The Ants of Brazil

Crying, shaking with grief, alone and also lonely, Ansley felt the warmth of the dog’s haunch against hers and then felt its tongue on her leg and realized it was licking the leg of her pyjamas where some maple syrup had dried from the day before, when relatives were still in the house caring for her mourning.   Am I tricked? she wondered.  Is this animal’s drive for food and warmth a counterfeit bill that I am hoping to buy my comfort with?  Or is it like the jaws of the ants of Brazil, that bite each other for a reason who can say, but which still do the job of making a living bridge that ants can walk across?  She cried and hugged the spaniel, shoved her face into its neck, dried her cheeks with its fur.  I am halfway across she thought, and still don’t know if it is a bridge to the other side.


What — If Anything — Is Wrong with Artistic Pandering?

Popular Artist: The point of art is to make a change.  The more people you change, the bigger the change. People say “Oh you are selling out for money.”  No, friend — money is just a book-keeping system we use in our society for power.  The point of art is power.  Art is to make effective change.

Elitist Art: The point of art is to advance art, and that means to know things which have never before been known, and do things which have never before been done.  Time is fleeting.  We all know what masses of people enjoy — sex, violence, revenge fantasies, and some lie about how their lives as masses are better than they are — some lie about how they are special.  Why spend your artistic gifts practicing to be better and better at these gross, unsavory, mechanical skills?  Why waste your life pandering?

Popular Artist: You are simply giving a fancy name to “pandering to elites”.  Elites want to think that they are special and better because they have the leisure to taste strange new tastes, and the social confidence to say “I enjoy them.”  You are simply the court jester to our society’s kings and princes, who are by-and-large ridge hedge fund managers.  In other words, if I may express myself popularly — fuck you.

Elitist Artist:  Well fuck you with a cherry on top.

Popular Artist: Fuck you with a cherry on top and all the sprinkles —

Elitist Artist: Fuck you with a cherry on top, all the sprinkles and your mother’s —


Philosopher: Now, now you too.  Allow me to intervene.   You’re both friends of mine, I don’t want you fighting, at least not in such a childish fashion.  (I.e. I am ok if you fight, but fight like grown-ups.)

Popular Artist: You’re just going to take his side, cause you’re both elitists and more comfortable with elite status games than power.

Elitist Artist: You are just going to say some boring philosophical thing about how we’re both right.

Philosopher: No, I’m not — and don’t tell me what I’m going to say before I say it.  Popular artist — you are right that art is about power, but you are committing suicide by giving up your power by shooting at pleasing people in massive scads and groups.  You are pleasing people in boring ways. You are pleasing people in ways that are not truly giving you pleasure.  Because the ways that give you the deepest pleasure are new.   You will only have my respect when you please millions but you do it in a way that actually excites yourself — where you are excited by the new country’s you discover not just by your skill at selling time-shares on old countries.

Elitist Artist you are right in what you say, but wrong in why you say it.  You are afraid you lack the power to please the masses and that’s why you are so mad at popular artist.  You envy him.



Are There Many Religions?

When I studied comparative religion in the 80s it was a commonly accepted idea that there were many religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and various smaller ones — perhaps new religions, pagan religions, small nature religions such as Shinto.  This idea was developed as a response to the colonialist and triumphalist idea that there is the one true faith and those who aren’t its adherents dwell in darkness.  But it leads to other problems.  How do we count them?  Is Christianity a form of Judaism or it’s own thing, and who gets to say — Jews or Christians?  Is the Aristotelian Maimonides a Jew or a Greek?

More fundamentally if there are these free-standing important things called religions, it seems we must pick one — or perhaps none.  And how could we do that?  Do we accept the one we are born into, and therefore feel a gulf from our neighbor who was born into a different one?  Are we of different religions condemned to clash?  Must we fear the human born into a different religion, who bows strangely, eats strangely, and commits inexplicable violence for an impossible-to-understand conception of God?

A better way to look at it might be to view acting religiously or experiencing life religiously as something we all share, or can share, much as acting musically or appreciating music is something we all have the potential to share.  Sure there are traditions of different religious practices, and concepts, and images, just are there are traditions of musical scales and musical instruments.  But an individual or a group is free to mix and match.  People can violently reject some aspect of the musical tradition, as folk music fans rejected Dylan’s use of the electric guitar, but they do not have to.  It is more natural or at least as natural to observe a particular religious use of language, or image, or social interaction and pick it up.

We need not view “belonging to a religion” as the fundamental category any more than we view “being a guitarist” as a fundamental category.  The fan of the piano may pick up the guitar.  And the fan of the jazz piano and the jazz guitar may discover they have more in common than either does with the afficionado of the classical guitar or the flamenco guitar.


The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other

One of my favorite forms of yoga comes from the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva.  It is called “The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other”.  You do it by imagining that you are somebody in your life and feel what the world would be like if you were that person. So for example, supposing your child did not do his homework.  You might have an immediate response of anger.  But if you perform the yoga you will imagine what it is like to be a child who has a bad homework grade and is waiting for her father to come home.  You will experience the huge size of events in childhood, and also what it is like to find something difficult.  You will remember how as a child the stink of the classroom and the heat of the blood in your ears made the mathematical symbols on paper foreboding, and how your mind ran away with you into vague fantasies and fears, and the reality of having to do work and time passing seemed so hard to believe, and behind in the back of your mind was a feeling of guilt or shame, not being good enough.  If you perform the yoga of exchanging self and other you will feel ow the world feels like to your child and you will in a sense be your child — you will feel how the particular configuration of tendons and ligaments and fat and skin and hair — the bald patch peeking through the hair — is just an eddy of froth and soda-pop in a stream, a chunky sworl of dough in the baking bowl of days — yesterday a child looking forward to Halloween — I can’t believe it’s two weeks away! — today an adult of fifty looking back at being a child — I can’t believe it was only forty two years ago, it feels like right now. Maybe it is right now.  It is always right now for somebody, isn’t it?

I was getting beaten up by a co-worker who raged at me, and I thought — wow, that guy is unfortunate — nobody ever taught him the yoga of exchanging self for other!  Here I am sitting here, a perfectly calm guy, and here is this other man jumping out of his chair every ten seconds, cursing, yelling. He must be so uncomfortable in his body.  Every thing that doesn’t go as he hoped activates him and makes him feel unsafe, and his mind is assaulted by fury.  The poor man does not know the yoga, I thought.  And I performed the yoga myself, exchanging myself with the self of someone who doesn’t know how to exchange self with other.

That’s probably the only difference among people.  Some people know how to perform the yoga of exchanging self for other, and some don’t.  And if you are one of those people who does know how to perform the yoga of exchanging self for other, the yoga of Shantideva, from the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, for you it is no difference at all.  At least not now.  At least not anymore.