War and Peace – Book v. TV

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last night I binged watch the first four episodes of the 8-part mini-series War & Peace put out by the BBC in 2016. This is notable, at least for me. In the past year, I’ve been having a terrible time focusing on TV. Every evening I try out several TV series and movies hoping to find something to hook me. I rarely succeed. I quit most shows after just a few minutes, even the ones I feel are high-quality and interesting. I don’t know if my mind is deteriorating, or I’ve just become jaded with TV. I wrote about it here.

Now, and then, I do find a show my mind will latch onto, and War & Peace was one. Strangely, the other two that I can remember at the moment were Sanditon and Black Sails. This makes me wonder if my mind has a thing for literary-historical stories. But don’t think my taste is all high-brow, I also got hooked by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not long ago, and it’s quite low-brow. I never can predict what my mind will settle on.

It’s funny, but while watching War & Peace last night I thought Tolstoy might be the Jane Austen of Russia, even though he was a contemporary of Dickens. Austen’s stories often referred to the Napoleanic Wars, and since watching War & Peace involves a lot of scenes with fancy dress balls, whispered marriage intrigue, socializing by candlelight in manor houses, servants in elaborate outfits, and riding around in elegant coaches during those war years with Napolean, watching War and Peace feels very much like watching Jane Austen.

I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich but have been intimidated by its size and reputation. I’ve probably read less than twenty foreign-language translated novels in my life, sticking primarily to books from the English speaking world. For the last couple of decades, I’ve tried to read one 19th literary classic each year, and every once in a while throw in a European classic. Mostly, these reads have been from England. Seeing War & Peace offered on Hulu last night tempted me. I figured it might get me interested in reading the novel, and it did, but for a strange reason.

As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, “How can a six-hour TV production do justice to a novel that runs 55-74 hours on various audiobook editions?” After finishing the second episode, I was so curious to know that got up and bought an ebook and audiobook edition of War and Peace to compare. Luckily, Amazon offered a deal I couldn’t resist, buy the 99 cent ebook edition, and they would sell me an audiobook edition for $1.99.

I didn’t immediately jump on the offer. I’m very picky about audiobook narrators and book translators. I went to Audible and tried the samples from four different versions of the novel, and the Amazons Classic edition on sale did indeed have the narrator I liked best. I then found and read “What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy?” The translation for the Amazons Classic edition was by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and it came in number two on their list. Their number one choice was by Anthony Briggs but it didn’t seem to be available at Audible. So I bought the deal. I figure if I fall in love with the book I’ll eventually buy the Briggs translation.

Before I started episode three, I listened to the chapters of the novel that covered the first episode, especially Anna Pavlovna’s party. The show had tried to cover much of what was in the novel, at least in introducing the characters, setting, action, plot, and relationships. Sure it conveyed the essence of the story, but was it really Tolstoy’s story? It left out all the background information, and the actors sometimes didn’t match the descriptions of the characters they played. Is it important for actors to look like their literary descriptions?

Tolstoy’s omniscient point-of-view gives us so much about the characters’ motivations, but the television show just ignores that content. On the other hand, the show gave me gorgeous visuals, ones my mind’s eye would never imagine. And that brings up other things to ponder. Did all the clothing, uniforms, hairstyles, furniture, table settings, houses, etc. all actually look like their early 19th-century Russian counterparts? But then book readers, what do book readers imagine in their heads? Is it anything like Tolstoy imagined when writing his story?

Wikipedia has several helpful guides, including: “War and Peace characters order by appearance” — an invaluable cheat-sheet of who’s who as they show up in the story, with links to entries for the historical characters, often with photos or paintings. There is also an entry listing characters alphabetically. And, this Google search by image provides many valuable links. I wish this War and Peace family tree was in English.

War and Peace family tree

Watching War & Peace has convinced me to read War and Peace. It’s also making me want to look at other movie and television versions, as well as try reading different translations into English. I consider visual presentations to be another kind of literary translation. I also thought this when I read Anna Karenina and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, researching both their novel translations and their various visual presentations.

It looks like War and Peace will be my classic novel for 2020. Well, what the heck, the pandemic is giving us all plenty of time to try those big novels we’ve always meant to read.

JWH

 

 

 

Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.

JWH

 

 

 

How Christianity Was Created

by James Wallace Harris, 2/26/20

I am a lifelong atheist, but I’m not the kind of atheist who goes around trying to convince folks that God does not exist. Religion serves an important function for many people, giving them belief, community, morality, and solace. For some strange reason, I’m an atheist that enjoys reading about the history of Christianity, The Bible, and Jesus. Countless books have been written on these subjects, but most have been theological. I have no interest in those books. What I like to read are books by historians trying to figure out what actually happened two thousand years ago. It’s a magnificent cold case, a tremendous scholarly puzzle.

One of my favorite authors writing about this history is Bart D. Ehrman. I’m currently listening to Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, one of his older books from 1999, but it recently came out on audio. Next month I’m looking forward to reading Ehrman’s new book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife when it comes out (3/31/20). But as of now, I’ve read:

For a historical figure that we know practically nothing about, Ehrman has found a great deal to write about. The fun of all this historical sleuthing is putting the clues together in various ways hoping for new insights. Most believers assume we know a whole lot about Jesus but from a scholar’s point of view, most of the common beliefs about Jesus are made up.

What Ehrman and other historical scholars are trying to do is figure out who Jesus was before he died. What we have are writings that began appearing decades after his death. The goal of all the research is to examine various written memories of Jesus to determine if anything remembered might be true of the actual person. People have been making up stuff about Jesus for two thousand years. The assumption is the oldest documents might have the best clues. That’s what Ehrman’s books are about, going over the old documents, again and again, comparing them against each other. Reading Ehrman also teaches us about the methodologies of historians and the limitations of memory and writing.

Ehrman mostly focuses on first-century documents, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, a few other documents, and their possible ur-texts we don’t have. For a period of about 20-30 years after Jesus died his followers collected his sayings. We assume they were only passed down orally at first. Eventually, they were written down, but we don’t have copies of those sayings. Later on, the gospel writers used those collections of sayings to create the four Gospels. However, the information in each varies. And the newest Gospel, John, reports a great deal of information not reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I tend to agree with many historians that ideas about Jesus first appearing in the Gospel of John were made up.

In the second and third centuries, many more gospels were written and scholars tend to discredit them for various reasons, but they do offer interesting clues. The assemblers of the New Testament also favored the oldest gospels as authentic and considered the newer gospels as heretical. But if we examine all the gospels, there are reasons to doubt all of them because we see that various followers had different agendas in composing their gospels, and none of their reasons seem related to the historical Jesus. Every gospel was written claiming who Jesus was and what he taught. They are all interpretations with a purpose that fit the times in which they were written.

Thus historians are left trying to figure out what Jesus actually said from things he didn’t write down himself, but was written down by many different people decades later. This is why we have so many different conceptions about Jesus. It’s like saying there are 1,000 different biographies of Jesus and one of them could be right. But there’s also a good chance they might all be wrong.

Ehrman and other historians assume it’s possible to deduce the truth. I’m not sure it is.

The Jesus Seminar took a different approach. It asked theologians and scholars to vote on every saying by Jesus hoping some kind of consensus might reveal the truth. But after 2,000 years, can we really expect to find the truth? If you want to know more of their results read The Five Gospels.

What is revealed from all this study is how Christianity began. Jesus’ followers made him divine and determined the scope of his divinity. Ideas about the afterlife, God, and Heaven were all invented long after Jesus died. There is no evidence that Jesus believed any of it. Christ and Christianity are what his followers invented.

What I wish Ehrman (or some other historian) would write is a chronology of how various Christian dogmas emerged, when, and if possible who created the idea first.

I tend to accept Ehrman’s theories about who the historical Jesus was and what he preached, but I think there’s still room to doubt we can even know that much. And I don’t know if it matters. I think we might be giving Jesus too much credit. Both believers and atheists like me want Jesus to be someone wonderful. And believers want Jesus to be someone who validates the truths they want to prove true. I guess I just want to know what the guy really said and how it got distorted.

There’s a good chance that almost everything we call Christianity was invented between 50-350 CE. We don’t really know when Jesus actually died, probably 30-36 CE. Paul started preaching in the 50s. He got to meet some of the disciples that knew Jesus, but we’re not sure how much he learned from them. Paul’s writings actually say very little about Jesus the man. They are about forming Christian communities.

We know the followers from about 33 CE to 60 CE collected the sayings of Jesus. Paul probably saw some of these collection of says, but maybe not, because he rarely quoted them. We have to assume some of these sayings might have accurately recorded Jesus’ speeches, but we can’t be sure. Probably for many years, they were only passed around via word-of-mouth, and we know how poorly that works. And we know how people love to embellish a good story.

What we do have are the four Gospels that were probably written around 66 CD to 110 CE. Mark is assumed to be the oldest (66-70 CD). Matthew and Luke next (85-90 CE) and finally John (90-110 CE). We don’t really know who their writers were. Scholars assume they were not any of the disciples. Each of the four claims to tell the story of Jesus, but they each tell a somewhat different story, sometimes with conflicting details and beliefs. Think of how many books or movies you’ve encountered about famous modern people. Even the most serious biographies, with mountains of hard evidence, are always challenged on some facts. We can’t create perfect biographies even when we have voice recordings and videotape.

Paul essentially created Christianity in the 50s CE. What he preached was often disputed by Peter and the other disciples, but because Paul was so good at spreading his version of the word explains how he got the Christianity snowball rolling. Whoever wrote the Gospel of John created many now cherished beliefs for the emerging religion. Starting in the second and third centuries new theology was added by other writers who we know their names and have some of their writings.

I feel I have read enough on Jesus. I’ve given up on ever knowing who he was and what he taught. There’s just too much speculation. My rough idea after reading all these books is Jesus was probably a very interesting guy who taught something, probably something very unorthodox, probably utopian, and he got himself killed for it. His followers, who passionately believed in him were thrown into despair because they didn’t want to give up on his wonderful vision of how things could be. They came up with the resurrection as a way to keep the dream alive. All the stories about the post-crucifixion were invented to put a positive spin on the inconvenient truth that Jesus was wrong about the Kingdom of Heaven appearing on Earth in his lifetime. They used his memory to preach what they wanted. To sell their ideas they promised potential believers they would gain everlasting life. To gain converts, they made Jesus into a divine being. Then people who had never known Jesus, the gospel writers, started making up even better stories. The stories became so good, so convincing, that it converted most of the Roman world in a few hundred years.

I expect Ehrman’s new book, Heaven and Hell will cover that development. I also assume all the core beliefs of the various forms of Christianity in the last two thousand years are really driven about hopes of an afterlife. Donald Trump has clearly proved that Christianity is not about specific moral beliefs or spiritual discipline. What Christians believe today is too diverse to define them by a specific list of creeds. Basically, what ties modern Christians together is a vague belief in vague God and a hope of an existence after death.

The real Jesus apparently didn’t think of himself as the Son of God, but the Son of Man. He advocated that followers share their belongings, to even live together communally until God created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, which would happen in his lifetime. He apparently preached about compassion and how people should treat each other. It appears Jesus had very liberal views. Modern Christians are mostly conservative, so it’s hard to reconcile their beliefs with anything Jesus actually taught. Modern Christians are really disciples of Paul and the writer of The Gospel of John, and second-century theologians.

What I learned from reading all these books on Jesus is whatever he taught can only be discerned from those collections of sayings that existed before the gospels were written, unfortunately we don’t have copies. Some of those sayings are mixed in with the gospels, but we don’t know which. Even then, there are plenty of reasons to doubt anything attributed to Jesus after his death. Can you prove anything anyone said to you twenty years ago was verbatim and what they did was exactly how you say it happened?

