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2006-04-08 9:08 p.m.

pirate coves and vampires for jesus

I went out exploring again today. I headed south this time. I finally found the Buddha statue that a local fisherman dragged up off the ocean floor two hundred years ago, where it had lain for five hundred years before that, ever since the Mongolian warship it was on sunk in the kamikaze, along with thousands of its brothers in arms. After that I made it all the way to the south end of the island, an area I hadn’t yet been to explore. I found some lovely little pirate coves down there.

Actually, the barber, who also happens to be something of an expert in local history, told me that the Rock used to be a pirate hideout back in the Muromachi and Warring States period, at least until Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved into the area to use it as a staging ground for invading Korea. He intended that expedition to be his first stop on the road to becoming the next Genghis Khan, but things didn’t work out quite as he had planned. He did burn Korea to the ground, but he never quite managed to completely conquer it before he got sick and died. Japan-Korea relations have been on the frosty side ever since.

My primary soundtrack today was Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips and Funeral by The Arcade Fire. My book was Ursula K. Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching. It was a lovely day. Perfect.

Too often I neglect to head out and explore on the weekends. Even though my time here is running out. Even though I feel as happy (and as spiritual) as I’ve ever felt in my life when I do. Sometimes I find this place so beautiful I can’t breathe and tears come into my eyes.

"Down with memory! I want life to be beautiful now, not only in retrospect." -Peter Handke

It is beautiful right here, right now. These are the good ol’ days.

I never feel more alive than when I’m surrounded by nature. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s the desert or the jungle, the ocean or the mountains. Just as long as it’s more of the world as it is, and less of the world as we have made it. I am a nature boy.

The last entry contained several quotes from The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice. My sister pointed out to me that Rice has found Jesus and from now on will “write only for the Lord.” My response:

This is not news to me, actually. You can pinpoint the exact moment that things turned around- Memnoch the Devil in 95. My father and I both absolutely despised that book, but for completely different reasons. (I actually read it, though.) I was really annoyed with her for imposing this silly quasi-Christian theology on her little world, instead of the uneasy questioning of the older books. I love questions; I view answers with suspicion. Before Memnoch, I could almost have believed that it was all true, that she wasn't making it up... It was all downhill from there. Actually, from a purely literary and chronological perspective, the earliest ones I actually kind of hated were Lasher and Taltos in 93 and 94. I loved The Witching Hour, though, and I still do. I think you can draw a lot of parallels between the Matrix trilogy and the Witches of Mayfair trilogy (though in my opinion Anne Rice screwed the pooch a lot worse than the Wachowski brothers did). I think the change is telegraphed in Tale of the Body Thief, as well.

I kept reading for a while after that. I read Servant of the Bones, Violin, Pandora, Armand, Vittorio, and Blood and Gold. One thing I really did enjoy about all of those books was her skill at recreating history and bringing it alive. She does do her research. I really enjoyed that, and that's why I kept reading as long as I did. But still, each of these books was missing something. Maybe it's that everything was too fully explained, that there seemed to be pat answers for everything now. It's almost as if it made too much sense, which, oddly enough, set off my bullshit detector.

"The difference between stupid and intelligent people- and this is true whether or not they are well educated- is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations- in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straight forward." -Neal Stephenson (my favorite author at the moment), The Diamond Age (which was my favorite book until he wrote Cryptonomicon)

Yeah, her books suddenly seemed to lack subtlety. For me, a good story, a good writer, asks questions but holds back from beating you over the head with the answers. This idea is fundamental to what I was trying to do in my own novel, to everything I want to do when my pretensions of being a writer are cresting. It's why I'll probably never write a sequel to the novel, even though it ends with a big question mark. It's why I often enjoy the beginnings of RPG games like Final Fantasy more so than the endings. It's another reason I'm not a fan of Narnia.

I doubt I'll bother to read Blackwood Farm or Blood Canticle (Rowan and Lestat? You didn't!). They got terrible reviews, and her fans left in droves after reading them. There was a big to do when she posted a big rant on Amazon castigating all those who dared criticize her. Very bad form, and it really only confirmed (my) suspicions. Neil Gaiman said it well: "I think Anne Rice going on Amazon and lambasting her critics was undoubtedly a very brave and satisfying thing for her to do, was every bit as sensible as kicking a tar baby, and, if ever I do something like that, please shoot me." (Neil Gaiman is the man. And oh, I am all over this.)

