Thursday, December 1, 2016

Down And Out in Paris and London


I've been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. This and "Homage to Catalonia" are two of Orwell's books I've never gotten around to, so it was good to get my hands on this volume. After 1984, Animal Farm, and many of his essays my expectations for this wok were very high and Down and Out... didn't let me down. Down and Out... falls a little short compared to his later great classics, particularly 1984. Still, his prose is exceptionally clear in this work. I love Orwell's prose style for it's clarity and concision and in this book I can feel him developing the themes that were later the foundation of his genius - his great concern for human welfare and a fascination with society in it's relation to the individual. This was one of the attractions of this book - seeing a genius at work on the development of his absorbing themes.

"Down and Out..." is an observation of life in the Parisian and London barrios of the early twentieth century that also conveys many of the cultural difference between Paris and London themselves, and I found that fascinating. In the opening of the book Orwell sketches the Parisian barrios so well that (for better or worse) you feel you've been there, and for all the filth, hardship, and desperation, it seems that in Paris life under these conditions more than endures, in its peculiar way even flourishes. So many great artists have emerged from the Parisian barrios one sees them as almost an asset to the society. Yet Orwell does not in any glorify such an existence. He's upfront about it's suffering and its great risk to even one's survival.

The overall theme of the book, which is a work of fiction that reads like autobiography, contrasts these lives in Paris and London is that if one were poor in Europe at the time it would have been for one's chances of survival to have been stricken by poverty in London, but that such a live in Paris was not so utterly without purpose or hope. In London one would have probably had less chance of dying outright from deprivation, but also (without an extraordinary stamina and imagination, as exhibited by one particularly clever character in the novel, a street artist) life would have been drudgery beyond endurance.

Orwell clearly makes the point that lives of such hardship and hopelessness are unnecessary, and he even addresses a little of that question directly, but as in his later genius for social criticism, his best work is fictitious revelation rather than direct explanation. The virtue of this book is its direct and detailed observation of life at the margins, its empathy for its subjects, and its manner of allowing you to live that life vicariously - a life that, like it or not, is an enduring condition of the great multitudes of mankind. It's virtue is in giving a window onto a tragic and pervasive aspect of existence and allowing you to experience it without having to pay the terrible price inherent in actually living it.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Concentric Dancing of the Suns



For so long I did not understand,
The concentric dancing of the suns,
Casting spears of light into the heavens,
In revolutions of darkness and of light,

Apprehension out of darkness comes,
Every darkness bares its apprehension.
From the eternal round of night and day,
Sounds the archaic song of love and hate.

From the first springing of the sapling,
From every refrain springs every refrain.
From each chrysalis springs a metamorphosis
From every breeze the current of our fate.

Fear is the daughter of a misconception,
The dancing of suns sparks new creation.
Our mortal time passes into timelessness
From the mud we pass into pure light

Out of what region rides our delusions,
From the lower order forged of strife
And if looking upwards we see only night
We may still hear the ode of the divine.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*image believed to be in the public domain

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Revenge of the Common Man


Other than as satire perhaps I will not be writing about American Politics in this blog for a long time. I decided I wouldn't do so earlier, after the failure of the Sanders campaign wherein I believe lay our final hope to restore America to something approaching the state we once knew it. (In the light of this, I see Trump's slogan Make America Great Again as some sort of macabre joke.) After The Sanders campaign I thought I was reluctantly ready to accept another mediocre administration under Hillary Clinton to mark the gradual toll of our national decline. I say this acknowledging it doesn't give Hillary Clinton the benefit of the doubt. She may have proved our fears unfounded regarding her complicity with big business against the common man. She may have had a great administration. We will never know.

Normally I do my best to be diplomatic but the election of Donald Trump, with a Republican congress and the ability to form another reactionary Supreme Court is a national disaster. Those who bought the ludicrous assertion that this arrogant, boorish, immoral, impious, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, divisive, authoritarian, narcissist is a populist should be relegated to the infernal regions of hell reserved for the willfully and utterly insane. Apparently a vast number of Americans are absolutely incapable of distinguishing a populist from a demagogue, if they even know what those terms mean. The results of their elections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, do not even phase their certainty that they understand the the world we live in. They do not, not the first thing. After choosing such leaders they should crawl into a hole somewhere on election day in shame rather than go out to vote.

This desire for a return to the past when America was a far better nation to live in is perfectly understandable. We would all like to return to a simpler age, but that isn't possible, and those who think Trump can perform this miracle are those who adamantly refuse to admit that that decline is based on the very racist, militaristic, union busting, tax cutting agenda they themselves have voted for time and time again. In short their idiocy is the reason for America's decline. In the notion of Donald Trump as populist they are just confirming that idiocy on a colossal scale. What they are advocating, whether they know it or not, is not a return to a simpler age in America, but to the dark ages. They are the modern equivalent of the followers of Savonarola.

Many of these people are, on a personal level generous, kind, and patient, but they are insufficiently educated to be making the kind of decisions necessary to conduct a nation in the modern era. Their lack of education isn't shameful or insurmountable, but furthermore they often have outright contempt for education. Thus they act simply through blind emotion rather than reason. Such a vehement opposition to Donald Trump they can't seem to understand because they can't see that educated people are terrified by of a Trump administration. As a result they think educated people are wicked. They want to be equal to the educated, and they are equal to them... In the words of The Declaration of Independence, a document that arose from the secular humanism they so detest, all men are created equal. They only perceive themselves as unequal due to their profound insecurity and so can't see that the educated are actually advocating for their interests.

Connecticut, Vermont Colorado, Massachusetts, Vermont, California and the of the highly educated states consistently vote for the policies and programs that would improve their lives vastly, but in their imbecility they think those people are their enemy and they very people who have brought them to the sorry state of their present lives they are determined to see as being on their side. We must have the only country in history where out of sympathy, and just plain economic practicality, the educated vote for the working class and the working class votes for the wealthy whom they believe are populists. It's madness. Rather than feel inferior to those wicked secular humanists they'd tear civilization down out of spite. They would rather be leaders in hell than followers in heaven.

That desire for equality is also perfectly understandable but the underlying condition we are all are fighting, that of either nature's or God's unequal distribution of intellectual gifts cannot be remedied. Those whom they hate so bitterly are products of the very universities where they aspire to send their children. They think they are just as capable of governing as the intellectual elite and should be equally allowed to do so. But in order to survive they must accept that in the context of nations they need intelligent people to lead them in order to compete against other nations who so appoint the intelligent of their own societies. They see no contradiction in this, or they refuse to see any, because it hurts their little egos, and so the nation must teeter decade after decade on the brink of collapse.

I hope those who elected Donald Trump fully enjoy their final victory over the "educated elite," because their victory will likely be their utter downfall. They will revel in their feelings of personal vindication while this once great nation declines into oblivion and they will have insufficient self-awareness to know their real motivations and insufficient humility to admit they are responsible for a political disaster, just as they refused to so many times before. It is here that lies something we do not discuss out of diplomacy but national disaster overrides etiquette. The plain fact is that their is a gigantic disparity in intellect among mankind.

Those of low intelligence are not inferior, and they should have rights exactly equivalent to the intelligent but they should not be allowed to lead the nation. To allow it is to court disaster and we have been courting it casanova courted his lovers for decades.

In the end we are all products of the struggle to survive and our consciousness is divided, enabling us to do things which our reason and more humane selves would not allow us to do, such as to make war. They unintelligent differer from the intelligent, in their frustration level; in the speed to which they resort to the emotional side of their being rather than to the rational, and the degree to which we can stave off our demons through reason is the degree to which we can not only prosper but survive in modern civilization.

The state of the world is merely a reflection of the state of our souls. In the end I love the people who voted for Donald Trump because ultimately we are all baffled by life, we are all incapable of even fathoming, much less overcoming, the complexity of existence. The only difference is the degree in which we are baffled. I wish those who voted for Trump well. I hope Donald Trump actually is the person they think he is, because if not the damage he can do to our world cannot be over estimated. Tragically the paramount thing people are most incapable of is understanding themselves. It is hardest for all of us to look in the mirror, right wing and left, myself included. I know this essay seems arrogant. It is merely stating what I believe to be true, and which is to some degree self evident. Yet all of us are groping through life which I well know, and which is the only reason I've bothered with any of this over the years. We're all just human trying to cope with a very difficult situation in this world, and so it is more in sorrow than in rancor that I go.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*Image drawn from source believed to be in public domain

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Letters of John Keats



It might be surprising to a lot of people to know that John Keats, the great 19th century English romantic poet, was best remembered by other children at school as a fist fighter. A prominent aspect of the best portrait we have of Keats, a pencil drawing by his friend, Charles Brown, is his surprisingly large and powerful fist which he is leaning his face against. It is a very interesting portrait in that it presents not just the true image and un-sentimentalized vision of Keats himself, but also some of the great conflicts that defined his life. On the one hand we see the powerful boxer's fist and the broad shoulders of a young man in his prime. On the other had we see him supporting his head on that fist in exhaustion, and we see his flushing cheeks, both indications of the tuberculosis that would soon take his life.

There's been so much written about John Keats that it might seem pointless, or even pretentious to add anything more. I write about him here partly because he was my favorite poet, but more so because not just his poetry and his biography, but his ideas are still very worthy of study. These ideas, put forth mostly in his letters, offer terrific insights to those struggling to write and understand poetry, and to the struggle to understand life itself. I myself have taken up poetry again, after a 35 year hiatus, and in that process I've come back to study Keats. The reason I've come back to Keats at age 54 is that he became arguably the best poet in English before his death, at just the age 26, and only composed poetry in the last 5 or 6 years of his life. Such a rate of achievement was meteoric, and having made the decision to write poetry at this relatively late age I feel I can greatly benefit from the ideas of a poet who's work advanced at such a rate.

The perception of Keats today it seems, at least in the popular consciousness, is that he was a dreamer; a sort of wilting flower too delicate for this world who wrote pleasingly effeminate lyrics of little or no interest to the world today.* This conception of him as a mere dreamer is a reversal of the truth. As I said Keats was a fighter. In his short life he fought bullies in the schoolyard when teased him about his small stature (he was just five feet tall) and later he fought against class prejudice, against time, against poverty, against disease and against death. In spite of all this he became a doctor, but gave that up to become a poet, a notoriously difficult career to live on. Through it all he never let himself be influenced by other writers to the point it hindered him in the search for of his own voice. The incredible courage of Keats' is at the root of his unparalleled achievement. So much for the wilting flower view of John Keats.

Thou was not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread the down,
The voice I hear this passing night was heard,
In ancient days by emperor and clown,
Perhaps the self same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth when sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn...

-John Keats


Perhaps it was all that Keats endured that enabled him to write such immortal lines as those above, lines of great beauty but also steeped in the inexplicable suffering, frustration, and injustice of life. Such lines would represent genius at any age but written at just 24 they show a remarkable ability to convey tragic experience. Yet in spite of such mature ability, in my estimation these lines couldn't have been written by an older poet. They retain the freshness and sensual clarity most often lost with the passing years: a loss that too often makes the writing of older poets feel wooden and academic. Keats was able to combine this sensory clarity of youth with the method of composition and life experience of a much older poet and in his letters Keats chronicles much of the artistic territory he crossed in the process of becoming a great writer.

He was born a Cockney in London, the son of a livery stable owner who died when John was a child, after being thrown from a horse. His mother died soon afterwards as well of tuberculosis. Perhaps a decade later his younger brother Tom also preceded him in death from tuberculosis, the same disease that would kill Keats himself at the of age 26. Added to the difficulties and misfortunes alluded to above his inheritance from his father's business was tied up in court all his life, and never seeing a cent of it he and his siblings lived in desperate poverty. Lastly, Keats fell in love with a woman shortly before he died and so suffered the full awareness he would die before his love could be requited. The notion that someone who faced such a life with courage and dignity was a pansy says nothing about Keats but everything about certain aspects of our own society.

This last point has a deeper relevance I believe than simply to literature. Our misconception of Keats seems to arise from a larger misconception of courage as a whole. Those who display the greatest virtues such as the self-sacrificial stamina and the endurance needed to hold society together - often in spite of gteat social disadvantages - are often vilified and denigrated as being weak, while those who live primarily for themselves and their self-aggrandizement are often admired and seen as courageous. So in the general consciousness a man with the courage of John Keats comes to be seen as a pansy while men such as Donald Trump or John McEnro are seen by many as being courageous, as winners.

Keats was a fighter who confronted terrible adversity; a compassionate man of exceptional sensitivity he was not afraid to engage that compassionate side of himself. So let us presume that what mankind does best; what is at the root of our dominance over the earth is our ability to communicate. This is where the the unseen power of a poet comes into play. The ability to write exercises real, if somewhat abstract power in the world, because it influences the intellectual climate of the age - which in turn influences everything. This was true in the time of Byron, in the in time of Homer, and in the time of the King James Bible and is still true today. Ideas are power, therefore studying the letters of Keats is powerful, for it may allow us a greater effect upon our times. Those who have dismissed Keats as an inconsequential pansy might take that into consideration in forming their concept of a real man. I would highly recommend a study of Keat's letters to learn about writing, and about the brevity of life. John Keats didn't have much time.


*Please understand that I'm not condemning the feminine here. Women have, of course, written great poetry. I'm condemning the effeminate in the context of an affectation, not femininity itself.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*image John Keats, pencil on paper, by Charles Brown

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Night Bus


The Western fire is burning down to cinders;
Retreating traffic is subsumed in immolation.
And I see dark shapes pass me on the roadway,
Born from darkness, to darkness they return.

It's ages since the brightly lit buses came,
In sunshine, festooned with bright balloons,
I had bright hopes setting out that morning,
But the sun's low and I'm stranded at dusk.

Once they scheduled many buses on this route,
And from among them I could pick and chose.
But I've missed the last bus from Desolation
So I'll watch as the day burns down to ruin.

Now the cheerful riders have passed beyond,
They seemed to look past me in the gloaming.
But I've walked this road before at night,
The whole way from Prospect to Desolation.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 1016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*image public domain

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Gardenias

Crowds pass by on the ancient streets
Hushed and weary at the end of the day.
And like them I can find nowhere to rest.
Though I too long for the end of day

Gardenias are blooming outside my window,
In a white profusion, as soft as velvet.
Their scent drifts in on the evening air,
Lingering, sensual and sharp, like pain.

When you left me you took everything.
Leaving me here in this empty room,
With just these flowers and regrets,
Soft and resilient as memories of you.

Such beauty is a power in the world,
You touched me and I lost my balance,
I'm dizzy with just the thought of you,
Like seeing heavens in all their glory.

The spice of gardenias on a dying wind,
Of these unblemished flowers takes me,
Back to our days together in this room
To a love fate won't let me forget.

Brent Hightower
copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*image public domain

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Trying Times

I'd like to preface the essay below with a personal note. It may seem I choose fairly lofty topics for the essays in this blog and one might well ask... What the hell makes him think he knows anything about such things?

Well the answer is I don't think I know anything more about them than anyone else, and I certainly don't pretend to have expert knowledge on any of the subjects I raise here. My intent is to simply ask the questions I think ordinary people such as myself should be grappling with (particularly in a democracy), in what are by any standard extraordinary times. The original thrust of this blog was to provide a forum for readers to discuss such questions informally, without the pressure to claim any form of expertise. We've heard from the experts, We've followed their advise, and the world is a fucked-up mess. So the we might as well give it a shot ourselves. That was the intention anyway.

I've long been attracted to the Socratic method, through which ordinary people can seek answers to the questions raised by such times as these, and also simply answer the questions raised by living in the midst of this extraordinary and mysterious experience of life itself. Please don't think I think I know all the answers to any of these questions, or that what I think is right. As I explained in my essay Truth in the Mutable World, although I believe firmly that truth exists and seeking it is the imperative of life, I don't believe it's possible to be right all the time, nor do I really give a damn about being right in that generally accepted sense. The concept of right and wrong itself can be a misleading one. Truth may be static but because this world is mutable than truth in the context if this world is mutable.

In any case it turned out I had almost no responses to my invitation for a dialogue, so I posted some essays in which I gave some of my own thoughts and these received sufficient attention that I thought it was worth going on. So I changed my focus to my own essays and some of my literary work. Since I started this blog 2 years ago I've had about 15,000 hits, which I think is neither terrifically good nor terribly bad, for a blog like this, so I continue to plod along. I'd like to also apologize for my editing. I've never been a good editor at all, and the blog format tends to make me feel I should regularly get something out here. I don't know why, but it does.

All things considered it's a strange time for writers. It's extremely difficult to publish with the established book publishers, let alone periodicals. Yet I don't want that to stop me from writing because the ideas and works of ordinary Americans should be aired, whether or not there is any financial interest in doing so. A culture advances upon the the creativity of it's individuals or it does not advance at all and the drive for mere material profits cannot be the overriding preoccupation of any society that wants to either last long, or be that of any culture that is worth lasting long in. Furthermore, the line between allowing the market to determine what gets published (and therefore what shapes our minds)and that of outright censorship is a fine one. In the end somebody, somewhere, needs to care about real culture and those who attempt to create it, as an indispensable aspect of any meaningful society.

-Brent




The Times that Try Men's souls


When Thomas Payne wrote the above words 250 years ago... Well, all I can say is he hadn't seen notin' yet! It's also a good time to be a writer though because there's an almost infinite number of things to write about, and one of these almost infinite things is the effect of these almost infinite number of things on our personal lives. That's what I'm going to write about today:

In the 21st century despite all of our labor saving devices most of us have to perform countless, often inconsequential, tasks to survive. When one thinks about this it's good to remember that the point of modern technology - from steam engines to the home computer - was to make our lives easier and more prosperous. Instead of giving us more leisure time to advance our human capacities to make a better world, technology has exponentially increased the complexity of our lives, while the rewards of increased efficiency are accrued by only a minuscule percentage of the population.

Our ancestors lived straight forward lives, such as that of tilling the fields, and there's no question that their life was difficult. They endured famine, disease and hardship. Yet in compensation they took a deep, even mystical satisfaction, in working with the earth. They could actually see and feel the outcome for their labor, and in the end we are faced once again with encroaching famine, disease, and hardship. Whether the bargain we made in trading age old ways of life for the complexity of modern society was worth making is an open question. I myself would not be alive without modern medicine for example, neither would billions of others. Yet It's clear that in the process we've set in motion a catastrophic wave of extinction on this planet.

We need to remember that every living thing has an essence, and of that essence life is made. Consciousness is what makes the universe real. Without consciousness and the interaction of one being with another confirming our perception of reality and its meaning, reality cannot exist. With no one to perceive the world, the world unperceived ceases to exist. The living presence of a juniper tree, for example, is not replaceable. Once it's gone, it's gone forever. Juniper has died, and If juniper dies we've lost a living spirit, a piece of the only thing that really matters or that we can be reasonably certain is actually real. We have lost a piece of what comprises the sum of life: it''s beauty, it's mystery.

So we have made a bargain, and what have we really gained from this Faustian bargain? In the last several weeks I've had to be be my own auto-mechanic, carpenter, receptionist, butler, valet, editor, IT specialist, housekeeper, publisher, bureaucrat, chauffeur, writer, veterinarian, marketing consultant, and councilor. What I'm trying to say is that rather than our lives being simplified they are becoming too fragmented for the attainment of happiness, or in many cases even sanity.

From a personal standpoint I must deal with a spatial learning disorder that has dogged me all my life, an auto-imune disorder that's given me chronic poor health, a wife with bi-polar disorder and a daughter with autism. I don't need any more challenges in my life. I'm by ancestry English, Irish and German, and was raised in an Irish-American family that was typically undermining, argumentative, begrudging, eloquent, alcoholic, irreverent, bombastic, cynical, brilliant, iconoclastic, and had as a credo an amalgamation of these things and the psychic wreckage of medieval Catholicism. In other words we were a fucked-up mess, and we were by no means alone in that situation. In all honesty I think we must admit that most families are a fucked-up mess. So how can anyone deal with all of this and more besides? And even beyond all of this, buried under all our difficulties is the human need to self-actualize. In spite of it all we may feel that we have something valuable to offer the world. For many of us this need to self-actualize is one of the central elements of a meaningful life, and if we're so inclined we should certainly pursue those aims.

Yet I think we need to also allow ourselves the understanding that we can't live consumed by the demand for ever increasing productivity, and these innumerable complications, and also pressure ourselves to achieve something of more lasting significance, such as art, or music, or literature. So instead of being self-critical (which is the way most of us were taught to deal with these questions) under the circumstances we should give ourselves a medal for simply carrying on from day to day - for simply surviving the onslaught of these times.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Few Observations About Things I Think Matter



I haven't written in this blog for awhile. I've had computer problems, hurricane annoyance (again), and generally been going through one of my periodic episodes of fatalism. This seems to just happens to me from time to time, to be part of my intrinsic make up and if it isn't pleasant at least it's often instructive. It's a mood in which I feel impelled to reexamine my life and what I think really matters so that hopefully I'll know how to go onward.

George Orwell said that anyone who writes a memoir reflecting well upon themselves is a liar, because every man essentially sees his life as a series of failures. Unfortunately from what I've seen that's true, and given that, it seems a man or woman should try to live their life as they chose. It's a case of "you can't please everyone. so you might as well please yourself." There are, of course, limits to the control we have over circumstances and those limits are are becoming more acute, but our culture places terrible value on a success almost no one achieves. Generally, we place the burden of that ethic upon ourselves too, and there's tremendous freedom in understanding we may be free of that.

So, with that in mind, and in the full knowledge that my life has failed as well as the next man's; I'd like to express some impressions about where I think I've failed and where my contemporaries have done so. They are fairly abstract impressions so I hope you'll bare with me. Firstly, let me say that we live in a cynical age. One of the things people need most is a sense that what they're doing in life is right, that it matters. By this cynicism and loss of any motive ideal in our lives, even be it romantic or naively unrealistic, we are denying ourselves one of the life's necessities. That is no exaggeration. People need something to live for beyond satisfying their appetites I think, and so we must find a way to coping with the cynical tenor of the times while not being destroyed by them.

Lest we despair at the simple flood of negative news that permeates the 21st century, we should remember that every age has had it's problems and they have often been as bad as ours today, but in the past people weren't having that negativity drummed into them 24 hours a day in news scraps that sapped their courage and vitality. For myself, I've have had to struggle very hard not to be chronically depressed by the news cycle so I long ago rid myself of television for anything other than movies I chose to watch. I think that doing so is imperative in order to experience life fully and to simply maintain human dignity.

As I've said before on this blog growing up, I lived in rural New Mexico. A small pond was not far from our house - up a dirt road that wound into the mountains, and a ditch ran down from this pond carrying water to the fruit trees, fields, and vineyards in the village, and I spent a lot of time there. My life revolved around small things then and particularly small living things. The horse-tail grass at the ditch's edge, water spiders, lizards, cattails and innumerable other living things. Like that of most children, my world was magic then. Never was anything as green as the grass and evergreens beside that ditch for nothing flourishes like watered plants in the desert.

In the winter when the snow was down my father would cut a Christmas tree on the hillside, in snow resplendent in my mind to this day. This looking for a tree brought out the perfectionist in my father, who spent hours selecting the perfect blue spruce from hundreds that would have done just as well. I didn't mind, because it was an excuse to be outside. Never has life glowed the way it did then, so despite the other ways my life has been difficult, in natural beauty I was blessed...

***

The world today bears little resemblance to the world then. One of the essential reasons I believe is that magic has been mostly lost. Colors were brighter then. They sparked deeper feelings and more vivid associations. I was very closely connected to the panoply of living things. They had singular personalities recognizable to me.

Of course the urban world's encroached on so may places recently dominated by nature, and wildlife has been so decimated that my feeling of connection no longer exists the the way it once did - but there's something more - the weight of seven-and-a-half billon people is simply tiring the world; or so it seems. My peak experiences have gradually dimmed and are now few and far between.

