Friday, March 07, 2014
Daniel Dennett is a philosopher and looks prophetic, which suits him fine. He was the tie-off speaker on HeadCon ’13: What’s New in Social Science. This is at edge.org, filmed last summer under a lovely awning on a California lawn. Younger people had previously analyzed and organized amazing new research on what it is to be human. Incredibly minute and specific work on the organic brain is meshing with the new understanding of culture and cognition. Dennett’s startling way of saying what I’ve said here before, that the brain is community of cooperating one-celled animal, is calling it the “termite colony captured in the skull.”
He’s talking about “non-Darwinian” evolution and economies, which I take to mean non-organic, the memes. He speaks of “foible manipulation.” One stumbles onto a gimmick and exploits it. In my own terms, it’s being an energetic seventh grade kid who looks for crevices and advantages in all limitations of his behavior, from things to find out, to things he or she can make the body do, to ways of controlling adults. In the latest form of computer metaphor, the brain is a collection of apps.
Now -- if that doesn’t make you feel too crawly -- I’m going to jump to another study that is “termite by termite”. http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2014/Mapping_Your_Every_Move_1_/# By now many of us realize that there are many tiny structures in the brain that have different functions, like the hippocampus manages memory and the amygdala manages both fear and pleasure -- so on. Now comes the entorhinal cortex, which contains the grid-cell navigation system. This is a tool for both cognition and navigation, “where you are” in both senses.
So it must be the source of all those diagrams in books that explain stuff like the structure of sentences as well as being the source of our love of treasure maps, as though we are always “seeking the way to the treasure.” It also codes a map of one’s memories. It is an early system that gets knocked out in Alzheimers, resulting in the first symptoms of forgetting and getting lost. The connection to Alzheimers means it has a high priority for study.
One of the more interesting little exercises at retreats is to ask people to draw that map of “where they’re at” and the history of how they got there, and then to explain it to their neighbor. This would be even more interesting if one could make it multi-layered by using a computer program or sheets of clear plastic to make overlay maps from different time periods or the interaction of different maps, say one of intimacy versus one of economic achievement.
It turns out that neurons as individuals are of different “kinds” of termite with different duties. This linked article lists and explains (now that we can detect them) kinds of neurons, “apps.”
“Place cells” are in the hippocampus, GPS notations of where the creature is. Over time this becomes a dynamic map, constantly updated and not dependent on landmarks, like the GPS screen in a car.
“Head direction cells” record which way your face is, well, “facing,” regardless of what your body is doing.
“Grid cells” are right next to the hippocampus and constantly triangulate location.
“Border cells” signal when a creature is next to a wall or edge.
Quoting the scientists: “The collective significance of these findings is that the reactions of the neurons can be matched to what is found in the external world. It is still too difficult to trace other types of complex thinking to their sensory origins. Where information is combined across sensory systems, the firing patterns of the neurons involved are too diffuse for us to detect patterns and relationships to what is happening in the external world.” . . .
“So by focusing on something more accessible, such as the way space is represented in the brain, we can begin to understand how the brain computes itself, and how external inputs from the senses get into the primary sensory cortex.”
Navigation is one of the earliest skills of the “animal,” a skill a plant does not need since it cannot travel. Now we have come so far that we are making maps of the brain from the outside, seeing what its topography is and how the electrical messages travel along it.
More quoting: “The brain’s GPS—its sense of place—is created by signals from place cells to head direction cells, border cells, grid cells, and cells that have no known function in creating location points. Place cells not only receive information about a rat’s surroundings and landmarks, but also continuously update their own movement—an activity that is actually independent of sensory input.
Now the scientists are looking at “speed cells” that tell the creature how fast it is moving. Also, decision-making cells. “The neurons involved in this decision-making can be found in the prefrontal cortex, which connects to the hippocampus via a small nucleus in the thalamus.”
Let me “ground” these ideas with homely examples. My father grew up on the prairie where travel was via grid systems, dividing flat terrain up into squares like a chessboard -- and he was a good chess player because he understood the patterns that alternating squares present. My mother grew up in Southern Oregon hill country in the headwaters of the Willamette Valley. She understood valleys and ridges, landmarks like big trees or patterns of horizon or watercourses. When my family traveled across the continent, sometimes my father knew where we were -- other times it was my mother. He knew soils and learned geology. She knew plants and understood art of a representational kind.
When it was time for me to start kindergarten, I was escorted to Vernon School once, a checkerboard problem: five blocks up Sumner, two blocks north on 20th. I couldn’t remember when to turn north, so I sat down on the curb and wept. Along came some “big girls” who rescued me. The last time I went back, a half-century later, I was also confused about when to turn because the trees had aged out and died, the houses had changed, so my landmarks didn’t work.
My father liked to be “on the move,” and one of our favorite occupations on a balmy Sunday evening was to “go get lost.” Because of his prairie childhood, he found all elevations significant and since Portland was a river valley with volcanic cones and the West Hills, he was pleasantly baffled by the roads that went round, up and over, plus the experience of looking out over the lit city. The seduction of the “Other.” If he became a little too confused, my mother knew where we were. We could see from the top of Rocky Butte or from Skyline, what the layout was.
When it was time to teach new animal control officers how to follow the maps of Portland so they could go efficiently to the addresses of complaints and emergencies, I found that some of them understood terrain and some did not. Some only learned by rote, a serious handicap. In fact, they were people who functioned by obedience rather than by figuring things out, which was a disadvantage in such a free-form job.
