synaptic-disunion

slipping…

some days I feel like i’m slipping away…becoming invisible…and I’m ok with it.  like blending into the background…a warm, comfortable feeling of well being…where softness surrounds your body and infiltrates your mind…

you soar…away…wings of freedom and all that…release, renew…like an ip address…but the renew is somewhere else…alone, numbness spreading and dulling senses until all is nothing and weakness is the only thing left…

some days are like that…knee bouncing nervously…then nothing.  a desire for peace and alternate realities sets in…a comfortable unreality where dreams are…where you can be what you always wanted to be and so much more…

eternity…

For the past week or so, I’ve been having the strangest thoughts that seemingly arise from out of nowhere, when I’m sitting quietly at my desk, or doing some mundane and mindless task. They all seem to stem from a dream I had a few nights ago, I think, wherein I was back in my grandparents house, on Astor street, in Fort Worth, TX. I am my current age, but they were still there. They’d be in their 100s now, were they still living. My grandfather, on my mothers side, was born in 1909. His wife, my grandmother, in 1912, I think. The small house still looked the same, the low nap carpet with its subtle pattern, the circular woven rug in the center of the living room, the dark wood paneling.

Even the back yard was the same, the single wagon wheel on it’s side, mounted in concrete so as to act as a makeshift merry-go-round that you held on to and swung from, the Honeysuckle hedge, my grandfather’s “dog house.” Inside the doghouse, he was there, sitting at a his small work bench, slowly turning the knob on his WWII era shortwave radio, the one I inherited from him when he passed away. He smiles at me, no words, I step in and smell that distinctive smell of oil and gasoline from the mower he also kept in the doghouse. It was a highly sensory dream. Since that night, I’ve had waking moments where I’m back there again. The memory is fresh for some reason. I’m looking into the face of my grandmother, who passed away from cancer in 1985. I’m seeing my grandfather sitting in his recliner, smiling, his white and thinning hair on top, and his horn rimmed glasses who died of complications from multiple strokes in 1980…and I feel warm, happy, comfortable. Even the smell of the house is in my nose…it’s an old, musty, but somewhat comfortable smell, and I want to stay.

I don’t know what all this means. I can’t understand why memories of my grandparents are visiting my mind now, of all times. Perhaps the dream opened a neural pathway to where those memories are kept, releasing them in order to provide me a little peace and comfort during this unsettling time. In the dream, and in the waking visions, I walk around that old house in Astor street, and a few things shift…the door to the kitchen is moved over a bit..but the stacked white washer/dryer combo still there…the small table in the corner…the one with the laminate top, the white cabinetry, the cans of Armour brand Vienna sausages. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I wonder, sometimes, why these kinds of memories just pop up every now and then. I know I’m not the only person for which this happens, and I won’t be the last. I know that someday, if I have grandchildren, they may have memories of a similar nature, about me. We are all born, and we all die, what matters is what happens in between those two events. We live on in the neural pathways of our children and grandchildren, and even further. Make that memory a good one…a warm, happy, comfortable one.

A rough draft…

This is a very rough draft of a possible Science Fiction / Fantasy book, or series of books, I’m thinking of someday writing.  Let me know if it’s absolute rubbish…
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Chapter 1 – The Years of Change

It was in the year 2643, during the 11th lunar cycle, when they found the object.  The northern desert wasn’t a place that archaeologists normally thought of as a rich area, but this find was stranger than they had ever seen, and sparked an increased interest in archaeology worldwide.  It was metallic, and it was buried in a stratum that was over 65 million years old.  The fact that it had survived all that time was a mystery in itself.

During the lunar cycles that followed, numerous theories arose to explain how it got there, and what it was, but none made a lot of sense.  One belief held that it was of non-terrestrial origin, that it was a small part of an ancient asteroid that had crashed on the planet millions of years ago, but it didn’t match any of the other asteroids that had been recovered, when there was anything to recover, that is.

Religious theorists seemed to take great interest at that time in the artifact, and held that the gods themselves had left this for us to find, and to study.  They had the idea that it might be a key to knowing the past, and the future.  Many from within darker and more isolated orders within those same walls, simply felt the artifact should be returned to where it had been taken, or simply left alone.

The explosion of archaeological digs planet wide resulted in precious little to add to this odd artifact since the strata that it was found in was extremely rare, and usually devoid of any signs of life, and only found in two places on the planet, the northern polar land mass, and the northern desert, a frozen wasteland where very little could survive.  The northern polar land mass was covered in most places with a mile thick ice sheet, which stretched down across the frozen north sea to the northern desert.

The artifact was discovered by the famous globe-trotting Urillian adventurer Yserka, while he was attempting to break his previous record for walking the 1500 mectar distance across the frozen desert.  Twenty five years before, he had done the same thing, and had been the first to discover that life did hang on, even here, in the frozen wastes, discovering strange fauna that subsisted in sub-zero temperatures year-round.  This time, his fame was even greater, and as hoards of archaeologists braved the elements to see the wonder that the wind was revealing, he reveled in his new found celebrity.  He was contracted by a major bookseller to write his life story, and it was then that the world found out that many of his tales were either fabricated, or plagiarized.

The artifact, however, was real enough, and after the initial media hype surrounding it, and its discoverer, died down, it was shuffled off to the great universities of the central mountain continents.  Those bastions of higher learning that dominated, and yet hid themselves from the day to day operation and governing of the world.  The artifact found its way to one such institution, where it was cataloged, labeled, and shelved, and nearly forgotten for over fifty years.

In the intervening years, the world saw a revolution unlike ever before.  Scientific breakthroughs enriched and lengthened life, the planets population tripled, and the perfection of air travel brought the world closer together.  The lighter than air zephyrs zipped across the stratosphere riding the trade winds of the planet, and the cities at the ends of these trade winds grew exponentially.  The great sea was finally traversed by one of these zephyrs and there was officially no place that hadn’t been touched by Urillian influences.

Even fashion had evolved with the times.  When the now nearly forgotten artifact had been found, the art of hiding ones tail was in fashion, now, it was common for Urillians to celebrate their tails, and again use them as a third hand.  It was a real back to nature movement, complete with certain Urillians reviving the old tradition of building dwellings under the extensive forests of massive trees of the northwestern continent.  Those trees that were sometimes over five hundred feet in circumference, and had lived for two and sometimes three centuries.  It was even rumored that some of these hole-dwellers regressed and began climbing the trees again, using their tails as the Urillians of old had, before the time of the great burning, when the planet was struck by a meteor so large that the sky was burnt orange for one hundred years.  There was even rumor of vast hidden cities in the trees.  Most modern Urillians, however, dismissed the very idea that people would give up technology for such a pastoral life as legend, and left it at that.

War, too, had changed in the last fifty years.  As Urillian science advanced, so did the art of war.  Gone was the hand to hand to tail combat of one hundred years ago, now it was swords in close combat, projectile weapons and chemicals in the cities and towns of ones rival city state.  Even the great sea wasn’t immune to war.  Great ships and even war zephyrs were built by the great shipping guilds of the western coastal lands.

One thing that did remain the same, however, was the great universities.  The outer world marched on, advanced, mostly thanks to the discoveries made by scientists at the great universities, but the universities themselves, remained relics of the past.  It was in one of these universities that a discovery was made, or rather, a re-discovery.  The metallic object found by the adventurer Yserka had lain in a large drawer for close to fifty years.  It remained the kind of enigma that takes more time and effort to solve than many students had, and many of the faculty had already come to conclusions that they felt were satisfactory regarding the object, and therefore regarded it as old news, and something to be forgotten.

There was one student, however, who had seen a sketch of the object, and had never forgotten it.  His name was Ursala Surbla.  Having come from a wealthy Urillian family in the south to the central university, he spent many days in the library, and in the specimen room, simply satisfying curiosities.  Yet he was never allowed to view the artifact.  However, he found the Yserka volume that described the strata that the object was found in, and was mystified.  How could an object, so obviously unnatural, have come to be deeply embedded in 20 million year old rock?  It just didn’t add up.

His studies forbade him the kind of time that he wanted to dedicate to the project, and his professors thought it was a foolish endeavor anyway.  Still, the idea that this object was special weighed heavily on him, and he continued his research as often as he could.  He came across several articles by other scientists who had studied the object, many of which came to the same conclusions.  He found it odd that there was such unilateral consensus on the artifact, that there were no respectable dissenting views.  It was then that he started noticing that this object had only been studied up until mid-summer of 2647, and no one had seen it since it was taken off display in the central university gallery in 2652, that was 49 years ago now.  At this point, research on the object had abruptly stopped.  The core group of scientists who had worked on it was now all dead.  And no other writings on the object existed.

Millions of sinister thoughts filled Ursala’s head, his ears turned and flattened back against the fur on his cranium, further increasing his concentration on the matter by closing off the sounds around him.  He hissed through his front teeth and twitched his tail softly over his shoulder.  He was suddenly very interested in this object, and greatly desired to see it with his own eyes.

prelude to the fall…

In those days, when there were puffy white clouds spread across the blue sky, when the warmth of the summer sun felt intoxicating on the skin, and the fragrance of the grass a very elixir of peace, we should have noticed the darkness coming.

In these days, when the sky is an ever-present grey, and the heat in the air forces us to move back into the ground before midday where the fragrance of the air we breathe in our tunnels is the scent of death, we dream of the past and wonder how it all began.

In those days, we ignored our illness thinking that the better angels of our nature would bring us collectively back to where we needed to be, righting the ship under us and directing us on the right course, but the angels had been overrun, and we didn’t notice.

In these days, the ship has been used as firewood and fallen, fallen has our Babylon become, mariners from the outside watch us as we burn mourning the loss of our wealth and fortitude as we fight among ourselves over how best to live.

In those days, the shorelines were dotted with life and gentle sea breezes wherein we ran, lay, made love, in our happiness, in our blissful ignorance, in our seclusion and in our blindness as the devil, wrapped in a flag, came and sat with us at tea.

In these days, the books are all gone, the burning never ceases, the light falters in our tunnels and we are told who we can love and who we cannot love and we are given a god to worship and all other ideas are unwelcome and the outside walls us up and stays away.

In those days, before the outside world mourned for us, they warned us, they wanted us to join them in their new and prosperous future where people live free to love worship and create in any manner they choose, but we didn’t listen because we thought ourselves better than they….

Meaning…part 2

I envy confident people, I really do. I envy people who have the ability to just do what they love, despite any consequences or challenges of questions from others that they should do otherwise.  I envy people who ignore the “but what-if’s” questions that come up all the time when they want to do something.  There’s a bravery in them that I wish I had…that I’m struggling to have, frankly.

This year I turn 46. This year, a lot of things are happening in my little life…in my little corner of the world. To list them all would make me sound like a complainant in life’s court room, so I’ll refrain.  Yet, in so saying, I feel disingenuous for admitting that I indeed have troubles in my life, because now you know.

Still, a litany of my troubles is not at issue, what is, is how I feel about what time I have left in my life.  I’ve drifted this far on the back of simple fate, letting the wind blow me to where others needed me. But I’m no selfless saint. I’ve lost friends, I’ve made friends, I’ve upset family, I’ve been disloyal and selfish and self destructive as well. In fact, why do I deserve anything for myself at this late stage in my life? Because I believe this is all we have. That’s not to say that I should live fast, live hard, for tomorrow I may die and all else is folly. No. I’m no hedonist. I still believe there’s more to life than chasing pleasure. I now firmly believe in chasing meaning. There’s no word for that, that I’m aware of right now. Maybe there should be.

This year, I hope to chase meaning. I hope to grow closer to my brother and two sisters. I hope to be in contact with my aging parents during the twilight of their lives. I hope to fulfill a lifelong dream of returning to Africa to do Anthropology research, and to learn more about life in three weeks there with a local family, than I have in my 46 years. I hope to see my oldest son become everything he wants to become, and my middle son, and my youngest as well. In the face of all that is going on in my life, I have to have hope for whats left of my own future, as selfish and narcissistic as that sounds. I hope to eschew the feeling of guilt I always feel when I do something that I find meaningful.

Meaning…part 1

Meaning is a word.  Specifically, it’s a noun, and can be used as an adjective.  But you know that.

Meaning is different for each person’s existential journey, if they have enough self awareness…which most beings do, on some level.  Consider your pet.   From where does it get it’s meaning?  Personally, for me, my guess would be that creatures of lesser sentience, like pets, get what we would call meaning, from their immediate environment, and from their biological senses.  Pets probably include us in their existential search for meaning, however limited in scope that may be for a being like a dog, or a cat.  In other words, along with the meaning of life derived from their senses, their relationship with us, is also factored in…most likely no more than it would be, were they pack or pride animals, still.  We are merely parts of their pack, or pride, or what have you, albeit freakishly large, in most cases.

