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When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire. It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations. We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III. The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.
Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment. It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous). Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:
Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.
It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).
Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone. This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it. His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans. To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are. What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses. Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.
I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype. In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is. In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google. Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217. By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?). It already doesn’t make sense!
As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”. Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle. Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention. The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble. And where does that leave us?
It was another killer week, so it’s time for a lazy lazy post which beguiles the brain with pseudo content (and allows the gentle blogger to feed his cat, draw his flounders, and go to bed almost on time). And yet, some commenters say the most terrible truths shine forth from the simplest entries…
Behold a gallery of animated gif crowns. Each sparkles like brilliant jewels however each is actually worthless–a shiny bauble to distract your attention. They are not gold or precious metal: they are made of bits and bytes in cyberspace. And despite that, somehow here we are looking at them.
Crowns really have no place in modern life at all. They come from a different era when we worshiped loud ostentatious leaders who dazzled people with purloined riches or tortured the ones who did not bend their knees. We want no kings or queens any more…especially not in America. It is a bad idea…which somehow keeps on lingering in our collective consciousness. When I looked for animated crowns online, there were so very many. Terry Pratchett once wrote… “It was as if even the most intelligent person had this little blank spot in their heads where someone had written: ‘Kings. What a good idea.’ Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw.”
See how they glisten and do the same thing over and over! Contemplate their emptiness and vainglory. There is so much hollow content on the web–pure junk which is just meant to aggrandize someone else… This last one seems almost like a fool’s hat.
It is January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of Donald John Trump, casino magnate, television personality, and media provocateur as 45th President of the United States of America. Now, bad presidents come and go. The country has had plenty of liars, knuckleheads, perverts, and even a life dictator in the highest office (the life dictator actually turned out to be pretty ok, but we made sure to change the rules as soon as he was dead). Yet Trump strikes me as something special.
From now until when he keels over dead, the papers are going to be chock full of Trump’s bloviations, crimes, vulgarities, enormities, and attention-seeking behaviors (I am not sure if Trump will seize permanent hold of the presidency, if mortality will catch him before four years are up, or if he will go on to bigger better things, but I am absolutely sure we are going to hear about everything he does until he moves on to the great reality show hereafter). This success at attention seeking is the greatest source of Trump’s power. It is how he has built a cult of personality unrivaled by all but our greatest presidents (who were honorable enough to turn their backs on such dangerous and undemocratic personal style). Trump knows that outrage and hate are just as good for his aims as praise. All of the anti-Trump editorials and essays have helped him. He has discovered that fame in contemporary America is like absolute value in mathematics: it doesn’t matter whether it is negative or positive.
Therefor I am going to avoid hating further on the Donald. It only helps him. I am going to confront his personality cult indirectly by comparing him to the thing that interests me the most, but which Trump would least like to be—me! a broke nobody artist. I will look at Donald Trump as a human and see if we have anything in common.
I had this idea when I was at the Duane Reade downstairs at the Trump building at 40 Wall Street, Trump’s downtown office (which is next to the title insurance office where I work as a sad little clerk during the day). Duane Reade posts all of its prices in terms of what you would pay if you had a Duane Reade discount card (which is probably actually a vector for Duane Reade to sell all of your information to insurance companies and drug companies). Without this horrible card, everything rings up for 20% to 30% more than you expect to pay.
At the beginning of the presidential campaign, when Trump was merely one of many improbable Republican candidates, one of my colleagues ran into him shopping at Duane Reade. Trump was by himself buying an armful of hair spray (honest!), and was nice enough to take a picture with my coworker. The other day, as I paid 20% extra for my gummy bears and salve, I wondered if Trump has one of these awful cards for his hairspray, or if he too must suffer the same frustration when his goods all cost more than they are marked.
It made me think of him differently—not as a dictator come to crush America, nor as a gold-orange idol on tv, but as an actual person, and from there, in a rush I realized we share much more than I would like to admit.
Donald Trump and I both came from successful WASP families. Instead of being merchants and businesspeople, my family are scientists and administrators. But both groups made their way up by working hard.
Trump and I both went to similar colleges: The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago. We are both tall and goofy looking and we both make our money in the same business—real estate– although we could not be at more different places on the ladder (and Trump has recently left for public service).
From there the similarities become more disturbing. We both have a history of failed businesses that have left us with deep scars. We are both straight but can’t seem to make relationships last. Trump and I love New York City unconditionally (even though the city doesn’t seem to love us back). Each is secretly anxious that he is not actually good enough and so desperate to appear smart that he seems foolish… each is a rather silly man who is terribly, terribly worried about what people think of him.
I hope you kin that the point of this is not that Trump and I are a lot alike (I actually think we are profoundly different). The point is we need to stop concentrating on him as a unique personality and start looking at him as another politician. And we need to stop letting him get our goat.
Trump scares me and being scared makes people do stupid things. I have been so angry when I looked at self-satisfied or annoying posts on Facebook, that I felt like breaking off my social interactions with people I grew up with. I have come terribly close to angrily denouncing everyone in rural America as “deplorables” and swearing off West Virginia. More often than I would care to admit, Trump has filled my heart with blinding rage
My family has a dark saying. It is counter intuitive (and probably stolen from a ballad or a fifties tv show), but it turns out to be disconcertingly true: “You become what you hate”. You see it everywhere: social justice advocates who hate people for the circumstances of their birth, or folks who imagine all of some different sort of people are racists. Look at Trump’s die-hard followers who lambast city dwellers for being selfish and self-satisfied! Look at allegedly egalitarian city dwellers making fun of people for poverty and a lack of educational opportunities!
If we go down the path we are on, we are ALL going to be more like Trump than we ever want to be. We will not have his wealth or his facile ability to manipulate people by appealing to their greed. We will instead have his talent for sewing discord, ruining things, and bringing hatred and fear to the United States with hyperbole and bad ideas. By being afraid and despising him with our whole hearts we will make our fears come true. We will start to hate our friends and neighbors. Look into your heart and ask how you are already like the president. I have a feeling you will find more points of comparison than you will be comfortable with.
Donald Trump has not even been president a whole day and he has already divided the country further than any time since the Civil War. Eris is stealing the crown of liberty in America. The solution is not to concentrate on how hateful he is personally. The solution is to talk about how we can cooperate to actually get things working and make of our dreams come true. Billionaires don’t dream of killing little kids on the street. Coal miners don’t want the world to cook and choke. Even Donald Trump loves his family and wants a world where his grandkids can grow up safe and healthy (to someday bate the press in their own ways). We are all more similar than we would like to admit. But that shouldn’t be a shameful admission. It should make us stronger, smarter, and kinder.
I colored a flounder drawing I made last Halloween with watercolor and colored pencils. This is “The Sole and the Souls” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper). It features a sole covered with parti-colored fungi swimming through a Roman cemetery of late antiquity. I think those might be Charun’s snakes in the sky (and his servitor dragging the gladiator into the darkness).
Our week of dark art continues apace…hopefully you aren’t too overwhelmed by the vistas of beauty and horror…yet…MWAHAHA… Today we feature an image from a living artist, Santiago Caruso, an Argentine illustrator who is well-known for creating unique artworks for horror literature. Gustave Doré and Alfred Kubin have passed on their great reward, but Santiago is very much in the world of the living, so I am just going to post the one sample image above and recommend that you look him up or, better yet, go to his web gallery (so he gets the traffic for himself). The picture above shows the mind as a haunted cabinet of curiosities–a conceit which appeals to me greatly. Among the oddities on display are a cornucopia, a snake skeleton, and a twisted dark duck, but clearly there is more in the cabinet…and more which might be in the cabinet. The Latin epigram is from the great dark masterpiece of silver-aged Roman literature The Golden Ass. Roughly translated, it says “That which nobody knows about almost did not happen.” It makes one wonder what skeletons are in this ghastly closet (as though that was not already the foremost thought in everyone’s head as our ghastly election enters the homestretch). Go check out Santiago’s other work (although some of it is pretty NSFW) and think about the strange curiosities in your mental cabinet…if you dare…MWAHAHAHA.
When I was a five-year old child, my whole family went on a trip out west. We traveled from Utah up through Wyoming, Boulder, and Idaho. My parents rented a big taupe car, but my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin all had trucks with campers (my cousin even had a CB radio!). It was amazing fun and the undiluted beauty of the mountains and the joy of family time made up for the long days of being trapped in a car with leg cramps from running up and down said mountains. Many are the storied adventures we had…and the western legends have grown in the telling. A particular favorite is the tale of how my grandfather and my uncle obtained a special blacklight so they could spot uranium ore (which was at a great premium in the seventies). They turned the light on in some forsaken midnight desert and not only did they discover a shocking number of scorpions EVERYWHERE, they also found huge mounds of uranium ore in immense abundance—a multi-million dollar strike! But when they picked up the precious ore it was soft and friable, and when they fumbled their flashlights on, it turned out to be cow manure covered with a fungus that glows under black light….
At any rate, among all of these travel yarns, a story shines out in my mind as being unusually important. Sadly the story paints me as a callow & greedy brat, but it is still worth recounting, because of the tremendous lesson embedded in it like a razorblade in a mallomar. My great grandmother was traveling with us on the trip. She would switch between vehicles and share her stories of the days before airplanes, motorcar, great wars, or radios. It was wonderful to have her with us and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to know her and hear her stories, however some of her folk traditions caused…trouble…when I attempted to apply their mythical wisdom to the real world.
