Aquarius Rising

Another excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Hippies. (Log line. In this overdue epic of the Age of Aquarius, Jazmine, Ziggy, Ragman, and a coterie of hippies struggling with the contradictions of the 1960s counterculture discover an LSD-spinoff drug that triggers past life regressions and sweeps them toward a dramatic climax.)        

“Hey, Pepper, that bandanna looks great on you.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”

“Did the priestess come in today?”

“Yeah, bitch was there,” said Pepper. “Complaining about horse shit from the tourist carriages on Royal Street.”

“I thought horse shit was her specialty,” laughed Jazmine. She stood, stretched, and tossed the magazine on the lower shelf of the open pantry.

“Let’s sit outside,” said Pepper. “It’s a nice, clear night.”

They stepped out to the yard just as the spring sun set and sat on the benches at the small picnic table. The night was clear but the air dense and humid, with a moist citrus scent coming from the small satsuma tree near the alley that ran from the yard to the street.

Ziggy brought out three plates and Ragman filled four jelly jars with wine. Zig and Jaz and Rag dug in, and Pepper took a sip of chianti and looked up. She was engrossed with the sky, or something in it, but she said nothing.

“You make the simplest things taste so good,” Jaz said to Ziggy.

“How about you?” Pepper addressed Jazmine. “How you doing?”

“Good.”

“I mean that trip the other day. The tan acid. What do you think? Was it good? Bad? Weird.”

“Well, it was quick in and quick out, just like Rag predicted. That’s good.”

“That’s really good,” said Pepper, and she looked back up at the sky.

The others ate in silence, enjoying the crickets, the bird chatter of dusk, and the occasional sound of a VW bug torqueing around the potholes on St. Roch Street. Rag bussed the plates and refilled the wine.

“That’s why I never did LSD after that first time with Gina and Tex,” Pepper continued, as if there were no pause. “It was cool at first but then the long agony of coming down. I remember driving across the 24-mile bridge at night and seeing monsters coming out of the water with each turn of the waves, over and over in a hellish rhythm. And then I felt all the organs inside my body splitting open. I could see them and feel them tearing. Fuck that.”

Ragman had come back out and was lighting two tiki torches at the ends of the table.

“What the hell were you doing driving while tripping?” he asked.

“I wasn’t driving. Tex was.”

“Oh, that makes it all better,” joked Zig. “TEX was driving while tripping.” They all chuckled at the reckless absurdity of it all, knowing that at least this time all turned out safe.

“But listen,” Jazmine said. “You could even do this stuff, Pepper. There is no long, dark coming down part.”

Rag fired up a joint. The match momentarily lit up his face. The hazel eyes gleamed, the cheekbones more prominent as they tapered down to the point of the light brown beard. He looked for a moment like one of the plastic devil heads that come from claw machines. He inhaled hard on the joint and then passed it to Zig, who sat on the bench next to him across from Pepper and Jaz. Rag momentarily held the pot in his lungs and ran his hand through his flowing brown hair.

“What are you thinking, Rag?” Jaz asked quietly. The flickering of the tiki torch pulled the violet highlights from her eyes.

Rag was equally quiet as he spoke: “This shit could change everything.”

Zig took his hit and passed the joint to Pepper. The earthy sweet smell of marijuana mixed with the citronella fuel of the tiki torches, wrapping the four faces at the table into their own world. Jazmine, with her dark eyes and ivory glow, fiery Pepper with the ice blue eyes, Zig with his rectangular face framed by long curling black locks, and Ragman: faces close together, dimly lit against the darkening sky, all feeling the wrap and pull of pot-forged kinship, but the attention was on Ragman.

Transhumanism

For Thomas Z., to whom I owe a philosophical entry

First thing in Mainz was to join my philosopher friend, Michael, over a bottle of Spätburgunder, the delicious red wine you can only find in southwestern Germany, and hear about his recent forays into transhumanism. The concept echoed some recurring themes of my blog, so let’s have another go at it.

Here’s a quote from the mover and shaker of transhumanism, Max More.

“Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die – just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves! … What you have made is glorious, yet deeply flawed … We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution … We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence … Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution … We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death … We will expand our perceptual range … improve on our neural organization and capacity … reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses … take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological and neurological processes.”

An enticing mission statement, no doubt, but which side carries more weight — the passionate, techno-idealism or the Faustian arrogance? What if we expand and magnify all the quantifiable aspects of human identity only to discover that the things of true value in the human experience are precisely the non-quantifiable ones? To paraphrase a fine blog entry by your present correspondent, what if we increase our knowledge a hundredfold, a milllionfold, about neurological indicators of “being in love,” place all our bets for a better future there, and then discover, like J. Alfred Prufrock, that “this is not it at all,” that an infinite and complete set of data about the neurological (objective) facts of being in love turns out to be a mere child’s game, an insignificant correlative to the real thing, the subjective experience of love, love in its non-quantifiable aspect. What if we place all our bets on the objectively measurable and manipulable, and then find that the objective abstraction of reality is just the husk, the crust, empty shell of lived experience? As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, we cling tightly to the banana skin and throw away the banana. The objective aspect of reality may be nothing more than a map whose coordinates correspond to the subjective conditions that make up the real meat and matter of life. Knowing every infinitely granular datum on a map of New York is not the same thing as being alive and in New York.

And the transhumanist’s desire for improvement may seem intuitively good and true, but is it really that intuitive? I would say that the obsession with continual improvement is a modern, or at least post-Renaissance, obsession. As late as the eighteenth century (at least in England, whose cultural history I’m most familiar with), there was widespread and vocal resistance to the apostles of “improvement.” If the ancient Greeks were right that meaning and value for us is to be located in “happiness” (Aristotle) or in living “the good life” (Plato), is the frenetic quest for continual improvement really conducive to those ends? Couldn’t the Greeks be right that a life of tranquility and acceptance and reflection is more apropos?

Or, to take the most persuasive case for the transhumanist, the ethical case, why not modify human beings to be more altruistic? Surely there’s no harm there. Maybe. But what if moral variation turns out to have the same crucial value in our spiritual journey, our collective quest for the good life, as genetic variation has in the biological furtherance of the species? Absent moral variation, is there then no way forward, no dynamic built into the system, no adaptability without a spread of traits across individuals?

Finally, there’s the sense that you can’t beat Mother Nature. In the 1950s, the “improvement” team was telling us that factory-made formula was better than mother’s milk. The most conventional of modern medical practice holds that a lifelong battery of pharmaceuticals and surgeries is better than the body’s natural healing processes. DDT to kill pests sounds great until you realize there’s reason Mother Nature did not carpet bomb her own fields and rivers with DDT. Science is enormously instructive within its scope, but when it goes beyond scope with easy claims of how it can outsmart nature’s millions of years of accumulated intelligence, I would like to keep at least one foot on the brakes.

And even if you could beat Mother Nature, at least temporarily, postponing death, is that really so great? If we don’t grow old and die, children’s voices will no longer fill playgrounds, as the cycle of death and replenishent of the species will have been broken. Is the trade-off really worth it? Extend your old age further and further in a world with fewer and fewer kids at play. This specific point is negotiable, but in general, the “obvious” good might sometimes have a collateral damage that our scientist, or a particular community of scientists, limited by their historical vantage and their own egocentrism, may not see.

Despite all this, I remain intrigued by transhumanism and hope to read up on it. (Full disclosure: I have not studied the actual literature on transhumanism at all; I am merely use my discussion in Mainz as the occasion to develop these thoughts.) I am not against all efforts to improve the human condition. I myself have a hippie idealism about where to go from here that my more faithful readers will know. But when we’re going to improve the moral and social condition of humans, and rewrite our collective idealism, based on the mechanical technologies of the day, I would at least like to know that the transhumanist has fully considered all the counterpoints.

Frankenstein is a tired comparison but apt. The good doctor was motivated by pure idealism, with a passion to use technology to better the human condition. In our narrative, the narrative of living humanity, can we be sure that the transhumanist will really be able to rewrite the ending this time?

Hitchhiking Freiburg to Stuttgart

Hitchhiking was once again a little chaotic today. On a tip from the Black Forest Hostel, I walked up to the gas station to seek a ride instead of busing it to the autobahn. I tried both the street (which led to the autobahn) and the door of the station, but waited about two hours. Probably not aggressive enough at the door. Vocally asking for rides has never been my style, even in my 50,000 miles hitchhiking in my crazy, bohemian youth. And it turns out that really only the left lane went to the autobahn.

Anyway, a family picked me up going to Offenburg. Not as far as I’d like, not Karlsruhe, but maybe a better spot. The father spoke better English than the mother or the teenage son. Or maybe the teenage son was just a teenager, too self-conscious to admit his own mastery.

They dropped me at an autobahn rest stop, where my only option was accosting people at the door. This time, I accosted in earnest, landing a ride in thirty minutes with a young wrestling champion (2nd in Germany, 5th in Europe) going home to milk the cows at his family farm. When he found out I was a wrestling captain in high school, he showed me a video of his finals match on his phone.

He went out of his way to find me a good spot between Karlsruhe and Stuttgart, but finally had to drop me. Hitchhiking in Germany is pleasant, wholesome even. Everyone is nice, no one is afraid, no one considers you morally questionable for hitchhiking. But there are damned few good spots, good shoulders, good ramps. I walked, praying as usual that I wouldn’t have to walk for hours, and came to a decent spot – cars could pull over, but it was coming from the rural side of Pforzheim. A very nice man about my age offered to bring me to a better spot on the other side of Pforzheim.

“Sure,” I said. Movement. Anything. But the place he dropped me was worse.

“There’s the ramp to Stuttgart,” he said. “Right there.” Big smile.

Yes, right there. With no shoulder at all, with Germans flying by at the death-wish speeds for which they are famous. Too rural for bus stops. I had to trudge through weeds back toward Pforzheim, looking for a shoulder or an intersection, some niche of civilization. I finally came to a right turn lane where no one was turning right, and staked my claim here. At least they could stop if they really wanted to.

