It’s not about Christianity or the papacy or the rich absurdities of theology, though they all make their appearance.  It’s about the limits of existence, where they lie, and how close to them we dare tread.  And that will be of interest to humans so long as there are humans and, most likely, to whatever comes after us as well.

Art Culture

Humans are Great 4: The Agreeable Vice of Francois Boucher

There was a time, and perhaps after a century of Modernism Fatigue we are returning to it, when the business of serious art was, unabashedly, pleasure.  For a crisp but tenuous moment, delight ruled unencumbered by self-conscious moralizing or the strictures of reality.  If you could dream it, and it was charming, you painted it.  The era lasted all of about thirty years, born in the first flush of the Enlightenment’s love of sloppily amorous humanity, and was snuffed before its time by that same movement’s increasing need for classical and uplifting overtones in its artistic productions.  But, if you’re of a mind to sit dreamily drunk before a bit of art for a while, you’ll find a welcoming home there.

 

The high priest of the Pleasure in Painting was the Parisian artist François Boucher (1703-1770).  He came of age as an artist in that era when society, worn out by the somber realities of the end of Louis XIV’s reign, sought to recapture itself in the vigorous pursuit of life.  Part of that endless quest included the construction of ravishing private spaces bedecked with charming and graceful illustrations.  Boucher, their iconographer of choice, delivered a constant stream of pastoral simplicity, luscious nudes, and oh so very much drapery.

 

After spending his student years wrapped up in the obligatory production of obscure Biblical moments, Boucher broke into his own style by wedding mythological themes to a visual sense that combined Flemish and modern Italian influences with his own innate feel for dramatic elegance.  There is a lot of loveliness to contemplate from his first decade and a half, but this, his Birth of Venus (1740), is perhaps the most wonderfully over-the-top love song to the marriage of art and pleasure:

 

The Birth of Venus, 1740.

 

 

In the mid 1740s a pastoral fad broke out, and Boucher responded with a series of hyper-idealized but entirely fetching canvases that still have the power to make us stop dead in our twitchy, nervous tracks and melt a bit with a yearning for something slower:

Shepherd Piping to a Shepherdess, 1744.

Even those who hated him couldn’t help but admit that they kinda liked him.  In his famous attempt to wean the Parisian public from Boucher’s paintings and redirect its enthusiasm to more elevated artistic ground, Denis Diderot ended up basically advertising for him:  “What colors!  What variety!  What richness of objects and ideas!… There is no part of his compositions which, separated from the others, does not please you; the ensemble even seduces you.  That man has everything except truth…  Where has one actually seen shepherds dressed with such elegance and luxury? …. [but] one cannot leave the picture.  It fixes you.  One comes back to it.  It is such an agreeable vice!”

 

The Setting of the Sun, 1752.

 

For better or worse, ours is a time of agreeable vices.  We have all spent more on novelty tee-shirts depicting Daleks or Jayne Hats or Fluttershy Battling Medusa than on sober art-school originals because we think that amusement is the ideal wadding with which to stuff the gaps of life, even (or perhaps especially) as they yawn gradually into chasms.  I certainly have, and I don’t feel any particular shame on that account.  Agreeable vices are important, and deserve to be reckoned as such rather than cast off as unworthy of an artist’s labor.

 

I cannot deny, however, that, as much smack as I talk, I do love the callous challenge of modernism, indeed anything that sets out to make you do some work for your squirt of dopamine, but I am truly thankful that there was that rolling ripple of a time when artists were willing to indulge their fancy at the cost of their bottom-line profundity, and to let visual poetic discourse run where it would without philosophical theory dictating a curfew.

Culture Science and Math

The Disappearing American Science Student

Don’t they teach recreational mathematics anymore?!” – Doctor Who

 

No, Doctor, they don’t.  At least not according to Harold Levy’s sobering article in the new (Dec 13) issue of Scientific American, which rolls out some truly dispiriting statistics about the state of science and math enthusiasm in the United States.  For example, we learn that, in 2001, 65 percent of all electrical engineering doctorates awarded in the United States were given to foreign students, and that in 2009 46 percent of all master’s degrees in computer science went to students on foreign visas.

 

And no, the phenomenon has nothing to do with Diversity Quotas, so you can put that speech away, and everything to do with our inability to produce inspired and inspiring first-tier college students out of our high school system.  As a calculus and physics teacher since 2003, parent since 2004, and private tutor since my high school days, I’ve been watching this trend, first-hand, from a few different angles.  The good news is that the educational community is by no means taking these trends lying down, and some very exciting things are in the works which stand to make us a much more scientifically literate nation.

 

One of the things that I, and many math-first people of my ilk, have done much wrong-headed grumbling about is the rise of the Conceptual Science curriculum.  It started with physics, is making its way into chemistry, and is basically an attempt to give people solid scientific instincts independent of advanced mathematical skills.  Originally, the idea was that these Conceptual classes would be a good place to stuff struggling students, so as to cut some of the dead weight from the normal and honors physics classes.

 

Which led to unfortunate things, because the teachers that were stuck with the Conceptual classes tended to be on the bottom of the seniority poll, and so you had rookies teaching castoffs which, in spite of what the movies say, ends rather more often in disaster than inspiration.  But then people started realizing the raw potential here.  To illustrate, consider the following two problems, the first a typical physics class question, and the second a typical Conceptual physics question:

 

  1.  Two forces act on a 4 kg rope in opposite directions, one of magnitude 300 Newtons, and the other of magnitude 500 N.  Calculate the Tension in the Rope and the acceleration of the system.

 

  1. Two guys engage in a game of tug-of-war.  If they both pull with 200 N of force, what’s the tension in the rope?  Now, what would the tension be if we replaced one of the guys with a tree?

 

The first invites the student to construct a free body diagram, derive the relevant Newtonian equations, and solve for some desired variables.  All very standard and expected.  The second asks you to think, really think, about just what is going on here.  DOES it matter if I replace a man pulling backwards with a stationary tree?  Shouldn’t it?  But maybe not… why?

 

I try to incorporate these moments whenever I can into my AP Physics class, to break the students out of their very meticulously learned algorithms, and make them think about the actual physicality of what’s going on, to develop sure scientific instincts about what matters and what doesn’t, to get them debating about the variables and how they come into play.  It’s that intuition that my parents’ generation had but that, swamped with the need to perform well on standardized tests, was systematically murdered by the educational system over the course of several decades.  It is recreational- you are playing and weighing and arguing and having a grand old time talking about a rope and a tree, which is precisely the sort of free intellectual play that sustains people in their interest to pursue the rigorous course of a scientific education.

 

So, that’s all great, and it’s getting injected more and more into all levels of the high school curriculum.  But it’s not quite enough.  It’s not enough to just think about science and math until the end of your assigned problem set.  We need kids who actively choose to spend their leisure investigating problems that they find interesting, delving more deeply into topics they find compelling.  And that is all about parental modeling – the kiddos need to see from their earliest days that, the work day done, their parents don’t just flop insensibly into the warm and easy embrace of television, booze, or incessant Facebook nattering.

 

They need to see parents with intellectual hobbies, really ANY intellectual hobbies – a dad who takes a half an hour each night to read through some poetry, not because it broadens his education, but because he actually enjoys it.  A mother who has a few Erlenmeyer flasks in the garage for an experiment now and again.  Something that shows the kids that the care of one’s mind can actually be a joy far surpassing mere satiation.  They take their lessons in the use of recreational time from us – in many ways it’s the most important thing we have to teach them, and the one easiest to neglect.

 

But.  If we do make a sort of civilizational commitment to being mindful of our leisure hours, and if we do continue to find ways to structure curriculum to spark surprise and argument instead of the comparative ease of an expected algorithm, we have a chance to raise a remarkable generation of thinkers.