For example: we were camped in some paradisiacal glade in Wyoming, when I found a winsome wildflower with little golden anthers (in my memory, this flower looks like a cross between a mimulus and a columbine, but who can say what it really was) and I rashly picked one for grandma. She was delighted by it and she said, “if you leave these out overnight, the fairies will turn them to gold” Just what I would have done with whole bushels of gold was somewhat unclear, but I was a tourist out west where every little tourist-trap is all about GOLD, plus I had some heady ideas from old-fashioned chivalric tales of dragons, knights, and kings.
I began making an altar of flower heads, when my mother, a modern woman with an abiding love for nature (and for rules) found me decapitating unknown wildflowers in a park in order to transmute them to gold via fairy magic. This was the beginning of a stringent & powerful LESSON concerning (A) the nature of endangered plants, (B) wise environmental stewardship, and (C) national park rules. I tried to interrupt the flow of the moral lecture with the puissant rejoinder that “Great Grandma says the fairies will transform them into gold!” However this did not have the desired effect. In fact, in addition to learning about wildflowers in national parks, I also learned that (D) the mythical wisdom of beloved superannuated ancestors does not overrule parental fiat (or park rules). Not at all.
Of course there is only one truly ironclad rule in life, which all other things must pay obeisance to…and that is the primacy of what actually happens. I assumed that after that long-ago summer night had passed I would have a great rock heaped with gold which would convince my mother that she was wrong and great grandma and I were right. However, sadly, in the pink dawn light when I went out to my flat mudstone to look at the gold (maybe I would share some with my parents so they could see how foolish they had been) all that was there were a bunch of mangled wildflowers which I had mutilated with my lust for gold. Come to think of it, this was a real lesson about world history too, I guess. Anyway it was obvious that dealing with the fairies is tricksy. Dealing with reality is inexorable. I killed a bunch of potentially endangered wildflowers for a pretty lie. I felt so ashamed. I still do.
After the fairy gold incident, the other supernatural entities in my life started to fall like big jeweled fabulated dominoes. The Easter Bunny was always pretty suspicious anyway—a magic rabbit who hands out chocolate malt balls (a confection which my mom and nobody else likes)? Soon he was gone, never to hop back. I learned to read, and I read up on UFOs and monsters: it became perfectly obvious to a second grader that they were all hallucinations of stressed or otherwise addled people. It wasn’t long before Santa himself, the great undead demigod of winter and giving was exposed…well, not as a fraud (I still have some of his wonderful toys) but certainly not exactly real in the way that you and I are, gentle reader. All that was left was the big bearded guys–the sort who flout the temple rules of the Pharisees or build allegorical gardens with forbidden trees–and the curiosity of adolescence (and knowledge of astronomy, biology, and history) put an end to them except as symbols. It’s a humorous story…but it isn’t so funny when I see my roommate wishing away her life on horoscopes and homeopathy or look at the NY Times and catch a glimpse of what ISIL is up to.
Everywhere, still, I find people who believe in the fairy gold despite the irrefutable evidence of the dawn. I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid somebody would push a wildflower towards extinction so they can make their car payments. What are we going to do? How are we going to make our way to Venus (or anywhere other than extinction) in a world where fairy gold is still so much in circulation, even if nobody has ever seen a single speck?
It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics. This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet). Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes: instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse. Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump. Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention. If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.
But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed. It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….
Except of course we don’t really long for such things. Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now. The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate! Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants! Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!” This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy. It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.
I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child. I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then. It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other. Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle. This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).
Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem. It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad. Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.
The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past. But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.
I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump. He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids. It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature. Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning. It is not because he is a winner.
So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.
You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok. Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true. Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty. The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too). Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.
Or all of the above
We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.
Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself). For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly. The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood. A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.
Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety. Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day). Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish. Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth. When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib. Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands. This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art. It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology. Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes:
Furnace Edifice (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
Here are two more funny drawings from my little book. The first is a drawing from February, when I can never get warm enough. A strange furnace edifice of ovens and stoves chugs away: its fires produce delightful heat. Two monsters have come to bask in the warmth (maybe the anglerfish is part of the mechanism for fueling the array). At the top an attendant pours water onto the furnaces to produce great clouds of steam. I am not sure if this is about cleanliness or energy or entrapment…or maybe all three.
The Cave Beneath the Icing (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
In the next picture a glistening pink temple made of melting pink icing glistens above a purple cavern. In the depths of the cavern an addict grovels for drugs and medicine as an anglerfish lures him further down into the darkness. A glistening glazed doughnut sits in the middle of the composition as an avatar of appetite. Is this picture about illicit drugs or about legitimate medicine or about money? Does it matter?