How to review this book? Well, suffice it to say it came down to either 5-stars or 1-star, and 5-stars finally seemed more honest an assessment of the book and the ideas therein as really pretty darn profound rather than merely overwritten, pretentious, and verbose. (It should be noted, however, that this book was overwritten, etc., and was precisely the sort of book that made me realize why a Ph.D. studying this sort of stuff was simply not my cup of tea.)
Here's my butchered summary (or maybe my summary is concise, and his presentation butchered; he got paid a lot by the University of California, though, so I'll bet on him):
In the postmodern world, God is silent, if not dead, and theists and atheists alike grapple everyday with the consequences of this world without God. Panikkar explores Buddhism and the claim that it is an atheistic, or at least a nontheistic, religious tradition, and finds space for God in the silence of the Buddha and his unwillingness to affirm or deny metaphysical doctrines. He examines crucial Buddhist concepts like anātman and pratītyasamutpāda and draws inspiration from them for a new middle way between the idolatries of theism and atheism. Rather than get provoked and involved in speculations on God, we should be about the work of losing ourselves in service to others, and thereby in that loss and that silence gain epiphany, as both Christ and Buddha would have us do.
(I am currently reading Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson, a much less sober and rigorous‒and far more funny and readable‒thinker than Panikkar. In that work, Wilson discusses propositions that are "meaningful" and those that are "meaningless," in operational terms. I cannot help but note with a smile that much of the material in the Panikkar book would qualify as "meaningless" in those terms, and I note with irony that that might be one of the main theses Panikkar is trying to get across.)
(I'm also currently reading Ahmed Ali's translation of the Qur'an, which brings to the reading of Panikkar's book its own set of questions, about how the Qur'an as Logos affirms or disputes claims about the silence of God, for example.)
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Panikkar, comparative religion scholar and Catholic theologian, earned three different doctoral degrees, in philosophy, chemistry, and theology. Perhaps that level of scholarship is why this, his attempt to make Buddhist thought understandable to an educated Christian audience, is so densely written and exhaustively footnoted. Those footnotes are also one of the reasons this book is a keeper. Maybe that Ph.D. isn't as dead as I like to think. Or maybe I just feel smarter when I read books like this.
Invocation—the raising of the heart in a plea for true love, the raising of the mind in a quest for salvific knowledge, and the raising of the life of the individual in a cry for real help—is becoming more and more necessary in the contemporary world, and at the same time more and more impossible.
First, it is becoming more and more necessary. We cannot bear up along under the weight of existence. Modern life is becoming ever more precarious... Individuals cannot know all things, or solve all problems, or control all of the factors that mold their life. They can place no confidence in their peers, who are as fragile and fallible as themselves. They cannot rely on society, for society is precisely one of their greatest burdens. They feel the need to ascend higher, to cry for help, to reach out to something above, to trust in a love, or a goodness, or a someone. Invocation, as emergence from oneself in order to trust, or take refuge in, or at least to contact, something or someone superior to ourselves, becomes ever more imperative.
At the same time, such invocation is becoming impossible. The God to whom this invocation is directed, the God at the acme of the hierarchy of beings, appears impotent, and from that moment forward is silent. (xxi)
Surely nothing can tell us what the world is, for neither question, that of being or that of non-being, can be asked with regard to the world. Ontology is not false, it is just that it is caught in an endless circle. Ontology insists that to on corresponds to ho logos. The Enlightened One has seen beyond this. What has he seen? Nothing! Śūnyatā, nirvāṇa. (66)
We are dealing with avyākṛtavastūni—things (literally) inseparable, ineffable, inexpressibl—things "inexplicable," in the etymological sense of being so tightly intertwined as to thwart all unraveling. The principles of identity and noncontradiction, properly speaking, or primario et per se, are logical principles—principles of thought, raised to the status of ontological principles in virtue of the "dogma" of identity, or at least of the adequation, of being and thinking. The Buddha has "seen further." ... If my interpretation is correct, then it seems to me that the intentionality of the avyākṛta does not regard the logic of thought—does not bear upon a softening of the principle of noncontradiction or of the excluded third [middle], but rather points to the imperfection, the limitation, the inability to express the real, intrinsic first of all to the verb "to be" and then to the very concept of being, inasmuch as, ultimately, being itself is not deprived of membership in the kingdom of the impermanent, the changeable, the contingent. There are actually propositions that are inexpressible, owing to the limited grasp of the ontological comprehension available to us. Accordingly, although there is no third alternative between A and not-A, there is between "is" and "is not." (69-70)
