Monsters in motion

“Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout / The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray / And though she feels as if she’s in a play / She is anyway”

Paul McCartney (Penny Lane)

I am currently working on a psychological thriller that engages the question, generally speaking, “What constitutes reality – order or disorder?”

Assuming there is such a thing as reality, and that it is meaningful to ask what sort of thing it is, one might approach an answer in terms of the distinction between material and form. Think of a statue… oh, I dunno… of some slave-owning war hero from the South… or of that defiant little girl in NYC that folks seem to think is sociologically momentous… or a monument to your dog licking itself. Who cares? Just think of some sort of statue.

Now, when you point to that statue and ask, “What is that?” will you answer “That’s Buford B. Buchanan,” or “That’s a brave little girl,” or “That is my doggie, Mr. Stinkums – idn’t he cute?” Hopefully not. Why? Because what you’re pointing to is bronze, or marble, or plastic, or some other material. This material can take the form of any of those subjects, but it will never be those things. It will always remain itself. The form, however, that some material takes is temporary, and it does not change the essence of the material.

Put simply: forms come and go; material abides. All, in fact, that really exists is shapeless, ever-flowing, disorderly stuff. Order is arbitrary – a temporary artificiality.

Order is art and art is order. Think of a photo of womem dancing. The photo is static, artificial, flat – even colorless, in comparison to the vivid and varied hues of the original. The photo depicts an event frozen in time, and thus says very little accurate about it – the women’s beauty, the movement of their limbs, their facial expressions, the excitement they radiate, their curves in motion.

In fact, if folks today weren’t so accustomed to pics and selfies, one might find a depiction of a dancing figure frozen in time puzzling and unattractive. Why is she holding her arm up over her head all jagged-like? Why is she squinting her eyes and contorting her face so awkwardly? She’s supposed to be having fun, right? Where’s the life?

This is all to say that reality is curvy, constantly moving, and a bit clumsy. It is not a magazine photo of a Victoria’s Secret model standing still, face caked with paint, waxen body posing for the camera. Art is fake, flat, plastic and rigid. This goes for sculptures, photos, paintings, performances, records, books, and all other forms of expression that attempt to simplify, flatten, and freeze the flow of nature. Art is artificial.

Art, like all forms of order, seeks to capture, to restrict, to bind, to hold in place. It serves to filter out what is real, to simplify what is natural and complex, to block and interrupt flow, to process, package and sell.

Art and order must be imposed on material. Like the form of a sculpture, they constrict consciousness. They delineate boundaries that separate what the mind ought to include and exclude. Ultimately, however, this amounts to carving lines in the sand, inevitably to be dissolved without a trace by the flow of the tide.

Reality is continuous. It is what it is. It doesn’t depend on a name or a label. It isn’t here or there, now or then. Reality doesn’t exist in discrete chunks. It’s definitely not 1s and 0s – not a digital recording, nor even vinyl. Reality is a live outdoor performance on an unexpectedly cool evening, with a mildly inebriated conductor leading an ensemble of unfocused, fidgety performers playing slightly off-key. Reality is senseless and ugly. It’s uncomfortable and unacceptable.

Which is real? A stray, smelly mutt scrounging the trash for food, snarling at passers-by, relieving itself whenever and wherever it has the need? Or a freshly groomed, tagged, and leashed purebred, possibly even sporting a sweater boasting the logo of a college football team, posing calmly with its ‘owner’ for a selfie (though it craves nothing more than to tear the furniture to shreds)? Reality is smelly, messy, vicious.

Order is imposed by pressure, by squeezing a square peg into a round hole. The dog behaves as you wish because it fears you will force its nose into the mess it makes. But only what is unreal and insecure would need to resort to threats in order to exist. The dog is you – you are the god. Reality doesn’t need to be sold or pushed. It doesn’t need to be saved and is never at risk.