So, meaning, existence, these are traceable down through ever decreasing complexity, from us, through the chain of life, to the least complex.  Biological, anatomical, sensory, chemically.  So, what of it?  Are we no more than introspective biological machines?  Probably so.  Is that bleak?  Do we now stare into the abyss believing all is for nothing?  Living as though absolutely none of our actions matter, in the end?  Well, we can.  We are certainly free to do so.  For in truth, that is the way things are.  This is the world.  Bleak, no?  Yes.

But….enter culture.

Mankind has adapted a tool to combat the bleakness of our biological introspection.  Culture.  We express ourselves, we have religions, music, storytelling, a myriad of beautiful and fantastic ways of understanding the world around us, and interpreting that world.  It is my belief…yes, the word belief is loaded with subtext and baggage, but contextually, for what I’m trying to express, it works.  It is my belief that, though the truth of biological life is bleak, there is meaning, nonetheless, in many diverse ideologies.

….end part one….

…and the silence…

…and the silence signals the beginning.  The beginning of the ending, as it were, even as the ending was always there, hidden, underneath the other layers of misplaced meaning, misunderstood words, mistranslated emotions.

When you know, a gentleness comes, a peace, in the center of a turbulent hurricane of chemical outbursts in your body and mind…you become an observer in a garden of destruction, as the light fades and you listen to the tragedy unfold, while silently humming hymns to yourself in that final hour.

Emotions are like the trees growing out of your mind, into the world around you, unseen by some, observable by others, trimmed and felled by, even still, others, who have no love of trees, especially your trees, and wish only to foster their own trees to be noticed, and nurtured, at the expense of the ones that are slowly being ground down inside your own experience and personal landscape…

…and the silence signals the beginning.  It becomes the background music in your own internal landscape, where trees once reached for the sky, reaching heavenward to express their own individual patterns, abilities, happiness, or sadness.  Now, the silence dominates reactions, where there were trees, there are now only ghosts. The ghosts that only still live in the silent landscape of your mind, to drift away on the silent wind…unless captured by some force of will external to your little internal world of woe and self-defeating dialogue and blame.  If your body crumples down and reaches into that loamy earth where once grew your hopes, your dreams, your possible futures, it may well find that there is still life therein.  There may still be soil worth cultivating new trees, but only if you protect them from the axes of those who would destroy them, and supplant their own in their place…their dominant trees…their great canopies overhead that drown out the light and block access to the heavens, wherein lay the hope for your tiny starving lives underneath.

…and the silence signals the beginning.  The beginning of that process of the death of one life, and the beginning of another, new, different, more richly soiled growth…unless care is not taken…the process is not easy…the process is not simple…the process burns the land and destroys all within it…but renewal comes, if the soil is worked.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?: Relativistic and Universalistic approaches to world view and reality perception.

I wrote this short essay for a Linguistic Anthropology class in the fall of 2013.  It is the highest viewed essay on my Academia.edu page by far.  I’m not sure why.  I thought I’d share it here under the Anthropology tag here.


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Topic Sentence: Relativistic and Universalistic approaches to world view and reality perception.

Topic: Using examples from the Hopi language and lecture notes from our class, I intend to dissect and explain the two major ways of approaching Linguistic Anthropology, relativism and universalism, their advantages and their pitfalls.

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“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

One of the many questions that linguists, both Universalist and Relativist, are trying to answer with regard to language is, to put it quite simply, whether thought affects language and perceptions of reality (Universalist view), or whether language affects thought and perceptions of reality (relativist view).  In this short essay, I intend to dissect  these two approaches, give examples of both using the Hopi language, and draw from lecture notes, articles mentioned in class, and my personal thoughts and ideas regarding possible pitfalls and advantages in both ideologies.

A friend who is a neurobiologist mentioned to me recently, on the similar subject of cognition, thought, and language that his personal view, from a biological perspective, was “the egg came first.” (His phrase)  By this he seemed to be indicating that the mechanics and biology needed for thought and language as an abstraction of thought had to be in place before either could evolve.  I find this to be a solid argument.  Once we move beyond the initial spark of thought and language, however, into that vague world of perception, it seems to me that things become more clouded and deserve closer inspection.  What happens when we think?  What does thinking entail, outside of the obvious biological nature of neurons firing and giving the perception of internal dialog?  Does thought lay outside the venue of language, relying on language to articulate and simulate in whatever way it can, the thoughts occurring within the human mind, or is it the opposite?  Does language somehow manipulate thoughts by internalizing words and phrases that have meanings, giving us pictures and ideas in the form of thought?

The relativistic approach, first hinted at by Wilhelm von Humbolt, who proposed that language was the very fabric of thought itself.  Meaning, thoughts are the internal dialog of the human mind, and therefore reflect the grammar and syntax of the native speaker.  This internal speaking then in turn greatly influences the world view (Weltanschauung) of the person thinking (speaking to oneself internally).  Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, then took up this idea while studying the language of the Hopi people in the American southwest.  The now famous and much debated “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” as it is known, is the basis behind most Relativistic thinking and study.  This relativistic theory came about after Whorf studied the Hopi people, who he asserted had in their language “no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time’ or to past, present or future …”.  So how does Whorf come to this conclusion?  Let’s look at an example directly from Whorf’s article we read for class entitled “Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.”  In this article, Whorf writes that in the Hopi language, “all phrase terms, like summer, morning, etc., are not nouns, but a kind of adverb, to use the nearest SAE (Standard Average European) analogy.  They are a formal part of speech by themselves, distinct from nouns, verbs, and even other Hopi ‘adverbs.’  Further on, he continues that when speaking in Hopi, “One does not say ‘this summer,’ but ‘summer now’ or ‘summer recently.’  There is no objectification, as a region, an extend, a quantity…,.”  This “objectification” he’s speaking of is, as I understand it, the tendency of our language, and other SAE languages to objectify time, slice it up, as it were.  To segment it as “a summer” or “last summer” or “a minute” or “tomorrow.”  This, he says, does not happen in Hopi.  He explains that “Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual ‘getting later’ of it.”  Later, as Whorf is attempting to tie this notion of timelessness to the conceptual perceptions of the world through Hopi eyes, he says “Everything is in consciousness, and everything in consciousness is…”  That is to say, with regard to time, that what happened is still happening, and what will happen, is already starting.  For example, one might say in SAE, “I’m going to Texas for Christmas,” whereas in Hopi, one would say something similar, but the meaning would be “we are and have always been preparing to go to Texas and be there for when it is Christmas.”  To Whorf, this seemed to indicate a different view of the world, and of perceptions of time.  Whorf clarifies this idea, in Language, Thought and Reality, when he says:  “We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language… all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.”  What I take it he is saying here, especially when he says “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe” that he believes thought itself, and perceptions of the surrounding world, are different depending on what (as he calls it above) “speech community” to which they belong.  Therefore, their language affects their thoughts, and how they view the world around them.

Universalism, as you would guess, comes at this from a different angle altogether.  Universalism asserts that language does not construct reality, as is the case in relativism, but that reality constructs language and thought.  Though differences in language do occur, it is clear to the Universalist that those differences are still descriptions of the same objective reality.  Scholars like Anna Wierzbicka and Noam Chomsky see language as a human universal, comprising of structure and semantics across all human populations.  That is to say, language is something uniquely human, and all humans use it in the same way.  This isn’t to say that ideas and concepts are diverse across human populations, but the methods used to describe those concepts are all done through the device of language.  Using the same example as I have for the Relativist position, I will describe how a Universalist would understand the problems presented by the Hopi idea of time, but focusing on intervals of time.  For example, in Hopi, the interval between days is rarely mentioned.  One might say, “we left on the fourth day after we arrived.”  The word would literally be something akin to “fourtimesday.”  As I understand it, Whorf asserts that intervals of time are not counted; however, Helmut Gipper’s article Is there a Linguistic Relativity Principle? he states the following:

                “And is it correct to conclude, as Whorf does, that the intervals, strictly speaking, are not counted at all?

                Yes and no.  In fact, the meaning of the two translations of ‘fourtimesday’ and ‘the fourth day’ may be nearly identical in many cases.  Nevertheless it is hypothetical to interpret, as Whorf does, that time intervals are not counted: It is the same daylight which returns, only a little older.”

So the Universalist, though they would acknowledge that the Hopi do not normally count the intervening days in individual numbers, would disagree that the Hopi do not acknowledge them in their world view, or that they do not exist as objective entities within their world view.  Ekkehart Malotki, a student of Gipper, confirmed these findings during a study of the remaining Hopi speakers in the early 1980s.  Malotki says in Hopi Time: A Linguistic Analysis of the Temporal Concepts in the Hopi Language:

“As it turns out from among the numerous suffixes that the Hopi verb can select to mark the grammatical categories of aspect, mode and tense, one is specifically reserved to refer to time, or rather the sequential ordering of events or states. This temporal marker is -ni whose referential force is futurity. Its temporal function is primary; however, in many contexts i-ni also takes on a number of secondary, atemporal functions which essentially belong to the modal category (imperative, hortative, desiderative, etc.). Since no markers exist to point out present or past time, Hopi, like many other languages, can be said to be endowed with a future-nonfuture tense system.”

