Saturday Night

Half-past midnight on the edge of the Salton Sea. “Everything is a mystery and I’m just a small part of it,” she said. “Maybe that’s all I need to know.”

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

There is also consolation in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to these echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky. I’d like to recover some kind of wonder in the digital age.


A stately soundtrack for contemplating the dark from Leyland Kirby’s Eager to Tear Apart the Stars.

What is the role of fiction in an age of perpetual outrage, engineered distraction, and vicious governance? After returning to the monochrome worlds of Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in the wake of Trump’s installation, I began re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which might be the most urgent dystopian vision due to America’s increasingly ecclesiastical hatred of women. Written in 1985, Atwood’s novel describes a militarized theocracy built from the dogma, rituals, and prejudices of the past and present. Women are stripped of all rights and some are rendered into, in the recent words of one Oklahoma lawmaker, ‘hosts’ for the unborn. Science is rejected. Writing is banned. Yet the most chilling dimension of the novel might be the narrator’s account of how this oppression and violence became the status quo while everybody was asleep at the wheel. What fills the vacuum when the institutions of democracy become feeble, when we prefer to focus on the self? “Whatever is going on is as usual,” says Offred, shortly after seeing the bodies of doctors dangling from the city’s walls. “Even this is as usual, now.”

My thoughts keep returning to one particular line: “The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.” This sentence nags in the margins while I compulsively scroll through the day’s digitized outrage, perplexed by the dogged faith that these technologies are doing us any measure of good. The words of Ray Bradbury’s fire chief in Fahrenheit 451 come to mind here: “Chock them so full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Atwood extends this idea of ambient distraction into tragedy. Not only is information overload a means of social control, it is a privilege that is often not recognized until it is too late, until it becomes clear that our fates are inseparable from the victims in the day’s headlines: “How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable,” says Offred, remembering the days when she had the freedom to spend her mornings in bed, lazily flipping through the newspaper’s reports of murder and terror. “They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Perhaps the task is to close the gaps between these stories.

Iceland at 35,000 feet

The choral drift of Popol Vuh’s ‘Aquirre I Lacrima di Rei’ sounds like glaciers, mist, and devotion. After listening to this song six times in a row it occurred to me that the word ‘theology’ means the ‘logic of god’—which seemed rather profound at 35,000 feet.

Popol Vuh - Aguirre I Lacrima di Rei

Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Ohm, 1972 | spotify | More information

Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while amplified into a blinding glare by our screens, stem from the age-old conflict between fact and delusion, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.

Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”

Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no constraints on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a functional government or a press that did not rely upon clickbait, a cruel toddler never would have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is that Trump is uncommonly stupid—and hopefully his need to be admired will lead to a magnificent unravelling before he becomes ‘sufficiently great’.

I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned. The inflexible views of fascists and ecclesiastics as well as communists and anarchists cannot be tolerated because they prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” Reminding us that we should always aim for “order without authority,” Russell tackles the perception that liberalism is too squishy to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:

“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”

Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost today? How many of these unnecessary battles persist due to a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and a refusal to tackle unchecked capitalism and the legal obligation to maximize profits at the expense of citizens? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to strongman politics of tribalism and fear.

I no longer understand the daily shock and anger towards Trump or the Republicans who pretend the emperor is clothed. They are the viper in the fable and it is useless to complain about being bitten. The ire and energy of anyone who cares about decency should be directed towards the Democratic Party; its refusal to articulate or support a  coherent liberal vision created this breeding ground for America’s most self-destructive instincts.

A meditation from Andrew Sullivan on the nature of freedom and the psychic beating that comes with living in Trumpland:

“With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements—each one shocking and destabilizing—round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.”

“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent—and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you—to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves—to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago.”

Midnight in Heralkion, Greece

Candy Chang and I recently collaborated on a mural in the Lakkos neighborhood of Heraklion, Greece. Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed combines a short meditation on mourning with a retooled collage of the Pietà. The title came one morning while I wandered the strange region between wakefulness and sleep, surfacing from another dream of my parents, their faces before me and very much alive yet I could only say you’re not supposed to be here. I do not know how to grieve. Without faith in an otherworldly logic to the universe, two options present themselves: wallowing in pity and guilt, or moving forward with my chin up and the sensation that I’ve buried something.

One particularly hard day, I was wandering through the supermarket, lost in a dim memory of childhood shopping trips with my mom, remembering the way she held my hand as we scrolled down the aisles while I gazed up at the fluorescent lights, wondering if that was heaven. Now I was a confused adult, standing before a display of energy drinks while I watched the people flow past me—men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—and the obvious finally occurred to me: Everyone here has lost somebody too. Or they will. We are all carrying the ghosts of parents, lovers, and even children. Why should I feel so alone? Perhaps this is why grief often feels indulgent, even shameful: if everybody else seems to be carrying on happily, why can’t I? As I passed through the sliding doors, the city’s billboards for widgets, entertainments, and endless youth felt particularly tone-deaf that night.

Six weeks later, Candy and I began spreading black paint across a wall in Greece. I had reservations about the project. Was the word ‘grief’ too obliterating? Was there anything to say about the subject? After we pasted up the text, an elderly woman stood before me with a passionate expression, her arms outstretched as she spoke to me in Greek. “She wants to know if you wrote the story on the wall,” someone explained. When I nodded, the woman clasped her hands together and her eyes went damp. The translator continued: “She says she just lost somebody too, and you describe her grief very well. She thanks you.” This moment made the project worthwhile.

The next day a woman with a stern ponytail told us the mural was horrible, that it was not art and, to be clear, she absolutely hated it. “Looking at this makes my heart black,” she shouted as she walked away. Part of me agrees with her, for I remain uncertain about whether a public conversation about grief can be constructive—or if it is too dark, a wall that forecloses discussion. But we have received several extraordinary responses from people who have lost fathers and godmothers, wives and sons. And I must remind myself that the only things worth making are the things which ask questions I cannot answer.

Published in 1962, Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is pegged to a single bizarre image: a man trapped in a sand pit with a mysterious woman. Their survival depends upon shoveling the accumulating sand each night, a metaphor for the labor of existence which the man alternately resists and accepts. Does shoveling an endless pit of sand make him any less free than his former life of paperwork, obligations, and bills?

He meditates on the reasons the mind craves routine: “It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Yet what else is there? This question becomes more difficult to answer as the man contemplates the woman’s resignation to this strange life. Shoveling gives her existence as much meaning as any other activity might. Meanwhile, villagers peer into the pit to ensure his compliance. “More than iron doors, more than walls,” Abe writes, “it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

In the vein of Camus’s stranger, Abe analyzes human behavior with the detachment of a scientist observing an insect: “Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring.” Yet routine offers no shelter from spiritual loneliness, and his description of its effects reads like an epitaph for the digital age: “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion. And so one bit one’s nails, unable to find contentment in the simple beating of one’s heart…one smoked, unable to be satisfied with the rhythm of one’s brain…one had the shakes, unable to find satisfaction in sex alone.” Although an extension of Camus and Kafka’s absurdism, the surreal society formed by Abe’s dunes transforms this philosophy into myth. This story has seeped into my dreams, grinding at my thoughts like sand in the teeth.

Midnight in Athens

Slow-motion strings and liturgical drones from Athens, Greece. Mohammad’s latest album reaches toward the sublime in its strictest sense: wonder coupled with dread, the jittery thrill of the dark and unknown. Now available as a digital download and triple 10″ vinyl from Antifrost.

On January 5 I walked along the sea in Crete and remembered my father who died on this day last year. The things I should have done, the desire to rewrite the past. But why punish myself with guilt? A line from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal nattered at my thoughts: “I often wonder why people torment themselves as soon as they can.” I ran my hands along the stone wall of an ancient fortress while tormenting myself for everything left unsaid and undone. Perhaps this self-punishment was an echo of the blood sacrifices of the past, a modern variation on the ritual of sati or the tribes who chopped off their fingers to illustrate their grief for the ones they’ve lost, to relieve their guilt for continuing to live.

A pier in the Aegean sea.

As I walked along the sea of a strange country, I recalled the day-to-day details of my last year with my father. Our morning drives to physical therapy, his constant tidying of our tiny pantry shelf. The comfortable rhythm of our conversations and silences, our routines and quiet complaints. We built a little life together, two men living in small clinical rooms, waiting for a lung. Looking up at the clear winter sky, I realized my parents would kick my ass if they saw me brooding like this—and I was surprised to find that I was still having a conversation with them. I walked on, feeling less alone, and I found a small moment of grace at the end of a pier in the Aegean sea.

He is an old man, beleaguered and muted like the last televised days of Richard Nixon, a bleary man with washcloth skin, all jowls and inflamed joints. He is a failed philosopher, a fading gentleman frightened by the sensations of the modern world. The painful taste of breath mints, the velocity of hand dryers in the men’s room. Everything is extreme these days. But he has always been a coward. He was afraid of the sun for years and he still jumps at unfamiliar noises, sudden changes in temperature, and the sight of Antarctica on a map. Looking at all that blank land feels like leaping off a rooftop. When he had a door, he would check its lock at least three times before getting into bed. He is afraid of many things and he has imagined his death via car wreck and home invasion many times. Now he is an antique in an overheated world of plastic and pixels, a silly and superstitious man who calls the crusts of bread ‘bones’ and refuses to eat them. But perhaps his fears have kept him alive for these ninety-one years.

His lover was a dangerous woman who feared absolutely nothing, not even when they came after her with fire and guns. She once told him that she made a deal with the devil and now he believes her.

Finally tracked down a clean hardcover copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which might be the book I return to the most. Something about it feels like home. Aside from elegantly navigating the depths of Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer et al, Durant might be the most kind-hearted and humble writer I’ve ever encountered. A valiant warrior against the incomprehensible language of academia, he seeks to “break down the barriers beyond knowledge and need,” arguing that the academic’s “barbarous terminology” has forced the world to choose between “a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.” Instead, he is on the side of warmth and humor, “not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” And all of this is in the first three pages of the preface.