Order is nothing more than an imposed construct – an illusion that good boys and girls are trained to view as real. Just think of all the things that comprise this “reality”:

  • Social norms and rules, manners, rituals
  • Laws, ordinances, oaths, and contracts
  • Religions, the concept of god, prayer
  • Holidays, dates, times
  • Morality, good and bad, right and wrong, left and right – all dichotomies
  • Political parties and issues; voting
  • Nations, cities, roadways, landscaping
  • Rights, possessions, and property (outside of one’s own mind and body)
  • Tribal associations, race, teams, jobs, titles, gender identifications
  • Your name – first, middle, and last
  • Celebrity status, entertainment, the ‘news’, and other forms of make-believe
  • Signs, labels and tags, uniforms and badges
  • Cosmetics, clothing, bodily fashions
  • Family ties and the so-called ‘bond’ of marriage
  • Technology, convenience, simplicity, automation
  • Myth, scientific explanation, education
  • Numbers, concepts, and language itself
  • The verb ‘is’ (the biggest lie ever told).

None of this is reality. All are fabrications forced upon the mind in an attempt to bring order to chaos. All are filtered, censored, simplified imitations. At best, they are artificial, flat, rigid symbols – like an anorexic model, a street map, a child’s toy, a calendar, the hands and face of a clock. Imagine the world stripped of these illusions.

Order is repetitive, circular, complete, and closed. It is the ring that binds the finger. Reality is unending, open, and indefinite. It is unfaithful and selfish. Chaos is king – disorder, his decree. Control, but a castle in the sky.

Order is a drug that pacifies and tranquilizes the unsettled mind, channeling its focus into fixed, prescribed locations, like television programming, social media memes, and advertising. God forbid the mind experience unsettled thoughts, unanswered questions, unclassifiable feelings. God forbid the mind be free and original! Human beings are as fake as they are slavish.

Order is a sedative, a stage performance that demands the crowd’s quiet submission and assimilation. It is the suburban housing association that forces you deal with the scariness of flux by imposing the illusion of uniformity and security. But neither bedtime story nor automatic gate can soothe the fear. No costume or badge can arrest decay. Reality is cancer. It’s hideous. Monsters in motion are all that’s real.

“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”

John Lennon (God)

© Joshua Reynolds 2018. All rights reserved.

Servitude

This lyrics to the song ‘Servitude’ (Lyrics menu; see also music video under ‘Media’) are mainly about the tendency of society to idealize self-sacrifice and its hypocritical inability to follow that ideal. Think of how often you hear people draw attention to the supposed ‘service’ they have performed simply in order to get what they want:

  1. Want to fool the voters into thinking you give a damn about them? Brand yourself a humble ‘public servant’ at a fundraiser (then fly back home to your publicly-funded mansion on your publicly-funded jumbo jet under the protection of your publicly-funded bodyguards).
  2. Want to graduate? Well, ‘community service’ is required. Just ignore the fact that you’re being coerced into it. It’s a ‘do this or else’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, others will praise you for it. This is the point, right? Or not.
  3. Want to sell lots of pills or pizzas or health plans? Then constantly remind the public that yours is a ‘service-oriented’ company. Just say it, regardless of what it means or if it’s true, and that should be sufficient to make people like you and trust your product.
  4. Want to get on God’s good side? Two words: ‘Church service’. I have to admit, however, it is beyond my ability to comprehend how sitting in a building with others singing songs to a divinity constitutes ‘service’ — unless, of course, we view that divinity as some sort of Medieval Lord who demands song and dance from his serfs for… uh… his own entertainment? Then it almost makes sense, I suppose.
  5. Finally, what about ‘serving the company’ or ‘service to the profession’? When my father died, the funeral director recommended addressing his ‘service’ to his job in the obituary. I guarantee my dad didn’t see it that way. He had busted his ass for countless years for a paycheck, plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that.

Anyway, the problem with all this is that it’s brazenly hypocritical. People pretend to be sacrificing something important to them as if they’re noble and admirable; but in reality, they are using the labels ‘servant’ and ‘service’ to benefit themselves. And when they do so, society rewards them with a nice pat on the belly. This is, however, exactly the opposite of the self-sacrifice that service entails. It’s as if people use the words ‘service’ and ‘serve’ as passwords to prove they’re members of the ‘good people’ club. Beyond that, the terms are empty and meaningless.

This brings me to the second theme of the lyrics: symbol worship. It makes sense that society would care only to flash their ‘service’ to others as an empty token of their supposed virtue because society as a whole is obsessed with symbols over substance, container over content, image over reality.

