Quanah Parker

Quanha Parker

Somewhere between Waxahachie and Fort Worth driving west from my home in Houston to New Mexico I missed a turn and found myself with my map unfolded in my lap calculating the mileage of various legs of hypotenuses to return me to my intended route. I had time, so I wasn’t as distressed about being off schedule as I was at having to add hours to an already long driving day. Between the imprecision of my map and a few false turns on my part, I settled for a series of highway repairs on Rt. 380, if for nothing else, for the novelty. On 380 just west of Denton, Texas and a long hundred miles before Quanah, is a fenced open space with a metal sign fixed to the chain link that reads Muslim Cemetery. Not too far from the graveyard was a familiar roadside silhouette of a cowboy on one knee in prayer while his horse waits patiently. It’s not an uncommon sign, The Cowboy Church [www.cowboyfaith.org] has about 885 churches in the US and Canada. Not much farther I passed a large well-constructed Kingdom Hall that looked as if it used many of the architectural materials common to nearby stockyard auction rings. There are plenty of cattle and plenty of genuine cowboys in this part of the US. It’s a hard business built with long hours, tough weather, and plenty of labor. Animal husbandry is a Biblical occupation. The distance between many of the literal activities depicted in the Christian Bible or Koran is not metaphorical, only technological. There will still be blood, dust and lonely sky to contemplate as part of the day to day existence of many of these families. There were roadside signs for the Full Armor Biker Church, a “Commandments not Suggestions” billboard, I came to a rest area where two old boys had decorated their camper with hand lettered signs proclaiming why “Homos Go to Hell.” Dialing around on the radio I heard a man declare “My wife and I refuse to purchase any item that breaks God’s Heart.”

As I drove towards Quanah, Texas I kept wondering about the Muslim Cemetery.
There are approximately 125 Islamic mosques or religious centers in Texas and 425,000 members, the largest Muslim population of any state. 425,000 out of 26,000,000 doesn’t seem like much of a minority, but it’s still larger than the Native American population left in Texas (by contrast there are over 125,000 members in just the five largest Texas Christian mega-churches). In the Houston area there are nearly 50 Mosques and Islamic Centers, enough that they hardly draw attention. The greater Dallas Ft Worth area has about 20. The remaining mosques are spread throughout the state with about one in every city. Denton had a mosque. The growth of Islam in Texas remained a puzzle to me. In Texas instead of “What do you do?” you’re asked “Where do you go to church?” Perhaps those conversations don’t transpire the same way for everyone. But I wasn’t sure why any follower of Islam would be called to move to west Texas.

Buffalo SkullsBuffalo Skulls
I was wandering through the southern boundary of the now non-existent Comanche nation towards a town named after Quanah Parker. The area where I first became lost wasn’t far from Fort Parker, a small blockhouse fortress built by in 1836 by a Predestination Baptist Community in what was considered “Comancheria”. That fort was the actual location of the infamous Cynthia Ann Parker kidnapping portrayed in John Ford’s, “The Searchers”. Her story inspired a film that remains both one of the best westerns ever produced, but also an intimate and epic consideration of American racism. Following her rescue, and subsequent return, she was famous throughout the Western World as the “White Squaw”. She was a Caucasian woman who chose to leave white society and return to live with the Comanche people. In racist symbology of the Victorian Post Civil War Era of respectable parlors, churches and taverns little could have been worse a worse crime against God, the white race, or culture. Ms. Parker’s plight was to choose the less cruel redemption.

To give the story mythic grandeur the film was shot on archetypal John Ford cinematic locations in Arizona and Utah. North Texas isn’t Monument Valley, Utah. It’s a peculiarly open claustrophobic landscape where it’s easy to get lost, even with a map. The geography rises from the piney Edwards plateau up through the hundred or so square counties in the high and rolling plains to the horizonless table of Llano Escondido. It’s hard dust hillsides, dry creeks, scrub oak, and hay fields that farther west give way to caliche, cholla, cotton and cattle feed lots. In summer its character is even harsher and even less inclined to generosity. This geography was once ruled on horseback by Comanche clans, legitimately feared since they had driven off the Spanish. The warfare between the Plains People and the US Army was a horrific culture of suffering on both sides. Take the worst images portrayed in stereotypical cowboy and Indian movie matinees, think of them re-envisioned in Quentin Tarantino’s nightmare and imagine them happening in 105 degrees, or in a relentless freezing wind.
Quanah, Cynthia Parker’s son with her husband, Peta Nocona, is famous as being the last Chief of the Comanche People. Legendarily he was wounded by Billy Dixon using a Sharpe’s rifle from a mile away (the distance varies based on the source) during the fighting at the Second Battle Adobe Walls. The Sharpe’s rifle was the weapon that allowed herds of buffalo to be exterminated at long distance without causing stampedes, and it is still possible to purchase a Billy Dixon model ($2,885.00). As a warrior Quanah Parker was a formidable tactician, a merciless fighter and was one of the last Native Americans to surrender in Red River War in 1875. He was also a participant in the inter-tribal Sun Dance of 1874 to restore the buffalo herds and the Plains People in the spiritual cycle of regeneration. Participation in a Sun Dance, along with numerous specified and unspecified Native American religious practices, was forbidden by Federal Law from 1830-1923, and was not de facto legal until the1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The terms of peace following the Red River War forced Parker to live on the reservation formed by The Medicine Lodge Treaty.
That was one of the treaties that beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, reduced the lands of the indigenous tribes of the Central Plains from an area roughly two thirds of the Louisiana Purchase (60,000 square miles) to designated portions of Oklahoma. The Red River War had been brought on by Manifest Destiny’s continual encroachment on traditional Indian territories and also by what is termed the great buffalo massacre of 1870. Buffalo Bill Cody earned his nom de guerre for purportedly killing 4,200 bison in eighteen months. Then he said he’d had enough (We all have limits.). Buffalo Bill’s departure notwithstanding in less than twenty years the vast herd of buffalo that ranged in the millions was slaughtered to near extinction for pleasure and to deprive the Plains Indians of food…or both.


Buffalo Hunters posing with Sharpe’s Rifles.
Increasingly since the Civil War the pacification of the Plains Indians” took the form of starvation and systematic destruction of resources. It was like Sherman’s March through a Sea of Grass (General Sherman was actually in charge, but the dirty work fell to Gen. “Bad Hand “MacKenzie). By destroying crucial portions of the symbiosis in a traditional nomadic route, the capacity of that lifestyle to remain viable is ended. Without open range, buffalo and horses the Plains People were doomed to a life they neither desired nor understood.
This statement by Paruasemena of the Numunuu Comanche, one of the signatories of both the treaties and the surrender following the Red River War like much of the literature of that genocide is romantic, brutally poetic, and true… psalmlike in its sensuality and lament.

“But there are things which you have said which I do not like. They were not sweet like sugar but bitter like gourds. You said that you wanted to put us upon reservation, to build our houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born on the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures …and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over the country. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them, I lived happily.” October 21, 1867.
Shortly after the resettlement of Plains Tribes on reservations, the US Congress passed the Dawes act that effectively allowed the Federal Government to allocate parts of reservation lands to individual tribal members and sell the surplus to Euro-American settlers. This was one of many measures like Indian Schools, to help ‘civilize’ Native Americans into patriarchal nuclear families. The federal government in collusion with real estate investors planned and actively worked to use its power to force its new “citizens” to abide by the majority lifestyle and mores, and actively sought to suppress their practice of religious belief with armed intervention. They corruptly divided of tribal lands into private property and sold the rest. Quanah Parker is considered the last leader of the Comanche People because following the individual land allotments, the tribal life and culture that had flourished for generations was made practically impossible. Males were considered citizens and liable under Federal and Local laws, while suffrage didn’t come to Native Americans until 1924. In spite of this Parker became a successful cattleman. He hunted wolves with Teddy Roosevelt in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the government from selling more land from the Comanche Reservation, and built Star House that still stands today.

Beyond all that or because of it Quanah Parker became a religious figure.
Throughout his life Quanah Parker, not only refused to convert to Christianity or monogamy, he was one of the early proponents of organizing and protecting the rights of the Native American Church. There are currently approximately 250,000 members of the Native American Church. Quanah practiced his religion until his death in 1911. Native American Church observes rites that have been practiced on the North American continent for centuries. Some ceremonies also employ a sacramental use of peyote. Texas is the only State in the Union where peyote can be sold legally for religious purposes. Unfortunately the Native American occasionally makes news when some Anglo defendant claims he was in possession of various drugs as a religious sacrament. Ironically the sacred aspects of the religion have been appropriated and co-opted to such an extent that non Natives are discouraged from participating in most ceremonies.

I was also driving within a hundred miles of the Mount Carmel Compound of the Branch Davidians. Three members of the Texas Values group who demand the theory evolution be removed from science textbooks and replaced with biblical interpretation live and work relatively near. Texas was also home to Madalyn Murray O’Hair who founded the American Atheists. Continuing west towards Gaines County at the New Mexico Border several communities of Mennonites have resettled to escape the corrupting life in nearby Lott and other cities. Either unfortunately or by Divine guidance they’ve chosen a desolate area in a county adjacent to Clark County where a private nuclear waste dump has recently started disposing of radioactive materials from Los Alamos. I’m not sure which requires greater faith.  If I wanted to find another semi-arid bit of geography where people had felt more empowered by God to act cruelly towards one another, I’d have to drive to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the center of a compass on my location and extending the leg out 150 miles the circle it would inscribe would contain all of these religious activities and white clapboard churches on gravel roads, storefront ministries, and religious home schools with Internet curriculum. This could have been Dante’s dark forest and Quanah Parker could be my Virgil, I felt I was lost in sacred counties.

From the free range of the Comanche territory to finding a place to dump nuclear waste took considerably less than two hundred years. As a perennial passing stranger, I remain in awe at the variety of intricate systems of belief that hold us in our various places. For the most part I can only believe what I learned as a boy in my catechism classes, that I don’t know, or frequently I don’t possess the same answers as other people. Theology tries to be logical; religion demands to be hard.

There is a fundamental part in us that seems to desire to be connected with things ancient, difficult and mysteriously cosmic, and there needs to be some trial or sacrifice to achieve our worthiness to accept belief. That desire to have contact with something primal fuels many the behaviors we don’t understand in others. We need a parental approval far deeper than the school counselor imagined when she tried to explain why we were disrupting class. Regardless of how it manifests itself, if we don’t somehow believe we are in contact with a genuine touchstone to our past, we are as lost as an old newspaper ad. People share some need to suffer correctly, obedience is somehow wired into us beyond a behavior to merely survive. It is a path to salvation, just as hard as this state highway bending through the villages left outside the storm linked Gates of Eden.  We traverse a series of speed zones built in townships where paradise has been postponed by a cruel variety of reasons and life continues amid the ungodly. Only here there are so many types of ungodliness buckling up with the pavement. When I stop for gas, it feels easy to believe.
A homing instinct for authenticity brings our bodies to places on this earth and allows us to endure and hope to understand. Perhaps it is in rare desolate places that religion seems most attractive. We’re misguided if we believe the people I’ve referred to are somehow primitive or inadequate because they don’t shop at Whole Foods, or employ the heels on cowboy boots for purposes other than style. Nor do I contend that they are privileged to a higher communion with the universe than an elderly widow living in a one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia. If a wrought iron man gets off of his horse to kneel and pray to the sense of order that keeps his allotment of land from spinning away from him whether by godless savages, or a government intent on persecuting his religion, or Stephen Hawking re-calculates the Higgs Boson’s relative value as a dark matter at the simultaneous beginning and end of the limits of our universe in the same frozen posture that has held him for decades, I may need both of those things and more to continue driving lost on this religious highway where theology has been written in blood down the way from the Dairy Queen.


E-Grace (part two)

September 11, 2013

e-Grace (part two)



David McCallum “Outer Limits” episode aired 10/14/1963

Nothing brings me back to de Chardin like a common constructed epiphany.

Teilhard de Chardin, among others was one of the first twenty century philosophers to link, evolution, shared collective thought and consciousness into a vision of a “noosphere”. It was a concept of shared information like the Internet, only without the technological tissue and banner ads. It was probably more like the image devised for “The Sixth Finger” episode of “The Outer Limits”. It was an ever expanding human consciousness, which would proceed forward as all things proceed. In de Chardin’s case this consciousness would proceed both forward and backward in time in a cosmic spiral that always arrived at Christ. David McCallum wasn’t that fortunate.

As his character plays Bach in alarmingly rapid time signatures and approaches the vortex of pure intelligence; his girlfriend euthanistically de-evolves him in the Mathers’ Machine, (The Mathers’ Machine should not be confused with the “Marshall Mathers Experiment” in which the avatar, Eminem, also explores a personal, human rise and devolution, but with more danceable motes.)  Although McCallum’s character was originally scripted to become a jellyfish, anti-evolutionist censors required devolution stop at cave man. However, the late Mr. McCallum will be remembered a bit longer for acting in the most memorable episode of “Outer Limits”. The Sixth Finger

“I was just like any other child. I was interested especially in mineralogy and biological observations.”

Marie-Joseph-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born on May 1st, 1881 and grew up in Orcines, in Auvergne. He was the fourth of eleven children, seven of whom died in childhood. His mother credited the Blessed Virgin for giving her the strength to endure the losses of her children. His father was a taciturn gentleman farmer who managed several estates and his family with equal discipline. The family prayed together each evening. Pierre was tutored in Latin and German. He was both a gifted and pious student. He enjoyed a healthy, if overly structured, childhood and adolescence and was encouraged in his attraction to collecting rocks and fossils on hikes through the countryside. When he completed secondary school, he choose to enter the Society of Jesuits at Aix en Provence to become “more perfect.”

I have had some history with the Jesuits and considerably more with adolescent obsessions with perfection. On my darker predawn mornings, the Society of Jesus, is a religious order with a prescient history of perfecting the symptomology of Asperger’s Syndrome into spiritual exercises. I’ve spent undergraduate afternoons of office hours with terrifyingly intelligent men explaining the nuances of thought to me as if it were either penance or self-mortification. The late Fr. Schmidt (at one time the gemstone of my personal web ring) sat in his desk answering my sometimes two or three a week unrelated philosophical conversational inquiries. “Father I’ve been thinking about…” to which he would ritualistically reply “That’s not really my area, but as much as I know…”. It was our dialectic of inauthenticity, a deceitful but apparently useful mutual hand washing.  We both understood my inquiries were as authentic as a personal check in a bar, and his off-handed humility was as practiced a disguise as chastity. For me there was always another nuance to puzzle out on the next term paper for sale. He patiently endured his exploitation with a condescending forbearance he could somehow see as a rung to some salvation I couldn’t understand. I just needed 8-10 double spaced by Friday or I’d face the weekend hungry and sober.  There are perhaps a hundred thoughtful explanations of our relationship from Socratic to Freudian to unspoken understandings. Afternoon by afternoon I came to understand how Jesuit missionaries could establish missions and universities all over the world, also why the Iroquois’ and Mohawk ran them down the gauntlet and chewed their fingers off. Not all dialectics remain purely theoretical.

A non-Jesuit might like to be friends with a Jesuit, but ultimately it’s like being friends with your father or committing murder; generally it puts too much of the physics of everyone’s universe out of order. Like showing your cards in poker…it’s a relationship that’s improved with an accepted level of secrecy.

During his novitiate Teilhard undertook the discipline with a similar unspoken dialectic in his complicated transgressions of self-obsession and how to sustain them simultaneously with total abnegation and obedience to the Pope and his religious superiors. The Society of Jesus refers to this as perinde ac cadaver, [well-disciplined, like a corpse]… that typified the rest of his life. In 1901 the activity of religious orders was restricted in France. His Novitiate was exiled from the seminary at Aix en Provence.  de Chardin continued his studies on the Island of Jersey for the first time without any context of home. Ever the brilliant sophomore, he excelled at Latin, Greek and German and mastered English rapidly. Spiritually he struggled to balance his natural attraction to science with his religious vocation.  His work demonstrated that perseverative focus that only people in religious orders, or in prison can fully appreciate and endure. I suspect a person whose wardrobe, schedule, study and prayers are on an irrevocable liturgical calendar can focus on conflicting ideas in a sharper, more obsessive form than say, someone working uncompensated overtime at Wal-Mart. (I grudgingly admit to enjoining no discussions of cosmic progression at Wal-Mart overtime or straight hours.)

He displayed the capacity to function within unresolved conflicting internal ideas Keats called “negative capability”, and the DSM-IV r. defines it as cognitive dissonance. Without being sarcastic, removed from the legacy of his poetry, the biography of Keats is one of a depth of suffering and isolation that few of us would willingly embrace and most of us would seek professional help to endure. Similarly, what might be taken for granted in the notion of a “religious vocation”, removed from its theological support system is a life embracing denial of most of the central pleasures of human relationships. Keats has left us his heartbreaking record of beauty and endurance as part of the cannon of Western Civilization, the anhedonic nights and ascetic denials of our fellow human beings in cassocks and habits are seldom regarded as intimately, and not infrequently with derision. [On these chilly winter’s evenings I suggest Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, or you could turn off your phone and computer and watch the melodramatic end of “Bride of Frankenstein” alone with a cup of tea and box of tissues.] The Facebook activity log, or two weeks of Tweets from a diocesan priest in a slowly emptying parish would be a testament to enduring depression and despair few of us would face without psychotropic drugs or therapy.  Unfortunately the bulk of religious literature primarily deals with salvation from the cardinal sin of despair, not the sad marriage to the clumsy monster made of our fears. It’s a monster, like influenza that visits in cold damp places, speaks its rough name in a soft cough, and slowly kills us.

We all have our private monsters, and then there are public beasts we pay to see displayed, destroyed or both. Streams of digitized images on the variety of projection devices are effective at showing our monsters at the perfect dimensions for our derision. We can share and delineate variations of our collective fears and in a certain sense possess them by rental. This follows the Victorian fixation with the shadow side of humanity  that found an outlet in the new mass audiences for exposition.  Tumor bearing humans, microcephalic and hydrocephalic people, dwarves dressed in formal attire, various versions of missing links and cheerily obese men and women (most the “after” by today’s standard of pulchritude.) appeared as the YouTube of their age. Their gawkish painted images were presented to the collective imagination not as objects of divine retribution, but ‘Nature’s Oddities’. P.T. Barnum, the godfather of modern mass marketing, died at the end of the Gilded Age, around the time of de Chardin’s birth. Not before he redefined the modern perception of freak from religious consequence to secular commodity.

You can visit on-line, since both the original museum in New York City and the second in Bridgeport have been destroyed by natural disasters, P T Barnum Virtual Museum  or  Barnum Museum and gauge your own investment in curiosities. Even in the age of IMAX Super 3D there’s something undeniable about Barnum’s vision, not because it was brazen, but because it was so brazenly unconscious. He created and collected monstrosities like a house painter paints a house, laboring to obscure oblivious details. We seldom know the nature of the monsters before us, that’s why in myths and fairy tales they frequently ask us riddles and questions. They know what we are; our task is to discover what they are.


1831 original frontispiece illustration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein by Theodor von Holst

The monsters of the Fin de Siècle were frequently fictionalized as variants of lost bloodlines. Vampires, apes and primitives distinguished themselves as powerful in the image marketplace. They personified the  larger fears, mixed blood, pure blood and race. Immigration was a more widespread experience, but invasions and violence were hardly removed from common memory and experience. These new morality plays and the burgeoning cinema warned against modernity disturbing the natural order, disturbing the sleep of shadows, and of hidden beasts. Evolution and ‘bad’ science, like sex, was also a constant sotto voce presence. As films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, “Nosferatu”, “Metropolis”, “King Kong”, “Freaks”, and the previously discussed “Bride of Frankenstein” arrived, the audience didn’t need preparation. Nature had already lost its mind. These monsters made perfect subconscious sense, they too had simply arrived in the same Dis-ordered turning century their viewers had lost and found themselves exiled into as well. Men and monsters were all voyeurs, astonished, alien and ashamed. It was in many ways another translation of the Expulsion from the Garden, of Original Sin.

As a novice de Chardin already displayed acumen for science, paleontology and rebellion. His teaching and an informal paper on Original Sin raised questions about his political fitness for religious teaching.  He was sent to Egypt in 1906 to teach physics and chemistry and manage a small museum. In the desert his gifts for collecting fossils and specimens blossomed, meanwhile in Rome the Vatican was retrenching to dogma of divine hierarchy, miracles and obedience. In St. Petersburg hierarchy, obedience and miracles seemed in shorter supply. People it seems are always prepared to fight the last war, even religious ones.

Pius X (St. PiusX, the last pope to be canonized.) wrote the encyclical, Pascendi, condemning modernism in 1907. In 1909 under his direction, a Pontifical Biblical Commission re-asserted that there was a historical sense to Genesis in terms of the special creation of man peculiaris creatio hominis. These were vainglorious orders for cavalry charges to restore human value to a world turning the cusp of a century that was already challenging nearly every sense of human order or value. The world that was once was illuminated by the sun of Queen Victoria was darkening like a theater. In high culture it was the twilight of Romanticism and in low culture it was the Golden Age of Stage Magicians. Freud re-translated subconscious relationships as a private Bible study. Billy Sunday, the first mass media evangelist, traveled the US warning crowds to stay off the road to Hell; Einstein proposed Special Relativity and redefined the nature of the handbasket in which they would be traveling. Marconi had already sent Transatlantic radio messages and the Wright Brother’s airplane had flown for thirty-nine minutes. World Book, Inc.,[later Hardcourt, Brace] the company that would publish and sell the Otis, Stanford Achievement and Metropolitan  Achievement Tests that would formalize intelligence just opened its first office. Claude Debussy published” La Mer, Estamps and Images pour Piano”. Not only the telephone, but the telephone answering machine had been devised. Incandescent light bulbs, cheap cameras, comic books, phonograph records, and the photo tabloid newspaper all appeared as if they were morning mushrooms. Adolf Hitler was still pursuing his career in painting, while Coca-Cola was only distributed in eight countries. Rasputin still advised the Romanov family, ArchDuke Ferdinand was in line to become the next Holy Roman Emperor.  Outside the order of the Society of Jesus, de Chardin’s world was power shifting from the Industrial Revolution to the Military-Industrial Revolution, new mechanically efficiency replaced the traditional march and cavalry methods of warfare.…as ever it seemed an increasingly bad time to be a peasant. On the Origin of Species had been published for nearly fifty years, and  de Chardin was 25 and already censured once.

Evolution is merely a scientific theory of explanation, excluding mutating viruses, it changes relatively little in the day to day existence of our lives. It is primarily a rational logical construction. Over the course of one life natural selection, or random physiological modification, are like black holes, or quarks; lovely to contemplate, but not substantially different than icons or Mardi Gras. In the 18th century David Hume did the heavy philosophical lifting to preface the demise of the design theory of nature, i.e., that Nature reflects a single design and purpose. That the design of nature and man’s nature wasn’t a reflection of divinity was a problematic step forward. That it reflected uncaring aggression and casual extinction was a step into directionlessness. The infernal basement of Hell was a comprehensible consequence; hungry chaos was (and is) a barely comprehensible position of falling through a devouring space.

Breeding, cross breeding, grafting and species specific modification had been practiced for millennia. Man could make modifications in plants and animals as if he were the steward of the Earth. Darwin’s famous Finches were considered important evidence because their changes in beak shape hadn’t been interfered with by people.  As a scientific theory Evolution was not going to take food from anyone’s table or increase anyone’s harvest. Its proof was observational and evidential; its experimental applications were limited. The premise was more logically undeniable than demonstrable. However as a philosophical theory, the interpretation of survival of the fittest as the natural order of living creatures became as dangerous to human beings as any retro-virus.

 Evolution as a philosophical position provided a modern rationale for racism, eugenics, economic exploitation and dozens of imperialist and nationalist exceptionalities and violence.  What was once an ethical sin, was now scientific demonstration. Without divine intervention and order, royal treatment, the treaties and lineages of arranged marriages, even the hierarchical assignation of the pope were reduced to a battle of the fittest. A sudden self-assessment from the laboring classes appeared raucous and beautiful as jazz and greedy as a pogrom. In an oblique sense the beaks of Charles Darwin’s finches were as responsible for the assassination Archduke Ferdinand as bullets of the Serbian Black Hand.



Illustration of the Assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand   


Illustration of Darwin’s Finches

New uncontrolled forms of conveying information and the worldwide economic depression changed contemporary religion and philosophy from a theological almanac of order into a cynical, desperate struggle for existence. The dolce et decorum of dying for one’s country was replaced with newsreels of  tired, thin men on blasted landscapes, or returning blearily to a coal and soot society. The Catholic Church was struggling to retain was control of a feudalistic universe, those leases which it had managed somewhat sloppily since the Emperor Constantine. Even today the Roman Catholic Church owns 177 million acres of land, although most of it is not arable.  According to “Business Insider” the Pope still controls the third largest estate in the world, still considerably less than Queen Elizabeth. Out of the top fifteen land owners in the world today, twelve are royalty, of those twelve two are Christian, and none pay taxes. Divine Succession is worth considerably more than the feeble wave from a passing limousine.

Religion and the Catholic Church’s power to influence politics, divine accession, parishes and diocese’ depended on a genuine peasantry tied to land, i.e., feudalism. In a financial sense the tenants of its farms had for centuries made the fortunes of the Church. Celibacy and election notwithstanding, the Pope has been a theocratic king since the Donation of Constantine in the 8th Century.  To a son of a serf or vassal, notions like a spiritual father or pastoral guidance may have made sense. In a world bound to agrarian life, like the one de Chardin grew up in, a natural patriarchal hierarchy not only seemed apparent, but was evidentially useful. However the rise of the Industrial Revolution also meant the steady deterioration of the titled estates that had been passed father to oldest son for centuries.

Peasants left farms to work in cities. They arrived in a new world of formless cities, wage slaves in factories, mills, and tenements.The generations of work migrants destroyed the old structure of the Church as Julius Caesar’s firing the Alexandrian Library ended six thousand years of Pharonic rule. The Church was becoming its own museum.  It was losing touch with the world it was charged with stewarding to salvation and could only offer to restore a rigid historical vision built on an increasingly complicated system of interpretation of Scriptural and casuistic thought structures.

As ever the world was on the brink of Apocalypse, yet the Pope continued to give advice in Ecclesiastical Latin. Marx spoke more piously to the struggling masses than Popes Pius. Marx understood what had happened to peasants; the end of their world had already happened.  Pius XII and XIII became breathing remnants of the splendor of a lost age, like the Czar and Arch Duke Ferdinand. After the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, the Hells of Dante and Milton lost relevance in Christian vocabulary. The language and images the age seemed to demand were harsh, sporadic as machine gun fire and useful as an alley. Although they published contemporaneously about similar subject matter, the language of the world seemed more fragmented and broken like TS Eliot  “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” (written 1910),

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:


 than the structured sad lyricism of WB Yeats “The Second Coming” (1919).

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

The formal grammatical structures and declensions of Latin and Latinate rhetoric were giving way to slogans, jingles and ads. Like all the arts, literature was fragmenting and reforming.  It must have seemed that the very words and descriptions of the world were coming apart in a more fundamental way than they had in anyone’s memory. It was an informal language of new needs. Modernity demanded radical abandonment of the pastoral idyll. From the turn of the 20th Century on, the farm would increasingly be our image of a lost Romantic world.

The modern Catholic was increasingly a newly arrived city dweller employed in mining, factory and mill work as a fragmented “hand” in a heartless body. They crowded in relative illiteracy and received most information orally. Families were tied to their tenement neighborhoods and churches for what support they could find. Electricity ended the dominion of the liturgical calendar, daylight and seasons. Workers traded the order of rural serfdom for a twelve hour day, six days a week and a weekly envelope of cash for as long as they could endure.


A frame from the restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis”, Kino International (2010)

Let me confess I was born a Roman Catholic against my will. My second earliest memory is being in church and chastised for talking. I admit to possessing a degree in Theology conferred on me by Jesuits. I confess to having no doctrinal faith, ever, in spite of exhaustive efforts. I espouse no contrition for my religious cynicism that may have come from too much intimacy with religion, churches and hypocrisy. I have no affection for the Popes of Rome. Now I will defend them.

Here among our created monsters let us pause and briefly appreciate the poetry in proclaiming the doctrinal immobility of peculiaris creatio hominis as de Chardin must have. Man is the demonstration of a direct result of Divine intervention; mankind has been created differently than everything else. Man’s value is asserted by the scriptural representation of being made from clay by the Hand of God. In spite of the world of scientific evidence, in spite of the world of complicated mechanical devices capable of transforming human labor into currency, in spite of the tragic history of war, slavery and abuse, in spite of evil that appears to grow in revolution to the simple common good, man remains bound to the Divine. A celibate old man in an ermine edged robe sits on a throne as his encyclical condemning the evils of modernism is declaimed surrounded by a gallery of scarlet cassocked cardinals in the candle lit Vatican. Had Pius X taken off his zucchetto and walked out the side door to find legitimate work we would regard that moment like the publication of “Song of Myself”. We all do what we can, and we all fall short of what we could have done, particularly popes.

By then Teilhard de Chardin was already swimming in the fossil filled river of evolution that was leaving its banks. Wallace and Darwin were throwback prototypes of heroic modern thinkers freed from the Inquisition. They interpreted teleology based on scientific evidence. Evolution is a essentially theory of interpretation, quite similar to a religious philosophy in that it provides explanation extrapolated from specific events. Unlike a religious philosophy it can make some demonstrable predictions. Religion however, has the possibility of providing comfort that science destroys. de Chardin recognized the conundrum theoretical science presented practical religion. Evolution, while logical, is uncomfortable except for those brief periods one can convince oneself that they are eating in the alpha group of the fittest. Basically it’s the mindless teeth of time for all of us.

In order to allow him to continue his spiritual progress and protect him, the Society of Jesus sent him to China. In China de Chardin found himself and he found love. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter if a priest is in love with another human being, any more than any other human being. Love is one of the characteristics that make us who we become. It is very fundamentally how we humanize the universe. We project our hormonal bath onto the Milky Way like a kiss, and like a kiss it opens us. If it is the love that people of my parent’s generation carried into long distance war, or affections between a young Romeo and Juliet acting in a play and then suddenly becoming a new reality, one worth living or dying for without regard for the tribe. There is no substitute for it. Well actually there are substitutes for it, but they exist in quite dangerous realms.

de Chardin saw the possibility of re-integrating a traditional notion, the Mystical Body of the Church. The idea that all members of the church, living and dead formed a single spiritual entity with Christ as the head. The next evolutionary stage would be to develop a nervous system, or more accurately adapt to an environmental nervous system. The mirror visions of mass media were already beginning to look back and bring a collective self-awareness. The nature of events reported was integrated into the event itself. Events had a fleeting independent life as a media event. People took pictures of everything. Reality shifted as rapidly as electrical impulses. The world changed from a globe into a barely perceptible morass of messages leaping up for instant attention. The universe, once a stellar clockwork, was now a dream swamp where the only time was now.

Swimming in this void, the mystical body of our mass culture, de Chardin’s noosphere , climbed onto a Neo-evolutionary raft of monsters. Classic horror character, plot and structure had been surrendered to chaotic creatures with who run like spiders with chain saws and a variety of self-directed children, puppets and zombies that offer two versions of death, painful ironic, both with relentless screaming. Our collective fictions no longer have to justify a murder, just illuminate the details of its style. Consider the ape as missing link in the  cinematic differences of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders of the Rue Morgue” and Dario Argento’s “Phenomenon”. Poe’s murderous monkey is only following orders;  Argento’s razor wielding ape is merely part of the random arrangement of elements that bring new variations of death. Have we evolved from the genes of packs of obedient killers, or do we embrace rouge drifter apes leaping from one impulse to the next? While neither one is pleasant, which would you want to tell your dying ten year old daughter?


Posters for “Murders of the Rue Morgue”                          


and “Phenomenon”


Humans, as de Chardin understood, have descended from simians who need to believe. They need to believe in meanings, or that they exist in some form or object.

Like Darwin, de Chardin was a professional collector. Collectors train themselves to search for values in specific details, the relationships of the discrete to the invisible, as anyone who has been to a flea market or auction knows, the value of an item depends almost entirely on who is holding it. Collectors require evidence to support their belief whether it’s memorabilia, designer shoes, guns, guitars, books, pedigrees or fossils. Value resides Q.E.D. quod erat demonstrandum. The value of my library is obvious to all except my wife, to whom I must occasionally demonstrate by retreating into its solipsis and closing its door. The value of many guitars I find in used guitar stores or on line auctions is dependent not in their utility, but in the legends of their rarity. The value of de Chardin saw in his  paleontological specimens was as solid rungs on his teleological mobius spiral of progression to the Christ Omega event. Religion in spite of its systems of ecclesiastical interpretation of scripture and revelation is fundamentally dependent on random events not progress.

The  Bible can be interpreted historically, communally or personally, but it can’t be extrapolated into a pattern or linear series.

The once popular “WWJD?” aphorism, while implying a universal formula for beneficence, could hardly make an accurate prediction based even on scriptural interpretation. If anything “J’s” situations and responses provide a variety of atypical events, miracles, transfigurations, resurrections and beatific ascensions that don’t fit into even a stimulus response relationship with life as anyone else remotely experiences it. What it does provide is a psychological device that projects a belief event in the past into the meaning of the present or future.  One seldom speaks of understanding the historical Christ; one speaks of having a relationship with a living Christ. de Chardin parlayed a molar found in a Chinese cave into a complicated philosophy of evolution, progress, redemption, futurist spheres and an apology for the awkward absence of Divine design…a massive interpretation of disparate events even by my standards.

De Chardin resolved the “J” question by making it both the question and the answer. He accomplished it by bending time.

Clocks, time and evolution quantified experience.

Musical Interlude “Same Time Tomorrow”

Clocks and time were communal property until the 19th century. People shared a calendar of solar and lunar  calculation. Time was like weather, seasonal and common. The notion of possessing an individual or private time as indicated by a watch changed the conception of time itself. If time of day or duration are controlled by the sun, or a church carillon, part of everyone’s personal reality is shared. However possessing a watch or private clock frees that individual to do what they will for a predictable length of time.  Consider the difference between “You’ll work until dark.” and “You’ll work until 7:30.” The former puts the labor at the discretion of the seasonal length of the day, weather, geography or what constitutes dark; the length of the work is dependent on a variety of factors. The later situation places the responsibility solely in the hands of the individual possessing the clock. A watch allows a person to possess and manipulate their own time. In possession of an accurate clock, regardless of conditions or location, time is a predictable measurement, not a river. Events start and stop, they are what the ancients termed periodos, meaning a cycle or “a going around”. Actions are incumbent on a larger event and go no farther without it. In a sense the way a sentence is dependent on meaning beneath the words it is grammatically arranging before it is finalized with a period. Once that meaning is accomplished, the sentence may be parsed, translated or submitted to any of a variety of linguistic operations.

Evolution also allows a meaning to travel back and forth in time and expect a conceptual level of reliability. Life changes from being a random parade of events into a consequential series. A fossil marks a singular event in the past within a systematic periodization. Finding a sharks’ tooth in a desert gives an evolutionist the ability to understand where he is standing differently than perhaps the local guide who brought him to the excavation. Evolution doesn’t permit us to predict the future, it quantifies parts of the past. A piece of rock doesn’t question the veracity or nature of a Biblical event, however it does question the validity of the events’ interpretation. Finding a femur on Mount Ararat can’t speak to the miracle event of Noah’s Ark, but it can speak to the possibility of that creature’s existing in an era that would have permitted it to float along with Noah. Evolution changes a phenomenon from an aphoristic act in our mutable memory into a scientific and philosophical constant.

Mutable memory is one of the reasons people waste time arguing over the nuances of inconsequential details. Without a constant to control and move back and forth in time we must immobilize everything in our memory. “No! It wasn’t that way. This is what happened.” We try to memorize our own lives. Meaning in our lives is dependent on our ability to privately control our past. “That’s when I knew…” moments proclaim our individuality from the common world. If people are just a sum of events, those events become dependent on the community that they share time with for validation.  We mutually believe in common events for value and meaning. However we calculate our calendars, few US citizens recall what they were doing on 9/10, but nearly every one can recall what they were doing on 9/11. We are a community of shared faiths. Our mutual faith is not in what happened, but that it was a watermark…that a special circumstance marked our life.

When an individual can manipulate their own time they can evolve or change themselves.  Although they aren’t physically free of time, they do have a limited capacity to be communally free of time. For example if I am employing the same methods for research I used during my enterprise as a plagiarist, I am bound by the common hours and accessibility of libraries and bookstores; if I employ the Internet to research my enterprise I can work day or night without leaving my bed. However in both cases I am dependent on reservoirs of information not of my making. Without trying to overextend this distinction in a traditional library, what I write has a certain amount of ethical limitation.

A book depends on the laws of comprehension and copyright to relate its meaning. In my imaginary room in the mountains I possess The Future of Man written by Teilhard de Chardin originally published in 1959 and a 408 page biography of Teilhard de Chardin, Teilhard de Chardin, (with an admirable seventy page bibliography) published in 1958 by Claude Cuenot. Both books were translated from French to English within four years of de Chardin’s death and were published by respected publishing houses. I have had two contextual conversations, one with a former monk and the other with a working mystic who were able to recall the general themes of de Chardin’s work in their lives. I have historical evidence of his writing, a secondary source asserting corroborative details of his existence and the witness of two individuals who demonstrated both a common understanding of de Chardin’s work and a sense of its utility in their own experience. In addition I have two dictionaries, a Bible and a few other references: a history of Transatlantic gardening in the 18th century, a paperback summary of Western philosophy. Hans Kung’s The Church  (don’t ask it was a dollar) and the previously mentioned History of Everything by Ken Wilbur). I am a faux ecclesiastical scholar.

Alone I will struggle to comprehend translations (or mistranslations, my French is restricted to menus) of serious, intellectually demanding tomes. I’ll employ them both serially and at will. Reading philosophy is tedious and demanding, no word, punctuation, pause or eccentricity can be considered unintended or meaningless. Perhaps only poetry and music demand such simultaneously close and interpretive reading. In this project I’m dependent on the limited communion of my library of information and my ability to interpret and synthesize, as well as my wife’s ability to endure the clutter of books spread around my arm chair. Whatever I can provide to my reader will extend from these sources into what I can convince you, my reader, may be of value enough to you that you’ll read the next sentence. I will endeavor to provide some exegesis based on specific limited resources.

This is one model of biblical scholarship promulgated by St. Jerome in the 4th Century CE. He left the temptations of a scholastic life for hermetic study with visits only from angels.  He is credited with producing the Latin Vulgate Bible from which most modern translations including the King James and Eastern Orthodox descend. He is the model in our collective unconscious of the monk

I work in relative isolation and rely on my contemplative capacity to extrapolate a fragment of writing into an interpreted epiphany beyond its literal sense. This is my offering to the grand library of knowledge. Whatever I propose in writing will be judged within the limitations of that library. If it is judged to be competent or truthful it may be physically added to the shelves, otherwise it will exist in memory only until the doors close it outside.

In contrast I can access the Internet whenever I like (unless I employ an unreliable service like Windstream (six unresolved calls and 78 service drops in seven days). On line I sift through a mélange of sites, searches, articles, images, and YouTube videos of widely differing levels of scholarship, veracity and purpose. They are presented first in order of popularity and then formulaically filtered through each each site visit and profiled with information based on other visits and interests.  For example my YouTube algorithm moves me from an earnest student discussing his reading of de Chardin, to a Jesuit university lecture on de Chardin’s rhetoric, , to the “Black Pope” and Jesuit world domination  one more mouse click brings a historical discussion pitting St. Paul against  “ Illuminati”, the anti-Christ, and includes a brief, surprisingly dull account of “ Babylonian Whores unspeakably blaspheming in the US Congressional Record” (Who knew?)  , and then mercifully to (my only genuine recommendation) Ricky Jay throwing playing cards into a watermelon and performing his versions of the cup and ball trick. I hope my algorithm has limits, or at least a cyber-sense of the humor. Doing library research here is like working in the Library of Alexandria while it was on fire.

In spite of the incomprehensible variety of content I can cobble together a comprehensible paragraph or two based on that fleeting information some of which I might assume might even be true. Articles borrow from one another, other writers have copied, cut, pasted, and posted before me, some posts appear to have a more imperious level of veracity, others more sincerity and enthusiasm and still others provide me a freakish pleasure. As I composed I listened sporadically to Brian Eno reinterpreting Pacobell’s Canon, Mahalia Jackson singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and a digitized reissue of Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menduin performing “East Meets West”. I was also on speaker phone hold for two of the five calls I made to Windstream Internet service which were responded to from five different call centers none within a thousand miles of my modem. As de Chardin once did in Egypt, I am sifting through a desert and finding the tooth of an extinct shark.  The tool I am employing instead of a trowel and brush is my ability to fictionalize. A newer collective force is coalescing around my intention. We are connected with varying degrees of engagement and awareness in the complicated exotic realm de Chardin wrote about as “Ultra-Human” or “noosphere”.

The critical point of Reflexion in the biological unit becomes the critical point of Inflexion for the phyla, which in turn becomes the point of circumflextion’ (if I may use the word) for a whole sheaf of inward-folding phyla.  Or, if you prefer, the deflective coiling of and individual upon himself leads to the coiling of the phyla upon each other, which in turn leads to the coiling of the whole system about the closed convexity of the celestial body which carries us.  Or we may talk in yet other terms of psychic centration, phyletic intertwining and planetary envelopment: three generally associated occurrences which, taken together give birth to the Noosphere.[2] “The Formation of the Noosphere” 1947

Relatively concurrent with de Chardin, the invention of psychoanalysis was dependent on two principals, first of individual time and second the ability to move meaningfully back and forth in time. Freud recognized the cure for an individual’s present and future suffering lay in the ability to manipulation events in the past. Similarly Evolution presumes we are part of a continuing mutability. We are no more specially bound to God than the lizards of Galapagos or the bones de Chardin identified as humanoid. In mutable nonlinear time every living thing was evolving into the next best living thing, or evolving into extinction.

The obvious human problem with evolution (and scientific thought) is it doesn’t care about us. We find a world that doesn’t care about us intolerable. The consciousness of human life is predicated on the belief that someone values our existence. It is difficult for most people to live without a personal god of some kind to give value to our world. This was the issue that de Chardin struggled with perhaps unconsciously and philosophically tried to resolve by re-vising the world he possessed. An ascetic academic who traveled throughout his life, owned little property, in spite of his deep belief in Evolution and progress, could not abandon the possession of his love for Christ or the Society of Jesus.

Human beings had evolved into a cooperative, tribal, clannish species. de Chardin believed the next stage of evolution would find human thought at a level of complexity (the Omega Point) that would begin to combine into a collective mind. This new mind would evolve slowly into the mind of the God that the Theory of Evolution had displaced from belief. This Omega-mind would continually evolve through technology to the sympathetic Christ act as its DNA.

He (nor I) would have conceived that the most watched event in the history of television was the funeral of Michael Jackson. Combining millions of distracted minds produces only traffic, not progression. That having linked millions of satellites to handheld cellular transmitters, computers reflect both the signature of our location and the awesome amount of meaningless thought and speech that is the genuine birthright of humanity. That 13% of all Internet searches are sexually oriented  (A billion Dirty Thoughts Forbes). Nearly 40% usage is for on-line gaming, or that social networking and Netflix downloads account for 30% of available bandwith (Neilson). His optimism has the same futile tenor as the salvific sacrifice of his Christ. His notion that we look to Christ to see our higher selves, may be over reaching; we look to merely see ourselves.

I am a slow, barely comprehensible typist. So for the majority of my academic life I have relied on dictation to touch typists. During the shank of my philo/theological fraud evening I was aided by my friends David and Juanelle. However for most of my writing I was literally an inkwell calligrapher, stylite or stylus I wrote alone. No different from the monks in a scriptorium, I produced lovely letters resembling more perfect fonts. Even worse than a manual typewriter when my writing had had writ, there was nothing I could do to correct it (unlike the clever monks). The actual process of writing demanded the limitations of being error free. Intellectually it was a constriction. What I thought might only exist in my mind, or orally. Once it was committed to ink, it was nearly unchangeable. Ostensibly began every sentence, since I had to be prepared to reorganize my writing to accommodate a misstatement. In time a canny writer learns to make fewer mistakes, mostly by taking fewer risks. It was only the promulgation of word processors that allowed me the autonomy to continue writing publicly. For a good part of my life in the global village, I had lived in a scriptorium. In deed it was up from the scriptorium that I came to speak to the austere Fr. Schmidt during office hours.

I wondered earlier in this essay  what his motivations could have been to support me in my defrauding formal philosophy. He had legitimate academic publications in Epistemology both in the name posted on the door and, it was rumored, several in another name to affect humility. As my old college roommate observed, mine may have been the only knock most afternoons.  But sentimentality about victimhood is a flaw in the lesser orders, martyrdom by exile is the poetic burden of philosophy. I recognize I’m now nearly the same age as the Jesuit Father was when I knocked on his door. And as my roommate also pointed out, I’m the only one of our peers who still remotely cares about philosophy, or had read a book or article on it since graduation. In a real sense I took philosophy into the world. I wasn’t converted to Christianizing, but philosophizing.  Perhaps he reflected then, as I have, the Chinese poets did, that scholar goes about his task with frayed cuffs. I share a monastic community as unspoken now as the Cistercians.

de Chardin remained alone in his own milieu and noosphere. He lived in New York at the time of his death on Easter in 1955.  

E-Grace (part one)

September 11, 2013


Bride of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures 1935

“Muster no monsters, I’ll meeken my own…” W. H. Auden

The day before Christmas a friend sent me an e-mail requesting me to blog about Teilhard de Chardin. I hadn‘t thought of de Chardin since I was an undergraduate forty years ago. Some of us may vaguely recognize a pop contemporary image of Pere de Chardin as the film character Father Merrin from The Exorcist series of films. [There is a more arcane and perhaps more rewarding intrigue linking  Father de Chardin with papal demonic possession proposed by theologian/fiction writer Malachi Martin,  but I’ll just allude to it and allow Amazon to profit from the passing curious. [Hostage to the Devil ].

A few actual philosophers have reflected a demi-existence as semi-fictionalized characters in film, mostly it’s a typecast for a harmless, hermit.  A notable likeness of St. Jerome and also Martin Buber, I and Thou, befriends the Frankenstein monster in “Bride of Frankenstein” teaches it to speak, smoke and drink, then ironically is destroyed by his own recently civilized “friend”. A relationship only the tortured film genius’ of James Whale and Mel Brooks explored for filmgoers juxtaposed with variant images of the rough stitched Promethean that reaches beyond the limits of responsible science. Theirs is the warning in the first act that goes unheeded.  Philosophers are generally characterized as hermetic, disengaged and often ridiculed. For most American audiences they are European contemplative residue, a curious wasted life. In Romantic literature were the early stereotypes for ‘mad scientists’, individuals who linger in places ‘men should not go’. Faust and Viktor Frankenstein are examples of these demonic scholars.  Mary Shelly’s novel was published anonymously in 1818, and then publically fifteen years later, around the time of the Burk and Hare grave robbery/murder scandal, but fifty years before Darwin. The film “Bride of Frankenstein” was released in 1935, about the same time de Chardin was finishing The Phenomenon of Man, the same year Charlie Chaplin released his last wordless masterpiece “Modern Times” and Hitler became Fuehrer of Germany.

Monsters and comedians are one of the vocabularies we have for describing our subconscious thought to ourselves. Philosophers enjoy a posthumous regard, but generally as authors of aphorisms, i.e., “brainy quotes”. But we seldom think they are expressing what I’ve been feeling for a long time, more often they typify what I’d like to think if I could. They belong in old universities, movies, operas and novels, but even cable television can’t fill a late night rotation with “Top Ten Existentialist Diet & Exercise Programs“. Excepting actual philosophers, philosophy is a conscious activity, like a second language generally approached with uncertainty and a dictionary.

Marshall McLuhan famously portrayed himself in “Annie Hall” rescuing Woody Allen from a pompous bore on line at a movie. Coincidentally McLuhan’s theoretical global village was influenced by de Chardin’s writing particularly the concept of the noosphere. McLuhan was a devout Roman Catholic who initially read de Chardin from a hand distributed proscribed publication.


St. Jerome removing a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw

Niccolo Anton Colantonio, c.1445


Marshal McLuhan rescuing Woody Allen

Annie Hall, United Artists 1977


         Image           Image                    Image                 


Martin Buber, Charles Darwin and Gene Hackman.


Although he didn’t die of a heart attack during an exorcism, Tielhard de Chardin’s actual biography is almost beyond believable cinema. He also belongs in the group of historical re-explorers like Highram Bingham and Howard Carter. His life was an awkward marvel of adventure, discipline, correspondence, and distance-made-personal as only someone from a religious order, in prison or having multiple affairs  can compartmentalize life. He was a renowned paleontologist participating in the identification of both the forged Piltdown Man and the authentic Peking Man. He was a frequently denounced by the Church he loved, denied both Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for any publication during his lifetime, but simultaneously a well regarded Roman Catholic theologian who was both heretical and obedient. His theological work was condemned, removed from shelves by some conservative clergy, yet surreptitiously published, translated and distributed throughout the world by others. Among those who privately promoted and simultaneously publically disparaged his ideas was one of the hidden hands that shaped Vatican II, an ambitious, but terribly un-photogenic, cleric named Ratzinger who went on to the papacy.

Image     Image Image


The fictional Father Merrin, the real Teilhard de Chardin, and the former Father Ratzinger.

It’s rare in the Twenty-First Century to discuss this heretic, mystic Jesuit. It’s rare since there are, to my knowledge, few Neo-de Chardinists who have translated his ‘transformative’ into something more profitable. The American Teilhard de Chardin Society is sponsored by the peripatetic Union Theological School, while its homepage is hosted at Yale. A membership costs $35 a year, $400 for a lifetime card. The society offers annual awards of $500 for the best research and $300 for the best lecture by a graduate student. No one has claimed either award for five years. For $15,000 one can purchase an original banned mimeograph of Le Phenomene Humain (by comparison a presentation copy of “Howl” recently sold for $75,000). In the tax-free world of religion this isn’t even walking around money. What neo-notion there is, is Progressive Theology which I assume still remains in the untroubled shallows of doctrine. His philosophical work dwells somewhere in the realms of Process Philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell, or in the tiny, exotic hothouse of Christian or Ecumenical Evolutionism. His notions of Omega Point theology may not be a heavy cross, but they’re certainly a complicated cross to bear.

Ostensibly, a request to produce a few hundred words on a philosopher wouldn’t be something I’m historically unfamiliar with, it was more like attending a college reunion. Writing other people’s papers was how I received my education in philosophy and writing fiction. de Chardin along with Hegel, Royce, Rahner, Sartre, Bonheoffer, and Martin Buber were worn tools of obfuscation and utilitarian quotation sources for my collegiate philosophy/theology ghost writing business. What topic can long endure a Hegelian Dialectic or an epistemological scrutiny? If Sartre or Buber wouldn’t provide a bon mote with pith, the cigar loving ethicist executed by Nazis could lend an unassailable, if sentimental, turn to even the most rambling essay. Where in the world of forced contemplation wouldn’t Bonheoffer’s term “cheap grace” be an undeniably summative critique?

Generally in writing philosophy papers my modified rhetorical form was to show a struggle, insert the apropos terminology with a modicum of awkward accuracy and then produce an epiphany. The more genuine task was to present that struggle, vocabulary and appropriate coming to understanding in a stylistic language that mimicked my customer’s classroom character and eradicated the existence of the actual author. That was a fair amount of sophistication for under $50, but my philosophical enterprise then (and now) was guided by a few cynical, but useful precepts:

  1. Writing about philosophy is portraiture for the unattractive; nearly every academic study desires flattery (and by extension the actual academic). In most institutions being an undergraduate professor is more like dulling office work than professing anything. For the most part papers are skimmed, then graded en masse by bored, disillusioned, frequently partially sober professors, who believe they should be doing something more important. For a ghost writer it’s crucial not to disturb that trance; ennui encourages self-deception. Although their professional vocation may be to see through illusion, they are nearly always willing to believe they’ve done a better job than they have, and students have done a worse job than they have. It’s more like a bad first date than an academic discipline.
  2. Philosophy starts with the premise whatever you think you know is wrong, and theology corrects what you thought you believed to be true. Philosophy is truth; theology is Truth.
  3. Common phenomenon in philosophical discourse are investing words with special single use meanings, violating syntax and inventing words, neologisms, portmanteau concoctions, triple-hyphenated-terms, retranslated etymologies and employing italics and parentheses needlessly. Philosophical writing displays the linguistic and grammatical ethics of an ambitious marketing executive. (Norman Denny, one of de Chardin’s translators, described using variant spelling of reflection [reflection and reflextion] to signify two totally different ideas as symbolic of the translator’s task.) One can pass sophomore Philosophy, by failing sixth grade English. Ghost writing success rests in employing as many tortured terms as closely together as possible and understanding the salvific potential of the word ostensibly as the first word in the sentence. No sentence can be too complicated or too dull.
  4. Modern philosophy, theology or religious philosophy are simpler subjects than historical philosophies since they only exist for specific realizations encrusted in self-described nonsense. In the philosophical, publish or perish world, garnering attention or selling a book is an understandably ambitious task.  Imagine when writing about Sartre or Derrida, ect. you are talking to your drunken great uncle, as soon as you repeat what he’s said twice he’ll stop jabbering, otherwise he goes on until one of you passes out. Your task isn’t to debate; it’s to figure out what he wants to hear, rattle your ice cubes and agree.
  5. If you can’t grasp a philosophical text by a close reading of the preface, introduction, and index, the chances of understanding the main themes are slim regardless of the quality of stimulants involved.
  6. Any book or article you have been in the same room with goes into the bibliography. You did use them to reach that crucial point in your thinking. And at the end of the philosophical day who doesn’t find more direction from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel than The Archaeology of Knowledge?
  7. Turn down all offers for short answer essays; you’re writing fiction not poetry.

In the years I wrote term papers the notion of plagiarism was a less negotiable standard of the Student Code of Ethics. My anonymity was the foundation of our bargain. Exposure of academic collaboration held strict penalties for my clients. Currently in our age of social networking, YouTube, apps, Moodle, blogosphere (there are Existential Web Rings among other unpredictable items http://www.webring.org ) and cooperative learning, my lack of identity and ability to finesse a personality struggling to a romantic enlightment on command would be considerably less valued.

Our Internet makes it possible for anyone to be near the information people need to know and a lot more they don’t. It’s an experiential flooding, not a teaching tool in the way libraries once were used to lead students to a particular truth. A library is a dedicated resource more like a labyrinth than a maze. It’s designed, like books themselves, for a kind of communal privacy, and like a book, it’s a self-contained, contemplative structure.  Library collections are focused on preserving and reflecting the architecture of a civilized mind. A private library, like a private art collection, has always been a signal of cultural status and identity. On Beauty, a book length essay by bibliophile and philosopher, Umberto Eco, includes by way of examples of illustrations of beauty, the plan for the Medici Laurentian Library by Michelangelo. It was built over a cloister enclosed by graceful light passing through walls both protectively enclosing and expressing the spiritual and cultural value of books. We can appreciate its form as well as its contents.

The Internet library is an occasionally visible, floating machine that meanders after ghosts; relentless motion seems more important than contemplation. It resembles Borges infamous Library of Babel more than the Bodleian, Papal Lateran, or any research library.  More than occasionally I use the Internet to augment my riddled memory. But usually when I wander around the Internet I’m not hoping for a specific answer, but rather an intellectual satiety akin to overeating.  I become intoxicated with information. Some Internet engine records where I’ve wandered, it tracks my site visits, runs them through its incessant algorithms and begins to silently guide me where it constantly re-calculates I would be attracted to visit and to buy something.

Unlike the libraries I used growing up and  where I occasionally did research for my term paper business, there are no shelves of selected volumes, no peer reviews, no periodicals assigned Roman numerals and consecutive numeration on a specialized topics, no reserves, no special collections, no perfume of aging leather, no soft spoken librarians to ask direction.  In the Internet there is little direct moderation, only a staggering tide of information displayed ten items to a page, and an invisible code that follows every visitor…a mathematical creature like a mirror with a memory…a busy little shop clerk bringing items into your periphery. The noise to shush in this library is in your head.

Ironically apropos of these distinctions I began composing this without a reliable working Internet connection, or a library. Earlier I found a volume of de Chardin in a used bookstore (clean, no notes) and copied a skeletal chronology of him before a server somewhere collapsed. Between composing and contemplating I’ve squandered hours in the ritual of disconnecting, counting to twenty, and then reconnecting the modem. I received direction by invisible technicians from all over the ethnic world of dialects answering my telephone calls of complaint.  I am now, as I was as an undergraduate, surrounded by a stack of a few opened books, some note cards, an erratic memory, insomnia and a willingness to revise whatever I write into something someone can have enough faith in to allow our common constructed epiphany.

Nothing brings me back to de Chardin like a common constructed epiphany.

End part one