In other words, a Universalist sees that the Hopi do have a tense system, albeit different from ours in many ways.  Malotki hints that our perceptions of time might be clouded by our own technology, by the timepiece and the introduction of the Roman calendar.  I can see this as a valid point, because we interpret the perceptions of others through the filter of our own experiences, however, this doesn’t mean that the experiences of others are non-transferable to our own.  Because the Hopi have their own calendaring system and method of time reckoning, doesn’t mean that they do not reckon time in a way that we cannot comprehend, or that we reckon time in a way that they cannot comprehend.  It may be that our methods are so different that the translation and reasons we reckon time in our respective ways is foreign and meaning less, but time is still present, and tense is still a factor in both languages.

As is normal, it seems that there may be some pitfalls within both approaches to language and thought.  It is at this time in the essay when I will draw from what I’ve learned and read and thought about during the discussions and lectures for this class, to attempt to discover what those pitfalls might be.  In Relativism, the advantage is that the great diversity of language, thought, and ideas is brought to the fore.  There are definite ways in which humans think differently, and objectify the world around them in unique ways.  However, it seems to me that were this relativistic approach to be taken to its logical conclusion, then humans shouldn’t be able to share experiences in any meaningful way at all.  Let me explain: In the relativistic view taken to the extreme, my experience is unique to everyone else.  Therefore, the language I use is my own and is tied together with my own thoughts and perceptions.  Nothing I say would have the same meaning to another human being, even if we were using the same system of letters, codes, and words.  The meanings and symbolism would be something completely different for everyone else but me.  This is the biggest pitfall I can see within the relativistic approach.

Within and extreme version of Universalism it seems to me that the biggest pitfall would be that we are all homogenized into one system of thinking and perceiving and all understand each other’s meanings implicitly without problem.  In this hyper-universalist model, all languages would be structured the same, all meanings would line up, and all thoughts and perceptions would line up together across all human species without fail.  Though I do believe there to be many linguistic (among other) universals, I believe this extreme view to be lacking in nuance.

For my own part, I will take what I can from both approaches and apply them to my study of linguistics.  To say one approach is “better” than another, is a value judgment that I’m not willing to make at the moment, but I am very willing to be careful of the pitfalls within both that I’ve mentioned above.  For me, cognition, thought, perception, and language, all seem to dovetail together to form an emergent system of complex communication within our species.  I think it logically follows that the egg had to come first, that the biological components for this system of communication to emerge from had to be present within our species, even if in a rudimentary form.  Along with this, the environment had to present the need for this communication, for as we’ve discussed in class, “evolution doesn’t do any more than it has to do” to continue the species.  Perhaps it’s serendipitous that this survival mechanism we call “language” has provided us with so much more than was initially intended from its simple beginnings.  With language we can conceive the world around us, put words to our experiences and thoughts, and create stories and mythologies, which shape cultures and peoples in colorful ways.

His name was Johnny Virgil… : Kevin Gilbert’s “The Shaming of the True.” A Review, and Response: Part 2

Note: It took me a long time to finish this.  I sincerely hope this isn’t a portent of how often I’ll be able to update this blog, but I fear it may be.  That’s ok, I suppose.  I have full time responsibilities outside of this that frequently take priority.  The needs of the others, outweigh my own personal needs, always.  Anyway, on with part two, and the conclusion of this review and response.

When the opening notes of a concept album, or any composition, are dissonant, the composer is trying to convey a feeling.  This is easy to see. It’s no different with the opening notes of this album.  But how do we interpret this opening unsettling sound, this ear disturbing mismatch of tones, as it slowly congeals together into a pleasant chord?  What is the composer doing here?  Are we, as the listener, drifting from dissonance, that is to say, disorder, chaos, feelings of being adrift and lost, into something more pleasant and ordered, supposed to use these auditory signals as an allegory for something that is to come later in the piece?  I believe so.  Our hero, the central character in this opera, Johnny Virgil, is an aspiring singer, songwriter, rock star…at least that’s where his heart is…he has desires of greatness, he has a song in his heart and he wants to share it.  The lyrics clearly say he’s been listening to Dylan, he’s been listening to the Dead.  A parade of people who have come before him, who he venerates, these are the saints of the past, guiding the devotees of the present, in to the future. These are some of his influences, and he’s found a path down which he wants the saints above to help him walk, and it brings him something pleasant, ordered, a chord of existence for which he was searching for during the chaos of dissonant notes just moments ago.  He has decided what he wants to do.