Think again of all those dutiful Sunday morning worshipers kneeling before… not Jesus or God, but the so called ‘cross’. Bumper stickers, flags, logos, badges, uniforms, trademarks – none of these really says anything substantial about the thing or person bearing them. But they pretend to do so. If you’re a Christian, do you automatically respect those with crosses around their necks? Probably. Should you? Uh, no. No more than a Yankees fan should think he or she has anything significant in common with some random guy on the street sporting a cap that the Yankees corporation branded with their logo. And yet, such senseless solidarity thrives, all at the end of strings pulled by advertisers, corporations, politicians, and priests.

Basically, symbol-minded = simple-minded. Symbols replace thought. They are like the crack of the whip that a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question. The upshot? Society’s symbol-worship and praise of service reveal people’s secret desire to be dominated. They obsessively long for a lord and master to command them. They want to be controlled and released from the burden of thought. They desperately desire to ‘turn the other cheek’ like their idol, but can they?

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

In defense of cynicism

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” — Mark Twain

It’s fair to say that in our culture a stigma exists against individuals who disconnect from society and religion (skeptics, misanthropes, cynics, atheists, etc.), all of which exhibit their own sort of cynicism in varying degrees. (Note: I’m not equating atheists with cynics. In fact, these days, a good number of atheists tend to be humanists and thus maintain positive feelings about society. It’s just that I don’t think in absolutes, so I don’t really believe there is such thing as a ‘cynic’. But there are varying degrees of cynical attitudes and perspectives. So on this view, atheists by definition are cynical about religion.)

As part of this stigma, society tends to see cynicism as some sort of disease, whether physical, psychological, social, or spiritual. Distrust is seen as a mental illness.

Consider the following examples:

  1. Distrust and an anti-social personality are key symptoms associated with what psychologists call ‘PPD’, or ‘Paranoid Personality Disorder’;
  2. Distrust of authority and anti-social behavior are key traits among conspiracy theorists, whom mainstream society has been trained to look down upon as a bunch of lunatics;
  3. Cynicism and pessimism are linked to higher rates of depressiondementiaheart diseasecancer-related deaths, and mortality.

Wow! Optimism — the true panacea, discovered at last! Of course, none of these articles considers, if there really is such a link, whether cynical personalities can in fact be changed and “cured,” any more than any other sort of personality. I certainly don’t recall ever selecting my particular personality. It’s just kind of what makes me… me, you know? But the point isn’t to understand cynicism. It’s just to make oneself look good by making cynicism look bad and blaming it for the supposedly bad things that happen. Hmmm… sounds exactly like what some in the optimistic crowd say about cynicism.

Google ‘cynicism’ and you will find yourself inundated with — what!? — intensely cynical reactions to cynicism. Ironically, however, it is not the cynics who have these reactions, but those bragging about, or at least implying, their own optimism or healthy idealism. What about ‘glass half full’? Here’s a list of the usual clichés:

Cynicism is: ‘for losers’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘a waste of intellect’, ‘a missed opportunity to improve the world’, ‘blind’, ‘unattractive’, ‘intellectual cowardice’, ‘a cop out’, ‘rooted in fear’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘toxic’, ‘pitiful’, ‘naïve’, ‘intellectual treason’, ‘cheap’, ‘impotent’, ‘contagious’.

So cynicism is for ‘losers’, is it? Aww, shucks. The last thing I want is to be called a ‘loser’. Goddamn half-empty glass… gonna make me unpopular. Remember name-calling as a child? The fact that so many adults cannot avoid perpetuating the label- and clique-mentality of high school kids is one thing that makes me especially cynical.

This sort of cliché, stereotyping, slogan-based criticism of cynicism also seems to be fashionable among late-night comedians:

  • “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us” — Stephen Colbert
  • “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien
  • “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” — Craig Ferguson

This is strange stuff coming from sarcastic men whose job consists of deconstructing and ridiculing everything that comes their way. Maybe they feel guilty for creating hordes of mindless drones who believe they are gaining genuine political awareness simply by watching the late show. Or perhaps they see themselves as similar to smokers who warn their children not to smoke. Whatever the reason, George Carlin would be rolling over in his grave – if he gave a damn.

The problem with such reactions to cynicism is that they are hypocritical, trite, and grounded in unrealistic stereotypes. A particularly cynical attack on cynicism can be found here.

