Friday, August 22, 2008

Because I'm Drunk and Annoyed and Reading the Internets at 2:00 in the Morning...

Dear Forum Poster:

No one has any business taking you seriously if you:
  • use a Greco-Roman pseudonym (on edit: uh-oh -- but then again, I rest my case)

  • treat Shakespeare like he matters more than any other great writer of the past 400 years

  • use the phrase: Wow. Just. Wow.

  • use the word sheeple

  • can't discuss contemporary sociopolitical issues without making references to obesity, waddling, Wal*Mart, sixpacks, etc.

  • can't discuss contemporary sociopolitical issues without making references to Hitler and the Nazis

  • think you're saying something profound by posting song lyrics.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dude, You Just Stepped in Some Bigfoot

As I am writing this, the much-ballyhooed Georgia Gorilla press conference, scheduled for today, has yet to burst its bombshell upon the world; but based on the little commentary I have read, and the pictures I have seen...

I confess that I believe (some of the time) in the wisdom of the people (that is to say, folklore) which acknowledges that tiny bands of large hominids, unknown in the taxonomies of scientists, really do exist in unhumaned places like the white emptiness of the Himalayas and, elusive as the corpse of D.B. Cooper, in the black, shaggy wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

Since I accept the verdict of folklore, I believe that it is quite possible, especially in light of the continuous diminishment of the American wilderness, that the body of one of these creatures could eventually be found.

I would love, really love, for their existence to be proven, though in the end, objectively, it would amount to nothing more than the discovery of yet another animal previously unkown to science (I'm aware of a speculation that these creatures may be at least partially paranormal, but personally I don't find that speculation persuasive for no other reason, really, than that I simply don't have any interest in believing it). As we continue to tear up the jungles and probe and poison the oceans, previously unknown animals are discovered frequently enough that we have ceased to be shocked by it. What's the big deal?

And yet "Bigfoot" isn't just another animal. For reasons I don't have the energy to explore, he has long since become wrapped up in the same kind of wide-eyed fraudulent kookery that, accidentally or not (I believe the answer is a bit of both), has long since come to infest and discredit every aspect of the paranormal. Because of this, otherwise rational and intelligent people who don't bat an eye when a new frog or butterfly or flower is discovered, and who would probably lay down money on the odds that more frogs, butterflies, and flowers are still out there waiting to be discovered, lose their heads and become all giggly and illogical at the thought that a large primate could thus far have escaped the net of the zoologists.

Regan Lee has been tracking the obsession that a certain branch of the fundamentalist materialist-rationalist orthodoxy appears to feel for this subject, an obsession which, in my opinion, is rather unwise since it seems to me that of all "paranormal" phenomena the existence of an unknown primate is the easiest to prove, and the most likely to be proven: again, it is simply the discovery of another unknown animal. But because of the heaps of subjective baubles with which we've all loaded this particular animal, its discovery would be interpreted as a mighty vindication of the "Woo" community and an intellectual Stalingrad (in the German sense) for the "Reality-based" one.

The oracle slurred by your priestess: when weaving your security blanket, do not choose the thread most likely to unravel.

If a large hairy hominid ever were discovered, I believe it would be interesting and very instructive scientifically (if you consider psychology a science) to monitor the reaction of certain fundamentalist materialist-rationalists. It is said by them that they would accept the discovery with the same placid equanimity with which they welcome any evidentiary revelation that furthers our understanding of the world we live in.

I don't buy it. Not for a second. It is my suspicion (and I'm willing to wager my drinking of booze on it, so convinced am I that I'm right) that our hypothetical psychologists would be recording not gentlemanly smiles of complacence, but symptoms of depression, denial, and anger. I half expect that, if a Sasquatch body ever really were found, that some particularly distraught reality-based anthropoid would take it upon himself to strap on a pack of dynamite and jihad himself upon the offending carcase, obliterating the shattering of his cozily manageable world in a fiery Jahannam of blended primate parts.