As he traverses this path, he comes across someone who has already been down this path, and returned to the nothing from which they came.

The attendant at the Texaco saw the guitar case in my back seat
And decided to impart his tragic tale
He said: “I used to play in a band like you
We even made a record too”
And sang a bar that hardly rang a bell

He doesn’t want to see this as an omen or a portent of his own future, he looks away, tries to disengage in, he wants to go to the city of the sun, in this case, Sun Studios comes to mind.  Musicians have their holy places, as many orders to.  Sun Studios is one such place, Abbey Road another, Tupelo Mississippi yet another, and so it goes, as someone else once said.

From this place of uneasy hope, our hero, Johnny Virgil, has a series of adventures both amazing, and disturbing.  The song Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Men), is a musical piece of genius, in this reviewer’s humble opinion.  In round form, voices of these marketeers bespeaks the amazing things that are in store for Virgil, the lights, the money, the women.  This schmoozing, is all almost too much for him.  He tries to maintain his autonomy, until these front men convince him that he is the focus of their pocketbooks, their priority, and hand him over to the image makers in the industry, who create, through him, a character that can be packaged, marketed, and sold to the masses…and then the video…the music video.  Remember?

Some time in the late 90s, MTV stopped being Music Television, I think, in favor of some sort of Lifestyles of the young X’ers on the West Coast station.  My generation.  We were the generation of the transition between traditional music industry, and this new whatever industry it is now.  During the 90s, we watched the decline of MTV, bemoaned it…but did nothing about it, save get more piercings and tats…or focus on our internet start-up job in the brick-walled loft we called an office.  But the “industry,” that machine that pooped out music for us to consume, was changing, and we barely noticed.  But that’s all gone now, water under the bridge, where we kept our porn magazines, before we could just see it online for free, without worrying about being found out.  Those were our plans, those were our halcyon days, after Lewinsky, and before the tech-bust of the early 21st century.  Those were the days of our best laid plans.

Virgil’s plan went awry, as so many do, as so many of ours did.  One day you’re dreaming of pursuing a dream, a decade later, you’re still dreaming, but as a wage slave to your accidental career, just trying to make ends meet, while engaging in the fringes of what would have been your dream career, from your armchair, or as a gas station attendant.  Virgil lead his life almost like you did.  He was in front of crowds of screaming fans, loving fans, fawning fans.  Singing his songs, grinding his hips, owning the stage, with the excitement of a black gospel choir, sweat dripping off him, fervor of dedication to music and energy, sending it all to the crowd, who injects the experience like a drug.  This is the high point in the arc of our hero’s story…then comes the drop.

He becomes empty, surrounded by smug name-dropping psuedo-art types of dubious intellect.  The drugs flow, the parties are nonstop, he lives in a constant state of altered mind and consciousness, until he is a shell.  He becomes as empty as a Ken doll on the shelf.  He delivers what people want, what they need, and he is alone.  Somewhere along this dark corridor, he hears the tiny sound of his own mind, screaming in it’s tiny way, for release, for reality again.  He searches the emptiness within himself and tries to find his way back home, home now being his own self, who he wanted to be, who he wishes he was, who he thought he was going to become but for the redirection of others.  During this transition, he has to destroy the person he’s become, and becomes the archetypal bad-boy rock star.

Still, he knows he’s talented, while at the same time being used by others to line their pockets.  He’s a tool, nothing but a product.  So aptly put in this bit in the song “A Long Day’s Life,” toward the end of the album:

Three nights running now I’ve had the most unusual and disturbing dream, where I’m a 19th century French painter with a pallet and paint brush and beret and an ill-fitting black suite and I’m painting perfectly rectangular white lines on an endless snaking desert highway and people are yelling at me “you missed a spot.”

He wanted to be so much more, but this is what he’s become.  He had…still has…so much potential and talent, but his drive is gone, his will is broken, his love for his dream is lost.  It’s the end of all this now, he’s slipping into nothingness, obscurity, sliding down, letting the water close over his head and breathing in the cool liquid of nothingness.  He’s lost his way, he’s at the end of his days.

