My reading of The Holy Bible comes from an excellent class in "The Bible as Literature" I took at Florida State University many years ago on the GI Bill. It's a great poetic work full of novelistic history and character and charged with mythic and metaphoric power. But if you believe it literally, you're looking for trouble. What's different about the New Testament is, of course, its emphasis on Jesus Christ as a "prince of peace." There's not a lot of smoting, killing and carrying off of your enemy's young daughters; that's to be found in the Old Testament. Militant Christians like Matt Shea and his well-armed comrades have assumed Jesus Christ as their savior, while they've ditched all the peaceful and forgiving ideas he proselytized about to his flock; then, they've borrowed the most violent, tribal passages from the Old Testament to gird their loins for cultural battle in the 21st Century.
Crazy? I'd say so. But, then, what's crazy and what's political violence circa 2020 is not so clear-cut when facts, science, truth and the law are so widely disrespected that the mad find protection for their madness in the padded rooms of wealth and power. Consider this: In today's loopy, internet-saturated world, is it hard to imagine a lonely, AR15-packing, Second Amendment-worshiping rightwing-fringe nutcase listening to Matt Shea's Old Testament message getting into his big truck with a duffel bag of weapons and extra magazines and tearing off to rid us of some liberal fiend damned on a website called Stormfront.com? Son of Sam took his orders from a dog. Matt Shea's grasp of history and crisis is much more articulate and clear than a dog's. Plus, we should not forget this poor fellow's reading list, which no doubt includes publications like Recoil magazine, a 180-page, slick AR15-wet-dream fantasy that proselytizes this stuff for the gun industry with a fat, glossy new issue each month.
The lynch pin of all this is metaphor. Life with no mental mediation for establishing meaning out of universal chaos would be so confusing that the human mind would blow a gasket. Thus, we rely on metaphoric thinking to simplify things and make them familiar so we can go on with our lives. Creating metaphors is, of course, an art. When I taught writing in a city prison, one of my greatest challenges was breaking inmates of the metaphor, "He was fast as sh*t" or "He was slow as sh*t." You can do better, I'd preach. Narrative and story are metaphors for living, pleasing patterns that represent in our poor, limited minds larger, more overwhelming things we can't fully understand. Life is like a bowl of cherries. We know that's nonsense, but we like cherries and we want life to be good, so it comforts us and allows us to think we have things under control. The problem comes when people take their metaphors literally; sometimes people are so sure their metaphors are the real thing they take up arms and threaten to harm or even kill those who don't share their certainty. Again, in the case of the Matt Sheas of this world, that could be me and my friends.
But it's not that simple. While everyone these days seems to agree on this metaphor that our imperial republic is a runaway train heading for some rendezvous with destiny everyone still argues exactly what the hell that destiny may be or should be. Much of the rest of the world is biting their fingernails watching our national agony, at the same they seem to be enjoying the United States' loss of self-confidence in a worldwide outpouring of schadenfreude, that darkly human impulse that finds joy in another's misfortune. It's not quite sadism, but it shares something with that impulse.
When Things Get Crazy, Go to the Movies
These days, I sometimes feel like that man. Last night, for example, I indulged in my love of westerns. In a thrift shop I'd found a DVD of The Quick and the Dead, a 1987 film version of a Louis L'Amour novel starring Sam Elliot as a loner in buckskin with a horse, a huge bowie knife, a Colt .45 and a lever-action, repeating rifle. The plot was classic: A man, his wife and young son are in a wagon full of furniture being pulled by a team of four mules, with two fine horses tethered at the rear; they're coming from Philadelphia on their way to Bighorn, Montana, where with their money her brother has built them a house. The brother is in Custer's 7th Cavalry. Click here for a clip from the film.
They roll into a sad, barren town in Wyoming and are confronted by a menacing gang of smelly, grinning predators. Then Sam Elliot rides into town. The Easterners are ripe for picking, and Elliot takes a less-than-discreet fancy to the man's beautiful wife, as does a fat, greasy member of the vermin gang who lusts for a "good-smelling woman." Over an hour-and-a-half, Elliot's character saves the family and educates the tenderfoot husband; per the popular western code, he evolves into a true gentleman vis-à-vis the wife, the husband is revealed as a Civil War veteran who has seen too much killing and by the end of the picture the gang of threatening lowlifes have been eliminated, one by one. The ending is right out of Shane, as Elliot's wild-West character rides off into the sunset, alone, with the boy and the wife waving farewell, our gun-shy Civil War vet Easterner now a rugged Western killer able to secure his family.
I couldn't help it: I metaphorically projected the dangerous, smelly gang of vermin in the narrative onto the likes of Matt Shea and his militant bunch of western white men hostile toward immigrants. The decent Philadelphia family represented law-abiding, compassionate liberal people focused on open-mindedness and cooperative living. Matt Shea and his ilk would, of course, lean toward another version of such a plot, with the outsiders more sinister and threatening their liberty and way of life.
In Far Country: Scenes From American Culture, Franco Moretti quotes Robert Warshaw answering the question why the Western has such a hold on our imaginations:
"It offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found almost nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence. This refusal is a virtue, but like many virtues it involves a certain willful blindness and it encourages hypocrisy."
Moretti sees in the Western "a political founding myth: the genesis of the state." He quotes a line from Owen Wister's famous 1902 western novel of Wyoming, The Virginian: "Where you [the Virginian] come from they have policemen and courts and jails to enforce the law. Here, we got nothing." This metaphoric and mythic time/place is fundamental to who we are as Americans. Moretti concludes: "The Western needs heroes, because it has no stable mechanism to enforce the law. The hero fills the void of the absent state he is the state."
In my thinking, there's just as much mythic mind-work going on vis-à-vis Western movies as there is vis-à-vis stories in The Holy Bible. Of course, this is a big reason people like me are deemed so frightening by some people. The solution to such polarization is in the recognition that absolutely nothing is solid in this life and everything is vulnerable to change. As Epictitus put it thousands of years ago in Greece: "You can never step in the same river twice." Humility, dialogue and cooperation is the only way.
What stories one pays fealty to ends up mattering. Donald Trump's tragic flaw is he only listens to the stories he generates in his own head; there is no respectful dialogue with the world surrounding him. So he's right: The world is out to get him. The US Constitution is a long, complex story with ups and downs and evil switchbacks, complete with a cast of colorful characters and a European backstory called the Enlightenment. The so-called Deep State is also a character, one day the bad-guy for the left, the next day the bad-guy for the right. It's actually a helluva drama, now being played out as Reality TV. Nothing can be taken for granted. We aren't in Kansas anymore.
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