What I’m saying is that when one studies brain function “apps” one is looking at function in the world, how the termites build thought patterns that control everything, and then how their conclusions and actions create a new map overlay that adds depth to the genomes. Those who have the REAL advantage are those who seek uncharted territories, regardless of what dragons may dwell there. Those who stick to the maps only have one version of reality. It might not work.
Thursday, March 06, 2014
The management of consciousness is what it means to be human altogether. When considering poetry, this is the angle of approach that I take: how is the poet managing his consciousness and how is the reader or hearer’s consciousness affected? Mrs. Othus, our grade school library teacher who wore a ugly wig but somehow had a husband who was rumored to love her very much, told us our brains were like a field and that thinking wore paths across it where the feet went to and fro.
Many years later when I attended college, the school wanted to pave the muddiest of their campus paths. There were already paved paths where the students were supposed to go, but they were goat-footed and would not stay on the pre-existing sidewalks. So the administration simply waited until mud or snow made the student paths obvious and then paved those. They didn’t like mud.
Poets go on both kinds of paths but there is a kind that tries always to walk on grass, stone, air, to wade in the waterways, to swing from the trees. Their consciousness wants something new because that’s often where the power is. And they discover that the forbidden is the most powerful poetry of all, whether it is religious taboo, fenced propriety, or simply deadly.
If one lives a forbidden life, let’s say on a beach somewhere remote, or squatting in a ruined building (there are so many now, esp. in Detroit), or a small town where everyone knows what’s happening and no one wants to rock the boat so they are silent, then true poetry will reflect that. But who will read it? How does one get the writing to the reader or listener? Today we know an answer is electronics, but that does not solve the problem.
Mrs. Othus was a liberal who believed in protocol: “This is how to take a book off the shelf,” she taught us. “Slip your fingers in between books -- do not pull from the top of the back of the binding.” It’s like grabbing a poet by the back of his collar, though these days they tend to wear t-shirts and their books are all paperbacks, maybe hand-sewn. Mrs. Othus was a BBC type before there was television. She was strict, almost clerical. Some students hated her. She saw something in me and urged me to read “Pilgrim’s Progress,” so I did. It was the path to destruction, paved with good intentions. I had lots of those. Destruction turned out to simply be deconstruction.
In high school Mrs. Tyler was our teacher of American Literature. We read Whitman and she taught us to admire F.O. Matthiessen. The high school had a primrose festival in the spring but I never competed so never found the path. As an adult, I was friends with Mrs. Tyler, retired now, frail as a sparrow and all big eyes, so she bought tickets for theatre and I drove her car. We saw “Chorus Line,” and a ballet about being gay, which I only thought I understood but she really did. We didn’t talk about it. What would have happened if we had?
Now I walk direct across the prairie to the horizon and pass the piled or scattered bones of many ideas. I never take my books off the shelf by their backs because they stack up beside my chair.
I have friends who have lived obscene lives: Ob (outside) and scene (the stage defined by the pro-scenium) which divides the actors from the audience in the days when every play was a passionate attempt to make the gods stop punishing us, to discover our crimes, to offer sacrificial bribes. It was a search for justice.
The hydraulics of human bodies is managed by blood which is what supplies the fuel for everything -- including sex -- by providing the molecules of joy and relief, engorging the membranes, carrying the toxics left from former lovers. The poetry of “Genocide” is the tracing of these trajectories as they plummet through lives of nonconformists, escapees from both school and teachers. “Schooling” in some contexts is a painful forcing of obedience, using violence.
Education happens all the time on its own terms because it is the way that consciousness manages itself. It is the way brains grow through time, but one of the things a person learns is that looking over the shoulder does not kill Eurydice, but rather one’s younger self.
i am old
i want to die
my genocide visions are humble
even squalid i laugh
not bitterly but with
as honest as the stoic sun.
Those who dare adventures out there on the edge of the world where there are dragons, have not wasted their time, have not been “ordinary.” (Nothing is worse than being “ordinary.” Both Mrs. Othus and Mrs. Tyler knew that, but danger kept them quiet.)
sunrise somewhere off the venezuelan coast
our boat is old and it leaks
my latino lover this so-called revolutionary. . .
any books just books can get you shot
drug smugglers are fed to sharks in a place where
everyone smuggles something the revolutionaries here
are mainly children when all of your brothers are murdered
you become a revolutionary.
Recently this period in history has been keeping books on atrocity: how many killed, how much destroyed, where are they, what is their DNA, who claims them, where is the art that used to hang on their walls?
. . . i know slashing
twilight and I want an accounting
of what has been done
a full accounting of every small
insignificant horror because there
is nothing insignificant about
horror the books must be put in perfect
economic shape being mellow and all
There is only one respite, as these stories record.
are interludes the stage
the bed the mystery
you slept on my
Water seems to have no paths, but in truth they do. Differences in temperature, gradients of saline, deep variation in the terrain below the flow, and always the wind -- that metaphor for spirit -- taking one’s boat by its blushing sails.
Yin and Yang can be closer to each other than same to same.
. . . we
will never be retired from passion
my cats and I sit in rockers on the
front porch stoned my cats drink too
much rum we are so alike believing
that there has to be some deep enigmatic
significance to a collection of sea shells
gathered by boys drunk on sunset
. . . we are not retired from kisses
Don’t get too excited. It’s all metaphor. It’s all words. We’re merely managing our consciousnesses. We’re human beings.
