Friday, September 26, 2014

FICTION: The Kind That Leaves Me Alone (Excerpt)

Now that he has a couple centuries' worth of oxycodone David guesses he should be happy for pill whores.  He can't pretend Xamanda is anything else as she sleeps beside him beneath the tarp: a junkie knows a junkie sure as he knows his own baby. Once he could have hated her for being so pretty, David thinks as he runs his hand through her fluorescent orange hair. But when you can see somebody's soul there's no joy in degrading her. Nor in knowing she's fond of you, just not so fond as you hoped.

David rolls out of bed and checks the nightstand clock, 4:30 am. Drew's father is bringing him back at 3:00pm and if he finds her pilled out again she's liable to lose the boy altogether.  David sets the alarm for noon then looks for a place where it will take Xamanda time to find the beeping alarm. Finally he puts the clock near the bathroom, throwing last night's panties atop it for good measure. David knows no matter how bad off you was the night before, once you see the toilet you ain't going back to bed without a piss.

And if you're still blocked up from last night's pills you gonna go get a cup of coffee to get the yellow river flowing. By the time Asshole McAsshole the Fourth gets here she'll be fine.

Outside the window above Drew's crib the sky is already catching fire. David can see the razor blade on the coffee table in X-ray relief against the shimmering glass: wax and talcum residue floats grey as the spots on his Daddy's lungs.  Xamanda's not moving, David would be worried if he couldn't hear the soft patter of her heart across the room. That girl don't know when she's had enough. David chuckles. Or maybe she just wants too much.

"Ain't no medicine gonna fix neither of us, darlin'," he says to the smoldering sky. Xamanda stirs but does not wake. David lifts up the tarp and tucks the sheet and comforter around her, it gets cold up here at night and the wiring won't take a space heater even if she wasn't three months behind on her light bill.  He has to stop for a second to admire her, even after a baby her titties still look you in the eye and wink. Then he moves on to the pile of papers on her desk.  

It takes a little digging, she ain't no better keeping records at home, Professor, but finally he finds the disconnect notice in the top right pile. Her Daddy sent money twice, he ought to know to get the account number and pay it hisself.  Amazing what folks forget once they get a brick house.  He finds his flannel shirt beside the nightlight then shoves the notice in the pocket behind his Marlboro Reds. Grown folk can live without power, Lord knows he's done it, but it ain't right for a child to lie scared in the dark.

David walks over to the coffee table and picks up the razor.  He picks up the rolled dollar bill from the floor as he's stepping into his pants, then places it in his left nostril as he carefully scrapes every stain into a grey-white line.  One quick sniff and everything is clean again. David wipes it down with his red hanky to make sure no trace remains should Drew try to stand on the edge, he's bound to start walking any day now, then covers the table with Xamanda's sari fabric.

The stars above Drew's crib are gone now: the moon is fading like Jimson weed closing up for dawn.  David puts the blade in his wallet's credit card slot and scans the place again for incriminating evidence. When he finds none he puts on his baseball cap and pulls the tarp off Xamanda. She stirs and raises her hand, she's fine, she'll be fit as an untuned fiddle tomorrow.  David wishes he could stay like they talked about but he can't help no further now. It's near sunrise but he can still get home without hurrying more than a little bit. And besides, if Asshole raised his voice too loud it might wake David up and that wouldn't be good for nobody.

"See y'all tomorrow night," David whispers in Xamanda's ear, then, hesitant, "I love you." She smiles: David closes his eyes so he cannot see her dreams.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

FICTION: Panic in Detroit (Excerpt)

Pierre knows the Lord means for him to walk among men again. Otherwise He wouldn’t have sent a purple Cadillac, a grocery bag of cash, a steamer trunk of marihuana and pants that fit perfectly.  He who knows all tongues sent His message in the language of scents and snarls:  one whiff and Pierre’s words rose like Ezekiel’s dry bones, Goddamn that smells like some fine muggles.  And while the little fellow’s clothes were past saving the big guy went down with hardly any fight, he barely moved after his friend’s bloody baseball cap landed at his feet till Pierre yes yes Pierre my name is Pierre broke his neck.

