Sunday, April 1, 2012

So it goes: Palm Sunday

"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before," Bokonon tells us. "He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."                         -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

Good Palm Sunday to you, Happy April. Cruelest month, showers, whatever.  Prelude to May, consequence of March.

I just got poetically upset while reading a blog that opened its April offerings with the first seven lines of Eliot's The Wasteland -- with periods punctuating each row of text.  My tongue is now in a sling.

O!  What ingenious segue!

I broke a rib on Friday and spent a good portion of this weekend trying to come up with a swashbuckling story for the sake of provenance, from whence all value comes.  Perhaps the fracture was a result of my ardent defense of Archibald Haddock's manor against reanimated Janissary musketeers.  [Yes, I am reading Jason Goodwin's Investigator Yashim series. Yashim is "one savvy eunuch."]  Maybe I am all busted up after taking down Anderson Silva with some fancy kicks of my own. [Never leave it in the judges' hands.]

Or it could have happened when I reached down to plug in the vacuum cleaner.

Shades of 2004, when my foot was mangled by the Wilde Acte of standing up and taking a step.  I believe the story I went with then involved Extreme Skiing, and an avalanche.

In addition to the Yashim books, I'm rereading one of the Bedside Bedtime Classics, The Birth of the Clinic, by M. Foucault. What really begs reading is Madness and civilization, but I cannot find it, except for this choppy and cheating online version.  If I read The Order of Things one more time, well, I'll just be *stuck*
-- in the gaze, gazing, seeing the studio of Velásquez through the mirrored eyes of Philip IV and Mariana.

So self-conscious, Las Meninas.


I don't so much agree with Foucault as enjoy his more historical discourses, his reading, his elegance.  I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like you, but Foucault doesn't, anymore.

Oh, okay, I value him as a critical ethno-sociologist -- as a historian, for his commentary on social policy. For all I know, he sprang into his black leather britches two feet at a time.

It all makes for interesting dreams, reading too little from too many works, eunuchs, Istanbul, vacuum cleaners, and snapping bones.  Which brings me to my sixth point.  I've been screaming in my sleep.  I don't remember doing it, nor do I remember the intricate explanations of the moment.  Most of the time, according to Fred, I dismiss the verbal gymnastics as a result of momentary fright based on visual miscues.  For the last six months or so, when I first open my eyes, the world appears deformed and ominous.  Overhead ceiling fans seem to be flying apart, with huge blades heading for me.  That kind of thing.  I have glaucoma and cataracts, and my theory is that when first opened, my eyes must be misshapen, and things appear, just for a moment, very odd, due to distortion.

There is nothing so monstrous as the ordinary, altered. [Well, duh!]

Often, I hear myself say, "What is that?"  And sometimes, "Where the hell am I?"

My theory continues:  The mind seeks to make sense of what it sees, so is it more likely to inform me that there is a cat ín a bowler dancing and high-kicking atop my wheelchair's headrest or that there is a huge hunchback of a man tiptoeing toward the bed, a Boris Karloff cartoon?

I am thinking of scrapping the bedside bedtime classics of my scholarly years in favor of he-who-never-really-went-away, Kurt Vonnegut.  And so, for the last of my ninety-six theses (one more than Martin Luther!) shoring up this puff of Palm Sunday ephemera -- I decided to pop open Vonnegut's scrapbook, also called Palm Sunday. He named it an "autobiographical collage."

Kurt and I shared so much.  You may not know it, or even come close to surmising it, but I came *this* close to specializing in cultural anthropology.  With a smidgen of a fascination in primatology, too.  And Vonnegut?  Well, the University of Chicago, that old school, in 1947, rejected his Master's thesis in anthropology,  and with most of his course work done, he moved on.  I attended a school that placed the Anthropology and the Foreign Language Departments on the same floor.  When an overweight, greasy cultural anthropology professor put the moves on me, I migrated to the other end of the hall, and majored in French.  [He asked me to be his personal goddess, and wanted to share me with others during a ceremony that would include pouring honey and beer over my feet.]

Vonnegut’s teachers rejected his initial ambitious idea for his master’s thesis—which would have linked the Cubist painters of Paris to the Indian Wars of the American West—but encouraged his second proposal, “Mythologies of North American Nativistic Movements.”

Which never came to fruition, despite being revived, in 1967, as “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks." The scholarly powers at that time claimed there was no anthropology involved in the submission.  [Fredric Jameson once returned a paper to me, wondering if I had not turned it in for the wrong course.]

We are both, too, remarkably visual people, with an unfortunate tendency toward reductionism.  Kernels.  Graphs?  The reason I love algebra and geometry and become suicidal over the concept of limits in calculus? Are you with me?  Vonnegut reportedly fell in love with that old staple of anthropology, the kinship chart!  If you ever had to reproduce your professor's crowning achievement in ethnological field work, you're probably choking on chuckles right now.  They look something like this, which is of "the extended family universe" of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria.

For my part, as my graphic example, I present the pristine Limit at Infinity graph.  Ahem.


Okay, okay, we are not peas of a pod.  He's a famous author;  I'm not.  My reductionism is unfortunate, always hinting and hissing at complications;  His is brilliant and contains multitudes, but simply.  A goodly portion of his formation came from experiencing war. Somewhere up there I referenced elegance, did I not?  [I am so tired.]

The University of Chicago awarded Vonnegut his Master's in 1971, accepting Cat's Cradle as his thesis.  In that work, we are introduced to Bokononism, summarized this way in the ubiquitous Wikipedia:

Many of the sacred texts of Bokononism were written in the form of calypsos.
Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to "Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."

Yes, I am come to Holy Week quoting Kurt Vonnegut, a broken woman in pain, giggling, nonetheless, and regretting every movement of my rib cage.  My best and only realization of the day is an affirmation that yes, a little education goes a long way, and that a life spent forcing meaning on chaos can't be all bad.



Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict:

“G” stands for good fortune. “I” stands for ill fortune. “B” stands for the beginning of a story. “E” stands for its end.

A much beloved story in our society is about a person who is leading a bearable life, who experiences misfortune, who overcomes misfortune, and who is happier afterward for having demonstrated resourcefulness and strength. As a graph, that story looks like this:

Another story of which Americans never seem to tire is about a person who becomes happier upon finding something he or she likes a lot. The person loses whatever it is, and then gets it back forever. As a graph, it looks like this:

An American Indian creation myth, in which a god of some sort gives the people the sun and then the moon and then the bow and arrow and then the corn and so on, is essentially a staircase, a tale of accumulation:

Almost all creation myths are staircases like that. Our own creation myth, taken from the Old Testament, is unique, so far as I could discover, in looking like this:

The sudden drop in fortune, of course, is the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which an already hopelessly unhappy man turns into a cockroach, looks like this:

Have a look [at "Cinderella"]:

The steps you see, are all the presents the fairy godmother gave to Cinderella….The sudden drop is the stroke of midnight at the ball….But then the prince finds her and marries her, and she is infinitely happy ever after. She gets all the stuff back, and then some. A lot of people think the story is trash, and, on graph paper, it certainly looks like trash.

But then I said to myself, Wait a minute–those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity.

The tales were identical.

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