We Did Not Burn the Landowner After All

Jack o' Lantern depicting the Gunpowder Plot. Stacked barrels on the left, arches over head, Guy Fawkes with a torch at right—carved by the neighbors' daughter, an architecture student.

There is an Anglo-American couple (her from the UK, him from right here) down the road who always have a Bonfire Night party.

M. and I bumped into the American half recently, and he said that this year’s “Guy” would be a certain wealthy local hobby-rancher.

Having earned his money elsewhere, this guy is busy buying up every piece of vacant land he can find, erecting pretentious ranch gates, quarreling with the Forest Service, and possibly interfering with water rights (still unproved, but if so, it’s a hanging offense).

Unlike the actual largest landowner in this end of the county — who might be found on a mechanic’s creeper underneath one of the engines at the volunteer fire department, fixing something — he holds himself aloof from all community activities.

He has a bad case of “Texas Vertigo”—he thinks the world revolves around him. And, says the woman who waited tables down at the little steakhouse while working on her nursing degree, “He’s a two-dollar tipper.”

“All right,” I thought, on hearing my neighbor’s announcement, “it’s a real Aradia moment. Di legare il spirito del oppresore and all that.

Not the neighboring landowner but a cable TV talker.

But when M. and I walked up the neighbors’ driveway, dish in hand, to where everyone gathered around the fire pit, beer kegs, and tables of food, the “Guy” was someone else—a certain cable television political pundit.

Not nearly as interesting from a folk-magic perspective, if you ask me.

Burn! Burn!

It is still an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Thinking about the Zombie Apocalypse

The tremendous growth in the imaginary zombie population amazes me. Maybe, like other bubbles, this one is about to burst. But in the meantime, literary, cinematic, Web, and re-enacted zombification seems to go in two directions.

1. Practice killing the zombies.

There were a lot more stages, and to be honest, I lost count of how many. One, though, required that you get in a boat and move to a zombie-infested island in a small lake. Using your shotgun, you cleaned out the zombies and rescued the poor woman who was filling a water jug. Sadly, the zombies had eaten her brain by the time I got there, but at least I recovered the water jug.

A Google search on the phrase “What caliber for zombies?”  produced more than 500 hits.

If you don’t have a group, you can tack up your own zombie targets at the shooting range. Or settle down with a good book. A reworked classic, even.

The first zombie movie was made in 1932, and there have been a lot more since then. Whether there is any connection or not, the number has jumped since Sept. 11, 2001.

During the Cold War, some culture-watchers saw zombies as our fellow citizens turned into brainwashed Communists. Thus they had to be killed before they spread the “infection.”

Communism is not seen as a threat now, but does the zombie remain a sort of “double” for another threat, and, therefore, it is necessary and good to kill them? They are handy stand-ins for emergency-response drills.

In an effort to engage its community in a hazardous materials emergency preparation exercise, the Office of Homeland Security has put out a petition for 250 volunteers to done their best zombie look this Halloween. The effort will test first responders in how they handle hazardous materials exercises and, in an attempt to maintain the realism of zombie culture, first responders who come in contact with a hazardous material will become zombies themselves.

Like the Center for Disease Control, which published a guide earlier this year to survive a zombie attack, and Tom Deaderick who created a map depicting the each state’s zombie survivability rate, these Delaware County groups are using the zombie craze gain interest and participation their community in a more serious emergency preparedness drill.

2. Be a zombie, at least temporarily.

You can do it Denver, Colorado, or Brighton, Sussex, or many other places.

Brian Strongreen, 29, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, wore a costume that he called “zombie- Khadafy.” His attire bore a striking similarity to the deceased Libyan leader.

“I used to be in the military and I’m all for dead dictators,” he said. “I couldn’t find a Jheri curl wig.”

So it’s about making fun of enemies sometimes? Depersonalizing “the other” and all that?

Pondering What It All Means, a BBC reporter writes,

Dr Marcus Leaning, programme leader for media studies at the University of Winchester, believes the shambling mass of rotting flesh now colonising our cultural space is well worthy of academic attention.

“Zombies are incredibly popular, the growth is phenomenal – not only are they in films, TV shows and fan productions on YouTube, but there’s a vast growth in books, with zombie survival guides selling very, very well on Amazon,” he told me.

“You even see small garden ornaments dressed as zombies – zombie garden gnomes.”

In fact, Winchester is soon to become the first university in the UK to offer a study module devoted entirely to zombies.

“We’re living through the hardest economic times in most young people’s memories,” Dr Leaning said.

“Maybe zombies speak to austerity Britain in a way other monsters don’t.”

So it’s the zombie economy, just shuffling along? People dress as zombies to quell their own fears? Just don’t take out a student loan to major in Zombie Studies.

How much longer?

When there are children’s books about zombies and high school kids put Zombie Outbreak Response Team stickers on their cars, is it about over? Is  it all about a lack of brains? Pundits ponder that question.

Before zombies, goths were on the same continuum, I fancy, though they were sexier than zombies. I could see me waddling down the aisle with a goth, but not a zombie. I’m all for challenging society’s conventions but, generally speaking, you don’t want to be saying “I do” with your eyeball hanging out.

Uh, yes. Right.

Clearly, zombies are a multivalent metaphor. I am waiting to see which “reading,” if any, predominates.

Back at the PhD (Piled-high Desk)

Rose hips and bufflo berries on the North Dakota prairie
Rose hips and buffalo berries on the North Dakota prairie. Sharptail grouse like them.

It was good to disappear. I geocached along the Niobrara River, hunted ducks in North Dakota — where “to combine” is the verb of autumn, and you accent the first syllable — and ended up finally at the Black Hills Powwow in my old hometown of Rapid City.

I ate way too much greasy food in small-town cafes but have also been reminded how much I like the taste of wild duck. I watched a badger  roam in the great empty heart of South Dakota, which is how I designate all the country south of Lemmon.

More about the powwow later.

I returned to find the “progressive” blogosphere enjoying its annual Ten Minutes of Hate against Christopher Columbus, whom we apparently must now regard not  as a 15th-century European with the mindset of his time but as truly evil.

The Italian immigrants and their descendants who pushed for the holiday were not celebrating evil, notes political blogger Walter Russell Mead.

In American history, the fight to make a holiday on Columbus Day actually had almost nothing to do with the actual arrival of Christopher Columbus in the western hemisphere.  It wasn’t about celebrating the European conquest of the Americas or the extirpation of the native tribes.

The day was made a holiday after years of lobbying as a way of recognizing the contribution of Roman Catholics and immigrants generally to American life.  It is a holiday to celebrate diversity, not to commemorate the imperial outreach of Ferdinand and Isabella, a deeply regrettable couple who were notorious oath breakers, inquisitors and anti-Semites.

Not marching, but dancing.

Meanwhile, at the powwow — and it is no coincidence that it was held October 7th–9th — American flags were much in evidence and military veterans danced first, as happens at most powwows.

Isn’t culture complicated?

It’s Mabon, so … canta y no llores

The Marquez Brothers of Pueblo, Colo., playing at the Harvest Festival at the Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City.

My approach to the eight-festival Pagan calendar works like this: the cross-quarter days are for ritual—be that outdoor bonfires or black candles at midnight.

The quarter days—solstices and equinoxes—are for public and communal celebrations: with the whole public, not just with other Pagans.

The fall equinox offers choice of harvest festivals: the Chile & Frijoles (pinto beans) festival in Pueblo (bigger) or the Holy Cross Abbey Winery Harvest Festival in Cañon City—smaller but still crowded.

M. and I chose the latter this year, buying elderberry jam and garlicky goat cheese and drinking Abbey wines under the blazing sun.  Two guys in charro outfits up from Pueblo played a rancherarockbillysoft rock mix, which is exactly what you expect from a Pueblo band.

Vineyard at Holy Cross Abbey, Cañon City, Colorado

Now the Myth-Making Begins

That stuff on the winery home page about “simple Benedictine Fathers had a dream”—sounds good, right? Don’t the grape vines just look right next to the Gothic Revival abbey?