The season’s first frost crunches under Pierre’s knees as he kneels. When he finishes drinking from the little fellow’s left leg, not so warm as he might like now but a thin velvet blanket is better than none at all, he looks around for a place to wash. The sand piled by the steam shovel will get the worst stains, but a man, yes a man, needs water to make himself presentable.  He lopes to the stream over the hill, his hands touching the ground till he reminds himself to walk upright.

When Pierre returns the big man is still slouched against the car, his unblinking gaze affixed on heaven tight as his dead hand on his crucifix. Pierre tries to get the Detroit Pistons jersey off but the big man doesn’t want to let go. Of course, he realizes, they were angels. Though I’m not sure why angels had a dead body in their trunk. He ponders this for a moment as the shattered stars twinkle overhead and the first frost crystals form on the little fellow’s bloody torso. Finally Pierre loosens the fingers as carefully as he could, only breaking two, and gets the jersey and the long undershirt beneath.  The cross reflects moonlight on the big angel’s chest between THUG and LIFE.

“Agnus dei qui tolli peccata mundi, miserere nobis,” Pierre sings as he closes the angel’s eyes and remembers the priest with the pale hands. “Retournez-vous aux ciel, Ange d’Seigneur” Pierre forgets the Latin but he remembers Notre-Dame de Montréal and expects an angel’s more likely to know Français than English.  “Merci pour votre aide et pour le muggles. Vous-etes un chat froid et un gros papa. Adieux.”

Once he puts a new hole in the belt the big denims fit like they were made for him. Pierre remembers watching kids dressed like this from the woods. Back then he wondered why they were bothering with clothes at all though of course not in words. Now Pierre understands perfectly. They give a man air and let him feel nature on his nature in a matter of speaking. And the shoes fit perfectly and even have his lucky number 15 on the sole.  Like clockwork, baby he remembers the experiments, of course, a beast can only take what’s thrown to it but a man can try to understand his situation.

There’s a shovel in the trunk beside the dead body. Pierre figures if the angels were kind enough to see that this man got a fitting burial it was only right he should do the same. Within a few minutes there are three holes, Pierre’s new clothes are a bit soiled but nothing a washboard and some soap won’t take care of. The man in the trunk is already stiff and some sticky unidentifiable liquid has stained the rug they wrapped him in. Pierre moves the bundle gingerly and just manages to avoid the maroon glop, soil goes away with a wash but body fluids stain forever. The big angel goes quietly and falls peacefully to his final rest. For a moment Pierre ponders what to do with the little fellow’s remains then realizes he can pick them up with the shovel. A short stroll to gather him together and soon all three are properly interred.

The clouds are gathering over the moon. Pierre smells freezing rain coming in, he barely feels the elements but he knows a man finds shelter for himself and certainly for his automobile. He looks around a bit for the crank, then decides he will explore Mr. Stanley’s invention out later. Picking up the back end like a wheelbarrow Pierre shoves the Cadillac into a thicket, not that he needs to hide it, nobody works a quarry in a Michigan winter. But he remembers the man who let them ride in the Steamer had a garage put aside for it, just like a stall only with no hay on the floor.  A machine slower than a horse and twice as filthy, Antoine said afterward as he rubbed white spirits on his soot-stained cravat. Behold the future.

“They ain’t near so sooty no more!” Pierre announces proudly, his hand on the hood. He realizes no one is listening of course but keeps talking anyway, he’ll need the practice if the Lord is sending him among men again. “Once I learn to drive we’ll be traveling in style, daddy-O! This is a Cadillac and they’re real fine cars. I saw an ad for one in a magazine in …” he pauses “when President Eisenhower was in office. They’re a smooth ride with V8 power and interior luxury. People see Professor Chauffant pulling up in a horseless carriage like this, there’s no telling how much elixir they’ll buy.” Pierre pauses again, his eyes downcast this time. “Or would, I guess.”

They left half a joint in the driver’s side ashtray, they never got a chance to lock the door and Pierre figures every gravedigger should earn an honest wage, especially considering his clients are no longer in need of anything. And since the big angel had a lighter in his pocket, Pierre is especially certain it’s an omen. The locusts are quiet, they’ve been driven away by the presence of God or maybe they just don’t like the taste of red velvet. What are we, moths? they ask as they fade into the smoke.  Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

Pierre looks in the back seat. The grocery bag isn’t full like he first thought but there are rolled bills covering the bottom, mostly twenties and fifties.  He grabs a couple rolls and discovers neatly trimmed stacks of newspaper substituting for currency beneath the first bill. I thought Antoine was the only one knew that trick.  Pierre shakes his head. Looks like these fellows was even touchier than that hotel manager. There’s still a fair bit of money though, enough to last a while and he won’t need to worry about muggles either, he’s got a stash that would have made Fat Tyrell envious.