(All poetry quotes from "Genocide" by Tim Barrus.)
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
“Urban Aboriginals” was a focused orderly account of a sub-culture. “Gentle Warriors” is a murder mystery, but with no single assassin and a host of victims. It is a complex and entirely believable interweaving of many elements of the San Francisco gay and straight forces in conflict brought to a climax by the idea that HIV virus was deliberately designed as a weapon of mass destruction targeting gays. This idea is then turned around to deliberately target those who block the protection of the vulnerable, including gays.
Mains was uniquely qualified to write this book because of his background. I would include his Brit/Canadian/far-north identity. This sort of idea mushrooms up in the aftermath of crisis. One of my ministerial cohort, a classmate at seminary, lost his final church because he believed and asserted that 9/11 was not the work of Middle Eastern terrorists, but rather the planting of explosives by the CIA, only triggered by the airplanes. We like our enemies familiar and named.
Always I’m delighted to find a powerful book that is about the part of the continent I know, and not just the major cities. Mains used his knowledge most effectively in the Metis character of Marc, who is a mystic and knows the forest. The sex scenes (both extreme and simple cuddling) are for me less moving than the visions of near-muskeg, fusion of a different kind.
Chapter 19 is a “vision” by Marc that moves the issue from sex politics in SF to a broad “ecology of evil.” (My phrase.) He is sitting on a stump near the beginning of the northern muskeg, looking “into the tangle of stems and sedges and sphagnum at the bog’s moist edges. . . Here was Labrador tea, cloud berry and crowberry, blueberry bushes and various wintergreens. Here was bog laurel, and throughout, the brilliant tiny red coins of swamp birch that clung tenaciously to the delicate branches of the little bush.” He sees “a late-blooming one-leaf orchis, its delicate spike of tiny flowers poked tentatively into the cold air, its base lost in a tangle of browned sedges.” . . .
Given this specific, he draws a principle: “Here was that rare and special side in each of us; here were those hidden delights we refused to recognize or actively suppressed. By denying them in ourselves, in others, we created hostility, fear. And so often when others chose to express those very feelings, to live those delights, we stoned them with hostile envy.”
This is the “Gentle Warrior,” a person of vision, skill and generosity who can allow others to be different. In the background hovers the spirit of Louis Riel, mystic, who tried to lead the Red River Rebellion, a breakaway community on the Northern prairie. In the year this book was published, I was teaching in Heart Butte where many of Riel’s followers had taken refuge to avoid being hung in Canada. Their descendants had mixed with Blackfeet. Some of them were gay, as is true of every place. But I had not expected to meet Riel in this book!
Here are the characters we follow in the order that they appear in vignettes.
1. Marc, the Metis, begins the story. He’s been tending bar at the Ambush in SF.
2. Gregg, ex-Marine racked with PTSD. He’s guiding his motorcycle down the streets of the West Hills of Portland, OR.
3. Sam, who’s gripped by an ingenious plot, and Brian, his lover, are driving south through a winter storm, stopping for supper in Grants Pass.
4. Back to Gregg remembering how he connected with his group of plotters in the past.
5. Allan Bennett, straight, a politician out of the “House of Cards”, also plotting.
6. Back to Sam and Brian, trucking through the Siskiyous, while over the radio comes the news that Ed Stevens has admitted that he helped the CIA deliberately create AIDS and spread it.
7. Gregg was previously married to Ed’s sister, Jo-Lyn, who is the only female main character, who tries to take action on her own fundamentalist terms, and ends up collateral damage like all the others. Jo-Lyn’s connection to her nursing infant is as erotic as any of the encounters between leather men.
These characters, along with a few others, weave in and out of the plot line in a “long arc story” worthy of a television series. Some of it comes directly out of Mains’ experience and other parts derive from news accounts, books, and long evenings of listening to unguarded talk. The central obsession is that AIDS was knowingly imposed on a whole category of men for political reasons disguised as moral reasons.
Those were early times, so the detailed and specific knowledge of the actual virus that we have accumulated now -- the proof (still doubted by some) that HIV was a species jump from SIV, specifically from the chimp version, though it can jump from gorillas or gibbons as well -- the proof that the virus was slipping around like an evil shadow at least a hundred years ago -- the knowledge that it usually (but not always) takes more than one brief exposure to be contagious but is satanically hard to get back out of the blood once it takes hold -- the actual ports of entry on each cell and the specific places on the genome that allow those two key ports to exist -- all this was unknown at the time.
Because Mains is coming at this unfinished tragedy through multiple storylines, it conveys a lot of information about how lives are affected and why anyone would continue exposure because of their intense passion for physical relationship. It’s a premise often followed in heterosexual novels. In fact, some of those historical novels pick up on the mystical principles of courtly love and irresistible fate. Mains is frank about the greed, fear and viciousness of humans who have power and always want more.
There are 59 short chapters, the first and last both belonging to Marc. This character brings to awareness a kind of new religion that comes from appreciation of the complexity of both the cell and the cosmos, and marries that ecologically to the nature of human society. “Another sister on this terrible guillotine of life, this machine that kills so coldly, that slices with presumptuous accuracy, so disdainful of charity.”
The last paragraph of the book is this vision: “At a window in the city where one can watch the Sun God climb Mount Parnassus, lifting his train of fog up the hills as he goes, a man wipes the tears from his face and smiles in remembrance. The owl hoots one final time and sinks into silence. The passage has been made, the message given. It’s time to go on.”
