The Agility of Suffering.

So, it’s almost September and time to get writing again. I haven’t been particularly active over the summer, but now I’m working up to a regular schedule of reading and writing.

It’s been an interesting summer, hot and dry with heavy smoke in the air at times. Wildfires still burn on the north end of Vancouver Island. And there’s been pain. Lots of it for Carolyn with her appendectomy and arthritis and me, well I suffer from chronic pain. I’m now seeing an amazing physiotherapist and it could be, it just could be, that I will find some relief from the pain that has plagued me for years around my shoulders, back and neck. I don’t believe there’s much that can be done about the pain that I still suffer from around the sites of past surgeries, one that removed a kidney and another on my lower back. I can deal with all the pain although it does make me cranky from time to time as Carolyn can attest, and it can drain me of energy.

I recently wrote about pain in this blog. I focussed specifically on the invisibility of pain and the fact that an individual’s pain is always assumed rather than demonstrated empirically. That is to say that if you break your leg in a biking accident, the medical professionals can easily ascertain the reality of the fracture, but the pain you would surely feel would not be evident, nor clearly measurable. When I got my left kidney removed in 2002 to excise kidney cell cancer, the general assumption was that I would have some pain. That assumption was correct and I was dosed with morphine to try to mitigate the pain. It worked, but years later I still feel the need now and again to take a T3, or Tylenol with codeine for the pain. The pain in my side from the surgery is still very real although the experts at the pain clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital’s Pain Clinic were convinced when I was a patient there a few years ago that the pain comes from my brain and not from my side.

The pain your doctor acknowledges you must be feeling after surgery or a broken leg can only be measured subjectively, on a scale of 1 to 10, say. Some people, one in a million according to a couple of websites I consulted, cannot feel pain and their lives are extremely hazardous because of it.  Apparently, we need pain. It warns us of underlying problems and issues. It urges us to seek relief and balance.

Without any hard evidence, I hypothesize that people experience pain idiosyncratically. That is, some of us may be highly sensitive to pain while some of us are more or less inured to it. That goes for physical as well as psychic pain. In my next post, I want to address the issue of the amount of social, individual and economic resources that go into pain detection, management, and alleviation.

In this post I want to move away from pain somewhat to consider suffering. Suffering, although most people can agree on a general definition of it as generalized and sustained pain, has been vilified as a great social evil or hailed as the way to eternal life, in fact, the only way to eternal life. In a short blog post I cannot begin to summarize the importance that the concept of suffering has had (and still has) in human history. It is a concept that infuses so much of our existence and our attention. And it’s used in so many ways, hence its agility.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” It’s worth dwelling on this quote for a bit. What does it mean “to live is to suffer”?

Well, I surmise that it may have to do with how we define suffering as essentially being unable or unwilling to change something. If I say, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”, that means that I won’t put up with their crap. Most people suffer fools silently as is sufficiently demonstrated in the U.S. at the moment. I suffer pain, but some people suffer loneliness (or the inability to form meaningful relationships with other people). Some suffer success (or the inability to accept the fact that they stand out). Some suffer fame (of the inability to accept the attention paid to them by larger numbers of people). To ‘put up with’ pain means to suffer pain. To suffer means to be blocked, to be unable to move to change or alleviate distress or pain, to lose control. To suffer means to be unable to accept life and death.

Shakespeare has Hamlet say in a famous soliloquy: “Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?” Hamlet must answer this question for himself. Should he silently put up with disloyalty and nastiness in the family or stand up and fight? Neither option is great, but Shakespeare’s meaning is clear.

So, how does this relate to Nietzsche’s aphorism? The way I read it, Nietzsche is saying that life is a process of helplessly awaiting death. Shakespeare gives Hamlet a choice between two paths. Life doesn’t do that for us. There is only one possible outcome when we are born. We suffer in waiting for our final breath. We can do nothing about it. We are helpless in the face of it. That is a basic definition of suffering. Of course, us humans with our big brains were not going to accept that fate, so we invented a myriad of cultural ways of denying death, of convincing ourselves that for us, death doesn’t exist.[1] Baptism is one ritual specifically designed to thwart death. Baptism, for believers, welcomes the initiate into a possible eternal life.