An owl hoots by the stream. Pierre grins broadly as he realizes the enormity of what God has gifted unto him.  He speaks aloud again, hoping his voice will carry through the water. “Maybe we can’t have Professor Chauffant’s Medicine Show, but we’re going to be the heppest vipers in…” he looks down at the newspaper in the back seat. “Detroit, baby! Detroit!” 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

FICTION: Shatterer of Worlds (Excerpt)

“No sir that would not work.” Pierre says to the tramp in the battered plaid suit. “Some years ago I lit an entire shack full of dynamite.  While the experience left me insensible for a brief period I remained, as you can see, fully intact.”

Everybody guffaws as the plaid tramp passes the bottle to the little lame hobo.  Pierre remembers this from before the darkness descended, stories around a campfire to pass the time, a place where a stranger can speak the truth knowing nobody’s going to believe him anyway. 

“You hear that, Chuck?” the weasel-faced boy by the tarpaper lean-to asks the burly one-eared man squatting beside him.  “Think he could take a mortar round like you did at Guadacanal?”

The burly man looks up, the stubble on his jaw nearly as long as his buzzcut. “It was at Chosun, not that a little pansy like you would know about war.”

The weasel-faced boy sneers. “Not that you’d know who your Daddy is.”

“What did you just say?” Chuck asks slowly as he stands.  Pierre holds up his hands, palms facing outward as if he could shove away the jagged anger rising at the fire’s edge.

“Easy, cats. No need for aggression, let’s have a chilled out session, you need some relief and I got some sweet leaf.” He snaps his fingers as Chuck’s rage cools back down to annoyance and reaches into the backpack for the joint lying atop the shotgun shells. “The smoke is my deliverance and salvation, keeps me out of bad situations, provides my questions an explanation.  And if you two gentlemen will partake I’m sure you’ll be able to put your differences behind you.”

“How about that, Chuck?” The boy turns his attention to Pierre.  “He ain’t just good at exploding, he can rhyme too.”

Chuck stares at Pierre’s cigarette.  “Don’t you read the papers? That stuff will make you crazy.”

“My experience, sir, is quite the opposite.” Pierre strikes a kitchen match against the sole of his boot. “When I first met Mary Jane, the weight of my sorrows pressed me so that I could but cry out in my despair. And then, as I wept and raged in a forest, a little Mexican man came to me with a fat smoldering reefer.  One draw of that fine Mexicali tea and I began to feel like myself again.  I tried to pass it back but he said, ‘No, all yours’ and disappeared.”

Pierre inhales, then blows out smoke and hands the joint to the plaid tramp.

“I still believe him to be an angel sent to offer me balm for my affliction. And since that moment I have always taken pains to keep Miss Mary Jane near at hand.”

“Pass that over here,” the boy says. “Ain’t every day you get to smoke reefer from an angel.”

Chuck grunts his disapproval. “Johnny, you gonna be even funnier than you already are.”

“Weren’t you listening?” The boy examines the joint. “This comes from God.”

The little lame hobo looks up. “You oughtn’t be mocking a man who’s telling the truth.”

Johnny starts to respond but something in the old man’s unblinking grey gaze stops him. The fire crackles as he turns to Pierre.

“I met another of your kind a long time ago. I wasn’t no older than Johnny nor no smarter. This one looked my age when I met him but he was older. I bet he still looks the same even though I don’t.”

“Yes sir,” Pierre hesitates for a second. “He probably does.”

“I was working in Michigan then, at the Callimac Mine on the Gogebic Range.  You know where that is?”

“Yes sir,” Pierre says as he stares at the flames reflecting in the old man’s eyes like Diogenes-lanterns. “On the Upper Peninsula.  I used to know that area real well.”

“Business was still just holding on then. Everyone knew things was near tapped out.  There wasn’t but a skeleton crew working by the winter of ’16. Everyone else had been let go and I was planning to head to Detroit to see if they had anything for me in the new automobile plants. That was when we started dying.”