That’s the message of both biochemistry and forestry -- process: life goes on. But for all his warrior-words and their explosive charge, he’s a botanist. In his tangled bank it is the plants that struggle against each other. No mole gobbles worms, no wolf pack brings down a moose. It’s the humans who are unreasonable and needy.
This book was published by Knights Press. The editor-in-chief at the time was Tim Barrus. He was able to get the book into Geoff’s hands just a day before he died. This morning when I looked, “Gentle Warriors” was available as a pdf online. I hope that means more people can read it.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
One way that evolution happens, including social evolution, is that a part separates and forms an independent stream of what let’s call the cultureome. Maybe the reason is multiple, which I think is esp. true when science makes a breakthrough, society develops that into previously optional behaviors, and then economics fix those behaviors into place. So the realization that a gay man has a genetic difference, women having more economic and biological options so that they were not so driven to capture a man, enough general prosperity for men to not be locked into jobs, the growth of cities that permitted differences and allowed certain kinds of men to gather and interact intensely -- suddenly it seems as though the gay explosion in San Francisco was spontaneous but it wasn't. And it rejoined the mainstream, changing us all.
This social revolution was an ordeal and transition with a huge impact on American life, still reverberating through society in surprising ways. Let me be the first to admit I know very little about all this, but I claim the right to have opinions in spite of that. (It’s an American tradition -- as both the extreme left and extreme right well know!) The San Francisco sub-group included other sub-groups. In fact, I would suggest that this multi-centered aspect is one of the contributions, though each part of the group can’t help struggling to represent everyone who is a man who desires men.
The SF men voluntarily gathered from the whole continent, self-selecting by knowing who they were, believing there was a place for them, and generally being unusually attractive. When one looks at archival footage of parades and street scenes, there are few geeks, fat-boys, decrepit and elderly guys. Rather they are in their prime sexual years, glittering with energy. The swishy, prancing ones are there, but not out in front. Leathersexuality (self-named) was a sub-group on the tough guy end of the scale and I have no idea who would be on the poetic elfin end, except that they probably identified as “faeries.” I know this sounds hopelessly dumb. Forgive me.
The festival of freedom and exploration these men found was soon followed by an ordeal, a plague that seemed to target them specifically but came out of nowhere. It mixed with the remnants of the social censure and punishment they had felt earlier in life. There were several consequences. One was that gay men who had spent years developing their bodies to be attractive, now necessarily had to become very body conscious in a new way. Since in the beginning no one knew where the affliction came from or what the symptoms were exactly, every gay man had to watch himself with a horrid fascination, suspended between denial and wanting to know for sure.
Then when the drugs began to work, every man who had previously been a pharmacist in search of the perfect mind-altering drug, now became expert on which cutting edge drugs, which regime, might be life-saving or at least life-extending.
These men, despite being aggressively polyamorous and relating sexually to people they barely knew, often paired off into truly intimate and loving relationships, which meant that they had to watch their lovers die. They became nurses, mothers, care-givers and sometimes mercy killers. This is a skill set that had always been delegated to low-status people. But now there were a large number of men who learned to give bed-baths, to empty bed-pans, to dress sores. It changed our ideas about men.
Since formerly productive and well-employed men were thrown into poverty and dependence, gay men began to see the importance of social services. They gradually understood that HIV -- like TB, asthma, hepatitis -- were linked to poverty, not just because one resort of the desperately poor was sexwork, but also because nutrition, education, and raw opportunity to grow and learn were missing. For the young men of color, the temptation of stealing or drugging, the uncontrolled violent emotion, the lack of fathers or rejection by unsophisticated and resentful fathers, were always more present. The Dionysian gays had accepted lovers of color, lovers from poverty, and saw them as human beings. These men had a high awareness of how eroding it can be to be seen as “different,” and -- in fact -- to realize that one is different. They threw themselves against racism and structural poverty.
The whole question of families and the capitalist insistence on men’s ownership of their wives and children, the treatment of family members as though domestic animals, has become conscious and political. Parents who control or abandon according to their own convenience call into question the value of marriage as the tent pole of family. Households based on more affinities than just sex grew out of free-love communes. Legal systems struggle to accommodate ownership and responsibility issues: who must pay taxes, who must maintain property, who can inherit, who has access to the very ill and can make medical decisions? Parents who had rejected their sons in life suddenly became interested in their dead bodies -- and their estates.
In high schools across the country the “different” often had taken refuge in the arts. English teachers accepted them as “sensitive” and in a kind of “Tea and Sympathy” impulse, gave them extra time and coaching in drama groups, choirs and art studios. PBS was sympathetic, particularly the BBC replays. This pulled gay men towards international cultures that had always hummed along underneath the conventional world, producing literature and art much admired by the monied classes. Gay men had voices and the skills to describe what they were living through.
A darker impact was the realization that priests, possibly repressed gays, preyed on boys. All the while religion was one of the refuges for the oddball, who could insist he was not “different” but rather “chosen.” A gay man who made this choice had a different struggle with the discipline of celibacy. This demanded understanding and restructuring that is only beginning to extend to the other boy-centered activities, including athletics and their group shower scenes. The tentative experiment of Nambla, which claimed that men and boys should form sexual relationships as in historical cultural examples, ran into the modern corruptions and abuses and was unable to separate itself from predators.