It doesn't surprise me if, as she now dismisses them, Interview and Lestat were written as specific expressions of a person dealing with loss and leaving religion. Interview was written after her daughter died and is undeniably a big metaphor for that experience. (Blood Canticle was written after her husband died, apparently, and there's reason to believe that the whole thing was a tribute to him. In the Interview context, linking Lestat with him and therefore Louis with her would make that reading even more interesting.) Lestat could be seen as her dealing with the failure of her old faith to comfort her in her loss, and her subsequent/continued rejection of that faith. It's interesting that most of Lestat actually takes place before Interview, though, as if trying to understand why things happened like they did, why people reacted as they did... I first read Lestat when I was nine years old, and it was immediately my favorite book ever, even though most of it went right over my head. (Though maybe that explains a lot about what came after.) I read it again within a year after getting back from Canada, where I had my own spiritual apocalypse, and it hit me like a fucking freight train.

But before long Rice started finding answers again, and gradually she switched from asking questions to telling everyone what the answers are, and that's when she lost me. I mean, not knowing what the hell is going on is what makes the paranormal fun, you know? Though I can't say that what came after didn't tarnish my opinion of what came before, it’s still true that The Vampire Lestat will always be lurking near the top of my list. To modify some words from Le Guin’s Tao:

once upon a time
someone wrote books about vampires and witches
that were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating, unfathomable.
since they’re inexplicable
i can only say what they seemed like:
elusive, like melting ice.
blank, like uncut wood.
empty, like valleys
mysterious, oh yes, they were like troubled water

It's too bad that she probably wouldn't appreciate my gratitude now…

It seems to be a common life path. You start as a kid and you just swallow whatever your parents spoonfeed you. Then you get older and you start seeing problems. Then maybe something bad happens that your parents' system proves utterly incapable of helping you with, you feel betrayed, like promises have been broken, and so you abandon that system. (“Having a personal philosophy is like having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there may be situations when it will not come in handy at all.” –Lemony Snicket) But it's hard to be without a system. More and more people you know and love will start dying, and as you get older the invincibility of youth will fade and the reality of your own death will set in, encouraging you to adopt a system to deal with it. You'll have kids and you'll want an approach to give them, a set of values, a system. Force of habit will set in to firm it all up, and before you know it you ARE what you once rebelled against. It's no longer the cage you were raised in, that was built around you before you could think to object, but the cage you built with your own hands. That makes a big difference in your attitude towards it. "You wanted revolution, now you're the institution," as Ben Folds said. (The same thing seems to happen on a societal level.)

It's pretty clear where I currently fit into this progression. It seems my fate has been prophesied for me. In that case, I can only hope that, whatever system I do settle on, I won't be so brittle and single minded as to insist that my system is THE system, that I've got all the answers that I or anyone else could need. This would also explain why great art, and even great science, tends to be accomplished by the younger generation. It would also explain why I'm not sure I'd want to live forever, anyway. (Actually I've got a science fiction story in mind that would explore this idea.) Though perhaps it won't be bad to get old if I can manage to preserve doubt the way some people preserve faith... I can think of a few old folks who did alright.

"Doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value." –Richard Feynman

"Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them." –Bertrand Russell

"Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don't change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow." -Woody Guthrie

he who keeps the tao does not want to be full.
but precisely because he is never full,
he can remain like a hidden sprout,
and does not rush to early ripening.

–Lao Tzu (Wu translation)

“[The words used in Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching] configure chaos, confusion, a ‘bewilderness’ in which the mind wanders without certainties, desolate, silent, awkward. But in that milky, dim strangeness lies the way. It can’t be found in the superficial order imposed by positive and negative opinions, the good/bad, yes/no moralizing that denies fear and ignores mystery.” –Ursula K. Le Guin, on what has always been perhaps my favorite Tao Te Ching chapter (71 is another favorite)

(The question of whether I am advocating faith in doubt is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Wow. Did you read all that? Imagine how insufferable I would be as, say, a comparative literature major… Anyway.

A tiny News Nook: Another really depressing article about American theocracy (“Today, a leading power such as the United States approaches theocracy when it meets the conditions currently on display: an elected leader who believes himself to speak for the Almighty, a ruling political party that represents religious true believers, the certainty of many Republican voters that government should be guided by religion and, on top of it all, a White House that adopts agendas seemingly animated by biblical worldviews”) and why it’s bad news, written by a guy who worked for the Nixon campaign (“The potential interaction between the end-times electorate, inept pursuit of Persian Gulf oil, Washington's multiple deceptions and the financial crisis that could follow a substantial liquidation by foreign holders of U.S. bonds [ie, people deciding it’s high time the US government paid back its debt] is the stuff of nightmares. To watch U.S. voters enable such policies – [which?] the GOP coalition is unlikely to turn back -- is depressing to someone who spent many years researching, watching and cheering those grass roots”). (Note: When I first tried to go to the Washington Post website, it wanted me to sign up. I didn’t, but when I came back again it let me in no problem. Hmm.)

Oh, I still haven’t taught a class with the new English teacher, but I’ve got a really good feeling about her. She was born and raised in a city that hosts a large US Navy Base, so she has a much clearer idea of what the point of all this might be than a lot Japanese English teachers do. I think the kids will like her, too. I like her.

i say never be complete,