The scent of piñon pines wafts on the evening breeze.  Pierre remembers the smell of balsam firs and white spruce and frost over swampland: he draws on the joint as if its cherry might drive away the long-ago cold.

“It was a hard winter and we lost one with every snowfall. At first we figured they was just moving on like we was going to move on.  Then right before the New Year we found what was left of Aleksi.  Jefferson, the security guard, said it was a bear. Only he couldn’t explain how this bear tore a grown man to pieces and didn’t leave no footprints.”

Pierre passes to the little lame man, who shakes his head.  He stretches the joint out toward Johnny but the boy stands motionless as his sneer melts into terror.

“Two nights later it snowed again and we heard shots in the dark. Next morning Jefferson was gone.” The old man takes a gulp from his pint. “Later someone told me they found his badge and his gun in the woods that spring. Never heard of them finding anything else.”

Chuck eyes Pierre warily: the plaid tramp hesitates before taking the joint from him. Pierre stares straight ahead into the fire, hoping the last dancing flames will distract him from memories of loud noises and acrid smells and a brief stinging spark exploding into shrieking red velvet shreds. The old man stares into the flames with Pierre, his knuckles white as he clutches the bottle.

“That was when we all decided to go. But the railroad wasn't running and all the roads were blocked. There was no getting out save with a dogsled or a snowmobile and we didn’t have neither.  Big Bjorn remembered Jefferson had a pair of snowshoes. But then Kowalski pointed out even so you couldn’t walk to Ironwood without spending the night in the woods. And wasn’t a man in that camp willing to do that."

“Winters are hard in that part of the country,” Pierre says, trying to keep the words coming. He can feel the smooth brass of the Pinkerton man’s watch and wonders what time it is now, a beast of the field knows light and dark but a man can read a clock, it was three seconds past 8:38 when he came in and when he looks down again it is exactly 9:32.

“Since we had nothing else to do, we all decided to wait for death or the train, whichever got through first. Turned out to be neither.”

The dancing flames are flickering lower now, nothing left but embers and fear and the little lame man sitting on his orange carton. Pierre extends his hands, easy cats, and the plaid tramp becomes a blank gap-toothed smile but Johnny and Chuck are out of range, he can feel their terror but can’t snuff out its locust-song. The lame man eyes him quizzically.

“The other fellow was different. You make folks calm. He couldn’t help but make you feel like there were spiders inside you.”

Chuck moves away, Pierre thinks he might run into the hills but instead he grabs a handful of sticks and kindling and throws it on the smoldering fire.

“I was the one keeping watch when he walked into camp. He didn’t leave no tracks in the snow. The way that thing in the woods didn’t leave no footprints.” The old man drains the rest of his pint. “The way your boots weren’t muddy even though you had to cross a creek to get here.”

“Quit it, Pops,” Johnny says, his voice a high whimper. “This ain’t funny no more.”

“Wasn’t funny at all,” Pops says, smiling faintly despite himself. “I wanted to run but I couldn’t turn away even though looking into those eyes was like sticking your head into the maw of hell.”

Not like hell, Pierre thinks, like a great empty void and at the bottom snow and stars and hands so pale the moonlight reveals knuckle-bones beneath the skin and a sad-eyed boy singing Domini Deus Noster, Miserere Nobis.

The old man continues. “He told me there was no monster in the woods, just a soul in torment and that it wouldn't trouble us again. I asked him what he meant and he said he couldn't take away its suffering but he eased it for a little while. Then he laughed and I swear to God I soiled myself when I heard that laugh.”

Singing till you can’t help but sing with him, Miserere Nobis, and then you remember language and fall sobbing to your knees in the snow and there is no singing, just a pale hand on your head and a soft voice saying “A beast of the field howls but a man has words to sing with.”

“The next morning they finally cleared the tracks and we all left on the next train. Except Kowalski. We found him in his bunk with his throat slit.”

“Stop it, Pops,” Johnny is nearly crying now.  “Stop it.”

“What’s the matter, Johnny? Thought you didn’t believe in any of this bullshit.” The old man laughs as he turns again to Pierre. “Don’t worry, kid.  If you meant us harm we’d all be dead right now, ain’t that right?”

Pierre hesitates then decides he doesn’t want to go to Dr. Oppenheimer with lies on his conscience.