Religious institutions responded with the gay-designated Metropolitan Community Church, or the self-studies of mainstream Christian denominations to make room for gays by erasing the barriers of moral stigma. Beyond that, the wave of death threw open an abyss of horror and despair that demanded a “spiritual” response. Ransacking esoteric historical and minority rituals accompanied secular exploration of how to manage a human consciousness. Leathersexuality was one radical approach to claim spirituality. It was no longer possible to take whatever “religion” is for granted.
Once again it becomes obvious that a culture -- particularly one that cannot prevent itself from being invaded, diluted, misrepresented, captured by the venal -- has many parts. If a significant part -- like gay men -- steps away from its previous role and claims both the right to participate in the mainstream and the right to stand apart from it -- even in opposition to it -- then that changes everything. Some will call this “coarsening,” but little is more coarse than coming home drunk and beating up one’s family, particularly gay sons. Little is more degenerate than letting poor people die from curable disease because helping them is not profit making.
Geoff Mains, Brit-born/Canadian, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the U of Toronto in 1972 and did a B.C. post-doc in forest ecology. Copies of his first book, “The Oxygen Revolution” are on Amazon Canada, but at $30 out of my reach for now. I found an article at this site: http://exacteditions.theecologist.org/print/307/308/6360/2/13 He was a genuine scientist used to thinking about physiology in a systems way. He felt that this symbiosis of intimate use of pain was a way of triggering the release of endorphins. When he joined the gay revolution in San Fran, a mix of male sexuality and polyamorousness which was also vulnerable to the abuses of domination/submission, and even more vulnerable to the transmission of viruses and microbes, he understood all that.
Before the internet one way of converting ideas to an economy was writing and publishing books. Art and psychotherapy are also interested in these concepts, which draw on many realms including anthropology, religion, and sci-fi. The ideas are intimidating, iconoclastic, and so powerful that even diluted and candified juvenile versions have a strong hold on the media where they are acted out in gladiator and space hero fantasies. In the end, dying, Mains mourned, “I stand, uncertain . . . The past that I believed in, the times I lived for, are gone.” They are and they aren’t. S/M, in its flesh grappling and invading, has become on one hand so trivialized that a chirpy young female on YouTube explains fisting, but also it remains a contributor to the radical redesign of our culture. He says, “North Americans have yet to truly accept the animal reality of the human condition.”
There is a National Leatherman’s Association International. It opposes domestic abuse. If a boy were being beaten and assaulted by adults, and no one intervened, and if a Leatherman arrived on a Harley and knocked on the door, could he make a difference?
Monday, March 03, 2014
This is a set of reviews of eleven short stories anthologized in “GENOCIDE” by Tim Barrus, published in 1988 by Knight's Press.
Ten of the stories are accompanied by a poem, which will be considered as a group at the end of this series. These stories are written in the context of radical gay men (as contrasted with conventional gay men) during the Eighties, when the expansion and experimental edge of the culture was still persisting, but in the face of the terrible plague of HIV virus. The language and descriptions are on the edge for the mainstream, but not for the community of the author.
Do not expect to find out what is true and what is not. When a writer is working, the two are both raw material for the story. That’s the way it works. If you don’t like it, don’t read fiction. Maybe you shouldn’t read nonfiction either. Maybe you shouldn’t read at all, since reality is always filtered and composed.
When these stories were published by Knights Press, leatherfolk were still mostly underground. You could not yet get the directions for extreme sex on YouTube. One literal arson holocaust was at the gay Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973. 32 people died.
“The Dependency of Variables”
Two cosmonauts are sent into space in an “intelligent” spaceship. The ship, like the predecessors “Hal” or “Mother,” will define concepts if asked. “Genocide comes from the ancient Greek word: genos, meaning race or kind and refers to the systematic extermination of a people. The Romans bastardized the word and turned it for their own cultural purposes (they were very good at committing genocide) into: genius. A genius was a powerful guardian spirit assigned to a person at birth. Genocide connotes destruction while genius connotes an influence over destiny. End of definition.”
The ship, named Tsan, who appears to also be male, becomes jealous of the two humans, who are lovers, and freeze-locks one of the crew behind thick glass. The other broods masturbating in the crystal nose-cone where the ship can’t “see” him until he can’t stand it anymore and breaks open the glass on the freeze-locker.
The ship is very upset, so the two men allow him to come into the bow to deep-empathize while they make love. Before that, the ship defines love as “Damage. Pain. To give. All is program. End of definition.”
After the experience the ship defines love as “Lacking limits or bounds. Extending beyond measure or comprehension. Endless power. Greater than finite. Burn. Faster than Tsan. Madness.”
It’s an effective compact plot with an excellent philosophical point to make (jealousy comes from not understanding) but what makes the story remarkable is the language, a mix of terminology from math, science, and intensely romantic poetry. “This part of the virus universe was dense with the light from stars; it was fluid-like and white.”
If you take Auschwitz and a leper colony, mix them with Vegas and any small town traveling carnival (carne = meat), then think about Guantanamo, Japanese internment, and all the other attempts to confine and destroy some category of people, you’ll have the premise of this story. It plays out in terms of two boys (Star and Adonais) who are “body scrapers” whose job is to pull body parts out of the slush sump under the thriller rides.