But I don't think he'll need to be joining the Academy of the Illuminated Martyrs just yet. After an initial flush of excitement it seems to me, as to most other people in the paranormal community, that based on what has been released thus far, unless this story turns out to have a super-shocking Twilight Zone twist at the end it can't possibly be anything other than a hoax -- and apparently not a particularly skillful one.

Saturday morning update: press conference "inconclusive"; blood in the water; if these fine examples of the blessings of democracy really do turn out to have a body now, I'll stop drinking. The hoaxing process is fascinating to me, particularly the point at which it gets away from you and stops being fun; the thought of lawyers intrudes, and you have to keep juggling faster and faster to keep the wolves from your door.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Hungry Gods, Part III

(This post is a continuation of The Hungry Gods and The Hungry Gods, Part II)

I distinctly remember reading or being told once, years ago, that human sacrifice developed after animal sacrifice, when someone came to the conclusion that since the life of animals like goats and bulls were desireable to the gods, how much more delectable must be the life of the most precious animal of all? and ever since I've operated under that assumption. But the scholarship in my recent reading takes the view that the earliest sacrifices were human, and that animal sacrifice developed afterward as a way to satisfy the rituals without having to kill somebody. Echoes of this are believed to be preserved in stories like biblical Abraham sacrificing Isaac (who at the last moment was saved by the appearance of a goat), or of the Greek Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia (who in earlier accounts was killed, but in later ones was saved and replaced with a deer).

The author of I, Claudius, British litterateur and reputedly somewhat dodgy classicist (and mushroom-eater) Robert Graves, wrote an extensive explication of Greek mythology in which he sees in nearly every human male who gets looked at crosswise the memory of the ritual murder of a sacred king, in the days before animals were on the menu. My advice to impressionable teenagers and children is to steer clear of this book. It's been nearly twenty years since I read it and I still remember the feeling of sickening horror that seeped into me as I digested account after account of kings being torn apart, beheaded, burned alive, shot full of arrows -- and that's only the first half of volume one. Nor am I the only one to feel this way, judging from the reviews on Amazon and my college classics professor's remark still preserved in my dusty notebooks: It's a nightmare work. It can get to you if you're not careful. It really can!

If human sacrifice really did precede animal sacrifice (and I don't dispute the scholars), to my mind this pretty effectively torpedoes the kindergarten-level rationalist approach I've been trying to use in looking at the subject. It's no longer a case of "here, take some of our wheat and leave us the rest" or "share a meal with us to nourish yourself in the afterlife dear grandfather" or "how can we cadge a mutton dinner out of the tribe?" It's a case of somebody somewhere (and not just in one isolated place either) coming to the conclusion that in order to make things right somebody has got to die.

Even so I cannot entirely abandon my infantile attempts at rationalism. I can imagine cases of starvation, in which cannibalism was a desperate last resort and the guilty or horrified survivors tried to rationalize it with the invention of a ritual -- if early person felt guilt and horror about such things. But then the question is: why continue the ritual when it was no longer necessary? Was ancient person forced to resort to cannibalism all the time? Or did he just discover that, like Alferd Packer, he liked it?

I can imagine someone, an outlaw or outcast perhaps, or maybe a stranger, perishing or being killed and left to lie on the ground. Perhaps the corpse has seeds in its stomach or in a bag, and as the body decomposes and springtime comes the seeds sprout; or perhaps it is left to lie in a patch of some wild food plant and the fertilized plants grow better where the body lay; or perhaps carnivores or scavengers come after it and are harvested by the hunters; and so people come away with the idea that the death of a man produces food.

Perhaps food is scarce and somebody is making himself obnoxious, complaining about being hungry or stealing food from others. Someone else flies in a rage and kills him, perhaps unintentionally, but now there's a bit more for everyone else to eat and the tribe is saved.

I am sure you can imagine more scenarios, but the scenarios are not really the crucial point. The crucial point is to resolve two big questions:
  1. Why would human sacrifice perpetuate itself?

  2. Why would human sacrifice perpetuate itself everywhere?
It seems to me that human sacrifice can only perpetuate itself if people believe they are gaining something from it. It seems to me also, from the very little I know of "primitive" peoples, that they don't make a habit of killing themselves off on a regular basis, apart from possibly extracting very little ones from the mouth pool during lean times Of course everyone is perfectly happy to kill off folks from other tribes, and maybe this is what fed the earliest sacrifices -- though I wonder, in those ancient times, if there were really all that many different tribes crawling over each others' feeding grounds.

If, as in my second and third scenarios, people believe that killing someone produces food or leaves more for others to eat, you can see why sacrifice would perpetuate itself. People need to eat continually, and so someone would have to die on a regular basis. But wouldn't there have been a time beforehand when the people could remember plants growing and animals being caught without somebody needing to die? Wouldn't they, as hunter-gatherers, ever migrate to richer pastures in which they had spilled no blood, but were none the poorer for it? Maybe once you've stared starvation in the face and are miraculously saved by a corpse you forget everything that comes before or after, and as an evolutionary tactic with your god-gene brain adopt the idea that inventing a corpse produces food.

But then this begs the question of how you move away from human sacrifice once you've been practicing it for a while. If you've come to believe it's producing food for you, or doing anything else of importance for you, who'd be the first one foolish enough to say, "hey, let's try just killing a goat instead and see how that works?" And who in the group would go along with that? "Sure, let's take a chance on angering the god and STARVING TO DEATH!"

It also begs the question of how the god gets into it, or indeed where gods come from at all. Would early person, completely integrated into nature, concoct a fantasy that some invisible sky being made plants and animals for men to eat? Would he not be more likely to assume that plants and animals were just there? I have a hard time remembering much of my very early childhood, but I don't recall, in playing outside amidst the grass and the trees, or in looking at the sun or the moon or the snow or the storms, ever having the idea that anybody made them; they were just there because that's how the world was.

Granted, if you're taught something as a child you'll grow up believing it and will propagate that belief to your own children -- unless, of course, you take the other traditional course of indoctrinated children and rebel utterly against the belief. But whatever course you choose, someone, somewhere, still must have originated the belief that was passed on to you, and the belief must have been deemed acceptable by a large enough percentage of the community to be worthy of passing on. I doubt early people were any keener to buck the consensus than their 21st century descendants.

But I confess I have a hard time believing that early people, out of whole cloth, just stitched together the idea of invisible superheroes in the sky who made things work. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which one person might do it; maybe he's schizophrenic and sees things. Maybe a whole tribe eats a bunch of whacky mushrooms and sees crazy things flying all over the place. But we're still left with the question of how belief in the invisible supermen spreads itself to human tribes everywhere. Are we to assume that missionary work went over better in those days than it's ever done in recorded history? Even if you have mind-blowing mushrooms to distribute? (well, okay, the mind-blowing mushrooms might persuade some folks, I mention no names).

My personal theorizing over this is hopeless bunk. I know nothing about it. And while I can't claim to have read about the subject in detail, I feel justified in saying that, of the little I have read, about 99% of it is also hopeless bunk. So why am I even bothering? I should just shut up.

But I can't shut up just yet. One theory does appeal to me very strongly. I first saw it raised in conjunction with some comments on the strange visual descriptions in Homer (the author apparently not buying into the old tradition of Homer being blind, which might account for strange visual descriptions); it has since popped up once or twice elsewhere. I'm ignorant of everything but the shallowest shape of it (perhaps the reason it appeals to me so much, since I need most things to be shallow):

The brain of early person worked differently than our brains work today. His way of perceiving the world was constitutionally different from ours.

Like I say, I don't know whose idea this is, or anything about the argument really; but even the sketchy outline of it rings true to me -- and it offers a solution to the questions over which I've been chasing my tail. The concept of gods and spirits could have developed universally early on, could have called forth serious responses like human sacrifice, because early person, as far as his mind could tell, was literally experiencing gods and spirits as a reality as concrete as the herbs he ate, the deer he chased, or the rain that fell on his head.

Most of us nowadays do not hear the voices of burning bushes or see shades coming up from the underworld because our brains do not use the same filters that were given to early man.

Of course this does not necessarily mean that gods and spirits are real (although I do believe, usually, that the numinous exists, and that it can still be perceived by at least some of us, at least ephemerally); it only means that early man's brain was forming certain impressions of the world around him -- impressions that may be beyond our reach today.

I think it is likely that our rationalist-materialist approach to things may well have been beyond the capabilities of early man, try as he might to grasp them. The filters are different. Why would science and technology progress but slightly for thousands of years, then suddenly shoot into the stratosphere over two centuries? Although it is fashionable in some quarters to attribute the technological stagnation of the past to a belief in sky fairies, belief in sky fairies is no inherent obstacle to the employment of science, as is proven by the works of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans (please remember that I am reined in by my western bias, I do not mean to slight anyone elsewhere).

But then again, who has a better understanding -- a more visceral, instinctive, and intimate understanding, a real understanding -- of the world we live in?

The naked savage who is a part of it, who lives, eats, drinks, sleeps, poops, mates, and dies in it? Who has to learn every detail of it, to recognize every hint of benefit and every whisper of danger, or he dies right quick?

Or the modern feeble thing in a sterilized lab-coat, festering with allergies and neuroses, sitting in an ergonomic chair in a climate-controlled flourescent chamber, peering through spectacles into a microscope for twelve hours straight and letting a box of plastic and silicon do nine-tenths of his thinking for him?

The modern feeble thing asserts that he does. Sometimes he gets really angry, pathologically angry, if you suggest there's anything he can't understand.

I've been around modern feeble things when the air conditioning broke. My impulse is to side with the howling cave painter.

I think the modern feeble thing lives in a magic bubble of Newtonian corn syrup and ego. I think he is one poke away from disaster. Some people think a great big poke is coming soon. I hope not, because I'm a modern feeble thing myself and don't want my cozy little bubble to be popped.

At first I thought I was rambling again, hugely rambling, but now it feels like somehow or other I've gotten to the place I needed to be, because after three long incoherent posts on this subject I've finally managed to stumble upon the core premise with which I should have begun.

At times it is -- depending on my mood -- my suspicion, belief, or even intuition (or perhaps just varying degrees of wishful thinking) that early person was tapped into the raw existential truth of life on this planet in a way that we cannot begin to conceive. I believe early person, while he almost certainly lacked the capacity to explain it or reason it out, had a much deeper awareness of how humanity and the rest of the planet interact with each other. Without understanding the details of their arguments, I tend to side with those who speculate that the evolutionary advantages in the development of the human brain involved more than just the ability to invent tools and language. I believe the human consciousness may hold, or may once have held, gifts and powers that millennia ago were chained up in a chest and shoved under a pile of junk in the attic. Perhaps the contents of the chest moldered away long ago and it is not possible now for us to recover anything more than the empty chest, or at most a lingering whisper of the fragrance of whatever was in the chest.

It is my suspicion (some of the time) that early man did not invent gods and spirits out of whole cloth, but that he was describing and reacting to something that really was there for him, something that he could perceive as solidly as the herbs, the deer, and the rain. I suspect (some of the time) that all of the mess, nonsense, and fraud that man has been heaping up in his religions since long before the reign of Akhenaten originates not from further elaborations on a fanciful conceit of the cavemen, but from a loss of understanding and involvement with the entities or energies that glided around caves and groves but were either shut out from or chose not to enter irrigation ditches and the stone halls of palaces.

In short, I am proceeding from the premise that early person developed and perpetuated the concept of sacrifice because something was there to accept the sacrifice.

Now I must pause and regroup. More to come!