Biswapriya Purkayastha, alias “Bill the Butcher,” creator of Raghead the Fiendly Neighborhood Terrorist, posted this ravishingly beautiful prose poem on his blog last week. Maybe the opening will hook you into following the link and reading the whole thing:
I was lost in the forest at night, alone, and I called to my ghost; and at last, my ghost came to me.
I asked my ghost, “Why, when I was lost and I was calling, did you take so long to come? I have been wandering alone and blind through the dark, and I could have harmed this body beyond repair.”
And my ghost settled before me like mist on the ground, and reached out to touch me.
“I was gone far,” it said, “looking along the paths of the forest, and the things that dwell therein.”
“And what did you see?” I asked my ghost, and saw that it still hung away from me, as though reluctant to come home to my body.
“I saw pain and hunger,” the ghost said. “I felt death and the terror of many small scuttling things. And I saw on the fringes of the forest, villages; but the villages lay empty, burned by fire and disease until the living fled and the ghosts of the dead, unable to bear the loneliness, fled after them.”
“What else?” I asked, for I knew the ghost had more to tell; it was my ghost, and it had dwelt within me since the moment I was born.
“And I saw on this path, before us, five images in the shape of women; but women they were not.” The ghost paused, and I could feel it look away into the jungle with its eyeless eyes. “They had skulls for faces, and were clad in robes made of the night. And the first of them had a flame in her hand, for she was the spirit of passion and the heat of vengeance, and she would burn you to ashes if she found you; not because she would want to, but because it is her nature.”
“And the second?” asked I.
It just gets better from there, it really is a gorgeous bit of writing.
It’s certainly at the opposite extreme from the sort of thing I encounter that sometimes makes my daily habit of looking at things on the internet feel like this:
I am very fond of this installment of The Periodic Table of Videos. My favorite moment comes when the Prof says, “I’ve no idea how this sample got to London. It was brought to me in London, in Max’s bag.”
At The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs worries about the extent to which Americans have taken up, as a favored hobby, hatred for those whose political views differ from theirs. He recommends pieces in this topic by blogger Scott Alexander (an essay that made its way into the DNA of Weird Sun Twitter,) journalist Lynn Vavreck, and scholars Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood.
The “Archdruid,” alias John Michael Greer, is occasionally brilliant; this essay about “The End of Ordinary Politics” builds on his theory that the distinction between hourly wages and salaried employment marks a class division that explains much of American social life, and that the US political elite has little comprehension of or curiosity about the economic interests of wage laborers. The Archdruid holds that the kind of partisan hostility that Alan Jacobs, Scott Alexander, and others lament is largely explicable as the result of tactics representatives of the salaried classes deploy to keep wage laborers off the political radar:
I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.
It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.
To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.
The Archdruid isn’t a Trump supporter and does not deny that Mr Trump’s appeal is at least partly racial, but he focuses on the questions of economic status that have drawn so many white wage-earners to that particular loudmouthed landlord when they might have chosen to throw their lot in with any of a number of other race-baiting demagogues.
Speaking of Scott Alexander, here’s a bit of speculation from him about where religions come from. These paragraphs are from the middle of it:
If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.
People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.
Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.
So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.
Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.
I have a weakness for maps that purport to describe what people are like in various locales, such as this one, which I saw here and which comes from this article: