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It has taken me about 24 hours to stop quivering in rage over that putrid presidential debate last night. I don’t particularly want to think about it or write about it. I strongly suspect that you don’t wish to read more about it either. Alas, engendering such feelings was the entire point of Donald Trump’s participation. He was not acting that way without reason: his grotesque performance revealed the secret to his power. Even if we desperately want to lie on the sofa, eat pastry, and watch Halloween cartoons, we need to instead talk about how Trump’s bad behavior gets him what he wants.

Imagine the election were a pie-baking contest. Biden reads revered cookbooks (& talks to master chefs). He peels peaches, greases pans, mixes brown sugar and white sugar, and creates a bunch of peach pies which are fine, edible pies. Maybe you prefer rhubarb pies or savory pies or whatever, but Biden’s pies are passable and could probably have won in past fairs. Donald Trump however doesn’t open book or switch on an oven. He goes out to the cow pasture and collects heaping bushel barrels filled with BULLSHIT. Then he comes to the county fair where all of the hungry judges sit with their napkins around their necks and he throws the filth everywhere. “I brought cowpies to show how Biden’s ideas are crappy!” he says as he hurls ordure onto everything. Biden’s pies are ruined. So is everyone’s appetite. So is the very idea of pie. After experiencing such a thing (and we have all been experiencing 5 years of it) fair-goers might be excused for not wanting to judge pies, or eat pies, or go to the fair, or to even think about any of it. And thus Trump wins as his brownshirts, proudboys, and religious fanatics vote him to be the greatest master baker in American history.

Trumpkin Pie?

That is what is going on, and even if you feel like puking and never hungering for pie…I mean democracy… again in your life you need to take a deep breath and sit back down at the judging table.

A disturbing refrain which I hear all of the time these days is “Everybody else is equally bad.” Don’t fall for this poisonous lie! That is Trump’s message which lies at the center of his strategy to keep voters at home. It is why he is ruining all of the pies. If all voters show up to vote, Trump will lose in a historical landslide. Therefore he must make democracy itself look bad and call the validity of the entire process into question. Although he is a undisciplined dullard (or maybe because he is an undisciplined dullard), Trump has an unparalleled ability to make everything seem so terrible that it doesn’t seem like participating is worth the bother. In 2016 he steamrolled the Republican party and won the election not by looking good or competent, but by drowning out everyone else’s messages with his provocative and attention-seeking behavior. Voters become grossed out by such behavior and give up on voting. This allows Trump and his enablers to make even more things seem pointless or dangerous and the evil cycle perpetuates itself. Joe Biden had to actually synthesize complicated policy ideas and memorize evidence and do hard work. All so Donald Trump can spit on it as voters squirm and say “I don’t want any part of this: all politicians are equally bad.”

Ever since he won the democratic nomination, Biden has had my vote, but as he goes through this gauntlet with this ghastly bully he is winning my respect and admiration as well. If Biden can deal with a challenge like last night’s, he can deal with other crises and disasters which require steely nerves. Although Biden did not look as good as if he were serving delicious peach pie to grinning gourmets, he did not get steamrolled. He had to get down in the mud with the bully and thus his larger (and finer) points about healthcare, foreign policy, were destroyed by Trump’s distractions. Biden’s nice pies were ruined. He spent all of that time in the kitchen for nothing…last night. But we cannot let a few distasteful episodes make us lose our appetite for true representative government. As long as the kitchen is still standing, we can clean it up and get back to baking wonderful pies for the good of everyone. Keep a strong stomach and a clear head. Everyone is not equally bad. That is what villains say so that you will lose sight of their misdeeds.

If you don’t freak out we can end this national nightmare and, and…come to think of it, I love peach pie! I am going to go make some myself, as soon as I write a check to the Biden campaign.

Longtime readers will know that Ferrebeekeeper eschews the popular fascination with Mars in favor of our much closer sister planet, the luminous Venus. Therefore, I was delighted to see the second planet from the Sun making front page headlines around the globe (of Earth) this week when scientists discovered traces of phosphine gas in the strange, dense Venusian atmosphere.

The internet tells us that phosphine is a colorless, flammable, very explosive gas which smells like garlic or rotten fish. Additionally, it is extremely toxic. This stuff is not exactly the must-have gift of the season (well…maybe for Christmas, 2020), so why am I so excited to find it on a planet which may be the best option for an off-world human colony?

Phosphine exists on Earth where it is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in oxygen-free conditions (it is also a by-product of certain kinds of industrial processes). This means that the only known methods of producing phosphine involve living things (I suppose industrialists and anaerobic bacteria both qualify as such). It may well be that phosphine is produced on Venus due to some quirk of the planet’s strange atmosphere or weird volcanism (which is not well understood and seems to be fundamentally different from that of Earth).

