Archive for January, 2008

Identity Crisis

I haven’t written here much lately, largely because my blogging persona is facing an identity crisis.  I do not know at all what I want this blog to be.  Do I want to be light and funny and social?  I can do that, but my dark moods lately seem to make that a Sisyphean task.  Do I want to be more learned and scholarly?  Probably not, because I have to do that in my regular life.  Do I want to be more of a jock and write about my cycling?  That seems to be more than a little limiting for me, and I know I can’t do that as well as people like Bike Snob, the Fat Cyclist, and Aki.

This entire year has been one big black hole of bleh and my writing, especially my blogging, has suffered as a result.  When I spiral down into these moods, I feel like the only way to make things better is to burn all bridges and start fresh, but I already did that with blogging and it didn’t exactly work for me.

Part of the problem is that I am feeling a little overwhelmed this semester.  I am teaching two new courses, and, although I did prep in advance, nothing can take the place of reading the new texts again.  Some of the novels I am teaching in my elective I haven’t read since grad school, over ten years ago.  I have the criticism down, but I need to re-read and make sure I know the texts well enough to talk about them for three hours every week.

One thing that might help is a trip I’m taking in a month.  In December, a friend and colleague asked me if I wanted to join a campus-sponsored trip to El Salvador.  Every spring break, my school sends a delegation as a service learning opportunity and several faculty members go along as chaperones.  Our service project this year is not definite yet, but in the past, students have built houses, cleared fields, and done other things of that sort.  Because another prof dropped out at the last minute, I was able to take his spot on the roster.  Since the school is paying my way, I decided to go.  To show what a big deal it is for me, I’m going to be missing the first race of the season because of the trip.  I think, though, that I’ll come back feeling more energized and grounded.

So I guess I don’t know where I’m going with this.  If you feel like watching me wander around for a while and try to figure things out, drop by and read every so often.  I’m sure to make a fool of myself, but that won’t be anything new.

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Oh Well

I assume that I failed to make the cut in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.  They have posted the excerpts from the novels that have advanced to the next round, and mine was not among them.  I have been reading the discussion board that Amazon has up for contestants, and it looks like most people got an e-mail telling them whether or not they made it.  A few of us did not receive any notification at all, which is pretty sloppy on Amazon’s part.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this latest rejection.  So far, my MS has not warranted anything other than form rejection letters (“Dear Author…”), so I know my story isn’t inspiring any sort of passion–positive or negative–at all.  Other readers haven’t been all that enthusiastic, either.  “I don’t usually read this sort of thing, but it’s good for what it is,” is the kind of response I get.  That is, when my readers can actually finish it.  One reader couldn’t make it past the first ten pages, and others have had similar troubles.

My point is that I obviously need to look at my story more critically and realize that it just isn’t all that good.  This conclusion is not a result of the ABNA rejection, but is something I’ve been avoiding thinking about for a few months, and the latest rejection just forces me to confront that reality.  When even your friends don’t like a story, it probably is not very good.

I guess I’ll keep sending the MS out to publishers, just because I have nothing else to do with it.  And eventually, when I can find some time, I’ll keep working on another story.  But it’s hard.  I’ve been needing something to help turn me around, and I was probably putting too much hope in this story.

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Eschatology II

I am going to borrow some ideas from Jessie Weston and Sir James Frazer as I stumble through my theories about post-apocalyptic literature.   Neither of these writers deals with post-apocalyptic literature, but their part of my theory is that their ideas about ritual and especially sacred rites of expiation and atonement do have some relevance in the post-apocalyptic landscape.

In my last post, I ended with the idea that most of the Biblical apocalyptic stories (broadly defined as stories that ended the social order in some catastrophic way) arose from the fires of divine judgment.  To make my next point, I need to go back even further, to pagan vegetation cults and reverdie traditions.  Not surprisingly, many pagan traditions place a special emphasis on the return of spring and the growing season and hail the returning warmer weather as a sign of the return of life. 

At some point, the green cult gave way to the blood cult.  The clearest way to explain this is to consider the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.  Cain, representing the green cult, offers his sacrifice of plants to God while his brother offers an animal sacrifice—a blood offering.  When God unfairly favors the blood sacrifice and Cain responds by saying something along lines of “You want a blood sacrifice?  I’ll give you a blood sacrifice!” the transition from green cult to blood cult is clear.

