Upon the dismal shore of Acheron

While browsing at the AV Club the other day I came across a review of the film The Dungeon Masters, a documentary following the lives of three devoted D&D and LARP fans. It sounds fairly interesting, though the director’s main theme – “people in control of their fantasy lives aren’t in control of their real ones” – won’t win any prizes for originality.

More intriguing was a link I found in the comment section of the review, leading to this cautionary tale. Who knew that D&D could be so exciting? I played for years, and I never once got invited to join a coven of witches.

Looking around the Chick Publications site reminded me of when I was about 6 or 7. There was an old lady who stood outside the gate of our primary school at break time, handing out similar illustrated tracts. One story sticks in my mind to this day; a young boy has the temerity to question his pastor about the truth of the Bible, and the very next day he is hit by a speeding truck, sent to Hell and tortured by demons, all depicted in graphic detail. I guess she was sincere in her belief that it was necessary to put the fear of eternal damnation into the minds of young children in order to save them from evil doctrines like communism or evolution (not to mention Catholicism, Islam and, of course, homosexuality), but even at that tender age my reaction was to think that her religion was pretty messed up.

I sometimes wonder if this early experience was what put me off religion for life, but if memory serves (which it probably doesn’t) I was a confirmed unbeliever even before that. In fact I can’t remember a time when I ever had any sort of faith, which I’m not sure how to explain. I did grow up in a basically secular household, but my parents weren’t militant atheists or anything, and Christianity was part of the fabric of our community. I repeated the prayers at school assembly, went to church at Easter and Christmas and was generally exposed to the idea that being a Christian was the normal thing to do, but none of it ever clicked with me. In the years that have followed I have learned about many other religions and belief-systems, ancient and modern, but my interest has always been cultural rather than spiritual. I’ve never felt that there was any sort of void in me that yearned to be filled by religion, or that my lack of faith meant I was missing something. Perhaps I just don’t have the religious gene.

(I have been politically active most of my adult life, and pious types have often told me that I am sublimating my religious impulses in radicalism, that The Communist Manifesto is my bible, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t see politics as a moral issue, but more a technical question of how to efficiently organise society. I certainly don’t think that being a communist makes me a better person than anyone else, and I’m not expecting any eternal reward for my labours).

I don’t really have a point here; I’m just musing nostalgically. I’m definitely not suggesting that all Christians are hate-filled bigots; I’ve known plenty over the years and hardly any have been like Fred Phelps. Indeed one of the saving graces of the Christian faith is the fact that its adherents are mostly content to be fuzzy about the details of doctrine. Even the Pope thinks that non-believers can go to heaven, which, to my mind, seems hard to reconcile with John 14:6, but I guess that resolving such contradictions is what keeps theologians busy. (Personally, I’d probably pass on Paradise; I’ve always thought that the first circle of the Inferno sounded much more interesting). I imagine that the followers of other religions behave in a similar way; none of the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists that I know are particularly devout, though I’d have to admit that my deadbeat friends may not be entirely representative examples of their respective faiths.

I used to be more actively anti-religious in my younger days, and I would argue with people about how clearly nonsensical their beliefs were, but with age I have mellowed into a position of liberal secularism; I don’t care what people think or do in their homes and places of worship (or where they build those places of worship), as long as they keep their dogma out of the schoolroom, and don’t try to tell me who I can or cannot marry.

I still think that, on balance, religion is a pernicious influence on society, but no amount of reasoned discourse is going to make it disappear as long as the material conditions that underpin it persist. Everyone knows Marx’s comment about religion being “the opium of the people”, but the full quote is more illuminating:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

If we ever make it to a society that is free of inequality and injustice, the illusion of religion will no longer be necessary, and it will fade into history. We will look upon Christianity and other modern faiths in the same way we regard the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans; interesting cultural phenomena that have no direct significance in our everyday lives. Whether I’ll be around to see that day is another question, but I can always live in hope.

Comic archetypes

Back in what seem like the mists of time, but in fact just the early 90’s, I was fortunate enough to have a well-paid job and practically no responsibilities, allowing me to take numerous extended vacations, several of which I spent touring around the US. I tended to travel quickly, too quickly in retrospect, which allowed me to cover a lot of ground (I think I managed 28 of the contiguous states, plus DC), but not really get to know anywhere well. I found myself in a near-continuous state of dislocation, and consequently latched on to anything that could give me some sense of stability. In every new city I would purchase a newspaper and turn to the comics page, one thing I could depend on to be more or less constant no matter where I went.

There isn’t really a tradition of serial comic strips in the serious papers here, so I thought no more of these stories until a couple of years ago, when I began following them again, courtesy of the excellent online comic page at the Houston Chronicle. I’ll admit that my original motivation for this was to be able to better enjoy the snarky (and very funny) commentary over at The Comics Curmudgeon, but as time has passed I have come to appreciate the qualities of a good serial narrative in their own right. I particularly like the slow pace of the comics page, where the events of one afternoon can be spun out over months of three-panel strips, providing a calming antidote to the frenetic tempo of modern culture. Of course the politics, particularly on gender issues, of most of the strips seems to have been frozen around 1952, but I guess that just contributes to the ironic charm.