Having lived through the transformation of the mid-twentieth century in the American West, I occasionally ask myself why everything seems so different now. For one thing Americans had different values then. We are gradually losing our expectation of justice and our belief in the legitimacy of law itself. Religious values that were (if often narrow minded and stifling) still a dominant influence, have been largely supplanted by the worship of applied science and technology - and later (and even worse yet in my opinion, the the business ethic) the mere Darwinian law of survival, presented in the guise of a philosophy by people such as Ayn Rand, Bill Buckley, and George Will.

To say the ethic of "me, myself, and I" falls short of the values of The Enlightenment is an understatement. It is a regression to the outlook of ancient Rome: to that of ruthless power and cold expediency justifying itself by its own existence. It cannot stand against religion and it certainly cannot stand against the values of The Enlightenment that this nation was founded on. For in the end human beings need something more to believe in then their stomachs. If we continue to pursue a belief in the magic hand of the market, it will be our destruction.

Moreover we have been indoctrinated to the point we can no longer see that ideology is security. As we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons systems in times of peace our nation crumbles from neglect of its people and its infrastructure. Meanwhile people have been convinced that expecting something in return for their own tax dollars (and believe me, we will continue to be taxed) is looking for a handout, it is a lunacy.

If we succumb to all of the above ideology there will be no more great men and women. Their will be no more lives of heroic dimensions or even minor hero's. This is why we have an age without heroes, because we have an age without ideals. There will be no more Jefferson's, Joan of Arcs, Percy Shelleys, Ghandi's or King's. It will be a world that allows only for heroic entrepreneurs, and there is no such thing as an heroic entrepreneur, not even of the smallest magnitude. They are investors and business men given a new and name to convince themselves they have done something glamorous with their lives.

(This issue of new names for old ideas is something else George Orwell had a few things to say about, but that is for another essay.)

To speak to our unwarranted obsession with security, the United States was in the past secure because we held a set of common unifying beliefs -the principles of law, justice and democracy - and that of the dignity and equality of mankind. We promoted genuine democracy abroad, not simply the power of vested interests, and in so doing we made friends and not enemies. Now in a search for security from relatively insignificant and largely self generated threats, we have heeded false patriots, confidence men, and the apostles of unreasoning fear. This shift in values is another reason life feels fundamentally different now than it did when I was young. The rise of Donald Trump is not a mystery. He is the logical outcome of the philosophy we have allowed ourselves to embrace.

In a different vein entirely, another element of the world that's changed is that time seems shorter now. I've been told that our perception of time changes as we age, that any period of time seems shorter because it becomes a smaller percentage of our life as a whole, but that's never made sense to me. By the same token we could say that when climbing a mountain, time would seem shorter the nearer we got to the top because the distance is a smaller percentage of the journey as a whole. (I think this is an apt analogy. Just as the higher we climb the more arduous the hike, so the older we get the more difficult are the passing years. )

But whatever the mechanism, I'm not as close to nature, or even life itself, as I once was then, and yet that doesn't leave me broken hearted. Though in vastness, mystery, and complexity, nature is one of the greatest wonders of existence, we should not take its loss with abject mourning. The truth is that we don't know the final outcome of consciousness, not our own nor that of any creature. We cannot with certainty even know whether death is a blessing or a curse.

(I don't mean to say we should become callous, merely that we should not let the great extinction going on around us - one that will inevitably involve us at least to some degree - destroy our love and appreciation of life, even less our willingness to go on.)

Though we are only as much as interaction with other living consciousness makes us, in spite of our losses of those living things, we are become deeper beings because we are forced more to confront to eternity. Acceptance of our helplessness in the face of events beyond our control allows us to confront the meaning of our mortality. Life for us and for every living thing is ultimately a process of detaching from the world, and we don't know the outcome of that for any individual living spirit. It may be a curse or it may be a blessing.

There is profound paradox here, as in everything in life. The more we clutch for security; the ability to control our fate in existence, the less we can actually control. We force nature to retreat in our effort to control the world and make it safe for us. but in doing so we undermine the very foundation of our security and even our existence. Sometimes I think we are making the world safe more for machines than human beings and the other living things that are ultimately the only things of value in the world.

***

Last year, at the age of 53, I took up the trumpet and finding I can play it. As one door closes, if we are receptive to opportunities, another opens. While we regret the direction life is taking that direction changes. We are in eternal flux. Life is an endless paradox. Periodically I feel heartbroken by certain aspects of our modern predicament. For example I recently I saw an article accompanied by a photograph of a beautiful silverback gorilla, undoubtedly the patriarch of its corner of the forest, murdered by some lower life form with a gun. The native Africans had carried him down from the forest on a bier, his great arms stretched out to either side in death, representing all of nature, that through our fears and misunderstandings we have nailed to a cross.

When such sadness comes over me I often remember the magical world of my childhood, and the promise inherent in such an acute experiences of consciousness. Any cosmic order that can create such magic it seems to me has the potential to do anything. Awareness seemingly comes out of nothing into the material world, and so one could accurately say that everything comes out of nothing. It is tremendously amusing to me to see science grapple for centuries through investigation of the material world and ultimately say, as with the "big bang" theory, the everything simply came flying out of nothing and say they have explained something. And yet in that very idea there is a tremendous sense of hope.

I don't grieve for the passing of this world as I once did. It miss it, but don't grieve for it, the reason being that I don't think the spirit dies. Beyond our beliefs about scientific certainty, science has not really resolved any of the great mysteries of life. From the above pat explanation of our perception of time shortening as we age to a hundred other pseudo-explanations the modern world creates to shelter us from the mystery of things things we should never have feared in the first place, I see this: the spirit is magic, because the spirit is magic. It is everything and we don't know what it is. It's interwoven with eternity and infinity and we can't fathom the infinite and the eternal. To me time seems more like the medium we ride as we pass through the material world, and we accelerate as we go, in the way a meteor accelerates through the the gravitational attraction of a planet, transforming from one state to another as it goes. Everything seems toA few observations About What I Think Matters


I haven't written in this blog for awhile. I've had computer problems, hurricane annoyance (again), and generally going through one of my periodic episodes of fatalism. This seems to be something that just happens to me from time to time. It seems to be part of my intrinsic make up, and if it isn't pleasant at least it's often instructive. It's a mood in which I feel impelled to reexamine my life and what I think really matters so that hopefully I'll know how to go onward.

George Orwell said that anyone who writes a memoir reflecting well upon themselves is a liar, because every man essentially sees his life as a series of failures. Unfortunately from what I've seen that's true, and given that, it seems a man or woman should try to live their life as they chose. It's a case of "you can't please everyone. so you might as well please yourself. There are, of course, limits to the control we have over circumstances and those limits are are becoming more acute, but our culture places terrible value on a success almost no one achieves. Generally, we place the burden of that value upon ourselves too, and there's tremendous freedom in understanding that.

So, with that in mind, and in the full knowledge that my life has failed as well as the next man's; I'd like to express some impressions about where I think I've failed in life and where my contemporaries have done so. They are fairly abstract impressions so I hope you'll bare with me.

Firstly, let me say that we live in a cynical age. One of the things people need most is a sense that what they're doing in life is right, that it matters. By this cynicism and loss of any motive ideal in our lives, even be it romantic or naively unrealistic, we are denying ourselves one of the necessities of life. That is no exaggeration. People need something to live for beyond satisfying their appetites I think, and so we must find a way to coping with the cynical tenor of the times while not being destroyed by them.

Lest we despair at the simple flood of negative news that permeates the 21st century, we should remember that every age has had it's problems and they have often been as bad as ours today, but in the past people weren't having that negativity drummed into them 24 hours a day in news scraps that sapped their courage and vitality. For myself, I've have had to struggle very hard not to be chronically depressed by the news cycle so I long ago rid myself of television for anything other than movies I chose to watch. I think that doing so is imperative in order to experience life fully and to simply maintain human dignity.

As I've said before on this blog growing up, I lived in rural New Mexico. A small pond was not far from our house - up a dirt road that wound into the mountains, and a ditch ran down from this pond carrying water to the fruit trees, fields, and vineyards in the village, and I spent a lot of time there. My life revolved around small things then and particularly small living things. The horse-tail grass at the ditch's edge, water spiders, lizards, cattails and innumerable other living things. Like that of most children, my world was magic then. Never was anything as green as the grass and evergreens beside that ditch for nothing flourishes like watered plants in the desert.