In the past we have explored some compelling yet inconclusive evidence of life in the clouds of Venus. Today’s news adds to that evidence, but is still not compelling. The phosphine gas and the cloud bands both demands further study, though (and if we happened to learn more about the opportunities for cloud cities, so be it). I have long thought that a robot blimp probe of Venus’ clouds is the most rational next exploration mission for NASA (no matter how much I love super rovers). Perhaps the phosphine revelation will bring other people closer to this view. Maybe you should drop a quick email or phone call to your favorite elected representative about that very thing (or you could always write Jim Bridenstein–he is the rare Trump appointee who seems to be basically competent).

Speaking of basic competence, I was sad to see many of the liberal arts enthusiasts on my Twitter feed angrily denouncing this discovery and demanding “no more money for space!” (I unfollowed them all, by the way–sorry poetry). Beyond the fact that this discovery was made here on Earth by a clever lady with a simple telescope and a gas chromograph, money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth. Such expenditures further fundamental discoveries in material science, engineering, aerospace, robotics, and other high tech disciplines. Our world of high tech breakthroughs, the internet, super computers, solar power, nanotechnology, and super safe aviation (among many other things) was made possible by government money spent on space exploration (or did you think some MBA guy running a private company would ever think more than one quarter into the future?). Beyond these reasons though, Venus was once the most earthlike of all other Solar System planets. Long ago it almost certainly had warm oceans teeming with life. Uh, maybe we should have a comprehensive answer about what happened there before we say that government money should only be spent on social initiatives. If you came home to your nice row house and noticed that the house next door had been knocked down, the neighbors were gone, and also the temperature there was 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sky replaced with sulfuric acid, maybe you would ask what happened! (although, to be fair, that very thing seems to be happening now in California, and a substantial number of people say “science has no place in understanding this).

Anyway, commentary about earth politics aside, I continue to be more and more excited about our closest planetary neighbor. Seriously, can you imagine how cool a robot probe-blimp would be?

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Today’s post starts out funny but quickly becomes troubling and: so maybe just read the first part?

As you might have guessed, we start with Jerry Falwell Jr.–not because his current scandal is hilarious (although it really is) but because his affairs illustrates some larger points which we would be wise to think about.  Falwell is a rich and powerful evangelical leader who is one of the most prominent  members of the “religious right,” an aggressive blend of Christian fundamentalism and far right politics.  He has long treated his father’s university as a private fiefdom–a political/moral training camp for creating followers and minting money.

Falwell Jr. has a long history of racist tirades, homophobic stunts, shady business dealings, Covid denialism, and preposterous conspiracy theories, but such things are not entirely unknown among America’s extreme right-wing churchmen.   For the last few weeks he has been under a cloud because of strange racy photographs of himself removing his trousers while undressing a lady companion. This week, however, his whole masquerade blew apart when it was incontrovertibly revealed that he liked to watch his wife sleep with other men, most notably a special live-in pool boy named Giancarlo Granda (who may or may not have been extorting the couple), but apparently other business partners and acquaintances as well. When the scandal became undeniable, Falwell Jr. threw his wife under the bus by claiming it was all her fault. He admitted no wrongdoing, pulled the cord of his golden parachute and pocketed 10 million dollars for quitting his job as head of an ultra-conservative Christian university.

As a New York City libertine (albeit a celibate one) I believe that what married couples do in their bedroom with handsome young poolboys, business partners, sundry others, and who knows what sort of costumes, devices, onlookers, animals, religious paraphernalia, super drugs, etc. is entirely their own affair. Yet the outrageous hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public persona (and the extent to which he has leveraged said public persona for political influence and money) make his discomfiture particularly risible.  We probably shouldn’t be so amused: Jerry Falwell Jr. is now ten million dollars richer (ten million dollars which had already been taken from starry-eyed devout kids in exchange for a worthless education and a bunch of lectures about the necessities of abstinence and supporting Trump). Indeed, based on recent evidence, this huge freak is probably turned on by the worldwide derision directed at his private life.

Beyond Falwell himself, this excellent article in Slate, highlights the true significance of this sort of scandal.   Jeffrey Guhin (whose ideas I have liberally borrowed here) writes:

In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

Here is the real problem, acts like Falwell’s diminish our collective faith in other people.  That faith is the bedrock of religion (ask the Pontifex Maximus what happened to worship of Jupiter after a few centuries of Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabalus).  When devout Christians attack liberal professors, Hollywood movie stars, and atheist bloggers for destroying Christianity they are looking at the wrong villains.  The emperors of Pagan Rome had their unstoppable legions burn Christians to death in front of vast crowds and it only made Christianity stronger and more popular.  Christians who love the power of cruel smug bullies and the promised wealth of the idolatrous prosperity gospel are the real reason Christianity is declining in America.  Don’t take it from me, take it from peer-reviewed sociologists who carefully studied people who walked away from the house of Christ.

