[A] problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away.
For human beings, at least, the archetypal predicament is the imminence of death. Facing it, we come up with responses that range from evasion and denial to some of the greatest creations of the human mind. Since it’s a predicament, not a problem, the responses don’t make it go away; they don’t “solve” it, they simply deal with the reality of it. No one response works for everybody, though some do tend to work better than others. The predicament remains, and conditions every aspect of life in one way or another.
–Archdruid Emeritus John Michael Greer; courtesy of here.
[When Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.
–Interview by David Brancaccio, NOW (PBS) (7 October 2005); courtesy of Wikiquote
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”
Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century. He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though. I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.
Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics. At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University. Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day: print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV. Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.
Before I get on with the points I want to make in this new series, I want to point to a couple of essays that set the stage.
The first is from the old Beliefnet blog, “Kingdom of Priests”, by author and (ugh) supporter of Intelligent Design, David Klinghoffer. I disagree with him on many points, Intelligent Design being but one, but his comparison of a convert to radical Islam and a fantasy fan is interesting. An excerpt:
An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman [the young man who converted and joined Al-Qaeda] in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”
The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?
When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.
Relatedly, in this essay Julian Sanchez theorizes about the mindset of many believers:
Fundamentalists of every sect are, pretty much by definition, strongly committed to the literal truth of all of their scripture. But the garden variety “believer,” I suspect, may often be more accurately thought of as a “suspension-of-disbeliever.”
When you think about the actual functions that religious narratives serve in people’s lives, literal truth or falsity is often rather beside the point, and yet suspension of disbelief is a necessary condition of immersion in the story. On this view, Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out that all the ways superhero physics don’t really make sense. (Wouldn’t characters with “super strength” would really need super speed as well to do stuff like punching through concrete? Shouldn’t Cyclops be propelled backwards when he unleashes those concussive eye beams?”) It’s not annoying because we literally believed the stories, but because our enjoyment depends on our not attending too explicitly to their unreality. People can, on one level, be powerfully committed to the idea that Han Solo shot first, dammit—while on another being perfectly aware that, really, nobody shot anybody, and it’s actually just Harrison Ford and a dude in a green rubber suit with some laser effects added in post production.
Fanboys, of course, know their cherished fantasy worlds are fantasy, and will admit as much readily if you press them. For many ordinary believers, I suspect the situation is closer to what I think my initial view of Sherlock Holmes probably was: I knew that Watson “was” Holmes’ faithful sidekick, and that Moriarty “was” his archenemy, but if you asked me whether I meant this “was” in the sense of a historical truth claim or only as a “truth” about a fictional narrative, I suspect I would have initially been surprised by the question, because nothing about my relationship to the narrative or my reasons for enjoying it turned essentially on whether the events it depicted had really happened.
Now as a religious person myself, I don’t think these insights invalidate religion in general or specific religions in particular. I do think they make valid points, though, and often cut closer to home than many of us would like to think. In the next post I want to look at cultural factors that set the stage for this, and then I want to look at ramifications. And by the way, Han did shoot first!
Update: A fascinating if disturbing article along much the same lines I’m discussing.
Part of the series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“
I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.” On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool. Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.
I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture. Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic. There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples. They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time. More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture. There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.
As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified. Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters. Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.
In my last post, which deals with the archetype of the Trickster in pop culture, having been prompted by a discussion of who should host MST3K, I mentioned, in addition to the Trickster, the Holy Fool. I didn’t describe the Holy Fool beyond merely mentioning the term, so I’m using this post as a brief detour to discuss the Fool archetype.
The Holy Fool or Fool is in a sense the Trickster in a religious context. What one might call the spiritual-but-not-religious form of the Holy Fool is the Fool. We’ll distinguish the nuances soon. In any case, the Holy Fool emerges from the very definition of religion. Religion–from the Latin re-ligio, or “binding back” (to the Absolute)–ultimately seeks to connect us to the Absolute, however we may conceive of that (God, Brahman, the Universe, etc.). In short, it seeks to take us beyond the realm of day-to-day existence; it seeks, in short, transcendence. The question is, how does one describe transcendence in the language of the day-to-day world? Mystics–those who claim to have had experience of that transcendent level of reality–are in an even more difficult position. Having experienced the transcendent, how to you convey that experience to those who have not had it? It’s like trying to describe color to the blind or music to the deaf. It is like the man in the Plato’s cave who, having experienced the exterior world, is looked at as insane by his fellows still locked in darkness. Not surprisingly, the mystic is indeed often looked at as insane by larger society.