But the Holy Cross Benedictines were not “simple.”  They were school teachers for the most part, running a well-respected secondary school for boys (boarding and day students) from the 1920s until it closed in 1985. Like so much Catholic education, it was a victim of demographics: not enough new monks and priests coming up, not enough church financial support to afford to pay lay (non-monastic) teachers, so no way to keep the doors open and the lights on.

After that, the dwindling number of elderly monks rented out their buildings to the community college and other users.

The winery, meanwhile, did not open until 2002. It employs no monks in its day-to-day operations. The monks could not have made wine for sale in the 1920s anyway because of Prohibition. Their mission was educational.

But the idea of “monks making wine” is so appealing that in a generation people will be strolling the grounds of the abbey talking about how the Benedictines came to Cañon City “a hundred years ago” to plant vineyards and bottle  some good cabernet franc. I would bet money on it.

It is not unlike saying that the local morris dancers or village harvest festival represent an unbroken survival from ancient Paganism instead of—in either case—something (re)invented by an antiquarian-minded vicar.

Of course, that Chile & Frijoles Festival—great street festival that it is—is a relatively new creation too. This was its seventeenth year.

It represents a conscious attempt by Pueblo’s elite to re-cast the city’s image as a tourist-friendly sort of Santa Fe North, instead of the grimy steel mill town that it was for decades, dominated by union Democrats with Italian and Slavic surnames.

But Pueblo does have a good climate for growing peppers.

(As to the post’s title, the musicians played “Cielito Lindo,” of course.)

Gallimaufry with Bones

• I like animal skulls—I have a wall of them. At Crooked & Hidden Bones, read about the revival of a technique for “reddening the bones.” Talk about going back  to very old ways of treating special or sacred bones. This is what the family did with your great x 150 grandfather.

• Here is a Google translation about an ethnic Finnish Pagan group trying to get official recognition as a religion in that predominately Lutheran country. Because Finnish is a non-Indo-European language, the translation is a little rough:

Christianity wiped the old faith of the Finnish culture quite well off, so it would be time for work such as digging for some holy book.  The Kalevala, it can not be, because it is one man’s collection of poems, and even clean up such Muukka says.

• Hecate talks about the magical character—or the “telluric intelligence”— of cities, sounding a little bit like Charles de Lint but with a nod to David Abram, whose latest book—the one that she quotes from—I have on order.

When I want to do magic to influence the airy business of laws, I have a number of high places from which to scatter birdseed. When I want to get deep into the roots of the power structure, I can choose between the rotunda of the Capitol or the tidal basin off of the Potomac.


The Anatomy of Diesel Punk

For when you are tired of the fussiness of steam punk—diesel punk explained:

Generally, dieselpunk can take inspiration from ’20s German Expressionist films, film noir, 1930s pulp magazines and radio dramas, crime and wartime comics, period propaganda films and newsreels, wartime pinups, and other entertainment of the early 20th century. As this covers a broad spectrum, the precise sources of inspiration can vary greatly between dieselpunk works. Like Steam Punk, Dieselpunk is a genre dictated primarily by its aesthetics rather than by its thematic content. Both grime and glamour have their place in dieselpunk.

Now I learn that one of my Favorite Movies of All Time is diesel punk:

• the 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, set in 1930s Britain (coupling Diesel Dystopia with Putting On The Reich and ShoutOuts to 1984)

Click through to YouTube trailer. When I saw the ticker tape machine in the opening sequence (not part of this YouTube clip), I was gone.

The “Thinness” of Pagan Culture

Stephanie Drury’s blog Stuff Christian Culture Likes (which, she admits, refers mostly to evangelical Protestant culture) is up to to 204 posts (the numbering is confusing because she sometimes recycles older posts).

In contrast,  the blog Stuff Pagan Culture Likes seems to have hit a wall last March, with no new posts for six months. Too bad.

Our “culture” is just a lot thinner, despite the fact that contemporary  Pagans have been engaging in self-parody since Day 1. Consider some of the material that Isaac Bonewits produced in The Druid Chronicles in the 1970s, for example. (Isaac, amazingly prescient, was already paying attention to chronologies and sources, knowing that future scholars would use his material.)