But even if you are not religious, faith in other people’s actions and motivations is also the basis of education, of government, and of the economy (Guhin correctly notes that money is just paper and computer numbers unless we believe in it).  Faith in other people is even necessary for evidence-based disciplines like science and medicine (we have seen how much modern medicine helps people if everyone regards doctors as the highly paid stooges of crooked insurance corporations).  Tobacco companies realized they could defang earnest anti-smoking studies by pointing to unrelated scientists whose research was funded by corporations and then just saying “everyone is equally bad”! Faith in other people is the bedrock of everything unless you are a lone hunter gatherer (in which case how are you reading this?).

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Day after day, I go to Facebook and look with bemused sadness at the posts of relatives and friends who are Trump supporters.  Far from feeling that this most un-Christian president’s ostentatious support of Christian values is a grotesque affront, they regard him as someone who “keeps it real”.  Trump’s penchant for doing illegal things and then insouciantly shrugging and say “everyone does it” is part of the way he gets away with it. Scandal and disillusion has left smart and caring people as cynics who believe that all politicians are crooked fraudsters.  Disillusionment prevents them from discerning which politicians are actually criminals.  It is another dark example of the cynical anti-government death spiral Republican leaders seem to be caught in (the enormous danger of turning citizens against the government was also the real thesis of my oh-so-long-ago 2016 endorsement). In the mean time our government (which needs to be doing lots of very complicated things to help our fellow citizens, ensure the nation’s defense, protect the world ecosystem, and secure a worthwhile future ) is left in the hands of ghoulish kleptocrats.

Anyway, all of this talk of outrageous hypocrites who pretend to be supremely holy when they are actually depraved, power-hungry leeches is wearing me out. Let’s tune into the Republican convention and see what Mike Pence has to say.

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Commencement at Liberty

Kindly accept my sincere apologies for not writing any posts last week!  It is late August, the last moment of proximate calm before the big election, and it seemed like an ideal moment to take some summer vacation (also I have had to keep on trucking to the office this whole time, so I needed some downtime).

Anyway, to get back to the affairs of the world, the 2020 United States presidential election is indeed coming up!  Unfortunately I find it completely enervating to write about the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump is a criminal, a con-artist, and a would-be-dictator.  Despite how eagerly he is embraced by Jerry Falwell Jr. and evangelical leaders of such ilk, Trump is no Christian at all: Trump’s true master is not Jesus but Vladimir Putin.  If you doubt it, just compare Trump’s (nonexistent) deference to Jesus to his (supine) deference to Putin. In New York it is widely speculated that the only way Donald Trump was able to borrow money after multiple high-profile bankruptcies was because the Russian mafia (which is, again, to say Vladimir Putin) backed exorbitant loans to Trump so that he would help them launder money through his crooked real estate empire.  So far Trump has successfully fought off all of the (somewhat feeble) attempts by investigators to get to the bottom of his financial relations with Russia, but the truth will eventually come out someday.  Since even the most dim Americans would probably (?) object somewhat to an American president who openly works for Russia only, Trump has confused the issue by attacking the concept that anything at all is knowable in any way.   Attacking knowledge itself (!) has had more severe ramifications than usual in this time of pestilence (although all of the other terrible harms which Trump has done the nation will become more obvious in time). All of which is to say nothing of Trump’s self-evident tyranny, cruelty, idiocy, sexism, mendacity, anti-environmentalism, racism, cronyism, nepotism, cowardly personal behavior, and unpleasant personal appearance.

And here is another problem: today I had meant to write about the Democratic National Convention (which was much more earnest, heartfelt, and effective than I had imagined it would be), however outrage over Trump has trumped my message of support for Biden. Trump derangement syndrome is not a real thing (there is no effective way for Americans of conscience to accept or even comprehend this corrupt oaf is indeed in the nation’s highest office where he is happily destroying everyone’s future), yet just beginning to look at Trump’s corruption  drowns out all other themes! It is yet another terrible emotional trap of these Trumpian times. My old anti-Trump posts were more thoughtful than today’s self defeating screed because everything hadn’t become Trump all of the time!