JWH

 

Should I Forget Dorothy?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 17, 2020

Being part of history is the gold standard for being long remembered. Pop culture fame can also get you remembered, but not as long. Geneology is probably the common way we ordinary folks will be remembered, especially if we’re neither historical or famous. Writers and artists often like to believe they will achieve immortality through their works, and that was certainly true for Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Sadly, being published today usually proves a poor bet at avoiding literary obscurity.

Through some weird accident of circumstances, I have become the repository for the memory for Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole who wrote under the name Lady Dorothy Mills. I maintain the website ladydorothymills.com. Last year it got a total of 175 visitors, but most of them leave almost immediately. It’s a very static site because I seldom find new information about her. I used to get a query about her every year or two, but it’s been years now since I’ve heard from anyone asking about Lady Mills.

Lady Dorothy Mills wrote fifteen books from 1916-1931, nine novels, and six nonfiction books, all long out of print. I own all of them except her first novel Card Houses and the last Jungle!. She is most famous for writing five travel books capitalizing on the idea of an aristocratic European woman traveling alone in Africa, South America, and the Middle East in the 1920s. She achieved a minor amount of fame. As far as I can tell only 26 used copies of her books are for sale right now, and most of those are the nonfiction titles. Of the 5 copies of her novels, two are the German versions of The Dark Gods. Most of these volumes have been on the market for years. There is little interest in her work.

I’m trying to decide if it’s worth my effort to convert her books into digital texts so I can submit them to Project Gutenberg. It would be a terrific amount of work and its doubtful anyone would read them. But I’d hate to see Lady Mills become completely forgotten. I’ve been trying to come up with reasons to convince people to try her books. Right now it’s almost impossible to get ahold of any kind of edition to read. I’ve wondered if there were free ebook editions available would a few readers give her a chance?

I’m currently reading The Laughter of Fools from 1920. It’s about a young woman living with her aunt and uncle after her father dies. I’m not sure of the time period yet, but you have to imagine a Downton Abbey type of setting. Lady Mills was the daughter of an Earl and grew up in a manor house on a country estate. I assume her life was somewhat like Crawley girls, as Lady Mills was about their age. She would have been 23 in 1912, the year the story began. Lady Mills’ mother was also a rich American woman. However, Lady Mills married a poor American man, and from what I can infer, her father wasn’t as forgiving as Lord Grantham. Lady Mills went out into the world to make it own her own.

The girl in The Laughter of Fools is named Louise, and Lady Mills’ mother was named Louise. I have to wonder how much of herself she put in this character. Louise finds life with her aunt and uncle boring and eventually gets permission to go on a vacation for her health. Her guardians believe she is being supervised by a proper English lady, but Louise gets to run around with an arty bohemian crowd. This opens up a whole new world for her. I imagine the same thing happened to Lady Mills.

I wish I had a copy of Lady Mills’ first novel, Card Houses published in 1916. That was the year she married Capt. Arthur Mills. It might reveal more about her early life and personality. I get the feeling her first few novels were about the life she knew and that social set, and her later novels were fantasy or science fiction. Her travel books were about becoming an independent woman.

I can’t say that The Laughter of Fools is good literature. I only find it interesting for four reasons. First and primary, I’m looking for clues about Lady Mills. Second, I enjoy the Downton Abbey resonating vibes. Third, it tells about life in England during a very literary period — the book adds a few details that I don’t find in Woolf, Huxley, Forster, and others of that era. Finally, it’s about a woman breaking free in a time when few did. But mostly the novel’s appeal is trying to figure out what Lady Dorothy Mills was like and why she became a writer.

I still don’t know what kind of person she was. Would I have liked her? Or was she a weirdo, or even a Lady Asshole? Does she deserve to be remembered or is there a reason why everyone is forgetting her? I feel like I’ve fed a stray cat and now I’m responsible for its care.

Small items about her come up for sale every once in a while but they can be expensive. And if I really wanted to pursue this project properly I’d need to travel to England and do some real research. That is almost not going to happen. Still, I might try converting one book, The Laughter of Fools and see if anyone reads it. It would be nice to see if anyone else gets anything out of her. Sooner or later, I’d like to find a younger person to inherit the caretaking of this strange cat.