In a spot like this, after an hour, one always wonders: “Is it an impossible spot and I’m just not seeing it? What options to I have? I wonder where the nearest gas station is? A bus stop is too much to hope for.”

A light rain starts and then stops. Then a ride. A woman about my age (Kiki). She takes me into Stuttgart. She had dreamed of traveling herself. She and her high school friend had planned a trip to Australia. Then she got pregnant. Twins. Then another kid. She never got out.

Almost 6 p.m. and I got an email. The Airbnb request I had put in yesterday for Stuttgart was rejected. I guess Airbnb does not work unless you plan ahead. More light rain. Kiki drops me at a hostel. She gives me the address of a tiny jazz club (Kiste). She will try to meet me there later. Or I could go out to see her family in the suburbs tomorrow.

I did find a cheap hotel, and I would make it to Kiste – with some university students I met while trying to log into the university’s free wifi. But I would not see Kiki again. You never know which on-the-road contact might stick for life, but most will always be just fleeting moments, leaving nothing but pleasant little traces behind.

Religious Pluralism

When the subject of religion came up with a friend in Vienna — I can’t remember why — he danced me around to expressing my own view as one of religious pluralism. I think I’ll write this down, because it came up — or almost came up — again at a delightful dinner of Schnitzel and Gemüse in Hanover.

My spiritual identity draws from many springs: Catholic, Buddhist, Marxist atheist, existentialist atheist, pagan, and purely materialist physics, to name a few. All have forced me into a pleasurable pondering over the core of everything, and with each new pondering comes another manifold in spiritual identity. Or, to further mix my metaphor, why build a house with only one tool — a saw or a hammer? Isn’t a house more solid when a product of many tools?

Hitchhiking to Tübingen

Hitchhiking today was uneventful. I took the Munich subway to someplace near the autobahn, walked 30 minutes, waited 30 minutes, then got a ride to the edge of Stuttgart. The driver played guitar and the passenger was from Jordan. That’s all I found out about them. “Salemilecham,” I said. “Shokran.” “Afwan.” That’s the closest I can come to a phonetic transcript of our 3-word conversation in Arabic. They hunted around to find me a good spot without success, so I started walking, looking, ten minutes, but before I could find that good spot, a small delivery truck swerved over and gave me a ride to the edge of Tubingen, where I accosted a young couple for directions to the bus. He was an American studying here, and she had just flown in to make sure he went straight home at the end of the semester.

Next to a bridge near the Altstadt of this medieval college town sits the d.a.i. (Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut).

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It is here that I almost got a job. I had set up a meeting with the summer camp person, but she was ill, so I went straight to the director.

“We could use someone like you,” she said. “We’re expanding our English language courses to the business community.” She offered to help me with a work permit and to set up a sample class for next week, and stepped out to speak to the language coordinator.

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Five minutes of glee and she was back to say that someone had just been hired. Back to the Schwarzes Schaf coffee shop in a student-heavy part of the Altstadt to commiserate with the cool and friendly barista.

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At least I got to walk up to the Schloss. That was nice.

Sorolla in Munich

I didn’t know about Joaquin Sorolla before the Spring 2016 exhibit in Munich, but he sure was at the right place at the right time – Spain, early 20th century – Picasso, Miró, Gaudí, Dali.

Sorolla’s signature traits would seem to be regional subjects (Valencia beach), moments of everyday social life, and the way he captures the light on canvas.

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What’s interesting to me is how the three signature traits integrate. Although regional beach scenes and the social life transacted thereon seem a natural fit, this isn’t entirely intuitive. Most beach landscapes track toward the eternal beauty, or the gigantic power, of nature, whereas the art of social realism is something entirely different, something historically specific. Sorolla’s beach scenes combine the sublime aesthetic with the aesthetics of realism, giving an eternal sheen to the turn-of-the-century Spanish fishmonger or the crippled kid on the beach.

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The human interest is undeniable, but the real aesthetic value comes from the light. The way Sorolla catches the light is both realistic and transcendental, giving a luminosity, or in some paintings a sparkle, to the bodies and waves alike, grounding the mundane to some larger, more universal form of beauty.

Luckily for us, Sorolla allows us to isolate the third element (light) from the other two elements (social realism, regionalism) in his female nudes and domestic scenes.

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Here we can see how the light plays around the body, without the thematic interference of the sea or social realism. Here we see the light providing a kind of satiny halo for the figure at rest. Here we see the figure herself captivated by the light, reaching toward it in a posture of reflection, or perhaps comparing the shine of her ring to the shine emanating all around her in her pillowy retreat. But here too there is realism (by today’s standards you might say the body – the thighs, the lifted hip – has a decidedly unphotoshopped quality). And yet the light gives the overall composition a beauty – or if not a beauty, a value – that transcends that of the photoshopped models slicked on to today’s magazine covers.

So with the female bodies and interior sets, as with the beach scenes and everyday activities of turn-of-the-century Valencia, Sorolla’s compound signature is the way he uses light to infuse something eternal and sublime into the aesthetic of realism. That’s my conclusion, and I’m sticking to it. Or changing it, if I feel so inclined in the future.

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