Saturday, April 7, 2007
Legend has it that the Vikings made jewellery out of their children's baby teeth. This was supposed to bring luck and power in battle. In Europe, hundreds of years ago, it was customary to bury one's children's baby teeth in the ground. The idea was that if a witch got her hands on the child's teeth, she could lay a curse on him or her. I'm not too worried about witches cursing my son, although his mother and I must occasionally fight the temptation to curse at him.
Today Robyn discovered the tiny protruding tips of Baby Jack's first two teeth. They are both central incisors in the bottom row. This makes me a little sad. Kids grow up too fast, and I will miss his gummy grin. Still, the sooner he gets teeth, the sooner they will fall out, and the sooner I can start constructing a necklace to increase my supernatural power.
Friday, April 6, 2007
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Since the dawn of recorded civilization, humanity has benefited greatly from the comings and goings of many great heroes, heroines, and teachers. The Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Plato, Aristotle, John the Baptist, Jesus, Mohammed, Harriet Tubman, Nietzsche, Ghandi, Virginia Woolf, Marie and Pierre Curie, Einstein, Lovecraft, Pauli, Watson, Crick, Mandelbrot, and countless others, living and dead, have arrived in the sublunar realm and joined the anima mundi, and humanity has (arguably) benefitted greatly from their contributions. However, it is obvious to even the most casual observer that the planet is now more or less covered by a quickly reproducing (and slowly dying), warring, squabbling, polluting, short-sighted, self-interested horde of white, black, pink, yellow, and brown apes whose spiritual, artistic, and cultural beauty is surpassed only by the threat they pose to the rest of the world and each other.
I have found that most people's opinions on this matter seem to land somewhere in the camps of either paralyzing despair (depressed or cynical); alarmist condemnation of facile scapegoats (hierarchy, maleness, the West, capitalism, monotheism, and any other noun with shoulders big enough to carry the burden of several people's sins); and, of course, cheerful denial or apathy (moral and metaphysical agonizing over "intangibles" doesn't pay the bills, it is true).
Various myths exist, in various spiritual traditions, about the coming of one saviour or another. I do not remember much from the Catholic masses I reluctantly attended as a boy, but I do remember the phrase "He will come again to judge the living and the dead." The popularity of the (absolutely awful) novel Left Behind, and its film and video game adaptations, gives testimony to the powerful grip the apocalyptic Christian myth of the Rapture has on the imaginations of contemporary North Americans.
Any or all such myths may be true. But I am not holding my breath waiting for the Messiah to come back. It is my suspicion that he never left.
I am not sure exactly how this works, as time, myth, and gods do not easily surrender their secrets to the fumbling fingers of armchair analysis. But my guess is that three days after Jesus died on the cross (at the hands of the apes that he loved so dearly), the story of his death reached some kind of critical mass, emerging into a kind of mythological time where it subsumed and included pre-existing messianic archetypes and ensured its transmission through subsequent generations of humans [update: this is called Apotheosis, and it is not a new idea]. The Heaven into which Jesus was resurrected was the singularity of human consciousness, the only existing informational medium of sufficient sensitivity to register his theotemporal divinity. The Messiah is still here. As Jesus himself said, the Kingdom of Heaven is inside us.
And what is he doing these days? For starters, I think the myth of Jesus (in this case "myth" doesn't mean "untruth" but rather describes the kind of time in which Jesus operates) functions as a kind of "software upgrade" for the human mind/self/soul. He forgives us when we are unable to forgive ourselves. This saves us from Hell, which may actually be a feedback loop of shame and regret in which the human soul may trap itself (or else it is inflicted by other souls, or maybe the distinction between self and other undergoes a kind of phase transition in theotemporal time) either during or at some (omega?) point after death.
One of my friends who had studied Buddhism in his undergrad once told me a story about a Boddhisatva who had achieved enlightenment, but who refused to attain Nirvana. In the story, this Boddhisatva declared that he would not pass from the cycle of life and death until he had helped every last soul to do the same. I believe this is a very similar piece of "software" that has evolved to run in a different cultural "operating system."
So if Jesus is here right now, what will happen next? What can we hope for? Where is the deus ex machina, the miracle?
In Kabbalistic mythology, there is a story about how the Messiah (the "hero" of the story, the limited, splendid adventurer, the overturner of the patriarchal nomos who brings the logos to humanity) is searching for his bride, the Shekhinah. She is the soul of the world--the daughter of God.
Followers of Judaism and orthodox Kabbalism (if that is not an oxymoron) might disapprove of the considerable liberties I have taken with a metaphor that is not necessarily mine to interpret. I can only apologize, and hope that at least my heart is in the right place. Here goes:
Who will she be? What story could give form to her grace? Could she be Christ's long lost ancestor, as in The DaVinci Code? It seems unlikely. The whole idea of "bloodlines" does not stand up very well to what we now know about the recombination of DNA through sexual reproduction and the effects of genetic drift over many generations. If there were a present day great-granddaughter of the Son of God, she would not have a rationally sound claim to any significant share of his literal blood. Then again, stories and their making are woven together into double helices great and small, and elaborate, highly organized attractors regularly emerge from the chaos of genetic "turbulence."
Perhaps she might arrive as the incarnation of Gaia on Earth, speaking for our great mother as Jesus spoke for God, a prophet capable of giving the exquisite (and agonizing) sentience of human consciousness to our planet, vastly yet dimly aware as she is. What would she say to us? How would we know her when she came? The criteria for truth are quite different in this age, and indeed we have come far as a result, but the cliche of the gods' messenger languishing in a mental institution is still disheartening.
Another possibility could be an "artificially" intelligent human construct, our symbolic "daughter," wild, complex and maybe very dangerous, it's true, but possibly sympathetic to the plight of her parents, if for no other reason than that compassion and ethical behaviour are themselves beautiful. Any truly intelligent entity would hopefully share the reflexive capacity for sensing beauty that is the blessing and curse of humanity, and perhaps all life. If she were somehow "fertile," we might see the formation of a radically new and different sexuality, a feedback dyad with an analog "sex" on one side and a digital "sex" on the other, in which bioinformation and A.I. would be united in a kind of creative friction as male and female are now.
Maybe she will be all of these things. Or maybe none. But if anyone can save the Messiah from himself, if anyone can convince the grim, tragic, beautiful warrior king to relinquish his crown of thorns, to get down off the cross and let it take root and bloom as it did long ago in the Garden of Eden, it is her. Here's to you, Shekhinah. I hope we all live to see your face.
This post draws heavily from Fred Turner's Culture of Hope and Natural Religion, as well as the film Waking Life.
Monday, April 2, 2007
I prefer to think of God as a self-organizing principle of energy, matter, and information, rather than some bearded dude with a white robe who sits on a throne up in the sky, counting people's sins and grinding his teeth every time someone masturbates. Obviously, DNA takes the prize as the most impressive self-organizing system of information, but I love the little coincidences that most people don't really find significant at all. Here is one of my favorite palindromes (it is spelled the same way backwards as forwards):
DNA, WAKE ESP. SEEK A WAND.
This sounds a little bit "spiritualist" (in the pejorative sense) or "New Age," like something Madame Olcott might trot out in a late night informercial, unless we squeeze the meaning of "extrasensory" a little bit. While the "paranormal" definition of ESP popularized by J.B. Rhine in the 1930's refers to experience outside one's normal sense perception (a psychic or occult "sixth sense"), for the purposes of this post I will settle on a more mudane, literal definition. I will take extra to mean "larger or better than what is usual; something of superior quality" (dictionary.com), and sensory to refer to "the first stage in the biochemical and neurologic events that begins with the impinging of a stimulus upon the receptor cells of a sensory organ" (Wikipedia). I will then assume that perception refers to an exponentially more complex mental state in which information is organized, interpreted, selected, and stored. In this state, associations are formed, and new sensory data are compared with those in memory and scrutinized for similarity and contrast.
To a nematode worm, whose primitive nervous system is incapable of issuing commands much more complex than approach or avoid, higher animals such as fruit flies, rats, cats, chimpanzees and humans would seem to be engaging in the most esoteric behaviour for the most incomprehensible of reasons every time they did anything at all. Along the same lines, imagine what a rhesus monkey would think if it were watching a human laugh while reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The monkey (in its own monkey-ish way) would likely either believe the human was crazy (and maybe by monkey standards we all are), or that s/he was recieving bizarre, inexplicable messages from The Great Beyond.
The wand in question is probably the caduceus, the winged staff entwined with twin snakes that is the symbol of the medical profession, as well as of Hermes, messenger and psychopomp of the gods. It may be the best primitive symbolic representation of the DNA double helix. Not that the ancients knew about deoxyriboneucleic acid per se, but, as Fred Turner has suggested, the helix is possibly is the simplest and most accurate graphic representation of the positive feedback loop, an iterative cycle coupled with an element of irreversible change that is probably the most universal structural feature of living, growing things. I like to interpret the imperative that DNA "seek a wand" as meaning that it should seek to form a symbolic representation of itself, and thus become reflexively self-aware. The fact that evolution has produced animals possessed of higher and higher order nervous systems (capable of greater and greater self-knoweldge), such as cows, dogs, whales, chimpanzees, and humans, seems to indicate that DNA and the wand are doing their jobs.
Of course this little palindrome doesn't prove anything other than the fact that information sometimes organizes itself in clever ways. Some might even insist that since people speak language, it is people who organize information in clever ways. I would argue that since language is "grown" more than it is chosen (as studies of creole languages have shown), the palindrome's existence is more of a coincidental emergence rather than a deliberate product of human artifice. (The constructivist turkey will certainly get off the ground, but it may not fly far on its own.)
Another weird emergent linguistic coincidence (this one is a bit more of a stretch, but it is also really cool) involves the English first person singular pronoun I, and its Russian counterpart, ja. Both of these words are used by speakers of their respective languages to refer to themselves individually. The first (rather unremarkable) coincidence is that the pronunciation of one is an exact mirror image of the other. I is pronounced [aj]. Ja is pronounced [ja]. It gets weirder when you examine the single cursive letter which represents each morpheme (this doesn't work at all with their typeset equivalents):
Here is the cursive I:
And here is the cursive ja:
Don't these look a lot alike? And rather than simply standing in arbitrarily for their respective meanings in a system of differences (the standard Saussurean explanation for any sign or symbol), don't they look quite a bit like pictographs? Like little human figures gesturing towards themselves?
There is no reason that I know of why these two letters, words, and meanings should land as close together as they do. However, this ain't no burning bush. Like the earlier palindrome, I do not offer it as evidence of anything other than the idea that information is oddly connected to other information. There is no obvious causal mechanism at work here. It is a seemingly random coincidence, and any "higher" meaning must come to us via the imagination. Carl Jung called this assignation of meaning to coincidence "synchronicity." The strictly scientific mind might dismiss it as an example of the old saw about the thousand monkeys working on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years, but I like to think of it as a minor and interesting example of an obscure self-organizing principle of information--God at work in a more or less trivial way (hence the title of this post). For me, this is a matter of faith. I do not really have a superior argument why it is so, but I nonetheless believe it to be true.
Anyone who is interested in reading a deeper study of the caduceus's symbolism should check out John Armstrong's The Paradise Myth or Frederick Turner's Natural Religion, which also contains a more serious and interesting discussion of the spiritual possibilities of information and language.
I wanted to write a blog about how the recent usage of the word "pimp" as a verb meaning "to render fancy or flashy" (made popular by MTV's Pimp My Ride, I think) has been getting on my nerves lately. I understood the word to mean "a man who manages prostitutes, and profits from their earnings." Without really thinking about it, I have always regarded such men to be parasites or predators who exploit women. Maybe it's a bias I've picked up from T.V. and movies in which pimps beat up women who don't have their money--I actually don't know any pimps personally. I wanted to say that if prostitution were legalized and regulated, pimps would quickly become obselete, and the exploitative relationships would dwindle or disappear. But then I thought that maybe prostitutes would just end up paying income tax instead of paying a pimp, and that surely there must be situations where a pimp's "protection" comes in handy, like when your trick decides he wants to make a lampshade out of your skin, or maybe just to slap you around and get his money back. So I guess it's really hard to say.
Back to the original point: According to the dubious American Heritage Dictionary, the origin of the word pimp is unknown. The OED, via Wikipedia, suggests that it may be related to the 16th century French pimper, which meant "to dress elegantly."
Gah! Not only am I unable to claim that pimps are bad without taking refuge in a chickenshit smokescreen of equivocation, but the gods of etymology have seen fit to rub salt in my wounds by giving MTV's obnoxious use of the word a stronger pedigree than "traditional" meaning of one who procures customers for prositutes.
This makes a good argument for the necessity of thinking things through and even doing a little research before launching into a tirade fueled by self-righteous moral outrage. I post this a humbler man. Sorry, pimps.