JWH

 

 

Can Humanity Move to an Eco-Paradigm?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 9, 2020

Humanity has gone through a number of major paradigm shifts. Probably the most famous is the Copernican revolution when we realized Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. I’m guessing the biggest recent shift was in the 20th century when we realized women were not inferior to men. But as you can see from this map of when women became eligible to vote that a paradigm shift is slow and doesn’t hit all at once. (Source.)

When women could vote

We need to shift to a new economic paradigm where capitalism protects the environment. Many environmentalists feel we need to jettison capitalism to save the Earth, but I don’t believe that’s possible. Capitalism is how humans survive, how they feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. Current capitalism is killing the Earth, and will eventually make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and other species.

The present paradigm assumes the Earth is a storehouse of consumable resources for the taking. Our basic drive, which comes from our reptilian and mammalian portions of our brain pushes us to take and not give. We struggle for resources, mates, and raising our offspring. It’s quite natural. The greed we’re seeing in conservative political movements around the world is a natural survival mechanism. Everyone is programmed to grab all they can before its gone.

It really is survival of the fittest on a vast scale. Under the existing paradigm, the strong will survive with abundance while they take everything from the weak who won’t. Like I said, it’s the way of nature, it is natural — if you consider humans are animals. But can we transcend our animal nature? Can we use our neo-cortex to become something different? Moving to an Eco-paradigm means transcending our animal nature.

For our species to survive will require moving to this new paradigm. Some have called it Lifeboat Earth. That’s an apt metaphor, but most people don’t like its grim connotations. Probably a better term to promote would be Eco-Capitalism. That’s why we’re hearing so much about the Green New Deal.

My liberal friends and I are becoming philosophically depressed over current trends in American politics. Conservative American politics means many things, but to me, it represents a rejection of the new paradigm. Conservative philosophy has always been backward-facing, stay-the-course, return to the good old days thinking. To protect its beliefs, conservative philosophy has become anti-science, and anti-environmentalism.

I see the U.S. 2020 presidential election as a referendum, with two choices on the ballot. Keep the old paradigm, or move to the new paradigm. I’m sure most voters will see it in terms of their own special interests.

The reason why I wrote my last essay about cognitive tools we used to work with reality is to understand how people think about this referendum. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want, but the Democrats haven’t. Most liberals just want to replace Trump, but obviously, Republicans will do anything to get what they want, including following such a repugnant leader. Democrats are arguing over who should be their leader, and not what they want. They are under the illusion they are fighting Trump, but what they are fighting is what the Republicans want. And what the Republicans want is not to change.

The world seemed to be moving to the new Eco-paradigm but then conservative movements around the globe emerged. My philosophical question of the day: Can humanity move to the new Eco-paradigm? I’m not asking will we, but can we.

When we look at the map of women’s suffrage and see that it took a hundred years to change (and it’s far from finished), that I have to wonder if it will take any less time to move to the new eco-paradigm. (And do we have the time?)

The Atlantic is running “Why Men Vote for Republicans, and Women Vote for Democrats” that provides some additional data for my conundrum. It appears that women are a driving force in liberal politics. We are changing, but are we changing fast enough? And like the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment by conservative women, many women have chosen to maintain a conservative path.

I’ve been reading more and more articles about political burn-out. That old adage about not letting the bastards wear you down has new relevance. I know that I and some of my liberal friends are being worn down. This makes me feel we won’t make it to the new paradigm.

The 2020 election will give me exact numbers on how my fellow citizens feel. We still have ten months of political turmoil. Who knows, lots could happen. Liberals want it to be a vote about Trump, but I’m starting to see that’s an illusion. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want. The majority of the conservatives want a world where they can grab all the can, keep all they can, have no regulations on the grabbing, and spend the least on fixing up the nation or helping the needy. A minority of conservatives want to fight for certain religious beliefs that challenge liberal values.

The Democrats don’t have a clear goal. To the Republicans all the Democrats want is to give way their money. The Democrats haven’t made a Green New Deal their primary goal. They spend a lot of time talking about the environment and immigration, but they appear to make expensive social programs their deciding issues, and some of those issues don’t even have universal appeal to liberals. Republicans know their key desires and vote in lockstep.

I believe the young are more concerned with the new eco-paradigm, but I’m afraid too many of them have completely given up on political action.

Right now, I don’t believe we’ll make it to the new paradigm shift. I suppose if we suffered some truly catastrophic natural disasters, way larger in scope than the present disasters, we might start pulling together. But that might only cause more fighting in the lifeboat.

Readers might think I’m psychologically depressed because of this essay. I’m not. I might be philosophically down, but not personally down. I have a stoic existential psyche. What happens is what happens. We all want reality to be what we want, but our reality is what is. I’m just trying to guess where humankind is going. I want to imagine what the future might be after I die. But guessing the future is next to impossible. Yet, it amuses me to try.

JWH

 

What A Difference 23 Years Make

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 31, 2019

Society is constantly changing and evolving, and so does the popular culture it produces. Starting in 1959, and into the early 1960s, there were a number of court cases that profoundly changed pop-culture by removing various censorship laws. It allowed movies to portray graphic sex and violence, and include nudity and profanity. This was especially noticeable in movie westerns. Westerns in the 1950s seem very different from those in the 1970s, and we can see the transitioning in the 1960s. Millennials and later generations probably have no idea what pop-culture was like before their time, and just accept today’s movies as a norm. If you live long enough, you can see that movies change.

My favorite westerns generally come from the 1940s and 1950s. The other night I watched The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando which had a much different view of the old west. In many ways it was more realistic – we see people going to outhouses, using profanity, having sex, showing a bit of nudity, wearing dirty raggedy clothes, and so on. The characters seem more like real people and have complex problems and psychologies. Too often in older westerns, characters wore not only clean clothes which they changed often, but ones that look like they came from fashion designers. Most folks in the historical west wore the same clothes for many days, seldom bathed, and usually owned a tiny wardrobe. Just compare the two versions of True Grit.

Living conditions in The Missouri Breaks seemed repulsive to me, and it lacked heroes and heroines. It’s not a feel-good western, like Shane (1953).  Who wouldn’t want to be Shane (Alan Ladd), who would want to be Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando)? Of course, Brando’s over-the-top performance does weird-out the overall vibe of The Missouri Breaks, but then such characterizations have become more common as we approach the present day. The recent Joker movie is one example.

If we compare the west of Shane with The Missouri Breaks does it even feel like the same historical era? Is it really the same genre? There are violent people in both films because the essence of westerns is violence. You’d think I should be comparing the two characters the audience wants to see die in the end, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) and Robert E. Lee Clayton. Both films feature ranchers who hire gunmen (Palance and Brando) but the issue of who the good guys are is confused. In Shane, the good guys are hardworking homesteaders, and in The Missouri Breaks, they are horse thieves, train robbers, and maybe murderers. If we are for law and order, then David Braxton (John McLiam) the rancher and Robert E. Lee Clayton should be our heroes. They’re not.

Remember in Shane, Shane is a gunman just like Jack Wilson, but he’s trying to change, and live under law and order. Shane is the homesteaders’ gunman, but he’s the hero of the picture because he fights the rancher who bullies the homesteaders. Shane sides with law and order. Robert E. Lee Clayton is hired by the rancher to kill rustlers and murderers and appears to be for law and order. The trouble is Clayton takes psychotic pleasure in his job.

What happened in those 23 years from 1953 to 1976 that remade westerns? Shane is a killer, but one we side with. In The Missouri Breaks, we side with Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) who is a horse thief, train robber, and probably killer too. (We never know who kills the rancher’s foreman.) Of course, in westerns, the audience always sides with a killer, because westerns nearly always resolve conflicts with a killing. Before the 1960s we sided with the white hats against the black hats, but it seems sometimes in the 1960s, everyone started wearing gray hats.

