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Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

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Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

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Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

Not only is this World ocean Week, but it turns out today is National Doughnut Day!  What a week…

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Pancreatic Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015), Oil on Panel

Before I was a dedicated flounderist, the dominant subject matter of my painting was doughnuts (I felt that the torus shape represented the universe/infinity, while the tiny size and sugariness of the confection made it a perfect representation of the hedonic nature of human aspirations).  Like all artists who change direction, I still have a few doughnut paintings I need to finish up.  Who knows what will happen to them? It is unclear if they will ever be finished…

However, I also have some finished paintings which I never showed anywhere or did anything with: they just hang around on my walls perplexing me.  To celebrate National Doughnut Day, kindly allow me to present one of my favorite of these previous generation paintings.  This is “Pancreatic Doughnut” which I painted in 2015.  There is a sugary sprinkled doughnut, a cherry-dip ice cream cone, and a strip of super-fatty bacon (which is glistening with blobs of oil just like a real strip of bacon).  These problematically sugary items are joined by a sinister bottle of rum and an alcohol molecule which looks like a friendly corgi but is definitely something more problematic.

The real thrust of the painting is found in the Congolese Mangbetu knife…a sinister hook which is about to plunge directly into the diseased pancreas in the bottom right corner of the picture.  Yet all is not lost.  Above the pancreas, an axolotl floats serenely like a translucent white angel.  Axolotls seem to possess the secret of regeneration.  Perhaps the grim effects of all of that metabolic damage and gastroenterologic mayhem could be undone…if only we could focus our efforts and our research on the right things instead of desperately trying to trap each other with addictive fixations.  It’s a dream of course, but thus do all great things begin.

Happy National Doughnut Day!

 

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My uncle and my mother have a long-standing (and enormously frustrating) argument which is useful to revisit because it reflects a circle which the rest of the nation is trapped in. My uncle always says “The government is corrupt and wishes to control the market in unfair ways! We need to diminish the role of government so that people are free to pursue business opportunities and live a life of super-awesome freedom!” My mother says, “business concerns subaltern the government in ways which individuals are ill-equipped to understand or to counter.”  Then there is eristic back-and-forth about the market versus the state. Sometimes this is followed by interesting talk of K-Street lobbyists, environmental regulations, defense contracts, monopolies, and what have you. However, in the current political age it is more usually devolves completely (indeed, I am not even sure they are talking to each other in the era of Trump).

The argument frustrates me because I am not sure it should be an argument.  My uncle is narrowly right: the government is indeed unresponsive to obvious and pressing societal needs…but only because it has been captured by special moneyed interests with deeeeeeeeeeeeeep pockets.  The forces of monopoly and market capture are equipped with an infinite ocean of dark money, a bunch of anonymous Caimen Island LLCs (or is it supposed to be Cayman?), and armies of Ivy League lobbyists & attorneys.  They can easily spend all day, every day writing complicated legislation and explaining it to their favorite legislators (who also take campaign money and aid from the same anonymous backers).

I suppose another way to say this is: I agree with my mother. The government has been subject to regulatory capture at just about every level. Small businesses or individuals look to it for succor against the depredations or excesses of big business. Yet when the regulations come out, they are revealed to favor large corporations or influential insiders. This is often accomplished with rules which sound outwardly appealing but are actually fiendishly designed to destroy small competitors or diminish the common good.

I can already feel some of the audience getting bored or frustrated with this abstruse language so let me provide a couple of examples.  Back when I was a toymaker (circa 2007), the world’s largest toy companies were making unsafe toys in China.  Mattel and Learning Curve were particularly at fault.  These giants pressured their Chinese suppliers to make toys ever more cheaply and then turned a blind eye as to how this was accomplished (with lots of lead paint, as it turns out).  When the big companies were caught selling lead toys, my business partner and I thought the scandal would help smaller companies like us.

How wrong we were! The large toy companies blamed the Chinese manufacturers (who were doing what they were told to do) and then came forward with their own proposed consumer protection legislation.  Not only did the new rules mandate that each factory-run of toys would be extensively tested for lead and other hazardous materials, but the legislation also immediately phased out certain plasticizing chemicals.  This “industry-supported” legislation became the backbone of the consumer product safety act of 2008 and it was ruinous to small companies.   Fully testing a factory-run of toys cost about $15,000.00.  For Mattel a factory run is millions of units and $15k was negligible.  For small companies, a factory run was much smaller and $15k was most of the profit margin.  Additionally, the legislation allowed no time to sell through existing toys made with the old plasticizing compound.  The big companies knew the legislation was coming (having written it) and they used a different (although equally problematic) chemical.  Small companies were prohibited from selling their products.  Child safety advocates were delighted with the new rules.  The big toy companies used a scandal they created through unsafe acts to drive small companies under and to claim the (undeserved) moral high ground.

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My mother worked for the Department of Defense doing environmental clean-up and restoration and she saw different sorts of tactics.   The DOD used to have vast tracts of land under its control.  Often this was desirable land.

Real estate developers (or their dupes) would show up and say “The Defense Department is polluting such-and-such beautiful coastal rain forest!  They need to clean it up at full taxpayer expense!” As soon as this was done (at enormous cost), the base would be decommissioned.  The land would be turned over to cronies and crooked developers who would cut down the forest and sell the timber.  Then they would build shoddy (yet expensive) subdivisions and a tacky resort.  There would thereafter be no rainforest, polluted or otherwise.

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Vieques Island Resort, Puerto Rico

These private sector tricks can be understood and explained, but it takes time, resources and clever people.  Additionally the monopolists and insiders are running their own splashy PR campaigns which are perfectly tailored to appeal to voters and non-specialists who don’t necessarily have the time, bandwidth, or inclination to understand all of the complicated details of what is going on.

The current presidential administration is such a naked smash-and-grab by private interests that some of these tactics aren’t even necessary anymore. Yet regulatory capture is always out there–it is a form of corruption which we all need to guard against.  I suppose what frustrates me about my uncle’s argument is that it rewards the real malefactors (the vested interests) by blaming the government.  The government should represent all of us, but it is made into a sad puppet by clever oligarchs.  They are the true malefactors!

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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April is poetry month! Poetry allows us to say afresh things which need to be said (but which are not being heard properly because of popular conventions or dark political malfeasance).  Yet once these truths are framed in sacred beautiful language and hung up in the great library of human endeavor, they take on an enduring character which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the past can no longer suppress (and which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the present do not understand).

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Portrait of Swinburne (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861) Watercolor, chalk, pencil on paper

For example, here is a short poem by Alernon Charles Swinburne, a sort of half-forgotten poet who was so exceedingly popular during the Victorian era that his work was set aside during the subsequent anti-Victorian backlash (which seems like a pity, since his poetry is lyrical and beautiful…and has a haunting & desolate sadness beneath all of its rich, fulsome opulence).

Swinburne was fascinated by Christianity and by the great Christian art and literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Yet a comprehensive reading of his poems makes it fairly clear that he himself was not devout.  He harbored particular reservations about the afterlife and his sophisticated contemporaries saw him as a sort of “poet laureate of atheism.”  Despite this (or…because of it?) Swinburne wrote a poem about Christian persecution as anathema to Jesus.  The poem was not about persecution of Christians, but persecution by Christians.  Here it is:

On the Russian Persecution of the Jews

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

O SON of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
in carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant’s horde,
Brute worshipers or wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even that ever called thee Lord;
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine,
Run ravening as the Gadarene swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?

Written in 1882, the poem is addressed to the “Son of Man,” which is Christ’s appellation in the gospels.  Swinburne describes the savagery of contemporary Christians and poignantly asks whether the cruelty of Jesus’ followers towards Jews, foreigners, and outsiders would hurt Christ more than the physical agony of the passion.  Since the apotheosis of compassion was the exact point of Christ’s ministry and his death, the answer is clearly a resounding yes. However, the poet (and, implicitly, his sophisticated reader) both recognize that contemporary Christians often overlook the meaning of Christ’s words and actions in their zeal to attain a piece of some imaginary paradise.

The poem is aimed directly at Russian Orthodox Christians, who were indeed guilty of terrible pogroms against the great Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement. Since Russia was the hated national adversary of late Victorian England, the message would be roundly appreciated by Swinburne’s readers. Yet the poet perhaps casts a wider net upon the lord’s flock than it initially seems. The poem’s title aside, these lying tongues, slaughterous hands, and profane precants could almost be found anywhere in Christendom.  Perhaps the eagerness of the reader to attribute such sins to other Christians is its own clue. Did not Christ ask his followers “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

And like all great poetry, the message is hardly trapped within its time.  A clear-sighted observer might be able to look at any Christian period or any puffed-up sanctimoniously “Christian” nation and find terrible cruelty to Jews and foreigners enacted by zealots incapable of grasping the fundamental message of the gospels.  Such acts could even be encouraged by self-interested czars who not-very-convincingly pretend to be Christian!  Great art lives in timeless modernity after all.