The author repeats the usual claims — that cynics are ‘cowards’, ‘lazy’, ‘afraid’, and somehow cultivate a false appearance of sophistication and depth. Oh no! Please don’t call me a coward!! Anything but that!! Of course, the author simply states all this and fails to back any of it up with specific examples or argumentation. Regurgitate those clichés!

Interestingly, this person also insists that if all the cynics and skeptics in America “made noise,” and worked actively “for the restoration of a democratic republic, justice, and the rule of law,” then things “would instantly change for the better.” You know, that sort of thing is very easy for a blogger, comedian, politician, or some other talking head to say because they get paid to spend their time and effort “actively changing the world for the better.”

I laugh at this sort of advice. It presumes that people adopt cynicism by choice and can just choose not to be cynical. Simply push the happy button in your soul and ‘bam!’ — you no longer notice or care about the insurmountable obstacle of lies, hypocrisy, and corruption in politics.

But seriously, such critics, if they really want to change attitudes, need to take a step back and reevaluate what they think is the cause of cynicism. I assure you it is not the cynic him or herself. If you want to fight cynicism, at least on the political level, then point that scathing finger at this sort of thing: here and here. Let’s not get distracted from the real problem.

“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” — Mike Royko

I mean, I get it. A representational form of government is largely incompatible with widespread cynicism and apathy. But more importantly, so are all the power, wealth, security, and status that accrue to political representatives. So the politicians need the talking heads to be cheerleaders, encouraging their mostly young, brainless, TV-watching audience to believe in the system, to hope for change, and to adopt other such useless states of mind. Go team!

Professional politicians and the mainstream media loathe the cynic because the cynic reveals their game for what it is. Such honesty threatens the illusions they must create to maintain power. And so, instead of facing the cynic’s criticisms head on, they attack an abstraction. They set up a token cynic, a straw man to knock down so they can appear caring and productive. Yet no one really exists exactly like the people they describe. Reality is far more complicated and interesting. But polarization sure is a nifty means of thought control.

A common cliché is that cynics are apathetic or lazy. Most cynics, however, I have ever known or have known about are hard-working, productive individuals who care quite deeply about what is happening in the world — at least more so than the many who wear optimism as a mask. They are just honest with themselves in admitting that they don’t have the faith that things can or will improve. You can’t force faith.

Another little platitude that passes as wisdom is that cynics live miserable lives, so we ought to refrain from being cynical. But this is like telling a gay guy he shouldn’t choose to find other men attractive. In the end, the stigma against cynics and those like them stems from the usual ignorance and prejudice of people who don’t understand what they fear. Cynics need not be miserable. Some are. Some are not. Some are sometimes. Some are severely unsatisfied with society or politics or religion, but perfectly happy in their personal lives.

A misanthrope, for example, can find satisfaction in knowing that he or she is conscious of the lies and hypocrisy that define society. Such individuals find true contentment, at least, in trying not to perpetuate the tribal game of make-believe. There can be pride in refusing to stick one’s head in the sand or to whitewash what can be very ugly facts about our social existence.

Speaking of make-believe, here’s a Christian take on cynicism, which pretty much sums up the sort of hypocritically discriminatory perspective from which society tends to represent the cynic:

“A cynic is self-centered. Jesus is self-giving. A cynic has a low view of humanity. Jesus died for humanity. A cynic builds himself up by mocking others. Jesus lays down his own life so others can be filled with life. A cynic assumes people in the end get what they deserve. Jesus does all He can to ensure as many as possible get what they do not deserve.”

This is great material — fuel for the fire. You just can’t make up stuff like this. It is as real as it is fake. The author concludes: “Don’t get me wrong, Jesus loves cynics. He died for cynics. But not just to save them; He died also to change them.” Why in the world god would require the brutal death of his ‘son’ to ‘save’ a cynic the author does not say. But perhaps that’s just me being cynical — you know, using my mind to think through the implications of astonishing claims.

Face it: Faith, not cynicism, is a mental disorder. The tendency to place unwarranted trust in religion, society, self-servinig politicians, and others is no different than childish fantasy.

I have always found the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ to be delightfully cynical. Coincidentally, that’s precisely how I feel at the moment writing this. So I’ll just wrap up with another comedian’s quite sane assessment of faith:

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do.” — Bill Maher

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.