Just as we think the end has come for Johnny, we find that he is a survivor of sorts.  He moves on, he is crucified by the industry, and rises again, but he realizes that we are all prisoners of apathy and fear, and we’ve lost the way back home.  All of us, each of us is drifting though this life only to find that there are no simple solutions, no last judgement day, there is only the trying, the journey, the way to our homes.  That home is our peace, our comfort, a place we’ve found where we are as we want to be, a place where we can be who we are, express what is inside of us in whatever way we need.

This ending is melancholy, true.  Johnny’s last song is in his own mind, contemplative, and mournful in a hopeful sort of way.  He has traveled this road, left a mark on the world, and faded into obscurity.  The last track on this album, it is said, was recorded in one take, on the back porch of the studio, real rain, and the serendipitous sound of the train…it wasn’t planned, the universe just aligned that way, at that moment, for the mother of all endings…the train is the world moving on without Johnny, the rain is rejuvenating and calming, as he slips back into nothingness, having completed a real life bildungsroman, in secret.

As can be seen, I connect with this album, for whatever reason.  Truth be told, I connect with alot of albums I listen to, but really, none like this one.  There’s something deeply personal about it, for me.  Maybe I’m still in the middle of my own personal bildungsroman, or maybe my story is still unfolding.  I do know that I sometimes chase dreams, though others may find my chasing useless.  Something in me keeps me driving, hesitatingly, forward, nonetheless.  Perhaps one of these fits and starts, will lead me to an ending of my own.

Kevin Gilbert: The Shaming of the True Wikipedia article

Complete Lyrics from LyricWiki

Purchase the album here:

His name was Johnny Virgil… : Kevin Gilbert’s “The Shaming of the True.” A Review, and Response: Part 1

Kevin Gilbert’s The Shaming of the True was the last album recorded by Gilbert, before his untimely death, due to auto-erotic asphyxiation. I wanted to go ahead and get that out of the way, the auto-erotic part, that is, so we could go ahead and shove aside the idea that the composer of this album was a degenerate of some sort. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.  It doesn’t really matter, in the end.  To me, sad though it is that he either purposefully, or accidentally, took his own life while pleasuring himself, matters not one iota the level of what I consider genuine musical talent found on this album. All of us are troubled in some way, all of us have some weirdness about us that we’d rather the outside world never know. Each of us has our own private life between our ears, and behind our eyes, that nobody else will ever know about or understand. Kevin was no different.

Now, on to something more important. This album is undoubtedly an opera. It follows a story line, and is a tragedy, like so many opera’s before it, both classical and rock genera operas. What makes this one different? What makes this one special to me? The story of this opera is the story of the struggle of artists in this world we’ve set up around us. This society that venerates popularity, so much so that it seems the more outlandish you are, the more bombastic, the louder and more offensive, the more likely you will be able to top the polls and have a good chance at becoming both a national embarrassment, and the leader of that same nation…but I digress.

Over the past twenty years since this albums was conceived, and recorded, the music industry itself has changed. The internet has opened up opportunities for little known, yet talented musicians to be seen and heard, while at the same time
making traditionally minted, signed, and marketed people of dubious talent, see their sales slip, even if just a fraction. Perhaps it’s a leveling off of opportunity, or maybe it’s just that the record industry is lagging behind, just a little, until it finds it’s foothold in the new normal and can become the primary image makers they want to be, like they always have been.

This album’s story captures the traditional struggles, not the new normal of downloads and freebies and self-promotion. It captures the contract signing, the pushy producers, the obsessive tour managers, the whirlwind of marketing and popularity creating. The music is aggressively melancholic, positively cynical, and dripping with allegory, illusion, allusion, and disturbing descriptions of the unsettling lifestyles of the musicians who have sold their souls to the record company in the name of profit.

I can understand and sympathize with selling one’s soul in this way, however, and I hold no grudges against musicians who are forced down this path to make a living. It’s the way our world is arranged, it’s how enough of us have agreed to approach the people who should be our consciousness, our sages, our poets, our storytellers…we look at them and wonder, “that’s nice, but can it make money?” The lure is real, and strong, it’s not right or wrong. It just is.

I’ll stop here for now, and present this in a series of posts, lest one post become too lengthy and boring for anyone to complete.

End of Part 1.  More to come….until then, listen to the first track below.

Track01:Parade

Kevin Gilbert: The Shaming of the True Wikipedia article

Complete Lyrics from LyricWiki

Purchase the album here: