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Posts Tagged ‘Art’

I have been thinking about that widget over on the sidebar that shows my most popular posts. The problem with it is that it’s based on what people have been looking at over the last 24-48 hours, which means it is representative really of what google searches bring people here, and not what my best writing is. So I think I am going to add a new widget that indexes what I think are my best pieces of writing.

I’ll put it up later today, but for now, here’s my tentative tracklist for the “Best of Byzantium” album.

Postmormon Sexual Ethics
Shout at The Devil: Satan, Heavy Metal, and the Great God Pan
Say A Prayer For Lefty, Too
One Way Or Another: The Bacchae
Why It Matters Whether Mormons Are Christian
Eating Is Sacred
My Own Goddess
Aura Salve

Any of my readers think there’s any really good posts I have overlooked?

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I read Carson McCullers’s The Heart is A Lonely Hunter last month, but it’s taken me some time to sit on it and stew over it. It’s not an obvious book. I’m not going to summarize it here.

The imbalanced relationships between the main characters (Singer and Antonapoulos and each of Mick, Jake Blount, Biff Brannon and Doctor Copeland and Singer) are the heart of the narrative. The close friendship between Singer and Antonapoulos is demonstrated from page one, but are they really close friends? Is Antonapoulos even capable of the kind of relationship that Singer projects onto them (with an actual projector even!), or is Singer really just doing to Antonapoulos what the others do to Singer? Singer imagines a deep and fulfilling relationship with Antonapoulos that is in fact not really mutual at all: the handicapped Antonapoulos is as incapable of understanding what Singer says to him as the deaf Singer is incapable of truly understanding what any of the others say in turn to Singer. Nevertheless, just as all four fiercely believe and cling to the notion that they have a unique and powerful connection with Singer, Singer believes his only real friend is Antonapoulos.

Thus we are faced with the terrifying true nature of relationship and mutuality, the extent to which we are inevitably and fully alienated by our inability to really know what the Other is thinking, and we are shown the resulting despair. Nobody’s ending is happy. Everyone dies alone.

There are a lot of other things going on in the novel–definitely a lot sexuality and innocence and hate and race and class and Marxism, but all of it is primarily explored through this fundamental lens of alienation, the loneliness that results from our fundamental inability to know or be known by other human beings.

Hand in hand with this theme of loneliness and alienation is a related theme, and the two are tied together in the novel’s title. Each of McCullers’s main characters is yearning for something, and although they try to express this yearning (futilely!) through connection and relationship, relationship is the impossible means to the impossible end, not the end itself.

Mick’s quest for music, to really get music, to capture whatever-it-is that music makes her feel when she hears it, is the prime example. It’s an obsession, really: Mick hears a symphony and she is certain that somewhere in Music is that Thing that will fill the hole in herself. Blount and Doctor Copeland are both looking for it in the Marxist dialectic (although race creates an inseparable gulf between the two characters that should be able to connect), and Biff, though he doesn’t consciously know it, is looking for it in gender and sexuality, but for each of them is is an aesthetic hunger. A notion that the truly beautiful thing will fulfill them. And with each of them, what they are looking for is elusive–it’s not clear if they could theoretically find what they are looking for, but they certainly are not able to find it through their (non-)relationships with Singer. And, unable to find it, each of them flails around their respecitve existences, trying to find substitutes in sex, alcohol, hate and even death.

In the end, it’s a sad book, but it’s a beautifully sad book.

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I’m about two-thirds of the way through William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, and few things in the world could make me happer. It’s not my favorite of Faulkner’s novels by any stretch (obviously I like Absalom, Absalom! best, but I also have an immense love for The Reivers, The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August), but just reading anything at all by Faulkner makes me feel comforted and at home. I get lost in it and I resent having to come back out. Reading Faulkner is like holding your head underwater, except instead of water it’s the human experience filtered through the complicated, painful and exquisitely beautiful legacy of the South, deeply rooted in place, and written in hypnotic prose that tastes like river water, blood and a humid summer twilight. And unlike water, you can breathe it. It’s not easy to breathe–it’s heady–but you can breathe it. And it’s insidiously addictive.

I started reading books generally in a more disciplined fashion about two years ago when I began picking up westerns. My rule is that I read no more than one fiction and one non-fiction book at a time (short stories and short story collections don’t count), and I finish the one (or intentionally decide to not finish it, which I have done a number of times) before I pick up the next. This keeps me from meandering through the first thirty pages of book after book with no direction and no sense of satisfaction and never finishing or appreciating anything. It’s been a good system, and as a result I very well may have read probably more books in the last two years than in the ten before that–certainly better books.

Like I said, I started with westerns and enjoyed them immensely, but via Cormac McCarthy I wound up transitioning from westerns to my true love, the Southern literary tradition. Simultaneously, I transitioned from westerns to Civil War obsession, which is deeply and inseparably related to Southern literature, but is a topic for another day. I like McCarthy’s westerns quite a bit (although I think I may prefer All The Pretty Horses to Blood Meridian), but his early East Tennessee novels (Outer Dark, Suttree and The Orchard Keeper; I have not yet read Child of God) captured me and held me under a spell the way the cowboy books don’t. Maybe it’s because I was raised in East Tennessee. Maybe it’s just because they’re good books. Probably both, but for me they are also ghost-haunted and harrowing, and they capture perfectly the stillness and terror and the deep longing I have for those wooded hills. I have ancestors who crawled out of those mountains more than a century ago, and I feel them wriggling in my blood: when I read McCarthy, they are roused and they answer.

But McCarthy also put me in a mood to go back and re-read Absalom, Absalom!, which I had not read since high school, and I was done. It was finished. Since then I have been working my way determinedly through the Southern canon and having an honest to God hard time trying to figure out why I would want to bother reading anything else.

I read nearly everything Flannery O’Connor wrote with grotesque and gleeful abandon. I read James Dickey’s Deliverance while every muscle in my body was tense for nearly the entire read (I had to stop periodically to relax and breathe). I mourned for the loss of William Gay just days after I finished Provinces of Night. I’m slowly working my way through Shelby Foote’s Civil War. I’ve read Carson McCullers and James Agee.

And today I’m reading Intruder. I’m not sure what’s next; I have deliberated re-reading Suttree, but I have a long list of what I want to read and a big bag of used books sitting on a shelf downstairs. And all too often, with whatever I am reading, I just wish I was reading Faulkner instead.

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When I hear this song, I think about my beautiful kids, and I get choked up. I hope they know how much I love them.

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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My 12-string guitar came i the mail yesterday, an Epiphone DR-212 that looks like this:

And I love it.

This makes three guitars in the house, all Epiphones (in addition to the new 12-strang, I have a cherry sunburst Les Paul Special II and my wife has an acoustic, but I can’t remember the model).

It came with shitty strings that won’t hold a tune for long, so I’ll have to replace those of course. But when it is tuned up and I play it, it sounds like delicious, musical rain. I took it to my guitar class at the Old Town School of Folk Music last night, and had a ton of fun passing it around the class to give everyone a chance to strum on it.

12-String guitars have sets of strings in courses, like a mandolin. The higher sets are both tuned to the same note, and the lower sets are tuned an octave apart from each other, so it has this full, chorus sound. A lot of amazing songs have 12-string guitars in them, but here’s one where the instrument is prominent, so you can tell what it sounds like:

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So, quick caveat: this song has nothing to do with my tenth wedding anniversary yesterday. Just putting that out there.

It has everything to do with me having a shitty day at work and feeling tense and taut like a wire. My first year here at the Firm was pretty rough: I was absolutely miserable and stressed constantly, to the point where I was sick all the time. Things have gotten better, but sometimes a day is nothing but a series of minor disasters and it feels like my first year again.

A lot of things got me through that first year when it was rough every day. My amazing wife. My wicked cool kids. Counting down the days until I could quit my job and not owe money to the Firm. Stuff like that. One of those things was Waylon Jennings.

I discovered Ol’ Hoss last summer when I got in a mood to throw more country music into the mix instead of just all metal all the time. I was starting to read western novels, and I was starting to get homesick for the South, and both of those deserve a country soundtrack. But I don’t really like suburban pop-country (I’m talking to you, Keith Urban), so I set about discovering all the old outlaw country legends, and Waylon Jennings jumped out at me like few things ever have.

You know how sometimes you hear a song and immediately, right from the first listen, you know it just knocked about three other songs from your top ten to just make room for it? That’s how it was with “This Time.” I first heard it on the bus on the way to work in the middle of one of the worst times of last year–I had an absolutely disastrous year-end review that I had been mortally dreading for months, and I was insanely busy right around a holiday when I had made plans to spend time with family. But this song came on my headphones and it changed my life.

So here it is, because today’s the kind of day when I need this kind of song.

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Gods damn this is such a good song.

I’ve been listening to a lot of early rock and rockabilly for the last couple of days. Learning to play the guitar has made subtle shifts in the music I am interested in. Also, I got a new haircut, grew my sideburns back out, and started using pomade. I’m not going to lie; it looks sharp. Also, my beautiful and sexy wife bought me a beautiful and sexy electric guitar this weekend: an Epiphone Les Paul Special II in classic cherry sunburst. It sounds amazing and I think I love it more than I love anything but my wife and kids (sorry brother).

My point is, I remembered this song last night and went and looked it up and gods damn this is such a good song. There is nothing about it that I do not love. There is no reason to not listen to it over and over again.

Rest in peace, Roy.

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We’ve been playing some Townes Van Zandt songs in my Thursday night guitar class at the Old Town School of Folk Music: first “No Place To Fall,” which is just a gorgeous song in 3/4 time and fun to play with the ol’ capo on the second fret. Listen to it here (played by Townes, not played by me; I’m not nearly good enough to impose myself on you yet):

My guitar teacher also brought in “Pancho and Lefty” for us to play, which made my day. I have previously expressed my massive appreciation for that song.

So anyway, I have those two songs in my head now. And I’ve been practicing them. Seriously, if you have never listened hard to Townes Van Zandt, you are missing out like you have no idea.

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He’s the wolf screaming lonely in the night;
He’s the blood stain on the stage.
He’s the tear in your eye being tempted by his lies,
He’s the knife in your back; he’s rage!

You want to experience the Horned God right now? Go and grab a copy of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil and put it on the record player. Turn it up. Listen to it. Feel it. Get into it. There he is—lurking under the surface of the music, ready to burst out at any minute with a raging hard-on and an urge to do violence. This is the music your parents were afraid you would listen to, and for good reason. This is Pan’s music, and Pan is everything they were afraid of.

Rock music has a long tradition of flirting with the Devil, but with a few notable exceptions, these musicians don’t worship the actual Devil of Christianity. The Devil of rock and roll is not really anything like the Satan found in the Bible or in modern Christian theology. Some Christians might be bothered both by the content and the imagery of rock and metal, but not actually because they accurately represent the Christian Satan in a theological sense. The Christian Satan is a fallen angel who is miserable because he is separated from God, and as a result, he wants to make humanity as miserable as he is by tempting them to sin against God and thereby separate themselves as he is separated. That same motivation is often ascribed to the Devil of rock and roll, but it is falsely ascribed. It is a reaction, a fear-motivated impulse that rock and roll deliberately provokes because it pushes people’s boundaries and forces them to confront everything that rock and roll and its Devil stand for. But under the surface, it has nothing to do with Christianity’s Satan.

The Devil of rock and roll is a different Devil: he is instead the Devil of the occultists, the magicians, and the romantic poets. And whether the Christian Devil was in fact deliberately distorted in the Middle Ages to look and act like a pagan horned god or whether that idea is a modern conceit, the romantic occult Devil, who came much later, was most definitely and intentionally modeled on the pagan Horned God. This intoxicating devil inspired the poets and magicians who inspired the musicians of the twentieth century. It’s no accident that the first real heavy metal album, Black Sabbath’s self-titled record, is completely and totally immersed in the imagery of Satan. This Devil was a god of libido, of power, of freedom, a god of fear and lust, a god of the revel, of nature, of the night, a god of secrets and rage, a god who stands as a guardian of or even a living embodiment of the inexhaustible wellspring of the universe’s raw, primal, and sublime essence. His worship ran counter to the Church and its theology, but not because he was a part of the Church or its theology. He was a Devil, but he was not Christianity’s Devil: he was in fact Pan. Pan, the horned god of the Greek shepherds, whose music inspired fear and panic and sexual lust, Pan the god of the wild places and the lonely, magic, dangerous corners of the earth, the Great God Pan. When the romantics and occultists looked to the gods of the ancient pagans, Pan stood out from all of them because he represented a direct, divine connection to that raw stuff of the universe that the Church of the Middle Ages did its best to monopolize, control, and intermediate. Pan stood out and invited the occultists to come and feel his power directly, through ritual but most importantly through the revel. And heavy metal gives us both, in spades. Heavy metal gives us the real Devil, the Devil that human beings hunger and thirst for.

He’ll be the love in your eyes, he’ll be the blood between your thighs
And then have you cry for more!
He’ll put strength to the test, he’ll put the thrill back in bed,
Sure you’ve heard it all before.
He’ll be the risk in the kiss, might be anger on your lips,
Might run scared for the door…

People fear Pan because Pan cannot be controlled. Pan is wild; Pan is free. Pan is unpredictable and the unpredictable makes us uncomfortable. It doesn’t fit in our neat categories; it doesn’t follow our made-up rules.

By invoking his imagery and creating music that is a perfect channel for his divinity, heavy metal has served him and worshipped him more purely than perhaps any other modern human endeavor. Heavy metal stands as a dangerous and powerful testament that despite Plutarch’s report and the wishful thinking of Milton and Browning, Pan is not dead at all. Like nature itself, and like his sometime father Dionysus, Pan can never die. Pan returns and demands that we deal with him. Pan has a hold on all of us, whether we like it or not: we are all dark and dangerous, we all have the urge to create and destroy, we are all animals playing at being human. And when we hear a song like “Shout At The Devil” we can’t help but feel who we really are.

But in the seasons of wither we’ll stand and deliver—
Be strong and laugh and
Shout! Shout! Shout!
Shout at the Devil!

Feel the swagger, the sexuality, the aggression in the music. Feel it in your body, as your body answers. That is Pan. Pan’s music is rough and savage, but no less powerful and intricate than Apollo’s hymns. Apollo calms us, but Pan arouses us. Pan shows us a side of humanity that is frightening but real, and even essential. It’s not evil—it’s who we are. Modern pagans shy away from talking about the Devil because they are afraid of being misunderstood or maligned. And maybe that’s fair, but I think it’s a mistake. Pan is the Devil, and that’s a good thing. He is the Devil in the best way possible, and I say embrace that. Put the record on. Turn it up. Throw up his sign. You know how it’s done.

Listen to it! Listen, and shout at the Devil!

(Article originally published in Hoofprints in the Wildwood: A Devotional Anthology for the Horned Lord; song lyrics from Mötley Crüe’s song, “Shout at the Devil” written by Nikki Sixx)

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