Sunday, January 31, 2010

#39 January Jottings IV

But the truly old and original Romulan Calendar (you Trekkies out there) makes more sense, surely, in re-starting the 12-month Cycle of the Sun with a 4-week unit more attuned to Nature and Her new beginnings. Like March, or maybe just to make sure, the next one: Kalendis Aprillis, which meant obscurely something like "budding" or "flowering" time. Thus Chaucer and Eliot, but with two opposing views about that, as we have seen. During the reign of Roman King Numa, though, not only were the theretofore unspeakable days between December and March given names, but it was decided for some reason that the first one of them, January, should also become the first month of the Solar Year. For all time, as it turned out, and for all of Western Civilization. Thus ever the breathtaking quirkiness of History.

Speculation: Outside of the godless numbered months (four of which still survive as such), the deities Mars, Maia, and Juno had been honored already with one of their very own. "What about our even older and most venerated god, Janus, who stands head and halo with the best of these," the Janusite priests and lobbyists might be heard saying at Numa's weekly cabinet meeting, "as long as we're getting back into the month-moniker business. And, if it please Your Majesty, he's a two-faced god; that's right, two for the price of one--and he'd be simply fabulous as the month opening each new year because--get this--he's the divinity in charge of exits and entrances, endings and beginnings ... "

However it happened, we're stuck with it. So January has to this day, in an almost divinely-inspired way, been a month of taking stock, making resolutions, faking prophecies, etc. (Obama's State of the Union was last week.) All of this might have also been influenced by another Janus-month deity, Carmenta, a native Roman goddess of PROPHECY, but also in a very interesting way an Overseer of future female states as procreation, gestation, child birth (and midwifery), and the newly natal. Whew. Interestingly, she would also look out for the growing new-born's education, pictured above (in a quaint and typical no-sense-of-perspective medieval manuscript--love 'em).

Accompanied by her Carmentine nymphs, this simply divine lady was a nature-fertility god at bottom like Janus, but she had him beat with TWO feast days, Jan. 11th and 15th-- because, I guess, it took two of them to take care of her very busy goddess-hood properly. They were attended by women only, so the ancient sources say, and part of the celebrations included rice-dishes being offered the goddess, and cream-center pastries in the shape of male and female genitalia being feasted upon by her votaries! Ah, those long and dark winter nights.

(Some of this was cleaned-up by the Latin middle-ages, as you can see above, where the goddess is in school-marm mode. She's got a KEY [in left hand over her shoulder] like Janus, but here it's to open the tower of learning next door for the boy to whom she offers the primary-school HORNBOOK [you can just make out the alphabet thereon] in her right hand, rather than Janus' spear.)

So much for January.The "cruellest month"--with some qualifications and compensations touched on above. The god's 31 days end in a deadened whimper around these parts. (Sort of like this post.) It's an arctic 8 or 9 degrees outside, but in beautiful, bright sunlight. And I know that the lovely panorama of blinding-white snow around a solar-glistened pond filling my picture window can do naught but good for the "SAD" wintertime blues.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

#38 January Jottings III

Janus has just shut down the last weekend of his month here in North Carolina, and most of the mid-Atlantic states. The god's reign of terror--sub-teen-ish, "wind-chill" temperatures, multi-inch snow, sleet, and freezing rain, cloud-darkened daytime hours--would seem to allow for little debate about the "cruellest month." On the other hand, the balcony view of my duck pond--white-blanketed banks, frosted trees reflected on its glistening mirror-like surface--has its own chiaroscuro beauty. Nothing at all, obviously, like Nicolas Poussin's technicolor fantasy, "Dance to the Music of Time" (1639)--that French Renaissance painter's Olympian version of Kalendis Ianuarius.

The drawing of Janus in last post (q.v.) is many more than a thousand years older and gleaned from a temple-frieze. In that ingratiating anthropomorphic form or others like it, this native-born nature-god was worshiped by the Latins for millennia. And most likely propitiated vociferously at his festival on New Year's day--"Father Janus, be gentle with us in your eponymous month to come" ... "Lighten up a bit" ... "How about giving us a break on this cold weather thing?" ... "Make it a real mensis misericordium for your humble votaries this year!"--or such like.

But they would have known he could be tough: notice his SPEAR, at rest, but right-arm ready. The KEY in his left hand is symbolically more benign, promising the opening-up of new possibilities for the coming year (his affixed double-visage had always, more practically, guarded Roman door- and gate-ways). The COCK is an obvious icon for beginnings of things. But as a fertility symbol it might also invoke in every supplicant's mind what certain things they ought to be doing during the long winter nights--things to be brought to fruition nine months or so later at about harvest time.