In the winter when the snow was down my father would cut a Christmas tree on the hillside, in snow resplendent in my mind to this day. This looking for a tree brought out the perfectionist in my father, who spent hours selecting the perfect blue spruce from hundreds that would have done just as well. I didn't mind, because it was an excuse to be outside. Never has life glowed the way it did then, so despite the other ways my life has been difficult, in natural beauty I was blessed...

***

The world today bears little resemblance to the world then. One of the essential reasons I believe is that magic has been mostly lost. Colors were brighter then. They sparked deeper feelings and more vivid associations. I was very closely connected to the panoply of living things. They had singular personalities recognizable to me.

Of course the urban world's encroached on so may places recently dominated by nature, and wildlife has been so decimated that my feeling of connection no longer exists the the way it once did - but there's something more - the weight of seven-and-a-half billon people is simply tiring the world; or so it seems. My peak experiences have gradually dimmed and are now few and far between.

Having lived through the transformation of the mid-twentieth century in the American West, I occasionally ask myself why everything seems so different now. For one thing Americans had different values then. We are gradually losing our expectation of justice and our belief in the legitimacy of law itself. Religious values that were (if often narrow minded and stifling) still a dominant influence, have been largely supplanted by the worship of applied science and technology - and later (and even worse yet in my opinion, the the business ethic) the mere Darwinian law of survival, presented in the guise of a philosophy by people such as Ayn Rand, Bill Buckley, and George Will.

To say the ethic of "me, myself, and I" falls short of the values of The Enlightenment is an understatement. It is a regression to the outlook of ancient Rome: to that of ruthless power and cold expediency justifying itself by its own existence. It cannot stand against religion and it certainly cannot stand against the values of The Enlightenment that this nation was founded on. For in the end human beings need something more to believe in then their stomachs. If we continue to pursue a belief in the magic hand of the market, it will be our destruction.

Moreover we have been indoctrinated to the point we can no longer see that ideology is security. As we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons systems in times of peace our nation crumbles from neglect of its people and its infrastructure. Meanwhile people have been convinced that expecting something in return for their own tax dollars (and believe me, we will continue to be taxed) is looking for a handout, it is a lunacy.

If we succumb to all of the above ideology there will be no more great men and women. Their will be no more lives of heroic dimensions or even minor hero's. This is why we have an age without heros, because we have an age without ideals. There will be no more Jefferson's, Joan of Arcs, Percy Shelleys, Ghandi's or King's. It will be a world that allows only for heroic entrepreneurs, and there is no such thing as an heroic entrepreneur, not even of the smallest magnitude. They are investors and business men given a new and name to convince themselves they have done something glamourous with their lives.

(This issue of new names for old ideas is something else George Orwell had a few things to say about, but that is for another essay.)

To speak to our unwarranted obsession with security, the United States was in the past secure because we held a set of common unifying beliefs -the principles of law, justice and democracy - and that of the dignity and equality of mankind. We promoted genuine democracy abroad, not simply the power of vested interests, and in so doing we made friends and not enemies. Now in a search for security from relatively insignificant and largely self generated threats, we have heeded false patriots, confidence men, and the apostles of unreasoning fear. This shift in values is another reason life feels fundamentally different now than it did when I was young. The rise of Donald Trump is not a mystery. He is the logical outcome of the philosophy we have allowed ourselves to embrace.

In a different vein entirely, another element of the world that's changed is that time seems shorter now. I've been told that our perception of time changes as we age, that any period of time seems shorter because it becomes a smaller percentage of our life as a whole, but that's never made sense to me. By the same token we could say that when climbing a mountain, time would seem shorter the nearer we got to the top because the distance is a smaller percentage of the journey as a whole. (I think this is an apt analogy. Just as the higher we climb the more arduous the hike, so the older we get the more difficult are the passing years. )

But whatever the mechanism, I'm not as close to nature, or even life itself, as I once was then, and yet that doesn't leave me broken hearted. Though in vastness, mystery, and complexity, nature is one of the greatest wonders of existence, we should not take its loss with abject mourning. The truth is that we don't know the final outcome of consciousness, not our own nor that of any creature. We cannot with certainty even know whether death is a blessing or a curse.

(I don't mean to say we should become callous, merely that we should not let the great extinction going on around us - one that will inevitably involve us at least to some degree - destroy our love and appreciation of life, even less our willingness to go on.)

Though we are only as much as interaction with other living consciousness makes us, in spite of our losses of those living things, we are become deeper beings because we are forced more to confront to eternity. Acceptance of our helplessness in the face of events beyond our control allows us to confront the meaning of our mortality. Life for us and for every living thing is ultimately a process of detaching from the world, and we don't know the outcome of that for any individual living spirit. It may be a curse or it may be a blessing.

There is profound paradox here, as in everything in life. The more we clutch for security; the ability to control our fate in existence, the less we can actually control. We force nature to retreat in our effort to control the world and make it safe for us. but in doing so we undermine the very foundation of our security and even our existence. Sometimes I think we are making the world safe more for machines than human beings and the other living things that are ultimately the only things of value in the world.

***

Last year, at the age of 53, I took up the trumpet and finding I can play it. As one door closes, if we are receptive to opportunities, another opens. While we regret the direction life is taking that direction changes. We are in eternal flux. Life is an endless paradox. Periodically I feel heartbroken by certain aspects of our modern predicament. For example I recently I saw an article accompanied by a photograph of a beautiful silver back gorilla, undoubtedly the patriarch of its corner of the forest, murdered by some lower life form with a gun. The native Africans had carried him down from the forest on a bier, his great arms stretched out to either side in death, representing all of nature, that through our fears and misunderstandings we have nailed to a cross.

When such sadness comes over me I often remember the magical world of my childhood, and the promise inherent in such an acute experiences of consciousness. Any cosmic order that can create such magic it seems to me has the potential to do anything. Awareness seemingly comes out of nothing into the material world, and so one could accurately say that everything comes out of nothing. It is tremendously amusing to me to see science grapple for centuries through investigation of the material world and ultimately say, as with the "big bang" theory, the everything simply came flying out of nothing and say they have explained something. And yet in that very idea there is a tremendous sense of hope.

I don't grieve for the passing of this world as I once did. It miss it, but don't grieve for it, the reason being that I don't think the spirit dies. Beyond our beliefs about scientific certainty, science has not really resolved any of the great mysteries of life. From the above pat explanation of our perception of time shortening as we age to a hundred other pseudo-explanations the modern world creates to shelter us from the mystery of things things we should never have feared in the first place, I see this: the spirit is magic, because the spirit is magic. It is everything and we don't know what it is. It's interwoven with eternity and infinity and we can't fathom the infinite and the eternal. To me time seems more like the medium we ride as we pass through the material world, and we accelerate as we go, in the way a meteor accelerates through the the gravitational attraction of a planet, transforming from one state to another as it goes. Everything seems to suggest that living spirits are just passing through here.

Though I no longer am as close to the natural world, as I once was, and the era of birds, and trees, and bobcats is over for me and I can't return, even as I pass it by a new existence is opening. New possibilities are unfolding in the world if we are willing to grasp them, and our passage from here to eternity holds the promise of something more then we may see in the world today. We are all spirits destined for more than what is right now, and so we shouldn't be sad to find ourselves on the journey father out.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*The Thinker, Rodin, image public domain

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cold Mountain


I wish I could have given this book less than one star.

Somehow I did find my way to the end of this thing. That was some time ago, and I don't remember any of it . . . but I do remember it was not an easy journey. In fact at times I remember thinking I would gladly trade my effort to read this clotted, incoherent prose, for the hapless journey of its caricatured protagonist through the Civil War ravaged South!

I won't bother to attempt to flesh out the story line here - there isn't any. Such as it is, it could be summed up in three sentences - and so the "substance" of the novel has to do with an attempt to convey history and the human condition in a poetical and insightful manner. That is a noble aspiration; the problem is that the author simply fails completely in his effort to accomplish it.

This book is an insult to the literary tradition of the American South, which has produced such great writers as Faulkner, O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams. It simply has nothing new to say about anything and yet doesn't do so in the most pretentious, predictable, (and yet also nebulous) manner conceivable!

