Cottage Reading

Off to the cottage this weekend.  CanNOT wait.

I always take a special read with me when I have the opportunity to spend a few days beside one of the beautiful lakes up near Haliburton.  It’s a place of calm and quiet- and comfortable familiarity- totally deserving of a great book.

Last year I decided to reread Foucault’s Pendulum, for the nth time- but the first in ages.  The previous read through was for a course I taught many moons ago.  I had assigned it as one of the possibilities for review in an introductory class on religious studies methodologies.

Since it was a first-year course I wasn’t terribly confident that anyone would choose to tackle the weighty tome- the beauty of Umberto Eco’s writing notwithstanding.  I was wrong.  One intrepid and engaged student (out of 130) accepted the challenge- and wrote an excellent reflection on the way we construct beliefs and belief systems.

One of the other choices for that particular assignment was American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  I was first exposed to Neil’s work in the form of Good Omens– an entertaining look at angels, demons and the apocalypse, co-authored by Terry Pratchett (he of the Discworld novels).  It was a lighthearted introduction to the wonderful imagination of Neil Gaiman (an entrée that I followed up by fairly rapidly devouring everything else he had written).

American Gods effectively plays with mythological themes and characters- explaining what happens to the supernatural beings that are brought to the U.S. by its immigrant population.

Once the gods lose the constant worship, adoration, sacrifices and other trappings that deities tend to consider their lot, as newer gods- of things like technology and television- take their place, they are forced resort to other means of getting by and existing in the world.

The underlying premise is that we create our gods, and are therefore responsible for their inevitable fade into dereliction, insanity, day-jobs or complete non-existence when they are no longer sustained by our belief.

It is an eye-opening book, with a unique premise and engaging characters- most of whom are immediately familiar- just trying to keep their existence together.  Love the Egyptian deities running a funeral home in the South.  And the cab-driving djinn.

Pure awesomesauce.

The novel puts the gods in their appropriate place in the cultural scheme of things, and demonstrates not only that they need us more than we need them, but that their continued interference long past the point of relevance causes sometimes-irreparable damage to those of us in the line of their fire.

American Gods is a great example of Gaiman’s imaginative invention of often-overlapping worlds.

So how excited was I to find out that

this

was released yesterday? (Answer: VERY)

PERFECT cottage reading.

Since I have avoided reading reviews or synopses in case they might contain terrible spoilers, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that it is a pretty short book.  Like, a read-in-one-sitting book.

Not a problem in itself- shorter novels are not necessarily sub-par or anything- but the thought of running out of reading material while there is still warmth, sunlight and a dock with softly lapping lake water providing the backdrop des jours is worrisome in the extreme.

So I began to browse the bookstore.  Always a slippery slope for me.  I love good stories (in case you haven’t been keeping up) and discovering new writers- or rediscovering old favourites- is one of the joys of life.

A couple of hours later, and after a cool chat with the cashier about Kobo/Kindle/Tablet/iPad vs. actual, tangible books and the cottage aesthetic, I finally hit the exit with my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and

this

I have heard positive murmurings on various literary grapevines about it, and the subject matter is pretty damn irresistible.
A golem and a djinn(i) in 19th century New York?
More awesomesauce.
Now the only hurdle will be managing to avoid cracking one or the other before I hit that dock.
Temptation is hard.
Bring on the weekend!
(Did I mention I canNOT wait?)

… and I feel (de)fine

The Eschaton.  The End of Days.  It seems to be everywhere lately.  There are television shows, movies, books and seemingly constant news articles about various ways in which society as we know it might be brought, abruptly, to a problematic conclusion.

There are viruses, plagues, earthquakes, aliens, and, pretty much everywhere you look, zombies!  Zombies!  ZOMBIES!  From the Walking Dead to World War Z(ed)- they are among us and just waiting to rise and make life even more miserable.

I wrote here about societal anomie and how it leads to expressions of anxiety that include apocalyptic stories.  The apocalyptic tradition has provided some of the best, and most enduring myths.  They endure, in part, because periods of great collective social anxiety tend to be cyclical.  As the stresses return again and again, the idea that there is something better (or at least different) that will redeem us while punishing those responsible for the stress- albeit after a period of complete lousiness- is quite attractive.

Some definition of terms:

Apocalypticism is one of the major literary trends in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, often representative of the uncertainty of the of the sociopolitical environment of the time.  As is the case with other hermeneutical categories found in the historical and literary studies of Judaism and Christianity (gnosticism is another such category- we’ll explore that one later), the designation ‘apocalyptic’ is often too-freely or non-specifically applied.

The myths of all cultures reflect the issues and beliefs of the times specific to each composition.  The apocalyptic tradition developed as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and the reality of the societal situation faced by the Jews of antiquity.

Apocalypticism can be defined as “a type of religious thinking characterized by the notion that through an act of divine intervention, the present evil world is about to be destroyed and replaced with a new and better world in which (a) god’s justice prevails.  Apocalyptic schemes usually involve a moment of judgement, in which persons are called upon to answer for the evil of the world and are either acquitted to salvation in the new world or convicted to suffer divine punishment or destruction” (J.S. Kloppenborg, Q-Thomas Reader, 1990).

Dealing with the such realities as exile and diaspora, apocalypticism as a literary expression and theological speculation developed according to societal and religions necessity.  It was used variably as legitimation for political and religious propaganda, and to fulfill a socially perceived need for justice, transforming from a vision of messianic prosperity to one focusing on expectations not being met.

As a nascent religious movement, Christianity arose during a time of upheaval caused by foreign (Roman) domination of Palestine.  The issue of this dominance was relevant to the people involved in the Jesus movement and the authors of the writings that would eventually form the New Testament (along with the many contemporaneous non-canonical myths and writings).  Problems associated with justice and right order plagued the early Christian inheritors of the apocalyptic tradition as it had inspired their authorial predecessors.

Obviously, the current definition of apocalyptic has expanded to include all manner of potential cataclysms- either originating in this world (in evil laboratories or through nature rebelling against the repeated abuses to which it has been exposed at the hands of humanity) or from somewhere beyond (the myriad alien invasions from outer space or the reappearance of Lovecraftian creatures from the centre of the earth).

Regardless, these stories reflect the continuum of a mythological tradition that arises in response to significant disconnects between social expectations and the reality of the day.  Even when presented with tongue-in-cheek humour- think This is the End– now in theatres, or the upcoming, much anticipated (I really would like Simon Pegg to be my best friend) The World’s End.

In a social reality which, in one week (sigh), sees ever-increasing evidence of political corruption and the mishandling and violation of public trust at ALL levels of government and regardless of particular ideological affiliation, it really is no wonder that we are revisiting the mythological themes behind the apocalyptic vision.  When those we have elected to look out for the best interests of all citizens are not delivering the expected level of justice, frustration levels are made manifest in many ways.

Apocalyptic angst- as it appears in popular culture and literature- is a prevalent contemporary use of mythology that clearly demonstrates the truism ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’  We express our anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo through our various creative outlets.

The ideological forecast for the summer seems to be rife with apocalyptic thinking.  It will be interesting to see if such murmurs of discontent garner results in the larger societal context.  They will certainly provide entertainment and something to think- and blog- about.

Holding out for a Hero

It hasn’t been a great week (using understatement as a rhetorical device there).  Daily- sometime it feels like hourly- it seems that the news is full of stories about corruption and/or just plain BAAAAAAAAD judgement in the hallways of power and alleged public representation and service.

I could add my voice to the din surrounding our now-internationally-infamous mayor, but I prefer to hope that his chickens have finally come home to roost and he will no longer be able to escape the just desserts (my outrage is leading to terrible mixing of metaphors) his actions and attitudes warrant.  Gotta give props to the American comedians’ take on the situation though- however embarrassing it might be for this City that I love- and those of us who sure as hell didn’t vote for the guy.  And then there’s the wonderful home-grown commentary by brilliant writers like Jude Klassen/Tasha James.

I have already made my feelings fairly clear about the PM and his actions and ‘Action Plan’, so his non-response to the scandalous goings on with his senate appointees and high-ranking staffers is, sadly, no surprise at all.

Then there are the tragedies making international headlines.  The senseless killing of a young father (seemingly) over a truck.  A tornado that destroyed a town and  too many lives.  And, just today, a British soldier hacked to death by frustrated alleged adherents of one of those faulty ideologies I have written about here.

The media has once again resorted to ‘tragedy porn’, ‘reporting’ unimportant or unsubstantiated details and filling time with mindless chatter when there is nothing new to actually report (although how wonderful was the footage of the woman finding her dog, unharmed, under the rubble of her house while being interviewed?  THAT was worth the camera time).

The scrums surrounding the mayor, however deserved, are stomach turning as far as I’m concerned.  The impulse to harangue and harass and get ‘answers to nothing’ while beating out other ‘reporters’ for market share is morally and ethically repugnant (but is more important than actually providing the public with information or insight, apparently).

These events, and the way in which they are covered by media outlets, are feeding that anomie that I discussed before.  And although I have started a number of posts about the apocalypticism that is generated by this disconnect between societal expectations and reality, right now I don’t feel like adding to the negativity.

Joseph Campbell’s focus on the symbolic role of the Hero in myth and symbol was one of the starting points of his body of work.  He defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself.  Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society.

A Hero is often the founder of something- leaving the old ways behind on a quest for the new.  The Hero’s journey begins with something having been taken from the society or with a serious absence- of justice, rationale, compassion and etc.- in the Hero’s world.  Following the example of the Hero places all of us on an ancient trajectory- or the branch of an ancient tree- linking us all together as part of something that started long before any of us were around and that will still be here long after we are all gone.

I have created a new category for this blog- ‘Hero Worship’- and I will be rolling out examples of humans who are fighting the anomie through their actions, writings or general ways of being.  I need that positivity right now.  I have to climb out of the mire of the reality of injustice and greed in this world of ours.  Despite more prevalent news to the contrary, we DO have people who are doing things worth celebrating and leading by examples worth following.

I am going to give THEM my time and attention for the next little while.