One of the more deleterious consequences of this obsession with denying death is the conclusion that any one group’s death denying immortality projects must be exclusive. Simply put, if my immortality project promises me eternal life, then yours must be a lie and must be defeated to prove it. A vivid example of this is congruent with colonialism. Christian missionaries who accompanied European traders, explorers and exploiters in the early history of the global spread of capitalist production considered it their duty to extinguish indigenous belief systems, forcing locals to adopt Christianity or face extermination. To a large extent, they succeeded although vestiges of indigenous immortality projects have survived to this day and are sometimes rallying points for indigenous cultural, social and economic revival.

For religious folk, suffering is a big deal. Christians and Jews are intimately familiar with suffering having been condemned to it in this mortal coil because of the follies in the Garden of Eden. In contrast, suffering is endemic to life as Thomas Hobbes maintained just because it is, history proves it. Jordan Peterson, a contemporary pop philosopher not remotely in Hobbes’ league, also finds that suffering is the essence of life as is brutality. He is not ‘religious’ himself, but he does support the religious view that suffering is essential. For Peterson, it is an indispensable element of human psychological growth.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that suffering is not an essential part of human and other sentient life. However, unless we agree to dwell on one end of the continuum of human suffering and human bliss, or accept the idea that life is itself suffering, we must accept that suffering is always contingent, conditional and situational. Life is not endless suffering for everyone. We are capable of moments of glee, pain free activity, both physical and psychic (or mental). Yes, we live and we die, but acceptance of that fact can alleviate much suffering.

Many religious folks, not just Christians by any stretch of the imagination, are focussed on arriving at that acceptance by denying earthly death. They defy their helplessness before death by handing over control over their lives to whatever god or deity they chose to create for themselves. Not all of us share in that type of denial. Those of us who are irreligious have to accept the fact of biological death like we accept the fact of biological life because, in fact, they depend on each other. Life cannot exist without death.

So, suffer away folks. As I write earlier in this blog post, I suffer from chronic pain. I’d like it to go away, but it’s not likely to happen. That means I have a choice to make, just like the choice Shakespeare gave to Hamlet. I can either suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or fight on until there is no more fight left in this old body of mine. I’m not particularly good at suffering slings and arrows, so I guess I only have one option left. That really simplifies life.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For a thorough analysis of death denial there is no better source in my mind than Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, available on Amazon or better still, order it from your local bookstore.

What’s So Scary About Women? They’re Devils, That’s What.

Or, they ‘commune with the devil’, i.e., have sex with him. That’s not much better.

For men who dream of immortality, women, who are so clearly associated with Eros, with the  pleasure principle (as psychoanalysis would have it) are a clear and present danger. God is always associated with light, the devil with darkness. It’s a sad state of affairs that men, as long as they’ve been men and not ‘merely’ animals, have felt that women are a major source of their downfall. In fact, Aristotle and many others considered that the ‘vital’ factor in making children rested solely with the male. Women were simply the receptacle for the fully formed life in the sperm. The sperm was where it was at. Aristotle never considered the fact that women might have eggs, embryos that are at least half of the picture in fertilization and mitosis. We can forgive people in the past for not understanding how babies come about but it’s still a mystery for some people apparently.

And procreation is all mixed up with pleasure and sexual desire. Sex is not just about making babies even if the Abrahamic religions denied the notion that orgasm or pleasure were anything more than a distraction from the main goal of sex. Pleasure in sex was always bad, evil, because it drew attention away from the ultimate goal of humankind in bartering with God for access to eternal life. Symbolically, God is spirit, the Devil is body, earth, dirt. Spirit leads to eternal life, the Devil leads to death, eternal death. Our bodies are our own worst enemies. Women just add a double jeopardy to the situation. The equation of women with the devil is clearly derivative of the kind of logic behind original sin, a logic that has prevented equality between men and women for as long as we know.

Historically, artists have not shied away from depictions of women consorting with the devil or as the devil themselves. Look at this image. It’s from a book called On Ugliness edited by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli, 2007).

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It’s on page 190 in a section called The Demonization of the Enemy. The image is from Thomas Murner and is entitled: The pastors of the Lutheran Church make a pact with a buffoon or a madman and the devil. (in Von der Grossen Lutherischen Narren, 1522). Now, that’s pretty weird in itself, but the image contains one representation that is of specific interest to me here. Look at the picture of the devil. Do you see what I see? Breasts and a vulva?

It’s pretty hard for me to escape the idea that Murner had it in his mind that the devil is a woman, dragging men into sins of the flesh by her vile seductions. Poor men! How can we resist the temptation? Well, we can’t. Why? Because we’re animals. No matter how stridently we try to deny it, we are animals and we have all the animal urges needed for a sexually  reproducing species, urges that can be diverted to aims of pure pleasure in any number of ways. Simple. Well, not so simple for a species that wants to live eternally. We see or know of  animals dying all the time, hit by cars, in slaughterhouses, on farms. That couldn’t possibly be our fate. So denying our animal nature is, well, kind of natural for a big brained animal like us. To gain access to heaven we need to deny our animal nature.

According to Murner (and he has a lot of company), women are the source of the fall of man. Original sin was perpetrated by a woman when she convinced poor Adam to eat forbidden fruit. Seductress! Devil woman who leads man into sin, into death, the death of all living things! The only way ‘man’ can convince himself that he deserves eternal life is by denying earthly existence and by putting all his energy into cultural forms of death-denial often in the form of institutions that depict nature as dangerous and deadly to be dominated and tamed at all costs. Include women in the definition of nature in the previous sentence and you have the perfect recipe for misogyny.

The photo below also from Eco’s book reproduces a painting by Franz von Stuck. It’s called Sin and was painted in 1893. The painting is of a young woman wrapped in a huge snake, an obvious reference to Satan, the same one who was the culprit in all the nastiness that went down with Adam and Eve. So, in one stroke, von Stuck clearly associates women with the devil. The snake is a most consistent symbol for the penis in all of human history. So, Von Stuck, the consummate misogynist suggests that this woman may very well be having sex with the devil. So bad! So evil!

sin

Well, it’s all fine and dandy, but in my world, the devil doesn’t exist, making it difficult for women to have sex with him. That didn’t stop The Doors from putting out a song called Woman is a Devil or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels from releasing a song called Devil with a Blue Dress On.

 

 

That said, there’s no way I could even begin to scratch the surface of historical and modern depictions, in the visual arts, literature, poetry, and other cultural forms, of women as devils, as evil temptresses, out to seduce us poor men thereby denying us a life of eternal bliss in heaven with God.

More to come. Stay tuned. Why aren’t men and women equal?

 

Our Fleeting Lives.

I have two photographs to show you. The first one is of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

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Picture 1

The second is also of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia but this house no longer exists. It stood on exactly the piece of ground now occupied by the duplex in picture 1. It was my family home.

634then
Picture 2

 

Just so you know, the first image I downloaded from Google Earth street view. The second one I got from one of my sisters. I don’t want to relive my family’s life in the home depicted in the second photograph, the one I would call my family home but it would be an interesting journalistic exercise. After all, it was a very important place in my life for years. No, what I want to do is dwell upon another reality. But first a little background.

 

Look at photograph 1 and you see a relatively new duplex between a home on the right and a fourplex on the left. The fourplex has been there some time and existed when the house in photograph 2 was there. It was built after a very dilapidated home was torn down sometime in the sixties if memory serves me right. The house on the right stands on a lot my family sold after our property was subdivided into a number of parcels. It was built sometime in the sixties too. The photo is unexceptional in just about every way. The unit on the left of the duplex is 636 Alderson Avenue and the unit on the right is 634.

 

That (634) was the address of my family home for a long time. I’m not sure exactly for how long because I don’t really know when my father and his first wife moved into it. I think it was sometime in 1937. When my parents moved out of the house you see in picture 2 one of my sisters bought it from them, sometime in the 1980s, the house was still in the family for a period of time. Later, after my sister sold the house it was eventually demolished and the duplex in picture 1 was built to replace it. By the time it was demolished, the house in picture 2 had undergone extensive renovations. Although the house was ‘serviceable’ that mattered not, it was demolished. That’s just the way it is. I lived there for 12 years with my many siblings starting in 1947 before I went off to boarding school in Edmonton in 1959, then on and off for a few more years. Actually the details aren’t important except as background information.

 

What I want to focus on here is something that has been a preoccupation of mine throughout my academic career and even earlier, I’m thinking, and that’s the fleeting aspect of our lives, their finiteness within a field of infiniteness.  It’s a cliché to say that the generations come and go, that each of us is born and dies. That’s certainly true, but what interests me here is the substance underlying the cliché, how we think about these things, explain them to ourselves, reconcile them with the natural cycles of matter and energy and attempt to derive some kind of meaning for our existence.

The house I lived in, the house my family occupied for decades is gone. All the activity, all the sorrow, the happiness, the sadness, the love that permeated that place are gone. All gone. Yes, my sisters and brothers have many memories of life there. Stories abound. Yet the house is gone, forever. Poof! In a flash of time.

I’m thinking that the people who currently live at 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, BC, have no sense at all of what may have stood on the very spot they now occupy. To them, the property is what it is. Their lives are ongoing. They move easily from room to room. They have things to do, people to see, work to go to. They eat and sleep without ever thinking about the people who lived there previously. They may not even know that people lived there previously.

Yet, people did. I did. My brothers and sisters did. My parents did. There was life there, there was drama. There was tedium. The current residents don’t know that my father had the front yard paved over. I know that he did, but I’m not sure exactly why except to get rid of the patchy lawn that was there before and to increase parking spaces. They have no idea of the tons of laundry my  mother did every week, of the piles of soiled diapers that she cleaned, the Sunday pork and beef roasts my father used to put on the stove in the morning and the many loaves of bread my mother baked every three or four days. They don’t know about the laughter, the tears, the pain and the joy that characterized that home. They have no sense of anything that was there before them. Fair enough of course. I wouldn’t expect them to.

What is interesting, I think, is that the same kind of experience of things exists in cities, towns and villages everywhere. The current Rome is built on several past Romes that keep turning up in archeological digs. The same thing goes for Paris, Beirut and London and every other human occupied place on earth. I’m quite sure that the house I lived in at 634 Alderson Avenue was the first one built on that piece of property. I’m guessing trees, brambles and bushes stood on the homesite before the house was built. In Rome there are buildings raised on the debris and remains of several other generations of houses and homes previously erected there. Of course, at one time there were no man-made structures on the planet at all. Then, as a species, we moved like a fungus across the planet and occupied large tracts of land, building structures on them, some with a degree of longevity, some with none. It seems solid. It all seems so real, yet it’s all fleeting. Nothing is forever, not 634 Alderson Avenue, not Rome. We move silently through time glancing backward now and then but catching only glimpses of what went before.

We, as a species, will evolve right out of existence. No doubt at all about that. But that’s nothing to be sad about, nothing to fear. That’s just the way it is. Fighting it has gotten us nothing but pain and grief.

We try to hang on to the past in many ways. We write history.  We practice archaeology and anthropology. We study how biological forms change and evolve. We measure tectonic action and we track the movements of stars and the galaxies.

We try to hang on to some sense of what we were. We take photographs. We write diaries in the hope of remembering something from the past. I have some journal writing from the 80s and 90s and when I look at them and read about what I was doing on a specific day in February, 1989, I’m not actually remembering those experiences. I’m not reliving them. I have an idea of what I was doing, getting a coffee, for example, but I’m not reliving that moment.

We record action, events, scenes of all kinds. We record human conversations and whale vocalizations. We film political speeches and we have buildings full of archives, artifacts, petrified bones and old art works. We try to hang on to the past. But all of it is fleeting.

 

As I approach my 70th birthday in January, 2017, I guess my death is more of a reality to me than it’s ever been. I’m not sad about that. I’m not depressed about that. My death will happen momentarily because life passes by that quickly, but that’s fine. Some of you will mourn my passing but don’t spend too long grieving. As I watched my father-in-law dying in a hospital bed in Burnaby General Hospital in 1989, the traffic outside just passed on by. Not many people took notice of his death. We did, of course, and we were sad. Same for when my father died in 2007. He as 94 years old and ready to go. His body was determined to go back into the pot of organic matter that makes our world go around. One day he was there, kissing babies, working his ass off trying to feed his many children, and the next moment he was gone. That’s our truth.

