Before the links, a brief screed that arose spontaneously from some well in my psyche:
If you’re a writer or another type of creator, never compare your gift to that of others. Your particular gift of vision, subject matter, passion, skill level, style, approach, and the life circumstances in which these all exist and unfold neither gains nor suffers through comparison. Just write or create what you have to write or create, and do it in whatever way you’re inexorably called and driven to do it. Do the necessary inner and outer work of finding out exactly what those things are (your personal subject matter and style). Then make good on them.
(A brief gnostic/cryptic aside on “having to” create: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Jesus, Thomas 70)
And while you’re at it, enjoy the hell out of it whenever you see other people doing the same. Their gains aren’t your losses, and vice versa. It’s not a zero-sum game. When you live out your creative calling, you’re part of the rising tide that elevates everybody.
From the Illuminati to Alex Jones, how did conspiracy theories come to dominate American culture? “[S]omething new . . . has transformed the conspiratorial landscape: conspiracism — a mental framework, a belief system, a worldview that leads people to look for conspiracies, to anticipate them, to link them together into a grander overarching conspiracy. Conspiracism has been building for some time, and by now it appears to have emerged as the belief system of the 21st century. “
On the danger of off-loading human memory onto machines: “A new kind of civilisation seems to be emerging, one rich in machine intelligence, with ubiquitous access points for us to join in nimble artificial memory networks. . . . But dependency on a network also means taking on new vulnerabilities. The collapse of any of the webs of relations that our wellbeing depends upon, such as food or energy, would be a calamity. Without food we starve, without energy we huddle in the cold. And it is through widespread loss of memory that civilisations are at risk of falling into a looming dark age.”
Synthetic biology could bring a pox on us all. “There’s no telling when a manufactured disease will become a reality. If that occurs, the culprit might be a lab-trained terrorist or a basement biohacker, a bumbling grad student or a Russian microbiologist on the lam.”
Beware the panopticon in your pocket. “You’re not using the phone; the phone is using you. The smartphone is a Trojan horse, and you are Pavlov’s dog. The machine studies you with an alien’s eye, serving you with injections of warmth and affection (grandchildren, frolicking dogs) in order to suck out information, assembling a dossier — noting where you have been, what you have said, what you have bought and thought, your very footsteps and heartbeats — reproducing you as a useful commercial or political object, as if in a 3-D printer. . . . It’s not entirely paranoid to assume that, not far down the road, smartphones and electronic appliances may fulfill old science-fiction fantasies by figuring out what we are thinking or even dreaming, and that the thought or dream — unless it is of an approved nature—will be enough to condemn us. Intellectual endoscopy, why not? Privacy of mind, an atavism already under siege, will vanish.”
Also beware the mindfulness conspiracy. “Mindfulness has gone mainstream, with celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn. Meditation coaches, monks and neuroscientists went to Davos to impart the finer points to CEOs attending the World Economic Forum. The founders of the mindfulness movement have grown evangelical. . . . [But n]eoliberal mindfulness promotes an individualistic vision of human flourishing, enticing us to accept things as they are, mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.”
A question raised by recent startling reports from mainstream outlets such as Politico and The Washington Post: What the hell is going on with UFOs and the Department of Defense? “Someone or something appears to have some extremely advanced technology and the Pentagon is actively changing the nature of the conversation about it.”
The Navy says UFOs are real. UFO hunters are thrilled. “So why is no one freaking out about these revelations making front page news? As UFO author Chris Rutkowski once explained, perhaps it is because we have become acclimatized to seeing UFOs invading Earth in books and on screen. Whether you are of the Spielberg generation, watching a candy eating E.T., or a millennial who grew up watching The Avengers fight off hordes of evil intergalactic aliens, we are used to seeing this archetypal other in our media. UFOs, as a result, have become much less frightening and perhaps much more interesting. Have we negotiated UFOs into our cultural framework and identity?”
Alien Abductions, Flying Saints, and Parapsychology: Grappling with the “Super Natural”(paywall). An article (not free, alas) in the academic journal Religious Studies Review on Jeffrey Kripal and Whitley Strieber’s The Super Natural, Michael Grosso’s The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, and my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies. “[These three works] raise questions about exactly which questions scholars studying the paranormal ought to be asking. . . . Ultimately, Kripal, Strieber, Grosso, and Cardin dare us to take their work and the ‘super natural’ seriously.”