Right now, on  the academic side, I am feeling the “thinness” all too much. Submission to The Pomegranate are down. (That could be related to the economy, as another journal editor told me that they have the same problem—it’s a general gloominess.) I am reduced to sending plaintive emails halfway around the world: “Won’t you please revise and re-submit your papers?”

And let’s not even talk about the academic job market.

Cocktails for Pagans

Bohemian Spritz
Bohemian Spritz (New York Times photo)

Who says that today’s Pagans are not influencing the larger culture?

The New York Times’ Style section offers the “right drink” for every winter holiday party, including the Bohemian Spritz for “dilettante Pagans” celebrating the solstice. (If that link is problematic, try this one.)

For those slightly weary of the familiar fa-la-la, or for those who are opposed to even the slightest whisper of organized religion, a solstice party provides a refreshing diversion. While actual hard-core pagans [sic] are probably drinking something murky and ancient, a more streamlined beverage might be better for dabblers. The Bohemian Spritz (another creation of Vandaag’s Katie Stipe) is a light, fizzy wine drink with compellingly arboreal undercurrents, provided by pine and elderflower cordials. It is ideal for welcoming the long nights, for putting the Krampus back in Christmas.

One question, where do you get pine liqueur?

UPDATE: Apparently one looks for Zirbenschnapps or Un Sapin, described as “very hard to find—even in France.”

How the CIA Turned Abstract Art into Official High Culture

How did Abstract Expressionism come to dominate the mid-20th-century art scene?

Partly because the Central Intelligence Agency paid for it—all part of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Abstract or non-representational art was also being produced in the early years of the USSR, during the early 1920s. Then Joseph Stalin, still the champion mass-murderer of all time, took power in 1924 and controlled the USSR until his death in 1953.

Under Stalin, all art, literature, film-making, etc., had either to serve the state as propaganda or at least express “safe” sentiments. Nothing experimental or critical was allowed—which is why, for example, a satirical novel of the 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, could not be published until the 1960s, after Stalin’s death, when the USSR was under the somewhat more moderate leadership of Nikita Khruschchev.

How better then, in the struggle for world opinion between the USSR and “the West,” to show that in the West artists could be experimental, critical, unrestricted, and free than to showcase the works of Abstract Expressionists?

(See Technoccult for a photo of abstract painter Jackson Pollack at work.)

Never mind if popular taste rejected abstraction in the West as well, the propaganda war was more important.

In 1947 the State Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art”, with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting [President Harry] Truman to make his Hottentot remark and one bitter congressman to declare: “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.” The tour had to be cancelled.

The US government now faced a dilemma. This philistinism, combined with Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. It also prevented the US government from consolidating the shift in cultural supremacy from Paris to New York since the 1930s. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in.

The connection is not quite as odd as it might appear. At this time the new agency, staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. If any official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the New York School, it was the CIA.

Fake CIA-sponsored foundations funded art shows and traveling exhibitions. Museums, galleries, and events received secret subsidies. All the machinery of Big Money and High Art was set in motion to promote Abstract Expressionism.

Writer Frances Stonor Saunders asks,

Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage? The answer is probably yes. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting you are being duped by the CIA.

But look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries. For the Cold Warriors who promoted them, these paintings were a logo, a signature for their culture and system which they wanted to display everywhere that counted. They succeeded.

Liking this kind of art became a marker of hipness and  cultural sophistication. As a recent New York Times article on “The Sociology of the Hipster” notes,

Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

Renaissance painters worked for princes and cardinals. Abstract Expressions, although they may not have realized it, also served the power structure of their time.

An afterthought on jazz: It would not surprise me to learn that American jazz musicians received much the same kind of Cold War subsidies from the CIA. After all, jazz was avant-garde, and the presence of many Negro musicians—to use the favored racial term of the 1950s and ’60s—presented a happy multiracial picture of America, ammunition against Communist attacks on race relations here.

Can the decline in modern jazz music in recent decades be linked to the end of the Cold War?