That’s our lives. I often think about my father these days. He was a man of tradition but he was also an excellent craftsman and inventor. After I got to be 14 years old or so we often worked together. He was my boss on many occasions, and he was a good one too. I don’t know why this is still with me, but I vividly remember the first time I heard him say ‘fuck’. My, I was shocked but impressed. I was 9 years old and with him on a Saturday visit to the sawmill he worked at on Lulu Island. As we left the plant in late afternoon he talked briefly to the watchman and that’s when he uttered the infamous word. Shocking and revealing. My father was human! I remember when he and I flew to Winnipeg to pick up my Austin Healy Sprite, a car I left there after a youthful infatuation with a young woman in St-Norbert, who at that time I would say was way above my station in life. He was great. He put up with my whining and snivelling. He was so forgiving and caring. I must say that I could be a jerk as a kid. But I wasn’t a complete waste of skin. We had some wonderful times as kids building forts, digging tunnels and just farting around. I was mouthy and bratty and that got me into trouble on occasion. As a teen, I was often sullen, thoughtless and miserable. Par for the course.  I smashed up the Volkwagen van parked in front of the house in picture 2. Damn near killed myself along with a friend of mine. I was careless. I was irresponsible, and after that crash, I was brain-damaged for years, something that didn’t improve my outlook on life. Eventually, I grew out of it and up, went back to school and the rest is history. The people who now live at 634 Alderson Avenue know nothing of this and I’m sure they wouldn’t care if they did. That’s the way it is.

We look for continuity in our lives, we look for meaning. We even crave immortality and have created countless ways of convincing ourselves that our bodily deaths aren’t real and that our ‘souls’ will live on. I know people, irreligious people even, who at celebrations of life, still insist that the deceased loved one is somewhere up there, looking down and waiting for us to follow. It’s so hard to find any meaning in the minutia of life, in the fleeting memories and impressions we have of past events. So we look elsewhere and we create elaborate cultural schemes to convince ourselves that our lives have ultimate meaning and that there is life after death. It’s kind of a natural reaction, I’m thinking, that our big brains have devised to deal with death, the ultimate evil. Of course it depends on what we think life is and what death is.

Enough for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My personal statement from 1990 on the Knowledge Network.

Why not post a video I did in 1990. That’s only 26 years ago! Frankly, what I say in this 7 minute clip I still relevant to me today. I think it’s a good way to start off my new set of blog posts. Hope you enjoy it, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the best word to use here. The clip was filmed in Vancouver with a Knowledge Network crew over a 12 hour period in one day. It was part of my North Island College tele course on the Knowledge Network that ran from 1986 until 1992. Interesting times.

Roger

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Because they address our most basic anxieties, our fear of death and our drive to deny it.  Denial of death is what I call a meta-institution. That means an institution (defined by Veblen as a crystallized habit of thought or life) that is globally dominant and pervasive. No place, country, society, culture or whatever group is immune.  We all create and nurture death-denying institutions. Sometimes they involve religion, sometimes not. Business is as good at death denial as religion is. There is no way that the film industry can escape our basic drive to deny death.

Death doesn’t necessarily mean what happens to you when your brain and body stop functioning. It can mean poverty or social death and isolation. In this sense death denies us the good life but leaves us, zombie-like, to live out our physical lives with not much of anything interesting to experience or for which to look forward.

The film industry barters in death, social or physical, worldly or eternal. So, you’ll often see a person die in movies but generally that’s considered a sacrifice for the survival of our favourite death-denying meta-institution, the one that promises us eternal life of one kind or another. The hero, that person or group that personifies the triumph over death, occasionally dies in a movie, but always with the proviso that what they’ve fought and died for lives on. From war movies to romantic comedies, the formula is always the same as is the outcome. Of course there is a lot of variation in how the formula plays out and how long an individual movie spends on any particular part of the formula, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the formula itself.

Triumph over complacency, attack from various quarters (earthly or otherwise), disease, rejection, isolation, poverty, or what-have-you, is the bread and butter of the film industry.