Were we to attempt to sketch these main lines in broad strokes, we should speak of a tissue of mythos, logos, and spirit. Humankind cannot live without myth. But neither are human beings fully human until they have developed their logical potential and spiritual capacities as well. Just as the essence of the "primitivism" of an archaic culture lies in its mystical characteristics, so the essence of the "barbarian character" of contemporary Western culture lies not in the material component of a given civilization, but in the supreme power that it confers on the logos. If there is a single concept in which we might capsulize the contribution that the Buddha could make to our times, it is the conviction that the logos cannot be divinized in any of its forms, either ontological or epistemological or cosmic. Mythos and logos can exist only in spirit. But spirit cannot be "manipulated," either by mythos or by logos. (84-5)
If we look carefully, we see the the trust the Buddha asks is not a new acceptance of someone else's experience, but a reliance on our own experience once it has been enlightened. It is not a matter, then, of the renunciation of knowing, on the implicit presupposition that there is something real to know and some real subject to do the knowing. It is a question of recognizing that creatureliness cannot transcend itself, and that consequently nothing in the order of being, nothing that develops in space and time, can be included in the realization of what ultimately matters. And what ultimately matters is the orthopraxis that eliminates contingency—that is, suffering. (90)
The human situation may appear self-sufficient in its reciprocal solidarity, but the fact remains that, shut up within its own limits, it will suffocate. Its very sacrality projects it toward the infinite, toward eternity, and unless it is willing to remain irremediably closed off within the spatio-temporal coordinates that delimit it, it will have to be able to find a mediation with an extrahuman order of salvation. This is the traditional function known by the name of "priesthood." (94)
Without an objective something outside themselves for which to strive, human beings may fall victim not only to the self-centeredness that issues in dishonesty with their neighbor, but to the ennui that flows from the meaninglessness of a contingent life that comes to constitute its own stifling limitations. Human beings must lift their eyes to a horizon that is higher than simply themselves and their own story. What I consider that earmark of the new atheism is rather the emergence in contemporary humankind of a tendency to adopt an ideal that is personal in nature. That is, each individual consciously adopts some particular ideal in order to maintain the very need to believe. (95)
And yet does it really seem wise to break with a tradition, a religious one as it happens, that for centuries, for better or for worse, has furnished a large part of humanity with an effective support? Indeed, have we not begun to see that the drastic solution, tested several times now in the course of history, of discarding religion, does not seem to have yielded very satisfactory results? On the contrary, it seems almost as if the "place" vacated by God has been filled up by... nothing at all—and that this "nothing" has loomed up before an unprepared modern humanity with a force that terrorizes it, threatens to swallow it whole. Only silence has filled the void left by divinity. God is gone now, and the silence seems even more disappointing and incomprehensible than the God who has been wished away. (102)
Here our speculation will have to adopt a culturally and religiously pluralistic outlook if it is to have any hope of finding paths to a solution of the problem before it. The challenge of the present age will be to examine whether it is possible to "de-divinize" Being, and de-ontologize God, without either one suffering any detriment, so to speak. Apart from such a possibility, only one alternative remains: identification or nihilism. (107)
God may be or appear to be no more than a handy, bourgeois solution for so many of the problems of modern human life; but at least God represented a hypothesis that, once accepted, really did solve human problems. Left to themselves, without their Gods and without God, human beings simply "don't make it." They must forge themselves every manner of idol in order to survive. Atheism is powerful when it comes to destroying a determinate conception of God; but it betrays its impotence the moment it pretends to transform itself into a worldview that would replace what it has destroyed. Now the cure is worse than the disease. (126)
To express myself in the simplest way possible, then: persons discover that, in their deepest heart, there is a "bottomless bottom," that "is" what they largely are, and at the same time is identical to what each "other" human can likewise experience—the bottom that constitutes what is deepest in every human being, as anyone who has had this experience can attest—that same depth, moreover, that is lived, perceived, intuited as the unique source of all things, and yet never exhausted in any of them, so to speak. (139)
The Buddha delves to the root of the problem—not via a direct, violent denial of God, not again through some harmonization of the various paths, but with a demonstration of the superfluity of the very question of God or of any ultraterrestrial world. In the Buddha we see the vacuity of any possible response, because of the nullity of the entire question. Yet we are not obliged to renounce the possibility of an outcome in terms of salvation and liberation.... Let God's existence be affirmed or denied as it may: neither "answer" will be of any importance, for both are equally invalid. (150-1)
Faith, though of course comporting an intellectual dimension, is not fundamentally an act of the intellect. It is an act of the whole person. The perfect and universal formula of faith is not "I believe in God," but "I believe," as an expression of total self-bestowal, as an utterance of the abandon with which the answer given in the gospel by the person blind from birth is charged: "I do believe, Lord." Faith is an act of sheer openness. Any closure upon an object wrings it dry. The very presence of God is detrimental to the constitutive openness of faith. Neither the Buddha, nor the Prophet, nor the Christ can remain at the believer's side without representing a dangerous obstacle to that believer's leap of faith. (154)
