Wild Vine, Soda Pop

For as long as I can remember, I have abided by principles of aesthetic discrimination. I remember this most early taking places with video games as a young child. I carefully selected video games according to reasons I did not fully understand. Some were simply interesting and some were simply not. I remember being very proud that my selections were always very rewarding. Judging by the covers and promotional imagery, I could successfully determine what video games I would appreciate and which ones I would not. Whenever I ignored the voice, I was punished with a very boring game.

Many books were anathema to me for reasons I could not fully understand. I wished to remain deep within the realms of the Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game, Redwall, and other very intentionally selected book worlds. Forays into other series were few and far between, and often disappointing, so I comforted myself with reading the same series(es) over and over and over. It was only later, just before donning the hoodie of teenagehood, that I would begin to discriminate heavily with movies and music and to open up avenues for broad exploration in all media. I felt comfortable in my ability to quickly reject the inane and intuit the delightful. I feel like I still haven’t gotten the knack of finding fiction books that I know, at a glance, I will appreciate. Movies, music, and games are much easier to determine. And I’ve found that the only way for me to savor them well is to go through them multiple times.

Where did these principles come from? I doubt I was born with them. Perhaps there were some vital choices made by me as an infant, or for me, long before memory became coherent. These choises perhaps shaped me to be especially attuned to images. Or perhaps it was just the ‘great’ works I was exposed to first: Pokemon, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings would not only become beloved worlds to explore, to tinker with internally, but also visual and conceptual standards by which to judge other works that petitioned acceptance into my imagination. I remain in love with those worlds and those standards to this day, although I have dedicated myself to substantial reformation and expansion in order to accept even greater works: the literary and artistic works of the world tradition. Because I am so deeply infatuated with specific manifestations of 20th century pop culture, no matter how lovely they may be, my inability to leap into other centuries easily has greatly limited by imaginative capabilities.

The exploration of works of other centuries is a noble effort that I will advance as long as I have the strength. Nevertheless, I do not think my specific attraction to the entertainment of the 20th century (century is meant fuzzily here) is entirely in vain. It will always represent to some degree a force of (perhaps undue) curiosity and disordered delight. This is why it must be tempered with deep engagement with the canon, loving relationships with other people, exploration into the natural world, and participation in the societies and stories of those places to which I’ve been called by God. I should be clear: if my life should be about anything, it should be mainly about those things, love of God and fellow men, a full and noble life to which this project is but a quick game of shadows and light. But for what end, then, do I bear this specific love? Why does love for games come with ease and love for people come with difficulty?
Perhaps this project may be the first steps towards bearing fruit from this wild and unintended childhood love.

I was inspired by the history of American popular culture presented by Leroy Ashby in his book Amusement for All. It was deeply informative and important, but it also troubled me that few of the works of art and entertainment of the latter half of the 20th century that I care about appeared at all in his work. It makes sense: there are millions of artifacts out there to choose from. Any broad history of media will go for the most massive, fatty, floundering whales of pop phenomena. It was right of Ashby to do so. But then what about all of the cult classics of film, music, art, comics, games, books? What about the stuff that is actually interesting and valuable? Where is the comprehensive history for the counterpoint pop culture? Perhaps with the internet it is easier for the cults of these delightful works to flourish and gain faithful congregations (big or small, they are always faithful) of celebrants.

Culture is really just about keeping cults. I worship at no cult but Christ’s, but nevertheless, trapped in this temporal kingdom, any step I take sends my foot through the roofs of tiny festivals, liturgies, fandoms, religions, idolatries, and hobbies. They have sprouted up all around us like fairy rings. There is no defense and no escape. The only answer is to conquer. We must sweep away the garbage. We must uphold the rare, good, excellent, and interesting.

And so I want to create a history of popular culture based on my individual standards of aesthetic discrimination. It will be a wonderful project for me personally and will, I hope, bless people that I care about and teach them to care for greater things. It will perhaps be a way for overlooked greatness to take a step closer to introduction into the canon decades or centuries from now–depending on what tier of canon we’re talking about. I must do my research now while more ephemeral canonical tiers still exist for works made within living memory.

I imagine this could sprout into many things. A book, perhaps, or blog. Part of me envisions it as a massive collage, a delta of images swarming across an enormous wall, ripples of the curious imagination. This is the type of project to work on over the course of a decade or so. It should not supplant my exploration into the classics. Rather, it should be my attempt to contribute, in however small a way, to the great western project of art curation through centuries.

It might be valuable at some point to create a small sample anti-stream that contains everything I find to be repulsive, or even just boring, in order to better understand what is or isn’t worth valuing. I range from irritated to disgusted by the aesthetics of… post-vietnam military, the super bowl, 9/11 related media, Elvis, Extreme Home Makeover, new atheism, cable news, mexican television, tabloids, Call of Duty, Marvel movies, Disney at its worst, creative content websites (deviantart, youtube) at their worst and even sometimes at their best (truly an unending cursed treasure hoard of disgust to dig through), facebook, the original MtG as well as its recent iterations (it peaked at return to ravnica!), most advertising, contemporary school text books (twaddle! twaddle in content AND in graphic design!), evangelical music and movies, generic anime, furry culture. Is it enough to renounce these works of culture as dumb and lame? Am I deluding myself by trying to flee to other similarly sensuous and basic works? I feel this deep desire to gather together all of the images of the last century that I find powerful and put them all in one massive collage of beauty and curiosity, while forming another collage of repulsion (perhaps smaller because I would hate to put in as much effort, or perhaps just as big because it wouldn’t require as much effort) to pair together. Then I could show this pair to normies and, in one sudden revelation that they would spend the rest of their entertainment-based life contemplating, they would understand what they have missed. Their minds would be instantly wiped of all the dull dregs of culture with which their imaginations have been cloaked.

Ha. Nevertheless, if an inkling of that were achieved, with just a few people, then I would feel all my own indulgent entertainment practices have not been in vain. Perhaps there could be a series of parallel streams, perhaps ‘the beautiful stream of music’ through a given decade or the whole century, and then its counterpoint of everything repulsively boring. Or perhaps it would go by color scheme, or something more thematic tying in all sorts of lovely media, only to be paralleled by its drab counterpart. Perhaps in the end it would make even more clear the limitations of contemporary entertainment, and awake in viewers of the collages (and in readers of the companion commentaries) how we must go back and recover the beauty of past centuries.

Maybe it’s all been a waste of time. Maybe it’s been straw all along.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hill

4.28.17, 1:57pm

Anyway, let me take this opportunity of an hour to get some things into written word that I have been feeling. Mostly, I have tried capturing these feelings into the phrase: “I am in the docks of life, waiting to go out.” That’s maybe a dramatic, metaphysical way of looking at graduating from college, but it seems like it could be true, or true enough for people to nod their heads and say something like, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Really, it might just be an excuse for not being who I am suppose to be. But whatever!

At a certain point in your life, you find that you have no need of trying to place yourself, or who you are in a certain moment or season. You have no need of it, because you realize that it is, frankly, totally impossible and that no matter how hard you try, you have in a moment become someone else that needs an entire book written about them. When I was fourteen or so, I wrote a blog post here about the great need for me to write an all-encompassing book every year called “My Understanding,” that would be a systematic approach to all the knowledge I have, and opinions I held, during that time of my life. I never wrote this book, never have, but I have somehow found myself doing something approximating the initial goal anyway. I have written plenty of essays and plenty of stories since then, all of which would have been impossible if I wanted to take the systematic approach to delving into the depths of my bored individual.

This falls in line with a truth I’ve discovered pretty recently, or at least cauterized, that you can never approach truth directly. Chesterton said that paradox is the only underwear stretchy enough to fit Truth’s thighs (or something like that, maybe it was jeans), but I’ve discovered that it’s more like the moment is the only mystery available enough to devote yourself to capturing. This can of course come through stories most obviously (e.g. “What would happen if you put two angry, bitter people in a room, and then said the most outrageous thing possible to them?”), exploring the dynamics between the human passions and the inevitability of acting out where they led like so many other humans before them. But it can also come through essays, prosaic essays like mine, where you have absolutely no idea where you are going, where your spittle of speed is translated as profligate adverbs crazily here and there, and where you at last land somewhere and you can take a sigh of relief that, you might not have captured how you feel, but at least you produced an artifact to mark the checkpoint. You are like the Israelites, perhaps, going through the wilderness two thousand years later, remarking at all the great stone heaps here and there and you say to yourself, “Wow! Some great movement, some great moment happened here! Whatever it is, I don’t know, but I am thankful for our ancestors who recorded it.”

That is, to me, what the function of writing is for. The goal of writing down to remember is not really to ensure that you will be able to recall, but rather that when you are looking back, you have something to look back at. This might seem pointless, but it’s not. To look back is not to want to go back into that same space that your soul once occupied (that happens often enough with the ache of nostalgia), but it is rather to look back and see all the places where you did not yet understand the significance and to find the significance for the first time. To go back to our analogy about the Israelites, when they are going around the desert and they see the pile of stones, it does not evoke in them that mental landscape of re-imagining who stood where and what they did, but it does evoke the question, “Where are we now? How on earth were we once here? And didn’t we, certainly, believe that things were not going to get any better?” All of this leads to the conclusion that looking back is a means of ensuring, not that we can return, but that we have no chance of returning, no matter how vivid that occasional hit-and-miss memory is. And we are ensured, hopefully, that by not returning, we will never have to face the same evils that once threatened to ensnare and destroy us.

This is maybe too hopeful a picture for you, so I’m sorry. I myself am not accustomed to being so optimistic about memory, but it has also been recently, when I have looked back at old memories, that I have been overcome with how small a space my soul occupied in those times. When the Israelites go through the wilderness now, that is something that enters into their minds, too. They see the stones piled here and there, a few miles’ distance and they say, ‘How on earth were we stuck in here for forty years? What pedantry! What small spaces of consciousness we were in! That hill, that hill right there, it was a mountain to us! And that little stream there, it was a great river. And that boulder Moses struck, we can hold it in the palm of our hands.’

When I look back, this is what I see. I see a world that I long outgrew. All the same things are there, the body of water that was once to me a river is now a stream, and they are now transformed. They are transformed not literally, though. What I am really doing is comparing one fiction with another. Before, I understood my world through the eyes of a fiction. I was telling a particular story about myself. I felt that the challenges facing me were mighty mountains, mighty rivers, but that was only because I had to place myself somewhere and I wanted to place myself in a world that justified my weakness. The only way to justify my weakness was to make a mountain out of a hill and then I felt able to say, climbing it, “How much farther? It’s been forever!” In reality, I only took two or three steps.

And I suppose in this context of discussing memory, that I would like to talk about the present predicaments. I know, through my senses, that the right belief is available to me. That is, I can accept the real size of the challenges facing me. They are quite small. But in order to justify my own weakness, I feel that I am not yet at the stage where I can be honest with myself. That is because, while I see the world for what it is, I do not understand the world for what it is. Here, by the world, we can re-use a concept I introduced earlier: moment. I do not yet understand the moment. And perhaps here is an opportunity to gladly welcome pessimism back in. Pessimism is useful here, because he can agree with me that it is quite unfair that I am in a position that calls for strength, but reveals my weakness. I cannot be as strong as I need to be in order to conquer the challenges that face me. In fact, the challenges are there to make me stronger, the mechanism of which is looking back. You look back at what you have gone through–you look back to the hill–and the left side of it is much smaller than its right side. Descent is an easier way of going about than ascent. But if I spent my whole life descending, I’d find myself at the bottom of the ocean, or the bottom of that river I was talking about earlier. Descent is bad for the knees.

And here I am. I take comfort in the ascent I am marching along. And I fully embrace this ascent, knowing that I have overcome many small hills before. But this isn’t exactly a hurrah moment, because I don’t yet feel the strength that will soon be mine to inherit. I do know, however, that I have been here before, that the strength is not my own, and that looking back, I will eagerly await the next world to enter into, a world that I might learn to reluctantly see for what it is and not for what it might be to serve my own weakness. The World of That Weird Year After College, only to be dispossessed by The World of Likely Unexplained and Boring Depression that Does Not Allow you To Get Anything Done.

This is really what we are talking about. The world out there comes to us through moments, but moments are only the inventions of where we are in time. I don’t want this to turn into a reduction of the moment. I do just want to point out that we make of what comes at us according to who we would like to be. And we would like to be an entity that we can fully understand. But the last thing we would like to understand, to admit, is our weakness. And so, in order to cope with the encounters which the world presents, we shrink the world and elevate ourselves. But this is one of the many places that fictions like this rob us of what we are supposed to inherit. I really like fiction, by the way. I think imagination is a necessary¬†faculty on par with the faculties of reason, belief, sexuality, and remembering. To the pessimist, these are all afflictions that bear the weight of our own inadequacy. I have been there. “Remembering again? Why, Lisa, why, why?!” “Sexuality again?! Go home, Desire, you’re drunk.” “Faith? Aren’t you, like, a cheaper form of reason?” “Reason, you are, to me, a big headache I’d gladly take ibuprofen for.” But, to the person willing to accept the world for what it is, they are all means of interfacing with that world. And I want to interface with the world using my imagination rightly. But most often, I use my imagination, not to change the world, but to break my sense perception and how it is supposed to work. I use my imagination to intentionally and very consciously mistake the world for some other world. And so I get myself into all sorts of trouble, like pretending that hills are mountains. This is big trouble for me, because what would I do, if I stood at the foot of a mountain and life said to me, “Alright, if you don’t go over this, you’re basically toast. Trust me.” And I look behind and I see SARACENS of all people! running after me with their, em, Arabian-shic clothing and curved swords and whatever and, like, threatening my Western ideals.

Anyway, I wrote my conclusion paragraphs ago and now it’s thirty minutes later from when I started this Ascent into Imagination, and it is time to come back down and encounter the hills I must climb. The first, most daunting hill, is doing a three minute presentation of a story I wrote months ago in front of my school. A hill, I say, Hillel!

The conclusion, if you want it in all neat, tidy ribbon, is that maturity in weakness is seeing the world for what it is. But this magic power of humanity (in defense against the dark arts of humanity (o hai humanity!)) is only possible, if we are willing to remember. This, if done rightly, ought to shed all the false fictions we have made for ourselves to explain our weakness in the moment. It allows us to take the moment for what it is: a brief glimpse into the world. And we knowingly can never fully encompass all that is acting on us, all that is enforcing itself upon us from the world, but we do feel it at all times, this weight and burden, this call to live, in the present. All we can do, for the moment, is write essays and stories, however bad they may be, however slipshod and thirty-minutes’ worth they are, and provide extremely non-systematic pictures, heaps of stones, to remark on later, fifty years from now, and say, “Thank God I’m not that sucker!”

Done Editing at 4.28.17, 2:42pm