Conservative they may be, but the traditional serials can still serve up surprises. Just this week, for example, we discovered that Mary Worth is a Jungian. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

On the unreliability of memory

There is a lot to be said for the traditional summer break of the professional middle classes; decamping from the hot, busy city to a quiet rural retreat, there to enjoy the simple peasant lifestyle. Of course I am referring to that fantasy peasant lifestyle that involves loafing around, consuming copious quantities of artisanal foodstuff and quaffing the local intoxicant, rather than any actual peasant lifestyle of unremitting toil, but it’s nice to imagine that one is getting back in touch with the slower pace of life enjoyed by our forefathers.

I always come back from my summer holiday determined to escape the rat race by finally getting down to writing the classic novel that I am convinced dwells within me. For a couple of weeks I spend my lunchtimes in the coffee shop tapping at my laptop, then life starts to intrude, and my grand projects fade away for another year.

In some ways it’s reassuring that my life is interesting enough that I don’t really have time to devote to literary endeavour, but it’s also a little frustrating to think that with some more application I could produce something a bit more impressive than this blog.

A few times in the last year, most recently just a couple of months ago, I’ve resolved to post less about Second Life, and more about interesting things, like politics, or literature, or music, but every time I seem to have found myself coming back to commenting about the virtual world. I think there’s some avoidance going on on my part; it’s easier to recycle the same old stuff about SL than take a chance on trying something new.

I spent several evenings last week reading my old copies of American Splendor, and thinking that, if Harvey Pekar could get it together to present slices of his life experience to the world back in the 70’s, when self-publishing was a real challenge, I should be able to do something more productive with this space, with which, in theory at least, I could reach a worldwide audience of millions with a couple of clicks of a mouse.

I have over the years posted a few vaguely Pekaresque pieces (mostly tagged “Nostalgia”), but I find it hard to be completely accurate in my recollection. It’s not that I actively make stuff up – the basic facts are all there – but when I try to reconstruct the subjective elements, like the emotions and motivations that were associated with these past events, I can’t help but be aware that my memories will have been extensively edited by my unconscious in the light of my subsequent life experience. I can’t put myself back into the mind of my past self, only the mind of my present self thinking about the past, and I know that means that what seem like solid memories are really projections of my current preoccupations woven out of carefully selected snippets of history.

The drive is to create a narrative, to give meaning to what, on more objective analysis, I would have to admit was an essentially random existence. Like an author foreshadowing significant events in a story, I give weight to certain memories, while suppressing others, to convince myself that my current situation is a point on a consciously planned journey, rather than the culmination of a series of individually insignificant choices that have gradually limited my options in ways I can only vaguely grasp.

Does it matter that my thoughts about the past may not entirely correspond with reality? Human memory is not a simple recording device; it is a dynamic psychological tool that allows us to adapt to the present and anticipate the future by utilising our processed experience. Excessive verisimilitude in our recollections can get in the way of efficient functioning, and a little mnemonic creativity is essential to our continued sanity.

One way to conceptualise the self is to see it as, at any given moment, the sum of the biographical memories that seem relevant to our present circumstances, the story we tell ourselves about who we are. We take the continuity of our self as a given, but our memory of who we were yesterday is under the control of our present selves, and we may distort it to preserve the illusion of stable identity. Of course we can observe that other people seem more or less the same from day to day, which may reassure us that we don’t change much either, but there is always the suspicion that the unconscious is our own personal Ministry of Truth.

Anyway, the conclusion that I draw from all this is that the past is gone and probably wasn’t how I remembered it anyhow, the future is uncertain and will take care of itself, and the best thing to do is just live in the now. I guess that’s why I never manage to get anything done. Maybe I should give up on the literary pretensions, and start writing self-help books instead.

From Off the Streets of Cleveland

I’m just back from holiday, and I was going to leave it a while before I started blogging again, but I have been moved to action by the sad news of the passing of a true hero of the counter-culture, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame.

I’m not usually one for vicarious grief, but I have been feeling genuinely cut-up since I heard that Harvey was dead. His work was personal and honest, sometimes painfully so, never glossing over his own character flaws, and it was hard to read it without getting to feel that you really knew the guy. Long before anyone had even dreamed of blogs, Harvey was there, documenting the daily grind of a lowly wage-slave, creating poetry from the rhythms of his blue-collar existence.

If you’re not familiar with American Splendor then visit your local comic-book store and pick up an anthology – the best one to start with is probably American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar which collects up the best of the early issues; also worth reading is Our Cancer Year, which chronicles Harvey’s experience of lymphoma – it is quite grim in parts, but ultimately positive. More recent comics can be found online at The Pekar Project. The 2003 biopic American Splendor was justly lauded by the critics, and Harvey also features in a segment of the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential (which was where I first came across his work). He appeared several times on the Letterman show in the late 80’s, until he fell out with the host after criticising NBC’s owners General Electric on air. He also recorded a series of opinion pieces for radio station WKSU, which can be listened to at their website.

Harvey’s work was based on the idea that the lives and experiences of ordinary people, living through good times and bad with their family, friends and community, were worth recording, and would tell the story of our times more accurately than more conventional histories. As he said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”, and few have captured it better than he did in the pages of American Splendor.