“Yes sir,” he nods. “That’s right.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Impietas IV: Locus

The mysteries of Eleusis could be celebrated nowhere else. Demeter had different cult centers throughout Greece, including places that had their own mysteries just as ancient and esteemed as those at Eleusis. But there was only one Eleusis and one set of rites carried out there. 
This is why all attempts at transplanting them to other locations have been doomed to failure. 
It was here and only here that she finally settled after her long and painful search (hence the site’s name) ; only here where she was received by the king whom she instructed in gratitude for his kindness; only here where she adopted Triptolemos and sent him out to teach the world agriculture; here where she was reconciled with her daughter and all the rest that formed the backdrop of the mysteries. This happened nowhere else in all the world, so these mysteries could take place nowhere else. In those other places different things had happened such as her transformation into a mare or her seduction of a mortal man. As a result these places had their own unique mysteries. The mysteries that we will celebrate here are likewise going to be shaped by time, place and culture. 
New Orleans, 1726. From Wikimedia Commons.

Links between New Orleans and St. Domingue spiritual practices are tenuous and links between 19th and 21st century New Orleans Voodoo even shakier.  Today New Orleans spirituality encompasses the Thelema-influenced practices of Sallie Ann Glassman; the Belize-inspired work of Miriam Chemani; the Lukumi-flavored rituals of Lilith Dorsey.  It would be easy enough to follow Cat Yronwode's lead and dismiss the whole thing as a "newly constructed faux-religion which has no cultural, family, liturgical, or social roots in traditional African, African-American, or Haitian religions, but traces back to literary sources instead." Yet this easy dismissal ignores both Voodoo's cultural impact and the place in which this "faux-religion" takes root.

Like Blanche DuBois, New Orleans depends on the kindness of strangers. Many of her most influential figures came from elsewhere.  At a time when most Blacks were heading north Leafy Anderson left Chicago for New Orleans: within a decade after her 1920 arrival her guide Black Hawk was one of the city's most loved "hoodoo spirits."  Italian immigrants brought muffalettas and the Feast of St. Joseph. Spanish governors created much of her distinctive "French Quarter" architecture. And we wouldn't have Blanche, Stanley and Stella if a shy young man born in Mississippi, raised in St. Louis and nicknamed "Tennessee" hadn't found a spiritual home in the Vieux Carre.

New Orleans makes her living off desire.  She promised forbidden delights to frontiersmen slogging west through the malarial swampland: the Mississippi rolled along to ragtime and laughter and mosquitos whirling with moths around her whorehouse lanterns.  Yet she sates the spiritual hunger of pilgrims as happily as she meets more carnal needs.  Yronwode notes "New Orleans Voodoo has historically had no community membership base, in Louisiana other than as a source of employment for shop employees, dancers, authors, and publishers." She might consider how many other American cities have successfully monetized local spiritual practices.  The commercialization of New Orleans Voodoo is not a sign of decadence but of strength.

Port cities have always been places where people and Gods came together to share ideas, goods and beds.  Slaves from Mali brought their pentatonic scale with its distinctive flattened thirds and fifths: African griots became Louisiana bluesmen.  After the Spanish-American War, a shipment of Army surplus brass reorchestrated the blues into Dixieland jazz.  If contemporary New Orleans Voodoo draws from many different sources and honors many new spirits so did the faiths of Hellas, where Thracian Orpheus was honored with Cyprian Aphrodite and Luwian Hekate.  And if the old rituals have been washed away by time and the river, new ones have risen in the rich Delta soil.

Much as the Eleusinian Mysteries told the tale of Eleusis, New Orleans Voodoo tells the story of New Orleans. And just as Eleusis echoed the sagas of Greece and Rome, so does New Orleans Vodou contain within itself the American mystery. It is a faith crafted by travelers, created in a legendary land with a mythical past and an uncertain future.  It is a religion where African and European influences co-exist fruitfully and uneasily, where stylized Indians roam the land once held by real Indians, where sin and salvation walk hand in hand.  Its magic lies not in mojo bags or spoon dolls but in the sultry summer air and the muddy Mississippi, in the blood of those who walked its streets before we were born and who will walk them after we are dead.  If it is a flawed and hollow faith, it is but a reflection of the greater emptiness within ourselves.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Impietas III: Frith

Every one of you reading this has warrior dead in your line. You wouldn't be here otherwise. Every one of you has people, men and women both, who made the hard, necessary, and sometimes brutal choices of taking up arms to defend their families, their villages, their traditions. Honoring the military dead ... is honoring that spirit that says "you may destroy my nation, my people, my family, you may take everything but it will not be with my help. It will not be today. It will not be now. It will not be without a very bloody price that you may not wish to pay."
There’s a lot of talk about 'frith' in our communities. Well, frith is built on the blood and bone, the guts and screams and tears of your warriors. Only warriors truly understand the cost of frith. You want to honor your peace-makers? Honor first the ones who took their place on the firing line.

Today Get Carter is considered one of Britain's greatest films, certainly its finest crime drama.  1971 audiences reacted to this gritty tragedy with shock, disgust and horror. Director Mike Hodges' vision was unleavened by the wisecracking wit of Dirty Harry or the stylized ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange or The Wild Bunch.  Set amidst the smoldering scrap heaps and dive bars of an impoverished northern England town, Get Carter looked like it was filmed in a dirty ashtray.  Protagonist Jack Carter (Michael Caine) was a vicious contract killer, no better than the whores and ruffians he dispatched with steely-eyed efficiency.  Most critics and cinema-goers dismissed it as a nasty film about nasty people doing nasty things to each other.  After its release it sunk into obscurity, forgotten by all but a few cinephiles.  (Most notably two young directors named Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie).  But as Swinging London gave way to Maggie's Millions and Free Love was replaced by the Age of AIDS, Get Carter looked less like a dog-end in a punchbowl and more like a harbinger of things to come.

While Get Carter is lauded today as a Very Important Movie, many of its fans remain entranced by its brutal violence and even more brutal characters.  They see Carter as a celebration of nihilism, when in fact it is as ordered and moral as a Greek tragedy.  Their confusion is understandable: the ethical system underpinning the film hearkens back not to Christianity but to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxonry and Jack Carter acts not to bring justice but to restore frith.

* * * * *
The oneness of the kindred was no mere conceptual ideal; it was implemented and practiced as a matter of course in everyday life, and the name for this many-faceted thew was frith. "Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another... The responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds." (Groenbech, Vol I., pp. 42-43)... 
Frith was nothing if not partisan: focused on security and stability of the kindred, it had no application to those individuals and groups who lay outside the boundaries when it came to a conflict of interest between the two. Nor could any notion of absolute, unbiased justice make a dent in it: defending one’s kindred was always right, no matter how wrong their actions were. Frith was the paramount thew, taking precedence over all others.
Winifred Hodge
Outside the confines of respectable society reside those who are neither respectable nor particularly social.  This is the world Jack Carter inhabits, a place where he has earned some success as a foot soldier to a London mob boss.  Like many of the mercenaries slashing their way through sagas Carter has escaped both his humble beginnings and his earliest crimes.  He has no reason to pry when his estranged brother dies in a drunken accident, no reason to go against the friendly advice his employer proffers like a velvet glove.  No reason save that an empty whisky bottle was found in the wrecked car and his brother always hated whisky.

Yet still Carter returns home, taking the northbound train with his assassin seated behind him and Chandler's Farewell My Lovely on his lap.  He is well-acquainted with the rules of this game and knows its inevitable ending.  Expiating his own sin against his family, he plumbs the depths of this new violation and methodically repays everyone involved.  As he turns from the last corpse a sniper's bullet sends him to the ground, frith restored and blood answered with blood. Like most sagas, Get Carter is a cautionary tale. When frith is lacking in the larger community -- in this case the criminal underworld -- the family is not safe. When the family is not safe the community is not safe.  Our ancestors knew firsthand a blood feud's terrible cost.

While kindred ties often lead to violence, they just as often prevented conflict.  When you are held liable for your brother's antics you have a powerful incentive to keep those antics in check. When slurs thrown at a random stranger might be met with a response from that stranger's extended family you chose your words carefully.  You did unto others as you would have them do unto you because you know they would return the favor.  As with pietas, frith worked in a series of concentric circles.  One was tied by blood to kin, by kin to community, by community to the Gods.  To our contemporary eyes Jack Carter seems a godless brute.  Yet in the eyes of his northern European ancestors (who were driven by shame and had to be taught guilt) Carter's behavior would be seen as laudable: what we call  murder they called right action.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Impietas II: Misericordia