What matters, then, is not "God," in the classic sense. What matters is only a path, a way that leads in the direction of liberation. Ultimately our lot is in our own hands. We and we alone can deliver ourselves from the suffering that assaults us on every side. The only help available is a reliance on the experience of the Buddha himself and of the monastic community of his followers, in observance of right conduct.... When all is said and done, neither orthodoxy nor orthopoiesis matters. What saves is the refusal to entertain any ideology of philosophy that in some degree would center on God. What is of true value, what carries us beyond this nearer shore of ours is orthopraxis. Now we "arrive" indeed, but without vaulting into the arms of a transcendence that can be manipulated, one that is but the product of our unsatiated desires. The dharma is not infertile, and indeed per se. It suffices to follow it; there is no need to concern oneself with it by reflecting and willing. One need only rely on the Buddha, who has indicated the way, and on the community—that is, on solidarity. (174)
The working assumption in development of this model is that the rejection of violence, whether the direct violence of the sword or the systemic violence of racism or sexism, should be visible in expressions of Christology and atonement. Developing an understanding shaped by nonviolence then lays bare the extent to which satisfaction atonement is founded on violent assumptions. Thus proposing narrative Christus Victor as a nonviolent atonement motif also poses a fundamental challenge to and ultimately a rejection of satisfaction atonement. (7)
While it is not necessary to adopt my specific suggestion for understanding the historical political connotations of the text of the seven seals [of Revelation], it is important to locate Revelation in the first-century world. With the first-century context in mind, it is clear that the symbolism of conflict and victory in the reign of God over the rule of Satan is a way of ascribing cosmic significance to the church's confrontation of the Roman empire in the first century....It is the imagery itself and not a particular historical interpretation that presents the Christus Victor motif. Most importantly, the theological message that in the resurrection of Jesus the reign of God is victorious over evil remains true even if the sequence of evils and destruction symbolized in seals one to six is interpreted only in terms of general references to war, famine, pestilence, earthquake, and other natural disasters. (27)
The resurrection as the victory of the reign of God over the forces of evil constitutes an invitation to salvation, an invitation to submit to the rule of God. It is an invitation to enter a new life, a life transformed by the rule of God and no longer in bondage to the powers of evil that killed Jesus. For those who perceive the resurrection, the only option that makes sense is to submit to the reign of God. Christians, Christ-identified people, participate in the victory of the resurrection and demonstrate their freedom from bondage to the powers by living under the rule of God rather than continuing to live in the power of the evil that killed Jesus. Salvation is present when allegiances change and new life is lived "in Christ" under the rule of God....
The resurrection reveals the true balance of power in the universe whether sinners perceive it or not. Sinner can ignore the resurrection and continue in opposition to the reign of God, but the reign of God is still victorious. It is this revelation of the true balance of power, whether or not acknowledged by sinful humankind, that distinguishes narrative Christus Victor from moral influence theory. (45)
Jesus' confrontation of evil and his eventual victory through resurrection thus do not appear as completely novel events in the history of God's people. It is rather the continuation and culmination of a mission that began with the call of Abraham. (67)
I really enjoyed: the moral dilemmas that were at the core of the storyline, Billy Batson/Captain Marvel as a Christ figure, Superman hugging Batman,...moreI really enjoyed: the moral dilemmas that were at the core of the storyline, Billy Batson/Captain Marvel as a Christ figure, Superman hugging Batman, and the breathtaking, luminous artwork.(less)
Not at all what I was expecting, in a great way. A radical revamp (hardy har) of the Batman character and of the entire DC universe as well (for examp...moreNot at all what I was expecting, in a great way. A radical revamp (hardy har) of the Batman character and of the entire DC universe as well (for example, Metropolis, with its double entedre, and not Gotham, is the setting) done up in eerie, German Expressionist-inspired artwork. Another gem in the DC Elseworlds series. (less)
[THOMAS:] We are forging a cosmology that embraces humanity as a species, one that does not ignore the special cultural contributions of each continent, but that enhances these differences. Each tradition is irreplaceable. Not one can be reduced to any other. Each is vital to the work of the future. Each will flower beyond telling in fruitful interaction with the rest in the overall embracing story of the cosmos.
During the first centuries of the modern period, such a situation was impossible. An antagonism existed between modern ways of knowing and traditional ways of life and belief. Perhaps this was necessary; the scientific enterprise needed austere isolation from both the animistic attitudes of the tribal period and the spatial cosmologies of classical civilizations. Scientific understanding was too new and too different to fit into previously existing modes of human awareness; it needed to establish its own canons, procedures, and experiments without reference to anything outside itself.