Scraping was best at graytime. Most INCAMP, most Newkoomer, slept during graytime, that silent betweenspace which breathes with quiet unquestioning lust in the place where the night is not the day and the day is not the day. Graytime in the desert literally seethes with graytime shadow when the heat is not the heat and the bite-me cold slowly heroin warms itself into the stark reality of morning.” Think “dissociation,” when one’s mind goes some other desolate place in order to escape the unbearable. Think the Plains Indian Sand Hills.
Goya, the dwarf and wiseman, is there to give advice. He tells about Isaiah (who is an even more resourceful computerist and wizard). This is an apocalyptic story so they find Isaiah, and that’s the end of the story. (Both Isaiah and Adonais are ancient names for the Jesus figure. Star is the name of a Blackfeet equivalent hero.)
This vision of the deadly carnival -- or something very like it -- was brought to life in the movie “A.I.” (Artificial Intelligence.) by Spielberg with Jude Law as a sort of “goat-footed balloon-man” leading us along. A few days ago a young man got his head knocked off on the Batman roller coaster. This story is not as extreme as it might seem. In fact, that’s the point.
Angel Island is more remote than Alcatraz and the location of a detention center for immigrants, often from China and therefore “other”. They were detained unreasonably for long periods of time, even years, under harsh prison conditions. The author takes his lover on a tour there. They dawdle and are locked in. This is a real life experience that is buttressed with library research, universalization through the knowledge that this cruelty and suspicion is still repeated around the planet.
“Today the deserted streets of Angel Island seem ethereal. Echo echo. Many of the long dormitory structures have been fenced off. Trespassing is forbidden. This place is somehow windswept moon-sweet silent soundless like the desert.”
He summons up the figure of an old man once confined there, Yu of Taishan. When leaving, he looks back, “the forms and shadows saddened me; upon seeing the landscape I composed a poem.” The prisoners had scratched such poems on the walls of their confinement.
This unrestrained Henry-Miller-style ecstasy of sex and terror works both as an account of the Weimar Republic just before the holocaust and as a portrait of the unrestrained gay obsession with wealth and privilege just before the HIV plague triggered rumors of quarantine camps like leper colonies.
“Haunted the deathsoaked spirit of autumn in a place where mist pulled at your eyes, your conscience, and pulled at autumn as if autumn could be budged. The seaside gloom, the mist of France, could not be permeated. Not even by an over accumulation of rumor.”
“Midnight’s Knock on the Madness Door”
The simple version is that a Chilean young man needing help because of politics knocks on the door of two lovers. All are paranoid because they are “outliers,” “Others” -- stigmatized. It is dangerous but the two lovers willingly expand to a triangle. Then the refugee becomes very ill, which means getting him into a clinic. But they manage it. What they must do is terrifying, but it is balanced by the ecstasy of sex mixed with love, graphically and poetically described.
“Sometimes it is a fulltime job keeping the madness on the other side of the door; sometimes it is impossible and the madness comes in and takes a seat, has a cocktail, sometimes two.”
At present homosexual acts are punishable by death in some African countries. Technically, homosexuals were forbidden in Sochi during the recent Olympics. In those places, no one wants to hear a knock on the door. But being gay is not the only way to be marked for death.
Yes, this is Native American warriors, two of them, lovers, and armed with modern firearms. They are resisting genocide in a time of dystopia. “Their morality was the morality of survival.” This time there is a ten-year age difference between the lovers, which seems to play out in a man/woman (top/bottom) sort of way. Both hunt (with bows and arrows) but Tewa, the softer one, cooks. Pawnee restricts Tewa as a way of protecting him. They are doing well enough that they become the nucleus of a tribe, but they end up digging a lot of graves.
“Sometimes it seemed as if a powerful light emanated -- blazed -- from every grave they dug.”
The premise of the story is that two lover/brothers are in a post-apocalyptic time when the world is radioactive and lack of water has reduced the land to sand. “The only extremes left to it were the extravagant temperatures of natural extremes.” Human babies, if they lived long enough to be born, were “twisted and twisting in grotesque and strangulated forms of pain.”
The boys live by killing sand wolves made man-eaters by consuming the debris from burning virus camps, burnt to sterilize and eliminate. Stumbling, sharing body fluids, they barely make it to an oasis and find there a man named Zealot, another of those Hebrew/Greek blind visioneers. He asks them to make love so he can witness and experience their desire second-hand. Then he dies, content, and they bury him. It is a Dionysian defiance of death before the planet dies.
A figure called Athanasia (A-thanatos, NOT death) appears. “Above their canyon, Athanasia with her carnivorous skywinds sang and laughed and danced and bitched with her inevitable treachery.” The story ends: “It had once been a great planet of war and slavery. It had once been a great planet of demonic fools. Genocide. It was now a great silent baptised planet of eternal sand. Lullabye lullabye.”
“A Farewell to Love”
A successful writer is old enough to be gray (48). He’s living in New York City in a winter like this one and he’s got writer’s block. In the time of the book, one had to have papers about HIV in order to travel between countries, but his are in order. He goes to Mazatlan, which is very rural, at least at this time. Naturally, he falls in love with an innocent beautiful Mexican boy whose toothlessly grinning mother sends him over. The time comes for him to return to Manhattan, but at the last minute he decides not to go, which means -- probably -- he will never be able to go back. It’s an erotically baroque fantasy fit for Zorba the Greek. The title is ironic.
“The first time is always an explosion of awareness that is better than any fantasy could hope to be. Better even than death’s malicious promise of an orgasm. Worth the risk.”