The juxtaposition of the two cults continues, however.  It is no coincidence that the two most important blood cult ceremonies—Passover and Easter—occur at precisely the time of year of the green cult, a few weeks on either side of the vernal equinox.  The green cult emphasis on new life and rebirth is, in fact, a crucial part of the Easter tradition as Christ conquers death and is resurrected.  This rebirth after a blood sacrifice is part of an ancient tradition of linking the land’s fertility to the land’s leader.  In the Fisher King antecedents, the king had to be ritually killed periodically to ensure the continued fertility and prosperity of the land, but as the ritual evolved, a scapegoat was used instead, and a stand-in for the king became the sacrifice.

The stand-in was frequently chosen during a period of carnival, which, as Bakhtin tells us, is a period when all social hierarchies are removed and the lowest and highest mingle.  The stand-in is chosen in some sort of ritualistic fashion, frequently in some sort of lottery (Shirley Jackson’s chilling story thus has ancient roots).  If anyone today has a tradition of hiding a coin or other small treat in a communal food item—a coin in the Christmas plum pudding, for example—you are reenacting the choosing ceremony.  The lucky winner of the contest would then be king for the duration of the carnival and would have the rights and privileges of the king, but, at the end of the carnival, the blood sacrifice was required.  Thus, the social order, turned to anarchy during carnival, is reinstated, and the expiation through blood is satisfied.

What does this have to do with post-apocalyptic stories?  As I said in my previous post, I think post-apocalyptic stories are reflections of religious redemption myths.  When the sins of the community grow too great, they must be cleansed.  Once the apocalypse strikes, there is of course a great deal of social upheaval, frequently described with dark glee, that mimics the carnivalesque anarchy of ancient blood cults.  Usually there is a return of nature to a world that has been punished by technology, industrialism, and pollution, all nice, modern, secular equivalents of sin.  A kingly or queenly figure rises out of the ashes of civilization to lead the survivors to a new Eden, signaling the rebirth of the dead king or queen.  Also, tellingly, the initial period after the catastrophe allows a small space of complete moral clarity, where the uncertainties of the old order are briefly submerged and a Manichean world view emerges.  In many stories, though, this moment of clarity fades as the shades of gray gradually seep back in.

Later, I’ll look at some specific stories and see how they fit my theory.

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The temperature dropped to about 6 degrees (F) last night, and it’s not going to get any higher than the teens today.  I decided that it would be a great day to go for a training ride not in spite of but because of the frigidity, as it would be a good way to convince myself that I have what it takes to suffer on the bike.

When I left the house it was about 10, with the sun shining brightly and the wind blowing briskly.  If it had been 60 degrees warmer, it would have been an ideal day for a ride.  As it was, it was an ideal day for a ride if you are at least a little bit masochistic.  I wore 2 base layers (one long sleeved, one short), a jersey, arm warmers, my new Pearl Izumi jacket, compression shorts, cycling shorts, knee warmers, heavy bib tights, two pairs of socks, liner gloves, my new Pearl Izumi AmFib gloves, chemical toe warmers, and neoprene shoe covers.  It took me over 20 minutes to get dressed, and I worked up a sweat putting everything on.

Once out on the road, I felt fine, if a little bit like the Michelin man.  One of the benefits of winter training is that once spring arrives, I can shed ten pounds just by not wearing all of the cold weather gear.

I did encounter one problem.  I was wearing a neoprene face mask to keep my face from getting frostbite (at 20 mph, the wind chill was -9), and it worked well but for one thing.  It has little holes at the mouth to make it easier to breathe, but the volume of air I required was too much for those little holes, and then my condensed breath made the holes even smaller, so soon I felt like I was going to suffocate.  It was a very unpleasant feeling, so I took the face mask off until I could feel my cheeks start to tingle with incipient frost nip.  I’ll have to cut a breathing hole so I don’t pass out and collapse at the side of the road.

Bike Snob, down in the City, has some much more hilarious thoughts on winter riding, over here.  Check him out.

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Eschatology I

In “Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost weighs contrasting apocalyptic visions and finds that either “would suffice.” As the poem was published in 1920, it is easy to read it as a modernist reaction to the devastation wrought by the Great War and the subsequent loss of faith in all of the old certainties.  Frost’s descriptions are vague and just terse enough to leave us with a sense that the destruction he contemplates is inevitable and not really all that monumental.  The world is ending—oh well.  Look at the lines “for destruction ice / is also great / and would suffice.”  Consider the off-hand delivery there, and the litotes of “would suffice”: although the speaker is not necessarily cheering for the end of the world, he is not at all disturbed by the impending destruction.

To file Frost’s poem neatly under the modernist heading and walk away is a mistake, however, as the train-wreck fascination of the apocalypse most certainly is not a byproduct of the modernist era.  In 1885, the agricultural reporter and novelist Richard Jefferies published his strongest novel, After London, an unjustly neglected post-apocalyptic story of a mysterious “Event” that destroys all technology and plunges England (and, presumably, the rest of the world) into a sort of post-medieval existence.  The countryside has returned largely to wilderness, with the exception of the area around London, which has become a vile, poisonous swamp; though the symbolism here is a bit heavy-handed, Jefferies’s descriptions of the return of nature fit neatly into a near-universal trope in post-apocalyptic fiction.  As a result of the catastrophe, the social order has reverted to a sort of feudalism, with some vestiges of modernity peeping through from time to time.  The protagonist, Felix Aquila, embarks on a quest to break free from some of the restraints of the new social order, and his name provides some indication of the direction his yearnings prompt him.  He is the “happy” or “lucky” individual, standing apart from his fellows by his wit, his drive, and his resourcefulness, and he is also the eagle, the aquiline symbol of empire.  Thus, Jefferies, like many post-apocalyptic novelists, creates a world that embodies paradox: such novels are simultaneously profoundly reactionary and radically progressive.  They seek to return to an older order before technology or modernity brought myriad social ills, but they also seek to reform (in both senses of the word) the world by radically removing the entrenched structures of society.

Jefferies’s high Victorian fantasy seems to have set the stage for H.G. Wells and others who would present a doomed future, but it is useful and instructive to think about the origins of eschatological projection in the western imagination.  The book of Revelation, beloved of cult leaders, horror writers, and evangelical Armageddon fanatics, contains an early archetype.  This archetype proves to be yet another iteration in a long line of Biblical prophecies of doom, however, and it would not be all that much of a stretch to suggest the Abrahamic tradition is constructed of a series of apocalyptic purges that would lead one to believe that the god of the tradition is a petulant, angry creator who cannot seem to get things right so he periodically smashes his mighty fist down on creation with a scream of rage.

Let’s begin with Genesis, a fitting place to start.  The first apocalypse is not the Flood but the expulsion from Eden.  It has all of the traits, in embryonic form, that mark many of the subsequent post-apocalyptic stories.  Life for the protagonists seems perfect until they overstep their bounds and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The tree has reappeared in countless stories as scientific or technological progress—atomic bombs in countless stories, a genetically-engineered superflu in Stephen King’s The Stand, a cancer-curing virus in the latest filmed version of I Am Legend.  The world as our heroes know it is destroyed, and they must fend for themselves and live by their wits or the sweat of their brows. 

The underlying reason for the punishment and destruction of humanity is always the same.  In the Bible it is sin, but that sin is the same as the hubris that infects others and urges them to commit the acts that lead to chaos.  In the works where the causes of the catastrophe are not clear, as in the case in After London, the mysterious calamity appears to be some sort of cosmic or divine retribution.  In science fiction stories where the destroyer is an alien force, the symbolism is consistent with divine anger: a punishing force comes from the infinite beyond.  Whatever the cause, the punishment always seems to come as a judgment, forcing the survivors to reassemble their lives on a new ground. 

Judgment is, of course, central to many of the Biblical apocalyptic stories.  The destruction of the earth not in fire or ice but in water happens because god is greatly displeased with his creation, so the unjust must be utterly destroyed in expiation.  Blood sacrifice for redemption then forms the dominant theme in the Bible, from Cain and Abel to Abraham and Isaac to Jesus’ crucifixion to the mad prophecies of John in Revelation.

More later…

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