The old nature-deity is stylized almost out-of-existence--he's a statue--in Poussin's painting above, but it's fair throbbing with fertility nonetheless. Well, it throbs with just about everything--hard to find a more baroque conglomeration of classical images. Lots of fun. But to the point: Janus is well to the (sinistrum) left, so his backward visage mercifully looks at nothing in the past. All is forgiven. Everything in the frame is thus pictorially rightward and optimistically forward-looking. The voluptuous Four Seasons will be linked one to the other in cosmic and irenic harmony in tune with the rhythms of old Time's lyre, dancing their way through the coming Solar Year--which is personified over their pretty heads in the divine presence of Helios/Hyperion/Apollo and his train careering across the sky. Look for the golden hoop and halo.

But look especially at the foreground figures once again. To the rightest is Time, hoar-headedly-balding but buck-naked and buff, who stares lustily at three of the Seasons while playing on his crotch-clenched harp. The ladies glance approvingly and willingly back. The fourth one? That's right, her smiling gaze--MonaLisalike--is directed solely at YOU, the Viewer. How sly, but how joyfully seductive, is her over-the-bare-shoulder, come-hither look! And she's got to be Winter!--as far to the left and closest to Janus as she is. Dame Winter says silently: Alas, the cold, but think of the warm and snuggly potential of nights long and dark. A couple of rosy-cheeked cherubs like these playing in the corners might be the result.

Aroint thee, then, thou anti-depressants and 1000-watt light-panels, the prescription for Seasonal Affective Disorder is to gaze on the delights of Poussin's "Dance to the Music of Time" for an hour or so. (more)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

#37 January Jottings II

What has granted the Roman calendar its hegemony over (almost) all others on the planet since literally prehistoric times is that it has always been SOLAR: THE timetable-template, despite inherent raggedy edges like leap-years, that the world runs on. LUNAR calendars were probably first in all cultures, however, because so easily validated by what's going on in the night sky. But the 28-29 day cycle of the moon--while a perfectly workable time-scheme for hunter-gatherers--forever falls short of calibrating with the seasons of the sun, so important to keep precise track of in the new agricultural/pastoral societies in the West.

(As for the Hamito-Semites, they're still moon-people. For Muslims, both secularly and liturgically. For Jews and by extension Christians, liturgically. That's the wherefore of days beginning at the literal sighting of the moon the "eve"-ning before, and "movable feasts" like Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Passover/Easter drifting through the solar year. Ironically, the only fixed feast-day in the Christian liturgical year is Dec. 25, stolen from the Roman solar calendar, which marked it as the pagan Saturnalia and the birth of the SUN-god Mithras. See earlier posts for more on this Grinchy Xmas story.)

But, as mentioned in last post, what I find truly fascinating is that for primordial centuries the Romans "dared not speak its name"--the name, that is, of those 30-4o days of deep winter following the happy-happy of Winter Solstice in the foregoing, quasi-named December. And here's the really fun part: THEY WEREN'T EVEN COUNTED--in terms of monthworthyness. And neither was the un-named month of milder--but still-not-spring-yet--30 days or so following. Notice "December," just mentioned. Means month number ten. Likewise our Latin names for the three months preceding. Usually the realization that, Hey! the numbering is off, comes about the time you get into the DECIM-mal system at school. Then you may-or-may-not get a knowledgeable explanation from your teacher.

Well, believe it or not--especially you Star Trek fans--those misnumbered months we still put up with today are from the Romulan Calendar! Way, way, way before the Gregorian; way,way before the Julian; and even way before the Numaian. Legend had it among the tribal Latins that in or around 8oo BC city-founder Romulus--along with doing other things like killing his brother Remus--this other wolf-bred orphan-twin officially set the calender at ten months, ignoring the inter-calary, un-named-as-yet Jan/Feb of course, and starting with his patron-god Martius (who, unlike his Greek war-god counterpart, Aries, had strong agricultural juju) as being the first month of every new year. Made sense. Why not mark the new year with renewed beginnings? Like spring-time. And surely the lower Italian peninsula would have been getting springy by March.

But before that I'm guessing it was pretty miserable. Except for the seven "hills" (barely noticeable as such), the Tiber valley is swampland, reclaimed but mostly unclaimed for most of its history. Given to malarial summers and cold, dank, sodden winters. Kind of like Eliot's London. Best to just ignore as far as possible that unpleasant winter period. To personify these two months by name, I'm speculating, might only further empower their nastiness.