Shane, the Alan Ladd character, knows killing is bad. He wants to avoid killing, but in the end, he is pushed into it to save the people he loves. The audience admires him. But Robert E. Lee Clayton, the Marlon Brando character, delights in killing and justifies his behavior by killing horse thieves, train robbers, and murderers, people we should be against, but we despise Robert E. Lee Clayton and rejoice when he is killed. And in the last fifty years, we’ve seen both the hero/anti-hero and bad guys kill more and more people in westerns. Brando’s bizarre performance was only a bellwether.

Tom Logan, the Jack Nicholson character, is an anti-hero. Yet, even when anti-heroes are as charming as Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), should we really like and admire them? It is true that the old west criminals were more colorful than dull hardworking people who actually built the west.

Something happened to the westerns in the 1960s. Before that the good people were nicer, but so were the bad people. Sure, the bad guys of the old west were mean, and psycho killers too, but they weren’t as disturbing as modern bad guys. Between the westerns of the 1950s and the 1970s, we see the bodies counts rise in each film, and we see more depraved violence. The profanity, nudity, and sex are the upfront obvious differences, but I also think there is a shift in how westerns present killing. Intentionally modern westerns of the 1970s like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Judge Roy Bean, etc. worked hard to redefine the western in terms of artistic storytelling but also in presenting old west history with a different psychological perspective. In some ways, this shift became most visible with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

When did good guys v. bad guys become neurotics v. psychos? When did westerns go from gunfights to serials killers and mass shooters? In the Old West, the most famous gunfight (O.K. Corral) three men died. In modern westerns, the body counts are so high that most viewers stop counting.

Sure, TV cowboys of the 1950s did a lot more killing than their movie counterparts. By one estimate, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke killed between 138 men and 7 women to 303 people over a 20-year period. However, if we consider each episode a separate story, the violence is far less.

Maybe I like the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s because I find the death of the bad guy at the end of the film a satisfying resolution to the story. Watching modern westerns feel more like we’re Romans at the Colosseum, desiring non-stop killing. We’re not there for the story, but for the slaughter. Films like the Hateful 8 are designed to feed our need for gunplay porn. If people watch sex porn because they’re not getting laid and want to vicarious pretend having sex, then why do we enjoy so many killings in movies today? Is it because we’re not getting to kill all the people we want and vicariously find release in the pretend killings?

I believe body counts began to escalate in the westerns of the 1960s, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and ending with The Wild Bunch (1969). I still loved these westerns, especially as a kid, and even when I felt they were becoming silly in their efforts to top themselves with gimmicky plots, explosions, and ways of killing people. However, as I’m getting older, I question my fondness for such killathon westerns. I admit I love TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld, but I’m also wondering about myself too.

Westerns 1

These days I’d much rather rewatch Winchester ’73, Yellow Sky, Colorado Territory, Rawhide, Angel and the Badman, Shane, Three Godfathers, Tall in the Saddle, and movies like them. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or turning back the clock to enjoy movies when there were fewer killings per film. I was taught in school that the ancient Greeks didn’t allow violence on stage in their plays. All violence had to happen off-stage. I’m not ready to go that far. I do like the realism of modern westerns. The sex, nudity, and profanity are fine. I’ve just got to wonder about the kill-porn addiction we’ve acquired.

Angel_badman

We have become a nation that worships guns. Notice how often we see people posing with guns, and how often we see them in pop culture. The interesting thing about westerns is we see a historical era where people lived by the gun but were moving toward a gun-free civilization. Westerns represent a time just before all the cowboys would hang up their guns. (Watch the wonderful Angel and the Badman.) We’re now living in a time where everyone wants to strap on a gun. Is this the undoing of civilization?

Isn’t it rather ironic that in the old west, Republicans were the advocates for gun control? They were for laws, regulations, order, progress, cities, and civilization back in the 19th century. Doesn’t it seem they want to bring back the wild west now? Aren’t old westerns really propaganda for gun control? In some ways, new westerns seem to counter the philosophy of old westerns.

But then we have one last problem. Were any westerns ever like the historical west? Or, are westerns really the pop culture snapshots of the people and times in which they were made? If that’s so, we live in some pretty strange times if we judge ourselves by the movies we see in the theaters today.

JWH

Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH