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And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
When I was fifteen years old I began taking driving lessons. For those of you out there keeping score, I am thirty-one and still not legally allowed to drive a car….yeah, I get distracted often.
ANYWAY – my driving instructor was a very patient young fellow, with whom I tended to rant about sundry subjects. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, as he cleverly noticed that I became less tense when chatting away and encouraged my little flights of digressive fancy while speeding through suburban Dublin. One day he handed me a copy of Khalil Gibran‘s The Prophet. It inspired in me an interest in philosophy, which I later chose to study in college.
Here’s the thing though – before today I had no memory of the book itself. For it to have presumably made enough of an impact on me that I decided – ‘yes, repetitive beard stroking while talking about Life is what I hope to do for the rest of mine’ – and yet nothing of Gibran’s writing has stayed with me struck me as extremely curious. So when I saw a copy of the book today I decided to revisit it.
The titular prophet is Almustafa, a teacher in a foreign land who has spent years in the city of Orphalese and is shortly about to sail home. Before he leaves, the people of Orphalese led by a priestess named Almitra requests that he give them one last sermon. He agrees and commences answering questions on various topics such as marriage, death, work, the act of giving, in the form of rhetorical parables.
The style of the book is a form of ongoing free verse, which lends itself to Gibran incessant use of metaphors and riddles. It certainly is a pleasant read, but Almustafa comes across as needlessly obtuse at times and then overly fond of truisms at others. ‘Love should not be possessive’, is certainly not a revelation, but it is phrased in such a way to seem enigmatic.
This particular passage struck me as interesting:
But your god-self dwells not alone in your being.
Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,
But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the
mist searching for its own awakening.
Is it just imagination or does that sound an awful lot like Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego mental structure? Gibran first published his work only three years after Freud introduced the notion of a tripartite division of the mind. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.
What annoys me about the Prophet is his abundant hero-worship. This strikes me as quite false. I want to imagine how an encounter between Almustafa and Nietsche’s Zarathustra would go (I would pay good money for a cage battle…). For one Gibran’s philosophical hero is quite the populist. His words do not move the citizens of Orphalese to anger. In fact they merely listen passively to his monologue. Zarathustra, by comparison, was a hermit who presented people with terribly upsetting notions such as ‘god is dead’, which is not the kind of thing that inspires the devotion enjoyed by Almustafa.
I am sure all of this sounds quite silly, but to my mind wisdom is something that is not only hard-won, but incredibly lonely. Gibran’s book encourages a curious faddishness, a naieve fantasy of philosophical wisdom, which no doubt explains its popularity during the 1960’s counter-culture.
Prettily phrased, but lacking any true rhetorical heft.
When I was a teenager looking for weird and interesting facts to talk about during lunch at school, Richard Metzger‘s Disinfo show fit the bill perfectly. At times seeming like a more media-literate, cyberpunk version of Fortean Times, it delivered a mixture of social commentary and conspiracy theory. It also introduced me to Grant Morrison‘s The Invisibles.
In fact, as far as I can recall, the more buoyant and fun US-set issues of The Invisibles were supposedly inspired by a meeting between Morrison and Metzger himself. The other writer I first discovered through the show was Douglas Rushkoff. Still active as a media commentator (just have a gander at this piece on the ‘demise of Facebook‘) Rushkoff is notable for his ability to recognize the potential in open source projects and online culture.
In fact with this book he proposes that the Bible, and the Torah that preceded it, was one of the earliest open source works in our culture. It just so happens that he has chosen the medium of comics to elucidate his theories.
Rushkoff chooses to draw parallels between the Biblical accounts of Abraham and Lot, and near-future events in a technocratic fascist America. Jake Stern’s father is heavily involved in a military project designed to implant chips in American citizens, ostensibly to track the locations of soldiers during wartime. The draft has been reintroduced and the US is involved in at least six wars simultaneously. Jake has friends involved in an underground movement that believes the chips can be used to control people’s minds, create instant perfect soldiers. Caught between his father and his political sympathies for his friends, he tries not to get involved in the rising tensions between activists and the government.
Jake’s father is trapped in the same test of loyalty to his ‘God’, or his family as was Abraham, with his employer urging him to ‘sacrifice’, his son by implanting a chip in him. Jake is equated with Lot, attempting to save his friends from the disaster he knows is coming, even as his Biblical counterpoint was singled out following the search of Sodom for innocent souls.
Just as these stories repeat themselves throughout history, the same forces who were involved in the events described by the Bible, the agents of Yahweh and the pagan gods arrayed against Him (identified here as Astarte and Moloch) are present in Jake’s time. In fact, from their point of view, these events are all occuring simultaneously. The Jewish god Yahweh is involved in constant battles with His rivals for the souls of the ‘chosen people’. Jake and his underground pals are merely acting out yet another iteration of this conflict against a monolithic evil force.
Rushkoff takes full advantage of the comic-book medium to present his argument, using split-panels to draw out the comparisons between his two chosen narratives, as well recurring associations of select phrases and images. At one point he even appears in the book as a college lecturer explaining the concept behind the comic-book, arguing that our contemporary stories are achetypal echoes of ancient myths. As he says this, a slide depicting the reincarnated Egyptian superhero Hawkman is presented in a neat piece of visual shorthand.
While I admire the audacity of the concept, the material is overly familiar, having quite a few points of similarity to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In its favour though, Rushkoff’s take on the material is far less obscure. The Morrison comparison’s continue as Liam Sharp artwork resembles frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. However, I fear I am doing Testament a disservice by saying that, as Rushkoff’s intent is quite brilliant. Liberate the Biblical myths from the dry, neutered interpretations we have grown up with and forge them into an exciting conceptual thriller. Moloch and Astarte are personified as very literal forces of violence and sex, with Yahweh a god of revolutions, a liberator from these baser instincts.
Testament excites in its scale of ambition and association of ideas. On that basis I would recommend it for those who like their comics to do something quite different.
According to Harold Schechter in a New York Times editorial, father snorting is not such a far-fetched notion. It comes from a custom of funerary cannibalism, which “springs from a profound and very human impulse: the desire to incorporate the essence of a loved one into your own body…the belief that when someone close to us dies, the person lives on inside us – that he or she becomes an undying part of our own deepest selves.”
Maybe we should all partake of this form of inhalation. And often.
Breathe in what you love.
I was always a Rolling Stones man. It took me years to discover the Beatles‘ album Revolver, which finally convinced me that they weren’t all that bad, but give me the Stones every time. On a related note I always preferred Pearl Jam to Nirvana, Pulp to Oasis….I never go for the populist choice. At any rate the Stones were to my mind the quintessential rock band when I was growing up. They were so knitted to the grandeur and rock pomp of American music I had no idea they were English! Jagger’s mockney accent probably confused me.
Jessica Pallington West focuses on that other lead persona of the Stones, Keith Richards. Immortal junkie. Modern-day pirate. Self-appointed ambassador for the blues. With this book the author has collected a series of aphorisms from the mouth of ‘Keef’, assembled into a series of themed chapters.
The book begins with a series of Commandments, twenty-six to rival the paltry ten of Moses. West pitches Richards as being an indefatigable performer, street philosopher and practitioner of the Tao of Keith – living according to a hard-won set of moral principles. These Commandments are referred to consistently throughout the rest of the book, supported by selective Keithist quotes. This third chapter is followed up with a series of comparisons between Keith’s philosophy and classical thinkers from the Socratics all the way up to Nietzsche. In the fourth West considers the aesthetics of Keith, his sense of style and fashion. Then there is ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards‘, a series of aphorisms on a series of topics, such as the afterlife, the blues and Mick.
Is this a must-read for Stones fans? Honestly, if you’re a fan most of this is familiar fare. Did you know Keith Richards used to be a heroin addict? And a doctor once told him he only had six months to live, only for Keith to find himself attended that same medic’s funeral some time later? Oh and he and Mick do not get along. Maybe this is a decent read for beginners, kids who are wondering what the fuss is about this old bloke in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I don’t really know.
On another level there is something ridiculous about pitching Richards as an urban philosopher, who has Plato as a ‘soul-brother’, and big hair like Schopenhauer. Who would have guessed that a heroin-addled guitar player from the projects would end up as a twenty-first-century philosopher and urban street guru? He is practically the reincarnation of St. Augustine according to West, returning to us from the realms of depravity with wisdom into the mysteries of life.
A series of incongruous comparisons are unleashed, with Keith the working class rock star – none of that embarrassing disguising of accents as with Mick – having survived heroin, women and general falling down, established as a sharp-edged pragmatist.
Keith has lived quite the interesting life, but what has made it so memorable is his refusal to think twice (and surely that is the disease of the philosopher). What this book has made me appreciate is just how funny Keith can be. I also liked how many of the quotes reveal just how much of a grumpy old man he has become, dismissing MTV, hip hop and the Sex Pistols. “Get off my lawn!” Plus he really doesn’t like Elton John.
However, for yet another ‘unauthorised’, book on a major celebrity, West does not introduce much criticism into the proceedings. At all points he is lauded throughout the book as a rakish man of the world, who simply won’t be tolerated by ‘the Man’. Of course this is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One who can afford to walk away from debacles like the disaster of Altamont “It was just another gig where I had to leave fast.“
This book is a trite overview of an entertaining personality, weakened by its comparisons to philosophers.
It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.
Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.
‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.
Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.
The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow’ (a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.
Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing: ‘I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’
Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.