For whatever reasons, however, under the reign of Numa the Lawgiver (c. 700 BC), two months were "added" to the Romulan Calendar by simply naming them ... while keeping the same not-so-simple, dysfunctional numbering system. MOREOVER, again for unknown reasons, it was decided that the "new" month Ianuarius should begin the new year, rather than Martius. The days following those of the god Janus were given the perfunctory name of Februarius = "washing, purification"--sort of a "spring clean-up," I would suppose, in preparation for its actual arrival.

Notwithstanding the fact that we are forever doomed in the Northern Hemisphere's temperate zones to begin the new year in the frigid depths of winter--what better choice to preside over it than the ancient, totally native (i.e. no Greek influence) , double-aspect Roman god of past and future, endings and beginnings, exits and entrances?! And cocks. (more)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

#36 January Jottings

As months go ... for the speaker in T.S. Eliot's
APRIL is the cruellest [sic] month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow ... (1922)
Winters in London (the double-"l" gives the poet's expatriation away) are somewhat milder in temperature than than those in the poet's native Connecticut, but even more uncomfortable due to the island's inherent (gulf-stream) foggy/flaky clamminess (think Oliver Twist here).

Okay, he's making a symbolic point--in fact one of the clearest in that famously obscurantist poem. In an obvious thought-inversion of the Canterbury Tales' opening lines, the pessimistic speaker sees in nature's promise of renewed fecundity only disillusionment, as compared with the human world. Memory reminds him that budding desire has been re-deadened in the past, as perhaps a late April frost might kill off the new Lilacs. Can't blame the guy. T.S. Eliot was in a kind of "green-card" marriage gone bad in and around the time of the poem. No small thanks to free-loving philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had earlier bedded young Tom's terminally-neurotic English wife, Vivienne, who he admitted later was the poem's primary muse. (For a pop-version of this interesting story, Netflix 1994's Tom & Viv.)

But give me the unambiguous optimism of Chaucer's April, thank you. It's the linchpin of the Prologue, appearing in first few lines of the classic eighteen that I always had my students commit to memory by the end the term:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes ... (c. 1385)
Here the sweet showers of April pierce to Eliot's dull and drought-ridden roots of March, and, by "virtue" of this, the spring rains will with absolute certitude engender those Lilac-flowers. As well as all the other tender crops, because Chaucer's warm west-wind's sweet breath will bring no frost. The clever word-choice of generic vertu bounces us easily into the human world, taken up the lines following those above. "Inspired" also are those spiritually dried-up pilgrims "from every shires ende of Engelond" seeking to get a virtue-fix at Canterbury Cathedral. A little holy water in the presence of the Martyr should do the trick. (St. Thomas still resides there, I'll bear witness, in a lovely effigy-topped tomb, easily accessible to the pilgrims who keep on a-coming, over 600 years later.)

So ... for want of a better segue in getting back to the point--and pace Mr. Eliot--Kalendis Ianuarius still has to be the mostest cruellest month of all. To body and mind. In fact, even in the lower-temperate zone of Mediterranean Rome, the early Latins found the 30 days or so of deep winter so unspeakably unpleasant that (in addition to the next 30 or so for good measure) they remained nameless in the Roman calendar for hundreds of years! Along with the "washing-up" month of Februarius, the name of the two-faced god Janus was a relative late-comer to the yearly time-keeping instrument that has ruled the West for ages. (more)

Monday, January 25, 2010

#35 The CaryTown Xmas Tree Again

Which has now been planted firmly in X = Unknown, La-La, and Illogic Land. Thanks to a Jan. 14 retro-vote by an Unenlightened town council of my next-door neighbor by only a mile, Cary NC. Loosely dubbed a "Community" and/or "Holiday Tree" since it was voted into the center of the City Hall lobby in 2006 (MM #31-32), it is now officially to be called the Cary Community Christmas Tree by a vote of 6-1. Two extra little words, making worlds of difference. And standing as a microcosmic example of the divisiveness and discord that organized religion inevitably brings to public life.

What was originally meant to be a kind of innocuous, inclusive, and not-so-very-official "Season's Greetings" kind of display, utilizing the universal nature-symbol of the Evergreen, and decorated with non-religious public-service announcements and commercial advertising from every quarter--this tree will next December be officially named an instrument of Cary's civic government, and officially identified as sectarian Christian. Councilwoman Julie "Religious-affiliation-unknown-but-bless-her-heart" Robison, evidently knew this was wrong, because she cast the only negative vote against the motion introduced by Councilman Don "Let's-call-it-what-it-is-and-make-Fox-News" Franks.