At any rate, I will leave you, dear reader, to contemplate Swinburne’s real meaning on your own (maybe after you peruse the news of the day).  Oh, also the Gadarene swine were the herd of pigs which Christ cast the demons into as recounted in Matthew 8:28-34. It is worth remembering that the Gadarenes begged Jesus to leave after the incident…as though they preferred money and security to the actual Son of God! Shocking!

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I haven’t written very much about the current state of politics lately, not just because President Trump makes me angry & unhappy, but also because the deadlock in Washington (and precipitous national decline) make me sad and anxious.  I would like to continue this precedent:  paying breathless attention to all of Trump’s stunts and bullying just make him stronger (although I do think it is worth noting that he has been signing Bibles as though he were the author–and his devout Christian followers absolutely love it!). However, the latest enormities fall in the realm of policy and planning, so let’s take a look at the proposed 2020 Discretionary budget which was released by the White House yesterday. Predictably, this budget delivers slight funding increases to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, while stripping safety net and environmental programs fairly drastically.  I suppose this is not unexpected under any Republican president, even one such as this one, (although it raises eyebrows after the colossal tax giveaway to the rich).  However, what truly raises eyebrows in the budget are the appalling cuts to scientific and medical research.  Here are the actual numbers:

Proposed Discretionary Budget Changes

All dollar amounts are in billions.

Department Or Agency
2019 Budget (Estimate)
2020 Request
$ change
% change
Defense1 $685.0 $718.3 $33.4 +5%
Veterans Affairs $86.6 $93.1 $6.5 +8%
Health and Human Services $101.7 $89.6 -$12.1 -12%
Education $70.5 $62.0 -$8.5 -12%
Homeland Security $48.1 $51.7 $3.6 +7%
Housing and Urban Development
HUD gross total (excluding receipts) $52.7 $44.1 -$8.6 -16%
HUD receipts -$9.3 -$6.5 $2.8 -30%
State Department and other international programs2 $55.8 $42.8 -$13.0 -23%
Energy $35.5 $31.7 -$3.8 -11%
National Nuclear Security Administration $15.1 $16.5 $1.3 9%
Other Energy $20.4 $15.2 -$5.2 -25%
NASA $20.7 $21.0 $0.3 +1%
Justice $29.9 $29.2 -$0.7 -2%
Agriculture $24.4 $20.8 -$3.6 -15%
Interior $14.0 $12.5 -$1.5 -11%
Commerce3 $12.3 $12.3 * <1%
Labor $12.1 $10.9 -$1.2 -10%
Transportation $27.3 $21.4 -$5.9 -22%
Treasury $12.9 $13.1 $0.2 +2%
National Science Foundation $7.8 $7.1 -$0.7 -9%
Environmental Protection Agency $8.8 $6.1 -$2.8 -31%
Army Corps of Engineers $7.0 $4.8 -$2.2 -31%
Small Business Administration $0.7 $0.7 * -5%
Other agencies $21.3 $19.1 -$2.1 -10%

Notes

* $50 million or less
1. Includes $9.2 billion for emergency border security and hurricane recovery funding
2. Includes funding for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury international programs and 12 international agencies
3. Appropriations for 2019 are incomplete.

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America loves Marie Kondo, a self-help author and lifestyle guru who has exploited people’s insecurities (and our culture’s dark codependent relationship with disposable consumer goods) in order to become enormously rich.  If you have somehow missed the fuss about Kondo, she wrote a book called “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, which is typical cultish self-help waffle about how you should throw all of your things away, paint your walls white, and fold your few remaining textiles with chilling robotic precision.  Kondo has leveraged her success into a “brand” and now appears on Netflix, going through people’s lives and discarding everything that does not “spark joy.” In one recent episode, she caused great anxiety to intellectuals and bibliophiles when she applied her methodology to book collections. In her worldview, unread books should be discarded, as should books which you wish to read again, but are not presently reading. Kondo said that her ideal library was, at most, thirty books.  If there are parts of a book you love, you should cut out the relevant pages and throw away the rest (although it seems this may have been an experimental Kondo methodology which didn’t work out even for her).

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As you can imagine, these ridiculous & harmful ideas have caused book-lovers (and idea-lovers) to become apoplectic.  The history of people who destroy books or encourage their elimination is not very splendid or happy. It is hard not to elide Kondo’s claptrap with some of these sad episodes. Fortunately for Kondo, there are few intellectuals and booklovers in contemporary society, but there are legions of people who are angry in one way or another about identity politics. To the eyes of these Kondo apologists, the scholars and bibliophiles spluttering indignantly about the importance of books or whatever are racists who are lashing out at a successful Asian-American woman because of her wealth and influence.  As with everything in America in 2019, the entire episode has made everyone furious and left all parties looking bad.

In Kondo’s defense, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to create new material every day.  If you are forced to continuously churn stuff out, sometimes your material is not always terribly good. It is all too easy to say or do stupid things.  That is one of the reasons we throw things away. Indeed, I haven’t watched the offending episode, but have only read about it.  Maybe she was tossing out shelves of Dilbert cartoon books, Ayn Rand novels, or 1850s books about the glories of colonialism and slavery.  Since the show is about people appealing to her for help, she might have been throwing away hundreds of tendentious self-help books!

Also to her credit, Kondo identifies the information inside the book as the important part, and admonishes us not to idolatrously love unread books for their own sake or use them as props.

But, and this is the critical part: it is unclear how one would ever extract this knowledge if they discarded the book before reading it.  The things that “spark joy” in my life right now are different from the ones that will spark joy in my life a year from now.  When I was growing up, my parents had mysterious and compelling shelves of books from their college days.  Every day I walked past the diseased eye on the cover of Camus’ “The Plague” and wondered what was going on in that book.  Looking at the troubling dissection on “Gray’s Anatomy”, the dandy on “Vanity Fair”, the strange Van der Weyden portrait on “Masterpieces of the National Gallery” and the magnificent sperm whale on “Moby Dick” made me curious about the contents of those books too.  Sometimes I would pick them up and try to understand them.  Eventually I picked them up and read them.  If my parents had thrown those books away, maybe I would have found them later and read them on my own, or maybe not.  Maybe I never would have become as interested in reading to begin with.

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Also, books are our cultural heritage.  “Moby Dick” was universally unloved when it first came out in 1851.  It took 70 years before it found success.  What if 1890s Marie Kondo (I am sure there was an analogous busybody) had come along and thrown away the copy that caused a critic to love it and rescue it from obscurity.  Books are not knick-knacks or ill-used toiletries, they are bigger and have bigger meanings which are not immediately evident. Kondo seemingly fails to understand or acknowledge this.  Also I love books! Imagine if some third party went into Marie Kondo’s life and started throwing away the things she cares about most (dollars & followers) until she only had thirty of each left: I bet she would be pretty dissatisfied.

Beyond these obvious and cursory points about the nature of writing and thinking, Kondo’s insistence on shoveling this tripe into our face right now so she can become richer and more important speaks to the nature of now (when every business is busy making shortsighted decisions in order to maximize profits and our leaders are clinging to power even if it causes the republic to founder.).  Her unwise advice also increases our country’s dangerous love affair with anti-intellectualism, a perennial scourge, which, in the Trump era, is becoming a threat to the continued existence of the nation.

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I have been meaning to write about Kondo as part of a larger polemic against minimalism (an undying aesthetic movement from the 21st century which is not just ugly, but which is morally injuring us).  However, the fact that Marie Kondo is apparently openly attacking knowledge itself, temporarily derailed my anti-minimalist essay.  We need to defend literature and the accumulated knowledge of humankind against the ridiculous menace of the gentle Japanese art of throwing everything away (or whatever this crap is called).  Don’t worry though, I haven’t forgotten my original point and we will get to minimalism and oversimplification tomorrow some time next week. Events on the ground complicated my plans (because the world is complicated and not simple).

 

Disturbing news from the world of workplace safety.  Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old Canadian sculptor, has been suffering from worsening pain, splitting headaches, and nausea for nearly a decade and a half.  She visited a range of specialized neurologists and endocrinologists, but none of them could pinpoint the nature of her malady which grew worse to the point that she was immobilized and suffered complete loss of hearing in one ear.  She was unable to distinguish up from down, forgot the names and faces of people, she knew her whole life, and discovered herself wandering the streets for no reason shouting profanities.   The doctors suspected heavy-metal poisoning, but Genser vehemently insisted that her materials were all natural.

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If you are an artist yourself, you are probably shouting—but this is clearly heavy metal poisoning!  And you are right: Genser finally was diagnosed with acute arsenic and lead poisoning after one of her physicians insisted on a blood test.  Yet Genser was not a painter (like me, sigh) nor did she cast in metals or use exotic glazes and stains.  Her only materials were silver and mussel shells which she polished agonizingly by hand.