I promise I will write about the Democratic convention tomorrow.  It was an improvement on old-fashioned political conventions and I have a feeling we will be seeing more things like it, (even in a blessed Covid-free future).  In the mean time, perhaps it is necessary to begin coverage of election 2020 by denouncing the brazen & outlandish criminal who today sits at the Resolute desk. Joe Biden can and must beat him (otherwise the nation is going to break and a lot of us are headed off to concentration camps).  Tomorrow we will deliberately look away from the Walpurgisnacht rituals currently happening in Charlotte and talk about why a Biden/Harris victory will be a good thing even if we omit Donald Trump from the picture entirely.  Then we will get to work omitting Trump from the picture entirely.

After the horrible election of 2016, a friend of mine who is more sanguine about life  than I (and more effective at predicting what markets will do) opined that we don’t have to worry about Trump and the Republicans.  “Trump is like the pied piper leading Republicans into a crack in the mountain” my friend said. “The fact that he won, merely means that they are truly following him all the way into the unseelie darkness before the crack slams shut and vanishes.”

And yet I wonder if Trump hasn’t already taken all of us into the darkness already.  The Democratic convention gave me a moment of hope that there are still some people and things which won’t be destroyed by Trump’s final act. We will talk about it tomorrow.

 

The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

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Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

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In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

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It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

H-140-42 Hura crepitans

Today let us appreciate a fearsome tree! The Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) is a native of the spurge family (like poinsettias and baseball plants). However the Sandbox tree is not a tiny houseplant: it can grow to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and has majestic oval leaves that measure 60 centimeters (2 feet) across.  The tree originated in the super competitive biome of the Amazon rainforest, but it has been spreading North through tropical Central America, and invasive colonies have a foothold in tropical East Africa.

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The bark of the sandbox tree

Perhaps the somewhat  anodyne name “sandbox tree” has you picturing a lovable tree for a children’s nursery or something.  Dispel that rosy picture from your mind!  Hura crepitans is a monster plant in every way.  Not only is it 60 meters tall,  its trunk is covered in enormous sharpened spines which would make a Clive Barker villain cry.  If you hack through the spines to injure the tree, the sap turns out to be a milky caustic poison which has been used by indigenous hunters to tip arrows and (allegedly) to kill fish.  The tree grows a fruit which looks like a vile pumpkin made of hardwood.  These jabillo fruit are toxic, but they are not meant to beguile animals into devouring the seeds anyway.  Instead they explode like hand grenades causing a raucous bang and throwing seeds 50 meters (150 feet) from the tree.

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So why is this giant, spiny, exploding, poisonous tree called the sandbox tree anyway? We don’t call rhinoceroses “playground ponies”.  It feels like there has been a substantial nomenclatural failure here (at least in terms of the English common name).  As it turns out, during the 19th century, the symmetrical green jabillo pods were harvested, dried out, and sawed into little dishes which were filled with pounce.  Pounce is powder made of pulverized cuttlefish bone which was sprinkled on crude paper of yesteryear to size it (i.e. to make it possible to write on) or to dry the heavy ink lines from nibs and quills.  Wow! It is easy to forget that people of yesteryear were as freakish in repurposing natural materials into household items as we are with our endless disposable plastic goods.

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It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

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Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

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The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

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Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

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Parasite Flounder

Larval Flounder with Parasite (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and colored pencil on paper

The strictures of the world’s new routine have allowed me to finish coloring/inking an ocean-themed drawing I have been working on.  Unfortunately, no matter how I adjust the darkness and the contrast, I can’t get it to look like it does in the real world, so I am afraid that you will have to accept this frustrating digital simulacra (aka the jpeg above).

Broadly speaking, this series of flatfish artwork concern the anthropogenic crisis facing Earth life (particularly life in the oceans, which most people tend to overlook and undervalue), however they are not meant as simple political polemics.  Hopefully, these artworks reflect the ambiguous relationships within life’s innumerable intersecting webs of symbiosis, predation, and parasitism.

Humankind appears directly in this artwork–but symbolically rendered as sea creatures so that we can contemplate our nature at a level of remove.  From left to right, one of these merpeople is the host of a big arrow crab which seems to have stolen his mind (in the manner of a cunning paper octopus hijacking a jellyfish).  The larval flounder is itself being ridden (and skeletonized) by a great hungry caterpillar man thing which has sunk its claw legs deep into the bone.  A lovely merlady plucks away a parasitic frond from a cookie-cutter shark as a shrimpman hunts and a chickenman stands baffled on the ocean bottom.

As we learn more about life we learn how it melds together, works in tandem, and jumps unexpectedly from species to species, or speciates into new forms. I wish I could describe this better, since to my comprehension it seems like the closest thing to a numinous truth we are likely to encounter in a world where gods are made up.  I have abandoned essays to try to portray the sacred and profane ways that lifeforms come together with art.  Let me know what you think, and I will see if I can scan it better.

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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