Exorcism goes mainstream: Combined Churches assemble in Rome to learn “best practice” eviction of demons: “The Roman Catholic Church has for the first time opened up its annual exorcism class in Rome to representatives of all major Christian faiths. . . . [T]he doors of the 14th Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation Course have been thrown open to groups once considered heretical and demon-infested only a few short centuries ago. Now some 250 Catholics, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox and Protestant priests have assembled to arm themselves with the sword of the holy word to battle Satan amid the souls of their parishoners.”
On forgetting how to read in the Internet age: “For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic — and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.”
Missives from another world: Literature of parallel universes. “Alternate history functions to do what the best of literature more generally does — provide a wormhole to a different reality. . . . We are haunted by our other lives, ghosts of misfortune averted, spirits of opportunities rejected, so that fiction is not simply the experience of another [person’s thoughts and viewpoint], but a deep human connection with those differing versions on the paths of our forked parallel lives.”
YOU ARE NOT ALONE: A Conversation with Christopher Ropes on Stigmas, Writing, and Mental Illness. “Writing is not easy for me to begin with because I dredge up all my own demons in my stories. When you have mental health issues, you have some pretty terrifying demons to encounter. I think we all face down those demons to some extent in our writing, even those writers who are writing more to entertain than to create an abiding sense of terror or awe. Human life is a process of coming to terms with those things that frighten and hurt us. I just go through that process in a very raw way that can sometimes actually damage me more in the process. . . . Possibly the best reason for creating art for mentally ill creators is that some other mentally ill person can look at, listen to, read, watch that art and say, ‘Someone out there sees me, hears me. I am not alone.’ Never underestimate that power.”
Speaking of books, reading, writing, and horror fiction, now see this: Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, “an anthology celebrating the uncanny realm of the living inanimate. Featuring tales of dolls, mannequins, statues, and other varieties of humanoid horror, Mannequin explores the intersection between artificiality and life through a stunning variety of writers both established and new.” Featuring stories by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Christine Morgan, Richard Gavin, Kristine Ong Muslim, Nicholas Day, Austin James, William Tea, Duane Pesice, S. L. Edwards, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, Justin A. Burnett, Daulton Dickey, C. P. Dunphey, and Jon Padgett. Introduction by Christopher Slatsky.
Awesome: Behold the Dystopia Tracker: “Our goal is to document, with your help, all the predictions in literature, film or games that have been made for the future and what has become reality already.”
Roger Scruton analyzes the problem of scientism in the arts and humanities: “This is a sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. . . . [There] are questions that deal with the ‘spirit,’ with Geist, and therefore with phenomena that lie outside the purview of experimental methods.”
Jeffrey Kripal’s new book Comparing Religions is the first introductory textbook on comparative religion that makes a major place for the paranormal as such. Chapter 8, for example, is titled “The Religious Imagination and Its Paranormal Powers: Angels, Aliens, and Anomalies.” In a recent two-part review (see Part 1 and Part 2), religion scholar and UFO theorist David Halperin writes, “More than a textbook, it’s an initiatory journey. . . . Do UFOs figure in any other textbook of comparative religion? I haven’t seen it. . . . One of Kripal’s former students, he says while introducing his subject, ‘felt each day as she left class that her tennis shoes had just burst into flames, that she had just stepped onto some very dangerous, but very exciting ground.’ Some will surely have this reaction.” The publisher’s companion Website for the book contains much of interest, including “Six Guidelines for Comparing Religions Responsibly” and detailed summaries of seven religious traditions.
“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Slender Man” image courtesy of mdl70 under Creative Commons / Flickr
Far Away from Solid Modernity (Revolution: Global Trends and Regional Issues)
Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity and our unfolding apocalypse. “[We live in a society] which, moving relentlessly towards the apocalypse, does not care (does not want to care or is not able to) about the security and well-being of human community spreading one’s ideas.”
The Tech Intellectuals (Democracy: A Journal of Ideas)
“The good, bad, and ugly among our new breed of cyber-critics, and the economic imperatives that drive them.” Henry Farrell argues that the “tech intellectual,” today’s version of the public intellectual, works in an “attention economy” that’s based on using digital media to attract enough notice to make a living by spreading one’s ideas.
Gobekli Tepe Was No Laughing Matter (Science 2.0)
“The circular stone enclosures known as the temple at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey remain the oldest of its kind, dating back to around the 10th millennium B.C. But Göbekli Tepe may also be the world’s oldest science building. Giulio Magli of the Polytechnic University of Milan hypothesizes it may have been built due to the ‘birth’ of a ‘new’ star; the brightest star and fourth brightest object of the sky, what we call Sirius (Greek for ‘glowing’). . . . Magli says this new star may have prompted a new religion that was not evident anywhere else. Or, as is the case of Stonehenge, it could have been a multi-purpose astronomical observatory that also became a religious site.”
Crimes Against Humanities (The New Republic)
Here is Leon Wieseltier’s brilliant rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s recent and deeply wrong-headed essay about the relationship between science and the humanities. “The superiority of the sciences to the humanities in Pinker’s account is made clear by his proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities: ‘an infusion of new ideas,’ which turns out to be an infusion of scientific ideas. There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix. . . . With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others. His sunny scientizing blurs distinctions and buries problems.”
Beyond black: Laird Barron and the evolution of cosmic horror (Slate)
“What finally emerges from cosmic horror’s miasmic evolution over the course of the 20th century is a literary concept that is equal parts genre and philosophy, cerebral and primordial. . . . Enter the Alaskan-born Laird Barron, author of two novels and two previous story collections, who is equally concerned with mucusy gross-out and cosmic doom as he is with language, formal experimentation, and, above all, character.”
Teen’s hairy run-in with 7-footer probed as Bigfoot encounter (The Omaha World Herald)
“A hair sample found at the site was still being analyzed. A 15-year-old reported seeing the creature, which he said stood about 7 feet tall on two legs as it ran in front of the vehicle the youth was driving about 5:30 a.m. The creature then disappeared into the trees along the river. [Saunders County Sheriff Kevin] Stukenholtz, who became county sheriff six years ago after a long career with the Nebraska State Patrol, said he has no reason to believe the report was a hoax. . . . [Idaho State University anthropology and anatomy professor Jeff] Meldrum said he’s convinced that in the Pacific Northwest and other heavily wooded U.S. areas with proper rainfall there might be a ‘relic population of a rare primate.'”
Unafraid of alienating themselves (Portland Press Herald)
“Two Maine men who claim they were abducted by extraterrestrials aren’t shy about retelling their stories. . . . In the world of ufology — the oft-marginalized study of unidentified flying objects and the accompanying foreign beings that purportedly interact with people on Earth — the ‘Allagash incident’ ranks among the most substantiated in the United States.”
The “practical beginner’s guide” to H. P. Lovecraft that I published here last month has received a lot of attention and traffic, but not all of it has been necessarily positive. One observer, Teeming Brain regular xylokopos, commented, “What is the point of this detailed, beforehand investigation into the man’s life and correspondence[?] . . . . Doing any sort of online research in advance of reading the stories, will do the reader a major disservice. Why approach Lovecraft with already formed ideas about his themes and motivations?”
I certainly understand and sympathize with the criticism. Even before I clicked the “publish” button on that post, I noticed that I had given the prospective Lovecraft reader a fairly heavy load of introductory material. Chalk it up to my natural bent as a professional teacher of writing and literature, which leads me to focus on the undeniable fact that the very worthy work of a great many authors, and also of many other types of artists, isn’t readily accessible to a lot of people’s sensibilities.
Sometimes this hindrance is due to an inherent quality of idiosyncrasy, complexity, or some other sort of difficulty in the work itself. Sometimes it’s due to the passage of time, which has made an author or artist’s basic style, cast of thought, and/or cultural worldview remote and strange. Sometimes, as in the case of Lovecraft, it’s because of all this and more. Lovecraft, in addition to living and writing nearly a century ago, deliberately wrote in an antique and even archaic style, and to call his basic tropes and themes “idiosyncratic” is a gross understatement. Many modern readers who have heard of him approach his work eagerly at first but then bounce off in boredom, incomprehension, and disappointment.
This is why I think there’s definitely a place for the formal type of introduction that I laid out in my post. The “classroom”-type approach is intended to help a person by giving enough contextual information to facilitate an authentic appreciation and enjoyment of a given author, artist, or work of art or literature. Yes, when done poorly it can be insufferably pedantic, but when done well it can be a wonderful thing. Or at least it has been a wonderful thing for me personally, on the several occasions when I’ve been fortunate to have excellent teachers who introduced me to life-changing discoveries.
That said, I do take xylokopos’s criticism to heart, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that I myself have had many wonderful literary and artistic experiences by skipping the classroom approach and simply diving right into someone’s work.
I think the fact that this has all been on my mind in recent weeks may explain why two recently published essays that would have caught my attention anyway managed to catch it with extra sharpness. Each says something, and says it very well, about the danger of killing art and literature by playing the pedant and refusing to give the works a chance to speak for themselves. So of course I want to share them with you. Read the rest of this entry →
This week: posthumously offered words of warning and encouragement to an America in decline from Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1975 classic Ecotopia; insightful meditations on the intrinsic value of the humanities and their inherent resistance to being explained (as in, explained away) by quantitative scientific methodologies and approaches; a 1908 essay by a French author celebrating the philosophical value of “the scientific-marvelous novel,” i.e., science fiction; a penetrating essay by Adam Curtis on a classic 1990s BBC television series about ghosts and what it reveals about the real residing place of phantoms and specters in our modern mass media culture; and an essay by clinical psychologist and paranormal researcher James Carpenter on his fascinating theory about the fundamental and a priori place of what’s commonly called “psi” in the basic workings of human consciousness and perception. Read the rest of this entry →
I found it important to begin by reminding my audience what a library essentially is: a memory bank. Only thanks to the existence of libraries are we able, as a culture and as a society, to keep remembering our own past. But libraries do much more than just looking back, in nostalgia or otherwise, at things that no longer exist. It is only by keeping the memory of our past alive that we are able to know who we are: just as our personal identity is based on our memories about the life we have lived — so that losing our memory means that we literally no longer know who we are — likewise our collective identity is based upon shared memories of how we have become who we are now, how we reached the place where we presently find ourselves. And it is only on that foundation — on the basis of a solid awareness of our own identity and its historical roots — that we are able to make responsible decisions in view of our future. This is true not only for individuals, but for societies as well. The preservation of libraries is therefore a matter of eminent cultural, social, and even political importance.
The Teeming Brain explores news, trends, and developments in religion, horror, science fiction, fantasy, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in science, technology, politics, ecology, economics, the media, the arts, education, and society at large. Its founder and primary author is Matt Cardin.
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"[Dark Awakenings is] a thinking-man's book of the macabre...Cardin's tales are rich with references to Lovecraft, Nietzsche, and other writers whose work gives them unusual philosophic depth." – Publishers Weekly
“Matt Cardin ranks among the foremost authors of contemporary American horror.” – Laird Barron
“It’s a bold writer who, in this day and age, tries to make modern horror fiction out of theology, but Cardin pulls it off.” – Darrell Schweitzer
“In the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, Cardin's accomplishments as a writer are paralleled by his expertise as a literary critic and theorist.” – Thomas Ligotti
“Matt Cardin is one of those rare horror authors who is also a true scholar and intellectual.” – Jack Haringa
FOR RICHARD GAVIN:
"Literate horror fans who have yet to encounter Canadian author Richard Gavin are in for a treat. The lyrical prose is often at a higher level than usual presentations of otherworldly demons and malevolent forces." – Publishers Weekly
"Richard Gavin is one of the bright new stars in contemporary weird fiction. His richly textured style, deft character portrayal, and powerful horrific conceptions make every one of his tales a pleasure to read." – S. T. Joshi
"Gavin's storytelling can be masterly. As with Machen and Blackwood at their best, an epiphany or illumination is achieved, though Gavin's mysticism is darker and distinctly his own." – Wormwood
FOR STUART YOUNG:
"No one can accuse Stuart Young of avoiding the big issues -- with insight and verve, he tackles head-on the existence of God, the mystery of human consciousness and the transformative effects of psychedelic drugs." – Mark Chadbourne
"Wow, what an impressive story ... [The Mask Behind the Face is] ambitious, in fact downright audacious." – T.E.D. Klein