The great wonder is that this empirical, rational journey of science should have any contact at all with spiritual traditions. But in our century, the mechanistic period of science opened out to include a science of mystery: the encounter with the ultimacy of no-thing-ness that is simultaneously a real of generative potentiality; the dawning recognition that the universe and Earth can be considered as living entities; the awareness that the human person, rather than a separate unit within the world, is the culminating presence of a billion-year process; and the realization that, rather than having a universe filled with things, we are enveloped by a universe that is a single energetic event, a whole, a unified, multiform, and glorious outpouring of being. (39–40)
[THOMAS:] Drawn into existence by allurement, giving birth, then drawing others into existence—this is the fundamental dynamism of the cosmos. In this we can see the meaning of human life and human work. The star's own adventure captures the whole story. It is created out of the creations of the fireball, enters into its own intense creativity, and sends forth its works throughout the galaxy, enabling new orders of existence to emerge. It gives utterly everything to its task—after its stupendous creativity, its life as a star is over in one vast explosion. But—through the bestowal of its gifts—elephants, rivers, eagles, ice jams, root beer floats, zebras, Elizabethan dramas, and the whole living Earth, become possible. Love's dynamism is carved into the principal being of the night sky. (58)
THOMAS: To begin with, understand that humans are not unique in having to suffer. Nor are humans unique in being violent. We live in a violent universe. Violence fills the cosmos in various forms, and human violence is only one of these. Violence is a universal fact, but not the dominant fact of the universe. The great mystery is not violence, but beauty. We note the violence, all the more amazed that such stupendous graciousness and beauty should exist anywhere at all.
YOUTH: But where does violence come from?
THOMAS: Destruction has its root in the allurement permeating the universe. Allurement is the source of all activity, even destructive activity. The star, responding to allurement, destroys itself. No one comes from outside to demolish the star. The star implodes, smashing itself into a trillion parts—its journey is ended. Or imagine the violence of two stars colliding under mutual gravitational attraction. The fire would be splashed in every direction for millions of miles. Such tremendous violence, yet see the graciousness of hundreds of billions of stars swirling in the galactic dance.
The biological world knows all sorts of violence. The same urge that draws the lion to the river for water draws it on to kill the wildebeest. Insects are so intent to stretch forth and explore that world that they will devour their own parents if they cannot find other food. Fascination with living, the enchantment of being alive, the beauty of the surrounding world—all these draw creatures into violent acts and into the destruction of being, but after four billion years into life on Earth, what beauty has blossomed forth! There is danger in the natural world, a constant challenge, excitement, violence, risk, and terror, but out of this emerges the wonder of the Earth. (71–2)
[THOMAS:] We need to study the cosmic story, the Earth story, the human story, until we know it in its essential forms. A person who does not know the story of the universe is not yet living up to human destiny. But this knowing is not only cerebral; to know they story of life includes eating natural foods; to know the story of human civilizations means feeling the profound intuitions they achieved; and to know the story of the universe means to allow the great, numinous past to come alive in your present being.
YOUTH: You know, this is so different from everything I was taught. I have never once thought of studying history in this way, so that the universe could come alive in me.
THOMAS: I realize that. The switch out of an attitude where the human is the center of everything, to a biocentric and cosmocentric orientation where the universe and the Earth are the fundamental referents, is the radical transformation that we are presently involved with. It is disruptive. We are so quickly confused because we are accustomed to forgetting the Earth and cosmos to focus on the human world. But when you begin to grow into this larger way of living, you will discover new freedom, and a vast vision of being that makes the struggle worthwhile. (107)
[THOMAS:] Yes: death is terrifying. Do not belittle it. Do not try to reduce this. Do not project your puny ideas upon it. But use death's wareness as you would a fuel or lamp: as a secret guide who will lead you into the unknown and mysterious caverns of your self so that you can bring forth what you truly are. Your creativity needs your awareness of death for its energy, just as your muscles need long and painful workouts. Cherish your awareness of death as a gift to you from the universe. If you did not have this way of seeing the infinite significance of each moment, would anything have the power to get your out there to live your life?
What is especially exciting about our own time is the vision of the death of the species, and of the planet as a whole. Frightening, terrible, horrible—yes, certainly. But this is exactly what has the power to ignite the deepest riches within us. We can no longer live within the previous world-picture. We know that we have to do something, create and change in the essential dimension of things. The terrifying vision of an Earth gone black is psychic food for the human species. It brings us the energy that we need to re-invent ourselves as the mind and heart of the planet. We now take our first steps into the planetary and cosmic dimensions of being, moving out of the antropocentric modern period and into the cosmocentric, unfolding universe.
YOUTH: But what does it mean to become the mind and heart of the planet?
THOMAS: To live in an awareness that the powers that created the Earth reflect on themselves through us. That's why wee are discussing the night sky, the sea, and the land. Each of these reveals cosmic powers that we are to have and become. We are to live as alluring and remembering activity, as shimmering sensitivity. And this means the cosmic dynamic revealed by the life forms: surprise and adventure. Call it play; adventurous and surprising play. That's what life reveals; that's what life is.(118–9)
[THOMAS:] The human form of life can be considered the child of the Earth. This is especially clear when we examine the anatomies of other primates. The head of an infant chimpanzee resembles the head of an infant human in size and shape, but as the chimpanzee reaches adulthood, its head changes in significant ways. The human head remains comparatively the same infant head, only larger. In fact, the infant chimpanzee's head looks more like an adult human's head than its own future adult shape. This dynamic, in which the qualities of the young are retained into mature stages, is called neoteny. We can then begin to understand the human as an eternal child. The first human types were young primates who never "left" their youth. The shapes of their juvenile bodies were retained into adulthood, as was their juvenile behavior. The great accomplishment of the human form, then, was the creation of a mature form of childhood, a form of life that, upon reaching adulthood, could continue to devote itself to a lifetime of adventurous play. (121)
THOMAS: ... Let's just hope we can emulate some of the achievements of the prokaryotes?
YOUTH: In what ways?
THOMAS: To begin with, it would be wonderful if we could contribute something as essential to the Earth's life as oxygen. All the animals depend on the prokaryotes' creativity. Do you think Homo sapiens could match that one, or even come close to the value of our little microscopic cousins?
Secondly, we must act on our innate desires with the confidence that these are not disconnected from the Earth process as a whole. We are just now discovering a deep disgust with the industrial excesses of our consumer society. This disgust is genetically anchored, just as the cancers and other industrial diseases are genetically anchored. Our disgust and our diseases are Earth's way of making clear for us what activities are required.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we must embrace and cherish our dreams for the Earth. We are creating with our imaginations a period of rebuilding, where the intercommunion of all species will guide our life activities. We must come to understand that these dreams of ours do not originate in our brains alone. We are the space where the Earth dreams. We are the imagination of the Earth, that precious realm where visions and organizing hopes can be spoken with a discriminating awareness not otherwise present in the Earth system. We are the mind and heart of the Earth only in so far as we enable Earth to organize its activities through self-reflexive awareness. That is our larger destiny: to allow the Earth to organize itself in a new way, in a manner impossible through all the billions of years preceding humanity. Who knows what rich possibilities await a planet—and its heart and mind—that have [sic] achieved this vastly more rich and complex mode of life? <138–9)
[THOMAS:] Remember how elementary particles spontaneously erupt out of no-thing-ness, the ultimate realm of generation? Emptiness is permeated with the urgency to leap forth. The difficulty is with language: when we say emptiness, we fail to evoke any sense of awe for the truth of the matter.
We can use another word: the ground of being is generosity. The ultimate source of all that is, the support and well of being, is Ultimate Generosity. All being comes forth and shines, glimmers and glistens, because the root reality of the universe is generosity of being. That's why the ground of being is empty: every thing has been given over to the universe; all existence has been poured forth; all being has gushed forth because Ultimate Generosity retains no thing. (146)
YOUTH: I don't know whether to be excited or angry. There's so much, I'm so full of questions and plans, and I know it's going to leak away. I know I'll forget so much of this. Can you help me remember somehow?
THOMAS: We are talking about powers, and we've discussed six of them altogether: allurement, sensitivity, memory, adventurous play, unseen shaping, and celebration....We've pointed out ways in which they are presented to us. That is, we looked at the night sky and reflected on allurement. We examined the seas and talked of absorptions, assimilation, and sensitivity in general.... We say the dynamic of memory in the way the land remembers. We looked at the life forms and found there the presence of adventurous play, in exploration, free activity, and imagination.... Then we considered the flame, probing the meaning of the self, seeing in each of these the presence of unseen shaping. Finally, we considered wind and saw there the expansion of being, the dynamic of celebration. So: the night sky, sea, land, life forms, fire, wind. That's easy enough to remember. (149)
[THOMAS:] If the collision of tectonic plates gives rise to earthquakes, the emergence of the cosmic story gives rise to humanquakes. Think of it! For the first time in human history, we have in common an origin story of the universe that already captivates minds on every continent of our planet. No matter what racial, religious, cultural, or national background, humans now have a unifying language out of which we can begin to organize ourselves, for the first time, on the level of species.
All societies throughout human history have rooted themselves in fundamental stories of the cosmos. Out of their primal stories humans define what is real and what is valuable, what is beautiful, what is worthwhile, what to be avoided, what to be pursued. Modern society is no different. We too use our basic cosmology to assign power positions, making all crucial life decisions on the basis of these fundamental world views.
We are now restructuring our fundamental vision of the world. We are creating a new meaning for what we consider real, valuable, to be avoided, or pursued. The new cosmic story emerging into human awareness overwhelms all previous conceptions of the universe for the simple reason that it draws them all into its comprehensive fullness. And most amazing of all is the way in which this story, thought it comes from the empirical scientific tradition, corroborates in profound and surprising ways the ecological vision of the Earth celebrated in every traditional native spirituality of every continent. Who can learn what this means and remain calm? (161–2)
THOMAS: As you listen to this language, which is Earth's language, you become shaped by words. Your attention forms within words, your desires are shaped by words, your visions of the future are ignited by words.In all of this, the universe shapes you, shapes itself through you so that it might become more intensely present to itself through the unfurling of self-reflexive awareness.
Our primary teacher is the universe. The universe evokes our being, supplies us with creative energy, insists on a reverent attitude toward everything, and liberates us from our puny self-definition. The universe gives us fire and teaches us its use. (167)
[THOMAS:] And that's why I condense our contemporary cosmological scientific story of reality by saying that the universe is a green dragon. Green, because the whole universe is alive, an embryogenesis beginning with the cosmic egg of the primeval fireball and culminating in the present emergent reality. And a dragon, too, nothing less. Dragons are mystical, powerful, emerging out of mystery, disappearing in mystery, fierce, benign, known to teach humans the deepest reaches of wisdom. And dragons are filled with fire. Though there are no dragons, we are dragon fire. We are the creative, scintillating, searing, healing flame of the awesome and enchanting universe. (171)
After reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, li...moreAfter reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, light stuff that Gaiman could crank out while catching his breath, preparing for the next run. Boy, was I wrong.
The first story in this collection, "Three Septembers and a January," brought me to tears as I read it on my lunch break. It tells the story of one Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States, a man whose waking dream saved him from utter despair and whose holy madness inspires many of us to this day. Gaiman does him honor with this story.
"Thermidor" introduces the reader to Orpheus, son of Dream, in a tale about Robespierre's Reign of Terror, the ironic effort to effect the Age of Reason through terror. Heads will roll!
Werewolves. Subtle rendered, hinted at, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye until the very end, but werewolves nonetheless. These People and their history and customs are the focus of the third story, "The Hunt," a tale of the Old Country told by grandfather to granddaughter.
"August" explains much about the life and deeds of the First Citizen of Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, by interweaving imperial conquest and childhood sexual abuse. I wonder how this one went down with classicists.
My least favorite story in the collection, "Soft Places," is more hallucinogenic than the others (hence the title). G.K. Chesterton (whom I can identify only thanks to Gene Wolfe's introduction), Marco Polo, Fiddler's Green, and Dream meet in the sands of the Desert of Lop. But of course, it's "really" a dream...
A retelling of the myth of "Orpheus" juxtaposes classical symbolism with contemporary style and imagery, and does a great job at it. Gaiman shows he can write a relatively straightforward story and yet suggest visual imagery which "problematizes" that same narrative.
"Parliament of Rooks" takes a little boy's dream, and uses it to discuss Adam and Eve via the classic DC Comics spooky comic narrators Cain and Abel. The reader learns about the three wives of Adam, from the Midrashic account of the Creation; about how the two brothers got neighboring houses, one of Mystery and the other of Secrets; and about the differences between a murder of crows and a parliament of rooks.
"Ramadan" concludes the volume with a haunting tale of Haroun al-Raschid, the sultan of Baghdad at the height of its prominence and power. Gaiman trenchantly connects the myth, legend, and dream of the Baghdad of Ali Baba and flying carpets with the then-contemporary (and, sadly, now-contemporary) bombed out modern metropolis.
**spoiler alert** Another fantastic story arc---I can see why this was so popular when it was initially released, and I can only imagine how crazy-mak...more**spoiler alert** Another fantastic story arc---I can see why this was so popular when it was initially released, and I can only imagine how crazy-making it had to have been to wait a month between chapters.
Morpheus goes to Hell to redeem an old lover he condemned ten thousand years before, only to find that Lucifer has closed up shop, issuing pink slips to all of demonkind and returning the dead to Earth. Dream is given the key, and gods from various mythos visit him in the Dreaming to make entreaties and explain their cases. Gaiman unfolds a postmodern meta-mythology that encompasses all sorts of perspectives, and also tells a rollicking tale in the process. (less)
In the last decade the U.S. news media have been more open about the fact that the U.S. and its planet-wide military garrisons constitute an empire—a...moreIn the last decade the U.S. news media have been more open about the fact that the U.S. and its planet-wide military garrisons constitute an empire—a benevolent and reluctant empire (of course) but still an empire. Parenti's gem from the mid-90s explains in detail how empires, particular the U.S. American empire, function; specifically, he provides a Marxist, class-based analysis that fills in the holes left by many other commentators on empire.
Some critics have argued that economic factors have not exerted an important influence on U.S. interventionist policy because most interventions are in countries that have no great natural treasures and no large U.S. investments, such as Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. This is like saying that police are not especially concerned about protecting wealth and property because most of their forceful actions take place in poor neighborhoods. Interventionist forces do not go where capital exists as such; they go where capital is threatened. They have not intervened in affluent Switzerland, for instance, because capitalism in that country is relatively secure and unchallenged. But if leftist parties gained power in Bern and attempted to nationalize Swiss banks and major properties, it very likely would invite the strenuous attentions of the Western industrial powers. (p. 43)
Parenti demolishes the myth that empires are losing propositions for everyone in the imperial state, by reminding us that the folks who pay and the folks who profit are two quite distinct groups ("classes") of people. I don't think this point can be made often enough or strenuously enough.
We are made to believe that the people of the United States have a common interest with the giant multinationals, the very companies that desert our communities in pursuit of cheaper labor abroad. In truth, on almost every issue the people are not in the same boat with the big companies. Policy costs are not equally shared; benefits are not equally enjoyed. The "national" policies of an imperialist country reflect the interests of that country's dominant socio-economic class. Class rather than nation-state more often is the crucial unit of analysis in the study of imperialism.... To be sure, empires do not come cheap. Burdensome expenditures are needed for military repression and prolonged occupation for colonial administration, for bribes and arms to native collaborators, and for the development of a commercial infrastructure to facilitate extractive industries and capital penetration. But empires are not losing propositions for everyone. The governments of imperial nations may spend more than they take in, but the people who reap the benefits are not the same ones who foot the bill. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), the gains of empire flow into the hands of the privileged business class while the costs are extracted from "the industry of the rest of the people." The transnationals monopolize the private returns of empire while carrying little, if any, of the public cost.... In sum, there is nothing irrational about spending three dollars of public money to protect one dollar of private investment—at least not from the perspective of the investors. To protect one dollar of their money they will spend three, four, and five dollars of our money. In fact, when it comes to protecting their money, our money is no object. (pp. 47-49, emphasis mine)
Those who think of empire solely as an expression of national interests rather than class interests are bound to misinterpret the nature of imperialism.... Psychologizing about aching collective egos allows us to blame imperialism on ordinary U.S. citizens who are neither the creators nor beneficiaries of empire.... Whether they support or oppose a particular intervention, the American people cannot be considered the motivating force of the war policy. They do not sweep their leaders into war on a tide of popular hysteria. It is the other way around.... U.S. leaders feel free to intrude massively upon the economic, military, political, and cultural practices and institutions of any country they so choose. That's what it means to have an empire. (p.50, 52, 54)
[R]ather than being stupid, U.S. policy is, for the most part, remarkably successful and brutal in the service of elite economic interests. It may seem stupid because the rationales offered in its support often sound unconvincing, leaving us with the impression that policymakers are confused or out of touch. But just because the public does not understand what they are doing does not mean national security leaders are themselves befuddled. That they are fabricators does not mean they are fools. While costly in money, lives, and human suffering, U.S. policy is essentially a rational and consistent enterprise. Certainly the pattern of who is supported and who opposed, who is treated as friend and who as foe, indicates as much. (p.80)
Evidence to the contrary?
If these assertions are untrue, what is the evidence to support an alternative view? Why has the United States never supported social revolutionary forces against right-wing governments? Why does it harp on the absence of Western democratic forms in certain anticapitalist countries while ignoring brutal and widespread human rights violations in procapitalist countries? Why has it aided dozens of procapitalist military autocracies around the world and assisted their campaigns to repress popular organizations within their own countries? Why has the United States overthrown more than a dozen democratically elected, reformist governments and an almost equal number of left-populist regimes that were making modest moves on behalf of the poor and against the prerogatives of corporate investors? Why did it do these things before there ever was a Soviet Union? Any why does it continue to do these things when there is no longer a Soviet Union? Why has it supported and collaborated with narcotic traffickers from Asia to Central America, while voicing indignation about imagined drug dealings in Cuba? Why has it shown hostility toward every anticapitalist party or government, including those that play by the democratic rules and have persistently sought friendly diplomatic and economic relations with the United States? Neither "foolishness" nor a "misguided zeal" nor a need to defend us from "foreign invaders" explains such an unholy consistency. (pp.132-3)
Small government, big state
It is ironic that ... conservative interests—so overwhelmingly dependent on government grants, tax credits, land giveaways, price supports, and an array of other public subsidies—keep denouncing the baneful intrusions of government. However, there is an unspoken consistency to it, for when conservatives say they want less government, they are referring to human services, environmental regulations, consumer protections, and occupational safety, the kind of things that might cut into business profits. These include all forms of public assistance that potentially preempt private markets and provide alternative sources of income to working people, leaving them less inclined to work for still lower wages.
While conservative elites want less government control, they usually want more state power to limit the egalitarian effects of democracy. Conservatives, and some who call themselves liberals, want strong, intrusive state action to maintain the politico-economic status quo. They prefer a state that restricts access to information about its own activities, taps telephones, jails revolutionaries and reformers on trumped-up charges, harasses dissidents, and acts punitively not toward the abusers of power but toward their victims. (pp.144-5)
Some dare call it "conspiracy theory"
Some people reject this critique as "conspiracy theory." They do not believe that policymakers may sometimes be lying and may have unspoken agendas in the service of powerful interests. They insist that, unlike the rest of us, the rich and powerful do not act with deliberate intent. By that view, domestic and foreign policies are little more than a series of innocent happenings having nothing to do with the preservation of wealthy interests. Certainly this is the impression officials want to create....
The alternative is to have a coincidence theory or an innocence theory, which says that things just happen because of unintended happenstance, or a muddling through, with a lack of awareness of what is at stake, of who gets what, when, and how. It maintains that workers, farmers, and most other ordinary people might make concerted attempts to pursue their own interests but not the corporate elites and top financial interests, who own and control so much.
For some unexplained reason we are to assume that the rich and powerful, so well-schooled in business and politics, so at home in the circles of power, are unaware of where their interests lie and that they lift not a competent finger in support of them. Such an innocence theory appears vastly more farfetched than the idea that people with immense wealth and overweening power will resort to every conceivable means to pursue their interests—the state being their most important weapon in this heartless and relentless undertaking. (pp. 155-7)
Bailouts for those "Too Big to Fail" and "austerity programs" for the rest of us
In regard to all [the] corporate largesse, no mainstream commentator asks, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these things?" an inevitable question when social programs are proposed. Nor do they seem concerned that the corporate recipients of this largesse will run the risk of having their moral fiber weakened by dependency on government handouts. In sum, the myth of a self-reliant, free-market, trickle-down economy is just that, a myth. In almost every enterprise, government provides business with supports, protections, and opportunities for private gain at public expense....
As more of the federal revenue goes into debt payments, U.S. taxpayers get proportionately less in services.... Those at the top may take away our timberlands, oil reserves, mineral deposits, pension funds, airwaves, and jobs, but the national debt will always remain safely ours. (p. 163, 168)
On the disconnect between decisions and their consequences
People who never set foot in a supermarket and never have to worry over a food budget make public policies for people who have to count every penny. Health policy is formulated by people who never have to sit for hours in a public clinic. Transportation policy is made by people who never have to wait for a bus or search for a parking space. Our education system is legislated by people who have never had to send their children or grandchildren to public schools. Our daycare policy is devised by people who have au pairs and nannies. Public recreational policy is in the hands of people who vacation on private country estates and never have to visit a crowded, polluted municipal beach. And occupational safety laws are written by people who have never been inside a factory or gone down into a mine. (pp. 197-8)
I remember one time complaining to a friend that in a fair world the elites would be lined against a wall. Her response was, "Nah, they just ought to be made to use food stamps and take public transportation." Point taken.
Those of us who point out the class basis of imperialism are accused of preaching "class warfare." But top-down class warfare by the ruling elites against the middle and lower classes is what we already have as an everyday occurrence. It is only when the many begin to fight back against the few that class warfare is condemned by political and media elites. (p. 207, emphasis mine)
Written in 1995, even more relevant in 2012
Along with all its horrors and cruelties, the history of imperialism is a history of resistance and rebellion, coming sometimes in the most unexpected moments and places. Resistance to the self-devouring empire is not a chimera but an urgent necessity. Our best hope is that in times ahead, as in the past, when things look most hopeless, a new cry will be heard in the land and those who would be our masters are shaken from their pinnacles.
Not only must we love social justice more than personal gain, we also must realize that our greatest personal gain comes in the struggle for social justice. And we are most in touch with our own individual humanity when we stand close to all of humanity. (p. 210)
I really enjoyed it, devouring the stories within in two sittings. It lives up to its reputation as one of the ground-breaking comics serials of the 1...moreI really enjoyed it, devouring the stories within in two sittings. It lives up to its reputation as one of the ground-breaking comics serials of the 1980s, along with stuff by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Geiman's imagination and intellect are wide-ranging, unafraid to horrify the readers, because they always do so in a shockingly poetic, pretty way. The artists whose work illustrates Gaiman's prose don't hurt either. (less)