Leatherfolk iconography includes a motorcycle, black leathers, ordeal flights across the country, revisiting old haunts, including all races but only one gender, being always a fugitive from capture, and experiencing service in Vietnam where all the rules were broken. In this story a white man with a black lover must flee to a Native American former lover. He hides with Jimmy Dog until the Indian man takes the motorcycle to go into town, where he is captured, never to return. All three are united by being faggots.
The lonely sound of trains on the prairie is conflated with the box cars that once transported Jews to crematoria. “It was after three, somewhere off the road. Somewhere quiet and inviolate. Somewhere where the owls stood watch. The Harley cooled with an almost evil seethe. Sean could hear the soft, enigmatic sound of a train in the raving distance. The whistle of the train. The far-off approaching rhythmic horror of the train. The trains were always full of faggots.” The men who escape do not weep. They stand drenched in rain, “renegade soaked in the pouring rain.”
Rain is the theme and symbol of this story. It could easily be a Sam Neill film. A repressed priest (that’s Sam) and a wanton young male lover (Jude Law?) who is the indulged son of a French Marquis are coincidentally and for different reasons banished to a small Polynesian island. The priest tries to get control of the Marquis’ son -- and himself -- but instead is thrown into madness.
Joseph Joseph is the native lover of Justin Bovee, the son of the marquis. “His culture had many stories about gods (and such) who had made love in rain. It was supposed to be somewhat magical. The two of them often went to the grassy spot when it poured. As the water fell, and the forest around them steamed with aquatic humidity, Joseph Joseph showed Justin Bovee other things that he had not yet learned.”
“The Forest and the Echo”
Star and Adonais return in another story. This time they have escaped INCAMP, which is described in the most horrible of terms. The desert they must cross is an ordeal that nearly kills them. Just in time they are rescued by the quiet ones and agree to be enslaved by Coriaceous (Leather) Pawnee, who is the head of the tribe. Lawrence of Arabia has found the Tauregs.
“It was now safe for the brothers to look into the fired redness of the witchy indigo sun. It was the wonder of wonders; Star and Adonais could read into themselves to look at themselves in sweet rich starless midnightblue fuckingboy awe. Lullabye lullabye. Heroin razzle heroin dazzle.”
Sunday, March 02, 2014
I am no expert on any of the matters discussed here. Not sex, nor homosexuality, nor porn, nor leatherlit. I am a broadly educated former Unitarian Universalist minister and English teacher, female, old, and rural, coming at this book from no polemic nor specifically moral position. It is the very alienness that interests me. How close can I get to understanding?
“Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration of Leathersexuality,”
by Geoff Mains
This book has eight sections.
1. ANATOMY OF A CULTURE
The first section makes the case that a group of men exist who are held together from the inside by their intense interactions, near-fusion, and from the outside by the larger culture which finds their activities abhorrent or maybe criminal. These are big tough hairy guys like those on the American Western frontier. Religious groups form with less affinity -- but they also erode and corrupt gradually. Mains uses the idea of tribes, which in Canada are called aboriginals, meaning primal and earliest.
Urbs, of course, are recent. City people never really come to terms with what is possible and even ordinary in terms of flesh, as Mains says. They never kill what they eat or even see it in life. Rural people differ. For instance, my niece has a thriving business doing bovine artificial insemination, very often thrusting her arm into another living being, feeling the guts and heartbeat. She has only given birth twice, but I expect that’s enough. Probably the more arduous chore was packing around a growing boy inside her for nine months. I’m not sure the pleasures of serotonin and adrenaline from fisting compare at all with the roller-coaster of reproductive hormones in action.
But let that go. Clearly there was (and possibly still is) a vibrant and creative tribe of mostly men. How much of their passion is left is unknown to me. There are still extremophiles. “Extreme Fighting” or “Cage Fighting” is very popular in the nearest town, which is an Air Force base. There must be a “tribe” formed around things like sport parachuting. I don’t know whether bungee jumping is still popular. Personally, if I were an athletic type looking for thrills, I’d take up parasailing. But the pain would only be potential. And there would be nothing of the intimate engagement with another person like oneself. It’s flying alone. I’ll admit “groups” are no longer my thing.
2. THE FLOWERS OF PAIN
Two cultural irresolvables stand behind leatherlit. One is the tension between individual and group. The other is between dominance and submission, which is related to the first dyad. I take Mains to be trying to find a solution for at least one kind of man.
There is no way that one person can be hurt by another without the hurter dominating the hurtee, and possibly the receiver being restrained. The argument is that this is done voluntarily, with many safeguards and considerable medical sophistication. This section is carried by reference to the military culture of obedience and endurance, which is powerful and easy to relate to prison life as well. I do understand the explanation of how pain works, how it can be neurologically fused with pleasure. You don’t have to be a “cutter” to enjoy picking scabs, wiggling a painful tooth, little stuff like that. We know that pain and pleasure are in the brain, though the relevant research is more recent than Mains’ work.
This is where emotion enters. Intense emotion can etch sensation into muscles, organs and brain, imprint them. The interaction of emotion and physical sensation can be dramatic, transforming, addictive. Also introduced are shame, guilt, and terror. Or euphoria and bonding.
Vicariously, virtually, our culture loves extreme pain and sex portrayed as realistically as possible: Westerns, war films, crime films, terminal diseases. CGI means that almost anything can be graphically depicted. That’s mainstream or the next thing to it. One dreads to find how what the secret culture does. Actually doing extreme things is powerful and must be a component of PTSD.
3. RITUAL PSYCHODRAMA
Spectatoring, analyzing, discussing appears to be part of the pleasure and the culture of leathersexuality. This interests psychotherapists, this turning out of unconscious pockets. One of the most seductive of experiences is going over a horizon into a new realization. Maybe just as strong is getting someone else to understand something you’ve had to keep hidden or didn’t know was even possible to share. Surviving an ordeal, a shipwreck, a massacre -- even one planned and scripted -- can also change consciousness.
All of this can go very wrong. People die. The culture overrides, corrupts and interferes. A “tribe” can be independent and cohesive only up to a point.
4. BONDAGE AND INNER PEACE
All these chapters quote other work, mostly mainstream and professional. At least half are books I’ve read and used in the study of theology or anthropology or psychology. This chapter is specifically concerned with the management of consciousness, the “connectome” as I am fond of calling it. The actual states of mind include everything from hypnotism, to trance, to dissociation, to dream, to hallucination to whatever it is that yogis can achieve with meditation and physical disciplines such as posture or whirling.
The chapter does not talk about external drugs. Some mind alterations practiced by traditional native peoples, like starvation, exposure. staring at the sun, are not discussed. Nor is anything as drastic as a Plains Indian Sun Lodge that includes the ordeal of flesh bits being torn away, but sweat lodges are noted here, perhaps a bit too easily considering the recent deaths. (It’s important to remember that Mains was writing in the Eighties, thirty years ago.)
The idea of ritual (Victor Turner and Von Gennep) is to somehow jar people out of their ordinary consciousness; while they are in a liminal fluid state introduce new ideas and evidence; then return them to a new ordinary consciousness with new understanding. This three step process is so obvious it seems dumb, but it is an accepted and effective guide to a rebirth, an access to new energy. It is used in both “primitive” ceremonies and religious rites. It can happen to a person without any ritual or intent, just through happenstance.
5. CELEBRATION OF THE HIDDEN ANIMAL
This is the chapter that discusses drugs, starvation, reward and punishment in terms of physiology and their uses in controlling consciousness. “Feeling good is addictive and animal as well as human. And feeling good, although not limited to these, is inexorably tied to basic functions.” He means excretions (feces and urine) and the emotions connected to them that were installed in the earliest years, therefore at the most basic levels of the kitchen midden of ideas accumulated in the brain. Enemas are not mentioned, though they are clearly acts of penetration and injection.
6. SPIRITUAL EUPHORIA
Now it becomes clear that enemas were not in the last chapter because this whole chapter is about “fisting.” So let’s be even more clear: fisting can kill you by splitting your gut. The gut is stretchy but needs a lot of coaxing, greasing, and relaxing. Those who do this are EXTREMOPHILES. They take major risks with their own bodies in pursuit of “euphoria.” They do not do it alone, particularly if they have no expertise. If it is unwelcome, it is not possible, and is the same as rape -- criminal assault.
I’ll approach this on physiological terms, the way Mains does, but using more recent research. (“The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine” by Michael Gershon) The intestines have a kind of sock or second tube around them that is a netting of neurons connected back to the rest of the neural system, including the brain. Gut muscle is “smooth,” non-striated, so it is managed by the autonomic neural system, which directly controls emotion and response to stress. It is not voluntary but it can convey sensation. More than that, it operates with the same chemicals as the brain. Having a “gut feeling,” a visceral intuition, is not just a metaphor, though in the case of things like clenching fear or stammering stage fright, the message is probably coming TO the gut from the brain, or indirectly through organ secretions, rather than the other way around. What fisting seems to do is to use these pathways to deeply affect the brain. It can trigger euphoria, bliss.
Some individuals and cultures call this feeling “spirituality” and consider it access to another realm of being. Those who feel this should not be discredited.
7. THE PRISON OF THE FLESH
The next chapter is about how to think about feeling that one has become transcendent, powerful, and not like others. “The experience of leather is an illusion of mastery. It pits individual against drives, capacities and gaps. It questions and breaks down the image of status, fear and guilt. It does not provide freedom from any of these, but it sets men face to themselves and it gives them an energy to cope with the reality that they may come to see. Minds cleared, conscious of new tools, and free of some of the burden of superfluous gaps, these men are perhaps better able to cope.” (He does mean MEN.)
If you read this book as an intro to just another high or a porn (and it would be easy to read the little personal scenario vignettes that way), you’d be missing the whole point. All this domination/submission, all this top/bottom, turns out to be -- among the truly initiated -- a symbiosis. It begs the question of how to interact with those outside the magic circle, who go right on politicizing, stigmatizing, and even criminalizing the men inside. There may be no answer to that question.
8. LIVING IN THE CLOUDS
Generously, Mains identifies three other communities like “leatherfolk,” not in terms of physical practices but in terms of being tight communities in a hostile larger scene. One is ancient Greece, one is Celtic witchcraft, and the third is Gnostic Christianity. They are all “Western.” The biophysiological threat that has wiped out much of the leather community , including Mains, was African.
Robert Scott Antarctic Expedition
Recent Robert Scott Re-enactment
Mains quotes Robert Scott, the Antarctic explorer who is so admired today that his lethal trek has just been duplicated by a team of extremephiles. “I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.” Extremophiles do not complain.