Iconocrisis: Prologue and Preface

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” –Jesus, John 20:29

“I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” –Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

Eleven years ago I left society. That, at least, was what many people thought I was doing, myself included. After over a year of failing to maintain a satisfying relationship with college and California, I decided to go up to Alaska, to Spruce Island, to live in a monastery. In many ways my decision was indeed a kind of social clearing for myself—in clichéd (but true) secular terms, a chance to lose the world and find myself; in hackneyed (but true) religious terms, an opportunity to retreat and discern. And indeed, there would be times when I would find the always possible but increasingly remote reality of sacramental living, where the spirit breathes steadily through earth, and the still small voice thrums loudly in the solitary ear.

(Icon Bay, Spruce Island. Photo: John Adams/Wikipedia.)

But in another sense, my retreat away from society was just as much a sojourn into new ones. Continue reading “Iconocrisis: Prologue and Preface”

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Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century

“Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” -Mark 8:34

We have now lived through another Easter—technically two. This Sunday marks the arrival of the pascha of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We who inhabit the Christian world (really worlds) have lived in some approximate way through the life and death and life-again of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever we may think of him or his life or his death (or his life-again), the tradition and our calendars tell us it is all in some sense over. Complete. As the man himself said, it is finished.

In the East this means that everyone has said, and will be saying for some time, to their church and household and neighbor those great ancient words “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) and has heard, and will be hearing for some time, the great response, “Alithos Anesti!” (“In truth he is risen!”). In the West we do this as well. But nowadays to have celebrated Easter is also to have borne witness to a steady parade of Easter-related posts from friends and family. I myself a Friday ago saw my fair share of flowery tombs (empty, indeed) and crepuscular crosses (of the bloody sunset or rosy sunrise varieties). In fact, it is the crosses that show the most variety, and it’s this variety that shows the most interesting spectrum of interpretations. Where do we find the cross in our current place and time? Well, with the Russians—on Facebook.

But we’re long done with crosses now, aren’t we? Easter itself is over, but only because it has opened us up to spring in the largest sense, to the hope of renewed life even after death. Why should we go back to death, back to the cross?

Continue reading “Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century”

The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone

America has never been an Eden—unless you’ve found an alternative history or Bible. At least as far as I understand the past 200+ years, this nation has never been too long without some form of conflict. We’ve waged a revolution to gain our independence. We’ve suffered a Civil War to save our union, as well as our claim to anything approaching actual equality. We’ve entered—and in some cases initiated—many contests overseas, and we’ve sustained many disputes at home. In every case we’ve never fully agreed on the right and proper course of action, or even why we should act in the first place. Indeed, at times our concerns are so disparate, and so diametrically opposed, and so asymmetrically proportioned, that in some very real sense it is absurd for me even to use the word “we.”

Still, by many countries’ standards, I think that the United States does excel at having a high volume of public opinion, and that volume may be said to represent a kind of consistency. “We” have tended to speak as if we were all directly involved in our country’s many doings. And this is good, and this is true, if we take our democratic ideals seriously. In some generic sense, at least, we have often communicated to each other with urgency and utmost concern, as if something deeper than our lives depended on it. This is also good and true. It is absolutely necessary: the moment we stop speaking to each other will inaugurate a kind of death not even the Civil War could accomplish.

And yet, lately I am finding, inside of myself and around me, a new sense of urgency and a new form of involvement—which is to say, a new form of communication. (By “lately” I actually mean the past decade or so, which is relatively “new” even in the American scheme of things.) As I’ve already mentioned, this past election season threw our new forms of democratic participation into stark relief for me, and I’ve spent many an idle moment and post mulling over what it means to be an American on 21st century social media. One commonality has stood out significantly to me. Now, I am aware of the dangers of neutralizing through generalization; and I don’t think equivocation is a productive way to solve a plurality of detailed problems. But by my lights, to be an American at this moment means (among multitudinous other things) to have a sense of urgency, and this urgency, as I see it, is to react—as quickly and clearly and absolutely as possible. It seems to me that we have a virtual sense of duty to a socially mediated nation. Continue reading “The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone”

Malapro

Malapropism - Pledge

malapropism: ridiculous misuse of words, especially through confusion caused by resemblance in sound.[1]

I have a peculiar love of malapropism. Anyone who has known me for long—anyone who has spoken in front of me long enough to misspeak—anyone who has gambled in knowing me long enough to have had the bad luck of misspeaking in front of me—knows the childish glee I get from any verbal flub or infelicity. Around most strangers and acquaintances I am respectfully silent. But should a close friend or relative make the slightest slip, I’ll flash on them and smile in their face with wide-eyed wonder. Of course, I have to be in a good mood to lower another’s.

Now, to some degree this linguistic schadenfreude is a familial trait. Should someone mispronounce a word or trip on their own tongue within our hearing, my family will rear every one of its grinning heads like a herd of velociraptors. And yet my particular delight in malapropism, in particular words misused or mingled (but not quite mangled), is a little more specifically mine. It has become a kind of hobby of memory to remember the specific solecisms I’ve heard. Many a simple misstep has become a special moment to me.

And yet, I consider myself a kind enough person. An empathetic, or at least empathetically educated, person. I consider myself a person.

Now, one of the reasons I love a good malapropism is because it often says more about its speaker than it does about itself. It is more an expression of personality—temperament, interests, experience, thought-process—than it is an error in language. I think of this as a more universally acceptable appreciation of malapropism—which therefore makes the appreciator more relatable.

At surface-hearing, a malapropism is funny because of its incongruity. It strikes the well-trained ear as off-key with the rest of the pitched world. It’s funny the way a bad tuba note used to be funny. The most civilized, language-conforming speakers will laugh at a malapropism mostly out of spite or embarrassment: as a way of shaking the filthy thing off. I will certainly admit to succumbing to the less superior superficial perception of malapropism. Once, shortly after the third and thankfully last “Star Wars” prequel came out, I watched a preschool boy menace another with the vicious proclamation, “I AM JENNIFER GRIEVOUS!” The comedy was not only in the child’s insistent reminders to his playmate that he had another but unseen set of arms—which presumably stopped flailing every time he paused to point them out to his playmate—but also his bombastic confidence that he knew, owned, and was the dreaded general: a ruthless, thick-voiced, armor-plated, brain-skinned, snake-eyed, four-armed, lightsaber-wheeling monster who goes by the name of Jennifer.

But I sincerely believe that when I laugh at a malapropism I am not merely laughing at the person who speaks it. I am laughing because of them. I would be more than happy to laugh with them, but I am usually the one to laugh first, and that seems to be enough in most cases. Anyway, a malapropism is one potential source of what I have elsewhere called the comedy of acceptance. With a malapropism, the acceptance is often very one-sided, at least if the laughing is out-loud. When someone misspeaks around me, I would rather not correct them, because I wouldn’t want them any other way. At this point in my growing up, I try my best not even to laugh, because I do not want that raw person-essence to flee. Everyday so many humans are hiding behind saved faces, and who they are is far more good-and-pleasant than good diction.

Continue reading “Malapro”

OH; or, “The Original Hipster”

[This essay is obviously quite belated. By now there have been numerous articles that more thoroughly study the many screes that cover the hipster mountain. In this I am not attempting any new insights about fashion, postmodernism, history, or that most contentious of all topics, fretted over nearly beyond recognition, irony. I myself am usually many years late to any game, and take a long time for reflection. So I hope it is apparent that most of all in this essay I am analyzing my own particular responses and, within them, my characteristic failures to see.]

IMG_0386  (Rare depiction of a young, hopeful Ishmael setting off in search of Experience by Rockwell Kent.)

Call him Ishmael, but also call him American. Because like so many Americans, Ishmael has a tattoo. In fact, he may have more than one. Like so many dudes, his is on his arm. You can imagine how cool it looks, considering how yoked he must be from all of his whaling experiences. All that manly pulling of ropes and . . . um . . . barrel carrying.

But actually, the one tattoo he mentions in his narrative, and the only one we know about, is a detailed enumeration of a sperm whale’s measurements. So Ishmael’s tattoo is in fact a flesh-bound fascicle of the very material for which many consider Moby-Dick to be an old, long, and “difficult” (aka boring) book: all those dry, technical, often prolix passages of whaling minutiae better situated in a scholarly work than in a high seas chase novel. “And then the great whale’s heart burst, clouding the air with blood, raining hunks of exploded life-stuff down to plash piece by piece into the roiling water like so many melting rubies . . . Now, in this next chapter, I’d like us to examine the ways in which the throwing of a harpoon can be as exciting to read as any operator’s manual.” No, no—in truth, I like, love, and greatly admire the vast majority of Melville’s novel. To me it is a loose baggy monster only in the best sense. It is full of so much. Including an interesting example of American tattooing before it was a thing.

For some time now there has been a trend of getting antique-looking tattoos on one’s body—usually somewhere frequently publicly visible, very often the forearm. I am not the one to write even a brief history of this fashion, and I refuse to do the research to do so. But I am assured by my sheer experience of “the culture” that it is a thing.

And actually, the thing is part of a much larger trend that by now is commonly called hipsterism. Well, not exactly: it’s not in fact enough of a movement with a collective cause or shared experience or set of agreed-upon principles to be deemed an –ism, but it is widespread enough to have become a real presence in the culture. From the fact that we in Portland have a “Hipster Santa,” plus the recurrence of hipster parodies in the mainstream culture (such as in shows like 30 Rock and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), we can infer the existence of some essential facets to being a hipster. We all seem to have a higher idea already in mind when we discern the outward signs of a true hipster on the street.

For many, the phrase “the old is new again” will likely sum up the hipster style nicely. And indeed it gets very close to the subject. At least, it gets very close to what I in this essay will be calling “hipsterism” or “historical hipsterism.”[1] Portlandia famously satirized historical hipsterism with its “Dream of the 1890s.” Knitwear, suspenders, straight razors, muttonchops, handlebar mustaches, artisan everything. These are things that people are not doing still, but are doing for the first time for themselves. However, they are not doing these things because they need them, but because they like the idea of them, and because they want to be seen doing them. The Portlandia segment approaches the ostentation of the hipster enterprise through its lyrics—“Micro-brew or die”; but it most clearly captures hipster affectation in its visuals: the blank, grim, and often forbidding stares of Fred Armison and his fellows are pointed at the viewer from over their gargantuan whiskers. The facial hair is exaggerated and fancified as it has not been for over a hundred years, and they stare at you as if they were standing for their first daguerreotype.

Here I think Portlandia has caught something unique but elusive or hidden, perhaps latent, in at least some hipster self-fashioning. It is more than just plain old-fashioned coolness, though it is related to it. It does indeed want to seem not to care much about anything, to seem effortless in the midst of so many trying.[2] It is, indeed, ironic, but not necessarily deviant for doing things this way: as writers like Jen Doll and Ann Powers have pointed out in response to Christy Wampole’s judgments, irony has been a fact of human living for some time. But in its selection of certain historic American clothing and hairstyles, often caricatured even by 19th century standards, historical hipsterism seeks to take a specific kind of step away from the crowd. It is more than a mode of donning parody. It is more than unsmiling self-satire.

The danger, or at least provocation, of hipsterism seems to me to be pomposity. Hipsters can take not taking themselves seriously very seriously. It is this tendency that I think defenders of hipsterism and irony do not always address: the investing of irony with self-importance. Perhaps some of it is treating parody as fine art. Whatever the case, at least on a superficial level, hipsters seem to be the opposite of unassuming—and yet what they assume is not easily traceable to themselves. Like many stylish people, hipsters are practitioners of being seen. To me at least, they are constantly being-seening. I can’t imagine any of the nattier dandified kind making toast, getting sick, or sitting on the toilet, so imposing is their toilette. (Not that I really want to imagine the last on the list, by the way, but think about it: can you easily imagine a young man with the proudly up-turned mustaches of a Union general hunched over in so naked, undignified, and basically human a posture?) I sometimes believe such people don’t want me to know they own pajamas, or even a bed for that matter. And on top of all that there arisen that aloofness or self-distancing that’s become so notorious. There’s a self-focused gesturing that never looks at anyone. This is obviously not true, and humanly impossible, but the appearance of it is a noticed phenomena. Simply Google the words “aloof hipster” and see what you get. There is a real sense to some that hipster will not grant you entry into the compound circle of their orbits. It’s as if they are monks of coolness, who have sworn themselves to themselves, and made a vow to style itself.

I would say this view of the hipster is really of the mythical “arch-hipster.” It is largely a stereotype. And as far as irony is concerned, its strategies have become so normalized by now that perhaps, as Doll said, it’s really a matter of moderation.[3] But I have to confess that the stereotype of hipster aloofness is one that I can relate to having perceived as true. At times I have been just as judgmental as Wampole in my estimation of the ostensible “hipster lifestyle”—or at least their style of dress. And I suppose that has been just the problem for so many: “hipsterism” of such an outwardly totalizing nature flaunts an affected lifestyle as pure style, leaving nothing known but the gesture itself. To me, an arch-hipster bares no experience in their get-up. They are all gotten-up, with no sign of where they’ve gone or where they’re going. The outfit, when taken from a century out of context, doesn’t even represent a currently relatable occasion, much less any individual background. Here is the barista with the Woolrich vest and John Brown beard. The side of his scalp is strictly shaved, but from the asymmetrical side-part his hair flows like some force of nature. What happens when you look him in the face?

Continue reading “OH; or, “The Original Hipster””