I have no transcript of the meeting, but if Ms. Robison's objections were discussed, she might have started with LOGIC. The Council chose to keep the warm-fuzzy word community as part of the tree's revised cognomen, and that's its semantic downfall. Juxtapose "community" with "Christmas" and the whole four-word phrase becomes self-contradictory, because by definition it excludes all non-Christian citizenry of Cary. And, as pointed out in those earlier posts, that means a sizable percentage of the "community."

Or the courageous Councilwoman might have based her objections in ECONOMIC reality. The lady with the Cary Chocolate Shop mentioned earlier (#32) surely knew it--"the holidays should involve everyone, not just those celebrating Christmas." The new nomenclature could give the impression and likewise offense to some that the town is exclusively a "Merry Christmas" kind of marketplace. Whereas ... Muslim money is as green as Christian; chocolate comes in brown and white; and the economic times are dark for for everybody.

In addition, Ms. Robison might have brought up what was probably the primary reason that the tree was originally given its RELIGIOUSLY neutral moniker. There is simply a whole bunch of Caryanders who aren't Christian. And because of these folks' most-often affiliation with the famously rich pickings of nearby Research Triangle Park--Tech, Bio-tech, Big-Pharma, etc.--they are among Cary's most prominent and well-off citizens. (Recall that the Indian community in Cary just completed one of the biggest Hindu Temples in the U.S.) Therefore, a tree festooned with angels, crosses, creches etc, might cause offense to these diverse peoples--or might not, but as good politicians let's not take the chance--as they pass to-and-fro around it in the center of the City Hall lobby, while going about their secular business on PUBLIC property, supported by their very own tax-money. Can you imagine the outcry if that tree, for example, were a Bodhi Tree?

Finally, and most important, "calling it what it is" is in violation of the LAW. Councilwoman Julie Robison might have pointed out that there could hardly be a clearer example of a government "establishing" a religion than the explicit motion in front of the Cary council on Jan. 14. "Fellow-councilpersons, especially you Mr. Franks, what is being moved here clearly violates the principle of Separation of Church and State guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution"--she might have said. "We're clearly favoring one religion over any others in our constituency, and at taxpayers' expense." She probably said no such thing, of course. It would have been hard to go up out-spokenly against the presumptive arrogance of power associated with THE majority religion. She might even have put herself at risk of the accusation--not of being a Jew, Muslim, or Hindu, but worse--of being, heaven forfend and anathematize, one of the non-believers! (Whose numbers, by the bye, are far larger than all the non-Christian minority religions put together.)

However, if she were a part-time fortune-teller along with her duties as part-time CaryTown Councilwoman, Julie Robison might also have said the following, Cassandra-like, at that fateful Jan. 14 meeting: "Look, I know it's a coincidence, but I just had a vision that, two days from now, President Obama will address the Nation and declare Jan. 16 Religious Freedom Day, and make all of this clear to you. He's going to rely heavily on that pre-Revolutionary Champion of church-state separation, Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, and remind us of the Founding Fathers' very real, then-recent fears of religious meddling of any sort on the part of civic Government. I can hear his opening words now" ....
Long before our Nation's independence, weary settlers sought refuge on our shores to escape religious persecution on other continents. Recognizing their strife and toil, it was the genius of America's forefathers to protect our FREEDOM OF RELIGION, including the freedom TO PRACTICE NONE AT ALL. Many faiths are now practiced in our Nation's houses of worship, and that DIVERSITY is built upon a tradition of religious tolerance.
And so it came to pass.

Friday, January 8, 2010

#34 Six Quick Picks: Netflix 2008 Comedy Schtick Pix

Mostly unsung. And with a one year lag, allowing for Netflix availability. If you're a follower of this Blog, chances are you're sub-clinically addicted to that Mail-Order Miracle, and likely, moreover, to enjoy my favorites of 2008.

Hamlet 2 British very-funny-guy Steve Coogan as down-and-out expatriot H.S. drama coach directing his irreverent time-traveling take on the Bard. (Jesus C. in cast of play-within-a-movie.) Comedic trouble both political and domestic ensues. Formidable Catherine Keener and reliable Amy Poehler in support.

Burn After Reading Dark but hilarious Coen Brothers' spy-thriller-turned-upside-down. Gold-standard cast includes Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich, McDormand, Swinton. Enough said.

Tropic Thunder Offensive to the brink of off-putting, Ben Stiller's satire of Vietnam movies of Stone and Kubrick, and Hollywood every-which-way. Downey in black-face, Cruise unrecognizable. Jack Black, McConaughey, Coogan (again) in support. Nick Nolte almost steals the show.

Ghost Town If you can temporarily buy-into a Casper-friendly mis en scene, a warm-hearted story of misanthropic schlub Ricky Gervais' redemption with comic-cosmic implications. But down-to-earth funny. Always-believable Tia Leoni co-stars. Greg Kinnear and forever-under-used Kristen Wiig in fine support.

Yes Man Jim Carrey vehicle underrated because too much like an inverted Liar, Liar, his very best work. So what. Call it a sequel. Another self-absorbed schlub, Carrey "yesses" of himself into social an romantic salvation. Restrained-funny-Carrey movie with true-story-based depth. Worth watching if only for Zooey Deschanel's multi-tasked performance. Veteran Terence Stamp plays the "Yes"-Guru to perfection.

Vicky Christina Barcelona Woody Allen's best since Match Point, which had similar romantic complications, but here the filmmaker must set a record for sexual permutations/combinations thereof, only adding to the somewhat numb-inducing comic effect. (Sorry to say this, but it helps, too, that neither the Woodman himself or a surrogate, like Larry David, have any need to be in this film.) Melancholy-funny. Fresh, exotic/foreign venue, beautifully shot. Charismatic Javier Bardem and incandescent Penelope Cruz appropriately Allen-ized.

Satisfaction guaranteed. If you don't like any one of them, please feel free to send back by return mail.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

#33 More Xmas Spirit: Brit Hume

"Let's call it what it is--a Christmas tree," said CaryTown Councilman Don Franks (last post). A concerned Hindu, Mr. Franks doesn't want his tax dollars going to an obviously Christian display in his City Hall, despite the fact (no more than a ruse) that the centerpiece has been called a "Community" or "Holiday" tree since its inception. He will call for the practice henceforth discontinued at the Jan. 14 meeting of the town council.

Everything after the quote above is, of course, counter-factual, despite the fact that it should be the logical consequence of what Franks actually said. And what he meant: "Our religion is better than yours, so that what you have to say about us appropriating the mid-winter holidays is really of no consequence." If pressed, Mr. Franks would acknowledge that there aren't any other religions but his, anyway. True ones, that is.

Brit Hume actually said it. The Faux News reporter (a self-acknowledged "born-againer") was asked, as part of a panel discussion Sunday, How best for Tiger woods to come back from his late disgrace in the eyes of the known universe? He responded in his entertaining, fiercely dead-pan way,
The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered in the Christian faith. My message to Tiger would be, "Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world."
Four little sentences that explain centuries of bloodshed in the name of Christianity. Asked later on "O'Reilly Factor" if he were proselytizing, Hume said No. As if "turn to the Christian faith" weren't an exact definition of the word. A perfect example of blind faith, coupled with bad. He's not only betraying a breathtaking ignorance of Buddhism, but negating it's validity altogether. Even if it provided no counterpart to Christian atonement, which it does, that's beside the point. We must presume that for Tiger Woods and his late mother Buddhism is TRUE, as divinely revealed by its Namesake. Just as would be the case for Brit Hume and his Christianity. "Brit, your religion is a bit short on the redemptive power of Nature. You need to turn to the Taoist faith, young man." Only the Jehovah's Witnesses at the door might be more repugnant to him.

Unlike the major Dharmic religions of the Far East (add Confucianism) mentioned passim above, the bedrock of Abrahamic religion--Judaism, Christianity, Islam--is EXCLUSIVITY. We have the One True Way. Join or die. Is it any wonder that the Christian Right in this this country--with figureheads like Palin and Huckabee--believe that any outright aggression against the Islamic world is justified according to scriptural prophecy. Of course, Muslims believe the same, only vice-versa.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Brit Hume's statement is the assumption that to be a good person--"a great example to the world"--you gotta have religion. That's exclusivity enough right there. But, more insidiously, only ONE will really do. Frightening. This means that more than two-thirds of the population of the planet are bad people.

Ironically, if Tiger Woods had been even a minimally GOOD Buddhist, he wouldn't have gotten into his particular sort of trouble in the first place. The path to nirvana is undertaken first and foremost with the elimination of PASSION--the craving, visceral/material kind that can only lead to SUFFERING. In fact, I've just stated the first three of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, in so many words. Did Tiger have a little too much Golf, or other passionate pursuits, on his mind to give these basic precepts his full attention?

Can't resist:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(William Blake)