That it has been held up as a great American novel is a testament - not to the incapacity of American writers - but to the ineptitude and corruption of current American Publishing and criticism, the state of which is for the most part a scandal, and like this novel a disgrace.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2014 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*Image public domain

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Norton Anthology Sixth Edition

If I were stranded for several years in The Arctic and could chose only one source of entertainment/education/diversion to keep my spirits up, it would be The Norton Anthology, 6th edition. This book is my bible - I've owned it for over ten years and have never tired of picking it up - never run out of new ideas to discover and new writers to appreciate. The scope of the work, like all the Norton Anthologies, is tremendous - the standard of editing flawless - and the discerning list of writers and their titles make a powerful statement about the editor's collective fluency with the subject matter. And what a subject it is!

The English Romantic period is without question, I think, the high-water mark of literature since the classical age, and within this single volume we find the best poetical and many of the best short-prose works of every major contributor to that heritage - along with the contributions of the somewhat lesser, yet still powerful, Victorians. The titanic erudition of Shelley, The unequaled depth and sensitivity of Keats, the rapier-wit of Oscar Wilde - it's all here and more - enough to keep you reading literally for years! Not only is it a sheer pleasure to look forward to reading a book like this, but if you ever find yourself really finished with it you will have emerged a finer person. Not a bad deal for ten or twenty bucks when you think about it!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Balanced Look at Justinian and Theodora? (a review of Theodora Empress of Byzantium)


This novel was well researched and clearly written by an author steeped in the deep complexities of the Byzantine Age, but I had a real problem with his apparent intention to "rehabilitate" the reputation of Empress Theodora, regardless of almost any degree of moral ambiguity and contradiction. It seemed as though the author could find no consistent world-view - no clear lens through which to interpret the life of this woman; one of histories trans-formative figures.

In the author's defense he isn't alone in this difficulty. The tremendous moral, political, and cultural complexities of the Byzantine Age often afflict those who attempt to chronicle them with a deep confusion!

Although the dominant perspective of the novel is clearly Catholic/historical and attempts to present Theodora as a defender of the faith, at other points I felt as though the author were presenting her from a modern feminist perspective. At yet other times I felt as if he were defending her from the charge of relentless and single-minded cruelty, of ruthless tyranny, and doing so from the perspective of a purely Machiavellian pragmatism! And these are just the beginning of the unresolved contradictions in the book.

My problem is not that I can't envision a person of that complexity. There is, obviously, virtually no limit to the potential complexities of the human personality. A failure to delve deeply enough into that complexity is, in my opinion, the failing here. The mystery of Theodora, the subject of the book, has defeated him. Her life remains an enigma that simply resists his every attempt to make it conform to some handy modern concept, to put it in some "box" where a modern reader can glance at it, understand it, and turn away content that their essential world-view hasn't been disturbed - because the far deeper truth is that if you look at Theodora's life and you aren't both confounded and deeply disturbed then you simply haven't been paying attention.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Journey Farther Out

Awareness broke with crystal clarity,
Stars pierced the sky's cloudless night,
And in the uncertain fortune of a newborn sun,
Light dawned on mountains and on mountainous seas.

The gods wrought life from temporal things,
Invoked the canvas on which to paint our tears-
Cast our spirits out upon the chance of night
Into hopes and fears this side of oblivion

In times we felt the presence of darker things,
Learned in fragrant gardens poisons grow,
And urging our spirits beyond the border of night
We flew onward toward a more transcendent star.

Even in infancy we began the journey farther out,
Onward on the train rumbling just beyond our sight,
Glimpsed in glory beyond the boundary of the years,
It shakes and awes our spirits even in our sleep.

Even in infancy we begin the journey farther out.
As meteors blaze out against the blue-black dawn,
From dreams and fears that lie this side of oblivion,
Trailing auroras of our spiritual beauty as we go.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*Image Claude Monet, oil on canvas, public domain

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Condition Of Literature


The complexity of information technology has over the last generation brought us abruptly into a new age. The effect on society is greater than any since the industrial revolution, or the Gutenberg press, and we're still too early in the process to anticipate the outcome. Nevertheless, I think it's possible to make a few relevant observations concerning the effect of these changes.

Firstly, although the transformation taking place is radical and extreme, there isn't any corresponding effort to access, or adjust to that transformation. This is inexplicable to me. It's akin to rafting down a wild river without a life preserver, or even a paddle. It seems apparent we need the effort and cooperation only made possible through government and other political institutions, such as the United Nations, to guide us through this transformation. We can't leave our response to such a complex problem to the 'magic hand' of the market, or to some other fanciful entity. Yet for the moment we in America can't make government the focus of the solution because we remain captive the a long discredited world-view that society should never plan anything at all!

It is an "Alice in Wonderland" predicament. It reminds me of a story I was once told by a teacher of mine, who said that whenever his mother encountered a particularly dangerous situation on the Detroit freeway she would close her eyes and "let God carry her through."
So in this time of revolutionary change we're shackled by the fanciful misconception that trying to do something is foolish, and instead we should do nothing. If that were true than during all the years we've done nothing about our problems they should have been solved by the "magic hand" of the market, or by chance, or by whatever, and we would no longer need to worry about them at all.

This predicament of unprecedented change, while implementing no plan whatsoever to address that change, is heading world toward a train wreck. Even if we did expend the enormous energy necessary to address this situation it would be very difficult to do so, but to make no concerted effort at all is sheer madness.

Of course there are positive aspects to the technological revolution. For one thing it brings the people of the world (at least figuratively) closer together which should reduce prejudice and misunderstanding, and it should also have a beneficial effect on the environment by reducing our need for many raw material - thus preserving our ecological systems from further collapse. And it can speed our technological response to crisis' in medicine, and in many other areas.

The problem is not technology itself necessarily, but our response to technology. Each new advance adds to the complexity of the world just as our collective psychic stability is already challenged by the unprecedented advance of previous technology, from forcing to deal with a world that is changing too fast to reasonably expect anybody to adjust. The seemingly endless number of random shootings in America (such as the one that happened yesterday in Orlando Florida, where 50 people were killed by a single gun man with a semi automatic rifle) should be a clear indication that people are under increasing strain, and further complexity will lead to further strain. I don't believe I need to say that increasing complexity of life is wholly responsible for incidents such as the one described above, but that is a major contributing factor.

We must remember that we were sold the notion of computer technology in order to ease the burden of our lives, and instead it has had the opposite effect. The reason is really quite simple - although I never hear it spoken of in the media, which is where most people now live - and that is that technology cannot solve the problem of greed and our other moral failings. These are the real problems. It's impossible to solve problems that exist in the human psyche through external means. Technological hardware (and software) simply cannot solve problems of the human psyche and the question of the state of our collective social and spiritual development.

Beyond the staggering lack of response to these changes on the part of government is the question of the system by which we distribute goods and services; the foundation of our economy, which is human labor. For hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands depending how one defines employment, the vast majority of people have made their living through selling their labor. This is the foundation of our economy and computers are making human labor obsolete. If we continue with a value system whereby human worth is measured by the worth of human labor, than very soon humans beings will no longer have a place in human society. I don't know about others, but I find that to be an absolutely outrageous predicament.

Computers are also transforming 'high culture." That is to say culture that aspires to the highest intellectual and spiritual aspirations, and exists as a measure of our moral advancement. More than anything since the Italian renaissance lifted us from the dark ages, computers are changing the things that define what it means to be human - our music, our visual arts and most seriously our relationship to the written word.

Because I believe our literary inheritance more than any single thing defines who we are as people, I will conclude here by singling out the effect high tech is having on literature...

The means we have heretofore used to write, to evaluate writing, to edit, to read and to simply communicate through writing has changed completely in the last several decades, leaving American literature in a state of complete disarray. There is no longer any way to separate what is good in literature from what is bad, the result being that publishing is now completely controlled by profit. This situation which will lead to rapid intellectual and cultural decline. It is also true that the owners of media will then be the single determinate of what is published and what isn't, because government is putting no limits on that usurpation of power in what was once a democratic intuition, the press. The most obvious example of this abuse is the controlling of information and ideas by omission. Many people may not be aware of it but there have been large political demonstrations in America in recent years that have not been covered by the national press at all. It is as if they never happened. The media can and does for example cover a political demonstration of only fifty people for a cause the media owners support, while not covering a demonstration of one hundred thousand people for a political cause they are opposed to.