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She obtained the blue mussels from a market in Toronto’s Chinatown and ate the mollusks with friends.  She then used the shells for her larger than life anatomical sculpture of Adam, the mythical first human from the Abrahamic faiths.  Sadly, whoever was providing the shellfish was obtaining them from water which was heavily polluted.  Mussels store metals in their shells, and Genser’s polishing, sanding, and shaping freed the trapped pollutants into dust which she inhaled (although eating 3 meals a week of mussel flesh probably didn’t help either).  The story is even more troubling when one reflects that blue mussels are an Atlantic shellfish and Toronto is at least 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the waves.

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Hey! Has anyone noticed that Toronto is apparently right next to New York State? Where were these mussels from anyway?

The moral here in not “don’t be an artist” or “don’t eat mussels” (although, come to think of it, those are extremely plausible lessons).  Instead everyone needs to be careful in the modern world to watch out for hazardous materials which proliferate in unexpected ways from novel sources.  Of course, this is hardly a soothing message since most of us are not chemists (much less endocrinologists) and it looks like even those experts can’t always see where problems are coming from.  Maybe the real lesson is that humankind’s vast numbers and sophisticated industrial society are fundamentally inimical to the web of life which sustains us.  Actually, that is an even less comfortable message…but, well, I am not a politician here to sooth you with lies.  We have learned how to protect ourselves from the natural world.  Now we are going to have to learn (quickly) how to protect the natural world from ourselves.

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Anyway, let’s take a look at the sculpture that caused such suffering for Genser (see the photos above from the artist).  It looks like the metal-poisoning started to fundamentally work its way into the sculpture itself—in terms of conception, execution, AND material (obviously).  Yet there is something oddly appropriate about the subject matter (Adam’s choices, after all, are a metaphor for humankind’s great metamorphosis from hunter-gathering beings to civilization-building farmers and crafters).  The dark armless statue with the alien face and the black glistening muscles and nacreous organs, seems to be a sort of manifestation of heavy metal poisoning.  The whole 15 year project has inadvertently become a performance piece about the pain of the world (just think of those poor mussels which can’t even move to escape their poisoned home waters).  I hope that the short-lived media burst helps Genser’s career, but I also hope she switches media as soon as possible.  While we are making wishes, let’s express some really heartfelt aspirations to be better stewards of the oceans.  They are the cradle of life…yet they are being sadly abused.

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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

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Every night, in my dreams, I watch the world die.  After a long absence, I have returned to find that the life-giving systems which recycle waste back into useable nutrients have failed. My friends are dead, reduced to grotesque rotting skeletons and mouldering lumps, except for a few last survivors who are barely hanging on to an attenuated half-life of hunger and shallow comatose breaths.  I desperately rush to help: I turn on machines to clean away the toxic miasma.  I ply the dying victims with food and oxygen… but the microbial ecosystems upon which everything depend are mortally degraded.  My last friends are too far gone, and they expire painfully while I watch powerless.  What is left is dead world of complete desolation.  The precious seed of life has failed and I know that I am the author of this annihilation.

This is all true. I have such dreams all the time and they torment me more than you can know.  My art and writing—my entire life quest flows from these nightly horrors.  Worst of all, these dreams are based on true experiences from my childhood which color every news article I read.  Every opinion I hear about humankind, the world, and the fate of all living things is overshadowed by these prophetic nightmares. However, before you call the men with big white nets, there is a critical twist which I must share with you. In these dreams, everyone is a fish and the world is an aquarium.

Here is what happened. When I was a child, I wanted to be an ichthyologist.  I took all of my allowance money and holiday presents and saved to build miniature worlds of wonder like the ones I saw in hobbyist magazines.  I read up on each fish species—what they ate and how they lived and what their natural habitat was like.  I learned about nematodes and frozen brine shrimp and undergravel filters to help nitrifying bacteria flourish.

Back then I had a tropical South America tank of beautiful fish from the Amazon—little tetras like colored gems, adorable armored catfish with big kindly cartoon eyes, angelfish with fins like a bride’s veil, a knife fish named Ripley who was like a black electrical ghost.  I had a tank of Tanganyika cichlids from East Africa (near humankind’s first home).  They lurked in volcanic rocks and I could see their huge mouths (for safely rearing their young) frowning from the crevices.  At the apex of my involvement with the hobby, I even had a marine tank filled with fluorescent damselfish, shrimp like rainbows, and a clever triggerfish which was busy excavating a private lair into a hunk of red tube coral.  It was magical! The miniature worlds I built were incredible.  I even had a classical tank of google-eyed goldfish with multicolored pebbles and a porcelain mermaid in the center.

But each of these little glass paradises failed and died.  Sometimes they were destroyed slowly by unknown bacterial mishaps which caused the ammonia or nitrogen cycle to shift off-kilter.  Sometimes a heater would go out or get flipped to maximum setting and thermal shock would kill my poor pets. The Tanganyika cichlids got stressed out over territory and ate each other whole with their big mouths (just like NY real-estate developers!).  Other times the apocalypse was swift: algal blooms or invasive fungi or diseases which I unknowingly brought from the pet store would ravage the tank.  Once, the glass of my Amazon-basin aquarium shattered while we were out shopping.  My family returned to find the ceilings dripping water.  The dying angelfish were lying gasping on the wet pebbles at the bottom of the empty tank. It was horrible. Even the goldfish ultimately died.  A weird dropsy caused their gleaming orange bodies to bulge out and pop apart.  I love animals and some of the fish had real personality and emotions (in addition to being beautiful) but, despite tremendous heartfelt effort, my stewardship killed them all.

And these experiences haunt me at night. My dreams used to involve a few aquariums which I would try to save…but as I have grown up, the dreams have grown up too.  Now sometimes the setting will be a sere coastline which seems uninhabited at first, until I realize the landscape itself is made of giant earth colored fish which are slowly dying.  Lately the dreams have moved into the forest where the trees are made of deadwood and the boulders are the hulks of once-living things.  As adulthood corrodes away my figurative dreams of success, strength, love, and meaning, my literal nighttime dreams grow bigger and worse.  In dreams, I have walked through cities of contagion, plague, and starvation.  At night I have sailed a junk across an ink black ocean with nothing in it but slips of charred paper and plastic bags floating like ghosts.

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This is why zoos and aquariums (the big public ones) fascinate me. Surely teams of professionals with hundred million dollar endowments can surely keep our animal friends alive!  Except…they can’t always.  Even with all of the best veterinarians, ecologists, and biologists, working night and day, things still go wrong in weird unexpected ways (by the way, this somewhat pitiless assessment doesn’t mean I stand against zoos: I see them as a combination of ambassador, laboratory, and Noah’s ark).  My first job was as an intern at a synthetic ecosystem designed by the world’s foremost designer of synthetic ecosystems…and it was a beautiful study in gradual failure and unexpected interactions.  Ecology is complicated and we don’t understand it very well

We are living through one of the great meltdowns which periodically occur throughout Life’s 4.5 billion year history [eds. note: if religious people can capitalize genitive pronouns for God, then Ferrebeekeeper can capitalize a word which we are using to betoken all of the living things from Earth throughout all of time].  It doesn’t take a geologist’s comprehension of the End-Permian mass extinction to imagine ourselves as a toxic black smear in a rock column of the future.  I know from reading eschatology that I am not the only person who is tormented by dreams of Armageddon.

At the same time humankind is ballooning in number and appetite, we are also learning at an exponential rate.  My experiences with little terrariums and fishtanks does not need to foreshadow the fate of orcas, vinegar scorpions, honeybees, banana trees…and humans. We can use our hard-won knowledge to keep the world’s precious living things alive!  We can even carry the sacred seed of life into the heavens.  Space would be a better place for us anyway—a place where we can truly spread our wings and grow exponentially towards godhood.  It is what we have always wanted…and it is tantalizingly close.

One of my favorite poems has what might be my favorite quotation in English “Learn from your dreams what you lack.” I HAVE learned that…and now I am telling you too. We lack a comprehensive understanding of ecology and the life sciences.  We lack the political cohesion and organizational skills to make effective use of what we already know.  Those things are not outside of our grasp.   Most of the smartest and hardest-working people here spend their lives ripping people off with complicated financial products and elaborate tech products (which are really only online rolodexes or digital catalogs or what-have-you).  What a waste! The bankers could throw away their nasty spreadsheets, the doctors could stop filling out pointless insurance forms, the engineers could stop making wireless blenders and cryptocurrency. We could all start building space cities NOW..this very day (although the first generation of those cities are going to have some troubles with the synthetic oceans).  The possibilities are endless!  Our knowledge and imagination can take us to where we have always dreamed of being.  Our failure to be smart, brave, and creative will take us all to one of my dead festering nightmares.

Those fish should not have died in vain. We should not die in vain either. Let’s build a future worth having.

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