To the Romans pietas and patriarchy walked hand in hand. For most of Roman history the paterfamilias (oldest living male in the family) held absolute power over the family's financial affairs and could punish or even kill other family members without fear of legal sanction. But while the paterfamilias held an autocrat's power over his clan, he was expected to rule with love and compassion.  Tradition and public opinion, powerful forces in conservative and status-conscious Rome, defined the paterfamilias' role and delimited his power.  In those cases where that was not enough, the Emperor might step in to restore right order. Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138, banished a father who had killed his son.  Although the son's crime was great -- he had committed adultery with his stepmother -- Hadrian ruled against the murderous patriarch, declaring "patria potestas in pietate debet non in atrocitate consistere" (a father's power must rest in pietas, not cruelty).

This same beneficence was expected of the one entrusted with the absolute power of the toga purpura. Writing to Nero in the winter of 55 CE, Seneca the Younger explained:
To "the Father of his Country" we have given the name in order that he way know that he has been entrusted with a father's power, which is most forbearing in its care for the interests of his children and subordinates his own to theirs. Slow would a father be to sever his own flesh and blood; aye, after severing he would yearn to restore them, and while severing he would moan aloud, hesitating often and long; for he comes near to condemning gladly who condemns swiftly, and to punishing unjustly who punishes unduly. 
Given Roman history Seneca's advice might seem a bit idealistic. (It certainly appears to have had little impact on Nero's behavior).  But it was rooted not in wooly-headed lovingkindness but in shrewd political calculation.  Seneca saw clementia as a tool which a ruler used to mollify one's enemies and ensure the love and loyalty of one's subjects.  As Galina Krasskova notes in a currently unpublished paper entitled "The Paradoxical Ambivalence of Giving: Seneca and the Virtue of Clemency," clementia incurs an obligation in its recipient.  
Ultimately, clementia is something of a situational virtue. As an oblique form of gift giving it may, at times, have been an uncomfortable trait for Romans, particularly the Roman elite. At the same time, it was not necessarily a negative one. Gift-giving, the exchange of items and/or favors, inevitably carries with it certain tensions.  It is an ambivalent exchange.  As a means of navigating social hierarchy, the cycle of exchange was also a means whereby “face” might be gained or lost. As such, clementia, an aspect of gift-giving intimately connected to imperium was dangerous virtue, an ambivalent trait, fraught with the potential for abuse.
Although the word "pity" derives from pietas, its closest Latin cognate would be misericordia.  Most often translated into English as "pity," "mercy," or "compassion" misericordia comes from miser (wretched) + cor (heart) and describes an empathic sharing in the sufferings of the afflicted.  From its earliest days Christianity has held misericordia in high esteem.  Notre Dame della Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) is one of the Virgin Mary's most popular praise names.  Fr. Thomas Ryan has noted that for St. Thomas Aquinas:

[C]ompassion reveals the other-oriented and inter-personal character of human existence.  Its necessary condition is a healthy love of self.  In that sense it is, with shame, a 'defining' emotion and a virtue.  The worth of the 'other' as a person is revealed through an affectively resonant responsiveness to them.  Second, compassion as To be sad at another's gifts and success or to take pleasure in another's plight indicates defective self-esteem. One's moral character is flawed. Finally, Aquinas sees any deeper realization of compassion in the context of friendship and devoted love through identification with the plight of the other... The divine image made for creative self-direction is gradually realized through responsiveness to others and to God.

By contrast, Stoics like Seneca saw misericordia as a dangerous flaw, especially in a ruler.  Clementia was based in logic and reason.  It was extended to those who deserved mercy when upholding the letter of the law would violate its spirit.  It was offered to the vanquished when they no longer posed a threat to the Empire.  It stayed the Emperor's hand when punishment would serve no purpose.  Krasskova points out how Seneca compares Nero to a surgeon and says "if there is ever a need to let blood, you should restrain the blade to stop it cutting more deeply than necessary."  By contrast, he says
[U]nder the guise of strictness we fall into cruelty, under the guise of mercy into pity. (per speciem enim severitatis in crudelitatem incidimus, per speciem clementiae in misericordiam). In the latter case a lighter risk is involved, it is true, but the error is equal in both, since in both we fall short of what is right. Consequently, just as religion does honor to the gods, while superstition wrongs them, so good men will all display mercy and gentleness, but pity they will avoid; for it is the failing of a weak nature that succumbs to the sight of others' ills. And so it is most often seen in the poorest types of persons; there are old women and wretched females who are moved by the tears of the worst criminals, who, if they could, would break open their prison. Pity regards the plight, not the cause of it; mercy is combined with reason. 
An emperor who acts out of misericordia extends an olive branch or grants a pardon without first considering the consequences.  Although his acts may seem laudable they are rooted in selfishness.  Feeling the pangs of sorrow at some wretch's plight, he seeks to eradicate that pain.  The prisoner in chains is freed to return to his brigandry; the siege is lifted and the enemy left to regain strength; hospitality is extended to strangers at the expense of friends and the needy are succored while the worthy are ignored.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Impietas I: Pietas