This effect is, of course tempered by the fact that computers are a tool through which people can use to learn about anything they want to learn about, and this aspect is probably what's best about them. The point is that all of these things are happening without any public debate on those effects or government controls on the outcome, no matter how potentially detrimental to the public at large.

Changes to literature and the written word fundamentally alter the way we see the world, we relate to life, and to each other. Written language, like spoken language, defines what we are as human beings. Consequently changes to language and the means by which it is conveyed are transformative to a culture, whether for good or bad.

To the individual writer these changes have already been bewildering. Not only is it now nearly impossible to make a penny on one's work, but the loss of effective criticism that reaches the educated reader prevents good writing from being made widely available to those who might be interested in it, effectively silencing new voices and altering human culture at a basic level. On the other hand the computer has, at least for the moment, led many more people to write more, which is positive, but the resulting "democratization" of literature leads to a glut of writing in the public eye with no means to sort that which is worthwhile from that which is not.

The question then becomes how do we as individuals deal with these sweeping changes? It appears that we as writers, and everyone in the state of their various abilities, must not give up. It is not enough to have our art, our entertainment, our music and our human interaction pumped into us as passive receptacles. If life has meaning at all then participation in these things is a great part defines that meaning.

Writers who have something important to say in America can no longer afford the fear of egotism afforded by many writers in the past. It may well have been true at one time that if a writer maintained an appropriate humility the standard of their work speak for them, but in America today we have a culture obsessed with competition and continually involved in aggressive self promotion. Those who wait for their work to find a place based on its merits will wait until the Second Coming.

So we must find ways carry our culture forward to the best of our ability, in spite of overwhelming frustrations, in spite of achieving no recognition, in spite of making nothing on the work we're most suited to. We must do this to preserve a world which is worthy of human dignity and a life that is worth living in at all.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*Image, Trinity Library, Dublin

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I Sing this Song of the Sea


I sing this song of the sea, who took me in her arms,
And wrapped me in the luster of her cold, silver moon,
Her mouth was wet with the tears of the wild wind,
And her reverent scent warmed by the sun's desire.

I sing of the mountain, who clothed me in her spring,
Her October snows wrapped me in cold ermine robes,
The dance of her lightning lit fires in deepest night,
And her pale dawning light healed the wounds of time.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
* Image, Edward Pottast, oil on canvas, Public domain

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Spiritual Legacy of the Twentieth Century


The World War II era has always fascinated me because it's such an epic chapter in history, with such wide-reaching consequences. For those interested in that history there are of course countless books addressing the topic. Most of them focus on the strategy of the war, or the tactics employed in certain battles, and although fascinating these things do little to answer what seems to me as the most important question that history raises. Tactics and strategy are by no means the sum total of what's written about World War II. There are also uncounted books dealing with the politics, both leading up to the war and during the war itself, and these are also fascinating; but neither do they deal, at least directly with the questions raised by such a catastrophic human tragedy.

Much of the material written about that war aimed at American readership has focused on our contribution to the war, both material and on the battle field, and to the perception of democracy's moral superiority over fascism. And no doubt there is great truth in the prevailing view of the majority of those books, that our contribution to the allied cause was significant and praiseworthy. It certainly seems to have been necessary - despite the inherent waste and destruction of such an endeavor - and that's something we in the United States can be proud of - that we were for that moment in history a force for justice and for those "truths that we hold self evident."

I had an uncle who fought in World War II, in New Guinea, which was one of the worst theaters of that war, and I believe what he did there was genuinely heroic, as was the effort and sacrifice of so many other Americans. I have great respect for that, and nothing I say hear is intended to (or even could) detract from that accomplishment. But as for myself I'm tired of the harking back to America's "days of glory," because it simply detracts from the issues we must face now, which are in their own way just as daunting as the war was to those of that generation, and also simply because the notion of glory in war is deceptive. Ask a combat veteran (of any real conflict) and see what they tell you about the glory of war. That glory is a myth. The reality is unspeakably horrible.

I'm also tired of all the efforts to prove American Exceptionalism. Execptionalism is not even a word in the English language, but it would take another essay to address the debasement of the language in our era, so I won't elaborate on that. The point is that all of this together fails to address the central question of World War II, that is isn't possible to combat evil with war? Whatever we call the force unleashed on mankind by fascist ideology in the 1930's and 1940's, whether one believes it was demented psychology, or a ruthless attempt to reorganize society on a model of mere survival of the fittest, or whether it was sheer evil, there is no doubt that that force is real and you can't defeat it with war. That was what Gandhi was trying to show us.

So beyond all the books, and films, and archive material on the war we are left with this question... Is the formation of political and military empires such as the one Adolf Hitler was attempting to create something that can be controlled, and is that force of demonstrable power?

I can hear many people who's interpretation of the world is through the scientific method - such a person as I was until I was in my 30's - scoffing at such a question. "A power of evil?" Absurd.

But it is not absurd. Before World War II the United States - despite its persecution of the Native Americans and the past enslavement of people from Africa, horrid aberrations to say the least - was an isolationist country that with the First World War in clear hindsight was adamantly opposed to entering another war, much less another world war. At that time we wanted simply to stay out of international conflicts and pursue our own aims, yet the advent of fascism and absolute dictatorship in Russia under Stalin, drew us into the conflict in spite of what we wanted. We were pulled you could say into an evil vortex of human hatred, and that pull had a power all it's own. Our subsequent exposure to the horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia changed us as a people and we have never been the same since.

Those who battle monsters must be careful they don't become monsters themselves.

That is a paraphrase of Nietzsche, and he was by no means the first to recognize the phenomenon. As the power of empires passes from one nation to another so passes the laws of earthly power, or it might be said the power of evil, because those forces often appear intertwined or even inseparable. That force (here I will call it evil for the sake of expedience) operates under discernible laws or inevitable principles and those who acquire it cannot escape those laws. The first and foremost is that those who attain power are forced to protect that power, from enemies real and imagined. The more aggressive the drive for power the more far reaching appears the impulse it sends through the human psyche, like ripples through water. At the end of World War II America was, somewhat haphazardly, left a global power, and thus our society began to change.

Under Franklin Roosevelt the United States was essentially a power for good in the world, at least relative to the powers that contested us, but when the war ended and we became the worlds greatest power, it revolutionized our society. From being an essentially naive people with Christian values, we became a cynical people with overwhelmingly materialistic values. From an isolationist people we became "interventionist," and ultimately a force undermining genuine democracy around the globe.

The America of isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s would almost certainly never have become involved in the Vietnam War, for example, but those who wield great power are impelled to protect it. The line between defense and offence easily becomes blurred when a nation becomes powerful. Thus, through the effort to maintain power a peaceful nation becomes an aggressor almost by default when acquiring great power, and that aggression breeds enemies which in turn builds more aggression... Here we see the maelstrom into which empires are drawn. World War II advanced the technology of destruction exponentially. We entered the war flying canvas winged bi-planes and exited it, only a half a dozen years later, with jet airplanes. We started with dynamite and ended with the atomic bomb. But the question remains what is the actual force that drives these laws of power and aggression? For such transformation to take place there must be an actual force that drives that transformation.

This is an idea rarely discussed. Instead we tend to operate under the belief that we are in control of events and that is true only to a degree. In a greater sense we are not in control and are impelled by this mysterious force itself. That was what Christ, Gandhi, and the Buddha, among others, were telling us. Our real problem is not scarcity, or environmental destruction, or overpopulation, or global warming. These things are the symptom of the problem. The problem is whether we will allow ourselves to be governed by the above force, the mechanism of fear and survival of the fittest, or finally realize that we are doomed if we don't consciously rise towards a higher order. Human beings alone are in a position to deny this lower law of natural selection, with all its meaninglessness and moral horror.

The ring of power, as Tolkien described it, is real. It just isn't in an actual ring, and you don't become invisible when you put it on. It does however degrade those who wield it, as it did those in Tolkien's fantasy. Power and/or evil, or the lower order passes from one group to another and so the cycle goes on and on. If the democracy we had after World War II, with its enormous middle class, it's education and its widespread affluence can be corrupted by being unwittingly handed the power of global supremacy then it seems any society will be so corrupted. So until we confront the Darwinian laws that enslave us, as they enslave all living things on earth, and overcome that most frightening thing of all, our fear of one another, we will never have peace and we will be trapped in a world that will produce eternal suffering.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on the Nature of Idealism and Practicality



I've put some thought into a number of fundamental questions lately and this essay results from pondering such related ideas, but I think its worthy of a post in itself:

From birth we find ourselves pulled in opposite directions by the nature of the world. Material necessities such as food, water, clothing and shelter, lead us to put our attention on the demands of practical necessity; on the other hand as we mature we ultimately develop an equal need for things that at first appear abstract, and yet in the absence of which we likewise can't survive. Hope for the future, some sense of purpose for our lives, love, perhaps even the psychic need for the fantastical imagination. For such things we have an unquenchable desire.

Those who say that spirituality is not a necessity need only look at Helen Keller before she learned to communicate, to find evidence that is not true. Her material needs were provided for and her spiritual needs were completely denied. And so without love, hope, and connection to community, her life was by her own description a living hell. Neither under the circumstances could she have survived long alone. And if such things as love and hope aren't spiritual needs the word has no valid definition.

So both of these aspects of life, the material and the spiritual, are needed in order for us to exist. The path to acquiring them however often leads to contradiction and to working at cross purposes. Often they are even mutually exclusive. A hungry child might have a playmate they want to be their friend, but when they find something good to eat they must choose between satisfying their hunger or keeping their friend. This choice between physical and the spiritual needs is a recurring theme in life, often leading us to rivalry which is the poison of happiness. It leads us to being self centered, to cynicism, to contempt, and finally can lead to a kind of spiritual death.

"Man is not made of bread alone." This simple adage from the Bible sums up this dilemma of our material as opposed to our spiritual needs, a dilemma so fundamental we often lose sight of it in life's complexity, and yet it's one of the questions that most defines who we are. How we handle this conflict is central to our lives, and the result is what we generally refer to as the liberal and conservative outlooks. The liberal outlook is rooted in idealism; in the idea that mankind can be improved by heeding the call of the spirit, while the conservative rooted in an outlook more focused on perusing the practical side of life to solve our problems. Both of these outlooks are valid, because they both reflect aspects of existence as it is. That is why the confrontation between the liberal vs. the conservative never ends. In this realization we can also see that the gap between the empathetic, artistic, liberal mentality, and the assertive, pragmatic, conservative mentality, are not as significant as we come to believe they are, both being grounded in aspects of the same conditions.

It is in our response to this dilemma of scarcity that we find the difference between the liberal and conservative outlooks. The liberal believes that if we strive to reach these qualities of love, and truth, and open-mindedness, we can trust in that connection to lead us to a better world. It is an outlook outlook that conceives such things as truth and love to be the only guideposts we have to navigate a ruthless world, and furthermore that if we forsake them we are headed towards our destruction. The conservative believes that that need to follow our self-interest to face the conflicts of the world, or at least see to them through as individuals. Idealism, they believe to be pie-in-the-sky nonsense, and that the only way to get anything out of life is to fight for it, to earn it in the school of hard knocks. This is albeit an over simplification, but on the whole I think it is relatively accurate, and in light of the above understanding I think could have a less antagonistic political system.

Having said this I will go on to say that there is also a tremendous gap between these two outlooks in terms of their effect on the world. Liberals want a world based on ideals, and conservatives on practicality, and I think it isn't too much to say that this is nothing less than the choice between civilization and the jungle. It is the choice between an order based upon hope opposed to one based upon fear.

We all know how brutal the world is. Conservatives often charge liberals with not understand the real world, as if liberals were living on some other planet, or in some rarefied air where they never have to confront any problems. No, we are all aware of what goes on in the "real world." The difference is that the conservative outlook is tied to survival of the fittest while the liberal outlook is tied to the aspirations of humanity. The latter holds out hope for humanity while the former can lead nowhere but to a lowering of ourselves again into the violent battle for survival, because if there's one thing that separates mankind from the battle of nature red in tooth and claw it's that we have the unique ability to seek a higher order; to create a world that is better than that.

Self interest is simply another way of saying survival of the fittest, and short of striving for a more noble order we might as well be predators, yet lacking the innate nobility of a tiger or the loyalty of a wolf, and relegated to a circumstance in existence that is both ridiculous and craven. A world of self-interest is in the end no different from the ethic of the cretaceous era, of the tyrannosaurus rex. We can't win at that game and personally I don't want to even try. It is in striving to a higher spirituality that mankind can aspire to greatness.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
21stcenturyperceptions.blogspot.com
*Image Prisoners Exercising Vincent Van Gogh public domain

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

An Open Letter to the Democratic National Committee

Below is an open letter to the Democratic National Committee. I though it might be of interest to some readers of this blog.

Thank you, Brent


I have been a registered Democrat and have voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1980, as well as in most of the midterm elections, but for the first time in the current election I caucused for a candidate... Bernie Sanders. I did that because like so many people in America I see our democracy being corrupted by the power of vested interest. (So that there be no confusion what I mean by vested interest is the interests of those motivated by private profit rather than the public good.) And it is that concern that has brought out the public in unprecedented numbers in this primary season.

What I saw at my local caucus this year was unique in my memory in American politics. In contrast to the lackluster turnout in most caucuses there was not just a high turnout, there was a feeling of vibrancy, of electricity in the air. In our town of perhaps 40, 000 there were literally thousands of people standing in long lines to participate, and the result here was that Bernie Sanders won over Hilary Clinton by seven to one. There was, for the first time I remember since the Candidacy of Bobbie Kennedy, real passion expressed for the candidate and for the potential of our democracy. Sanders was clearly bringing in people who haven't voted in years, many who have perhaps never voted before at all. Of course there were also the same old party hacks as well, who were not in the least happy about that tremendous turnout - there looks said so as plain as day. They seemed to be saying "I don't know who these people are but the sooner they get out of here the better."

The party machine was not happy about this surge of excitement, other than to the degree they could co-opt it in the next election for establishment candidates, and then discard it as quickly as possible afterwards so they could get on with business as usual, as it has been in America for over fifty years now. The machine would indeed like these pesky Sanders supporters to vote for Clinton, the business as usual candidate, and then go away. But from what I saw at the caucus I attended they are not going to go away this time, and if the party tries to shove the status quo of down people's throats once again all they will do is cause the party damage, perhaps irrevocable damage. The Republican Party has been all but destroyed over it's unwillingness to take into account the vast disillusionment within in the party today, and the Democrats are on the verge of making the same mistake, destroying the party by failing to recognize this is one time the people can't just be fobbed off with the same old lack of real choice they have been presented with for so long. A significant percentage of those who voted for Sanders in the primaries simply will not vote for Clinton in the election, ever. It's that simple.

I've voted Democratic for over 40 years and I have yet to see my political beliefs actually represented in American politics, and I am not the only one. There is a tremendous level of resentment built up over the decades that the actual people of this country have been frozen out of the political equation. The party establishment must recognize that there is now a serious risk in not acknowledging the reality of people's bitterness. Those center-right Democrats who have benefited from voter complacency will tell us those who voted for Sanders will yet again get in line and vote for the establishment candidate, simply in order to thwart Donald Trump, and in most elections that equation would probably be true, but if they believe it is this time they are simply in denial regarding the degree of outrage voters have directed at the establishment. A simple measure of that deep disaffection can be seen in the percentage of Republicans who voted for Jeb Bush in this election. Considering his families status in the party his defeat was epic, and whether the Democratic party wants to acknowledge it or not there are a lot on people out there who would actually vote for Trump as opposed to Clinton in this election simply to see somebody, anybody, other then a candidate of the establishment.

I don't need to even say the risk we take in having a Trump presidency because we nominate Clinton in an anti-establishment year. The repercussions of that are simply unfathomably precarious for this nation.

Brent Hightower