In the tale of Verginia, an assault upon a woman’s chastity exemplifies the threat of a corrupt government to Rome’s traditional sense of honor and hard-won freedom. The central Roman virtue of pietas, and by extension the regard for law and order, respect for a father’s rights, the insistence on honor and liberty even at the cost of death, and the suppression of personal desires in order to promote the public good, are all in evidence of the actions of the story’s noble characters. Conversely, Livy displays Appius Claudius as the epitome of immorality: he is lust-driven, power-mad, and lacks pietas
Jennifer Hutchinson, "Livy, Virgil, and the Traditional Values of Rome"
From our human experience and history, at least as far as I am informed, I know that everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition... Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god. 
Martin Heidegger, Der Spiegel Interview, 1966
Today "pious" is most frequently used as an insult:  to be pious is to be a repressed bluestocking who equates fun with sin.  "Pieties" are sanctimonious finger-wagging condemnations of someone else's lifestyle, or meaningless pablum offered in response to difficult questions.  At best piety is a matter of personal belief, of spending the appropriate amount of time in prayer, meditation and Godly contemplation.  It's a virtue connected entirely to the spiritual world, one which has little relevance in our daily lives on this material plane.  

Yet to the Romans pietas, the root of our "piety" and "pity,"  was foremost among the social virtues.  Among the multiple definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary, "faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to one's relatives, superiors, etc.; affectionate loyalty and respect, esp. to parents; faithfulness, dutifulness" comes closest to pietas.  Over the centuries this usage has drifted out of fashion.  By the 19th century, English translators of Confucius could only convey this meaning by the term "filial piety"-- a phrase which would have been as redundant to the Romans as "brotherly brotherhood." 

Pietas called for a right relationship with one's family and with one's community.  In fulfilling those responsibilities, one would be in right relationship with the Gods.  Because the Gods were the keepers of the traditions which made your community a community.  Honoring the ancestors and your fellows, "taking pity" on those in need and offering them the help due to a brother, fulfilling your responsibilities -- all those things were ways in which you ensured those traditions would continue.

Pietas was a religious virtue, yes.  But it was a religious virtue which called adherents to action, not contemplation. In the ancient world praxis was more important than belief.  It didn't matter whether or not you believed in the Gods.  Indeed, the idea the Gods needed our individual attention was somewhere between blasphemous and simply laughable.  What mattered was that you behaved respectfully toward Them.   Those who defiled Their temples and profaned Their rites attacked the axle around which your identity revolved.

Wars, migrations and trade brought Gods to new lands. Sometimes They became part of the local pantheon; sometimes They subsumed it entirely; sometimes They drew the boundaries within which a minority community could form. But throughout that world it was implicitly understood that the desecration of sacred space was a serious violation. Guests were expected to treat your Gods respectfully in your land and you in theirs. 

Above all,  those entrusted with the service of your Gods were expected to observe the holy laws and rituals. Priests who betrayed this trust put the community at tremendous risk.   The ancients believed their blasphemies might be punished with war, famine, or other spectacular sorts of divine retribution. But they also realized the greatest danger of impietas -- the community's decay and ultimate destruction. 

We are animals who learn by mimicry: we take on the mannerisms and attitudes of those around us. Not only are we what we eat, we are who we break bread with. And if we entrust our Gods and our traditions to those who take them lightly, in time we will come to take them lightly as well. They will become a trivial thing, nothing that will sustain us in times of trial or provide us models by which we can give our lives meaning. We will forget Them and They will forget us. And in that process we will forget ourselves.