25 December, 2007

How Christianity saved paganism

by Jorge Reyes

We're so pagan and don't know it. 

I write this essay close to the December holidays, a time that most of us celebrate what we call Christmas, a holiday that to some is infused with meaning and symbolism, and for  others it is nothing more than a nice secular holiday season.

This time of the year, though, is one of the most venerated and cherished times ever.  It is a time when the days grow shorter and when we become very nostalgic.  It is also a time when we like to be at our most magnanimous; engaging in benevolence; shunning avarice, hypocrisy, and egotism-- at least for the time being. 
Never mind that's how we like to think of ourselves, even if we go back to our old selves come January.

 But there's more to this sense of altruism than meets the eye.
What drives us all to this feeling of goodness is, perhaps, that this is one of the oldest and most ritualized times celebrated by many, many cultures as far back as civilization, much farthest back than our own Christian belief in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. 
The winter holidays are a special type of holidays, and pagans as much as us moderns are fully aware.  Something changes in the air, and we sense it.  There's nothing supernatural about this.  It just is.  You see, this is the only time in the year when the days get shorter and there seems a sad, nostalgic, and spirited desire to see life renewed all around us, light winning out against the forces of darkness.

This is the time of the year when the earth is farthest from the sun, days becoming cooler. This is the time, not accidentally, when throughtout the world, many cultures consider this time of the year the saddest. And, the closer it gets to December 22 or thereabouts, the closer we tend to think of life and death. It is a time when our own ancient brethens sought to win the war against darkness, as they slowly saw how light receded into a mere backdrop laden by heavy, grey clouds, and how our friend the sun simply seemed to recede ever more from us; birds chirping with a language as rich in mystery as ancient music; but it was a sad music; with a tenor that portended to a e future when life, once again, would burst with light for us all-- ourselves, our families, and our community.

And so it was, that to early Christians, Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world, was born on this day to save us all from the palling curtains portending death and into life. It was life born without sin, from a virgin woman; unsoiled and impregnated by mortal life. Can any of us say the same about our own birth, and death? Can nature? Can the cycle of the ever receding light say the same? for it was nothing short of a miracle for the sun to be recycled into something new, better perhaps, and into a new year.

There are four points in our calendar each equally divided by what's known as the solstice and the equinox. The equinox is the time of the year when the earth circling in its own axis in a sort of oval is at a point most centered from the sun in which all days are equal in length. This often happens on March 21 and September 23. The other time of the year, the most exquisite as far as symbolisms, is the winter solstice. During the solstice, the earth still going around in an ellipse, an oval, is farthest from the sun. This often happens on June 21 and December 22. As I wrote, this is the time when days get shorter. This is the time when Jesus of Nazareth, according to legend, was also born. And this is the time when other religious saviors were born as well, including Mithras, a god of very ancient and pagan belief.

Mithras, like Jesus, was also born of a virgin woman on December 25. In Rome, when the Romans tolerated all religious cults, a temple dedicated to Mithras had the following saying at its entrance: "And thou hast saved us by shedding the eternal blood."

The mythical Jesus comes from many traditions, all ancient and pagan in origin. From the years 4 A.D. on, Jesus is depicted with a lamb on his shoulders. The same was depicted of Athens as far back as 570 B.C. Jesus and his mother, Mary, were also depicted as "Madonna and Child", just as Isis was depicted as "Isis and Child" in 1800 B.C!

Ancient man saw the winter solstice as a battle between eternal dark and sunlight. In fact, this belief system was so powerful because it was empirically observed every year, hence its overwhelming importance in myths, lore, and historical anecdotes; hence its rich power to us today.

Every religion has a belief system based on these equinox or solstice seasons, and most often they are celebrated in the form of a feast, fetival, and/or a combination of both. Not one culture is alike, but symbolically every culture has some basic archetypes whose origin are the same. This time of the year, I think, is one of them, and it is my favorite, too. The peoples of ancient China, India, South America, Africa all felt that the sun was needed for life, and they invented ways to ask for it in the only way they understood their surroundings-- in the best and most sincere way possible-- by creating a god.

This is why I think that paganism is as much a living reality today as it was for ancient man, very little has changed.  We are still an ancient people living in a modern world.  Those ancient longings and myths are still very much with us, as now, when we celebrate in our own ways the winter solstice celebration.  We are the children of those ancient nomads and warriors venerating Jesus Christ or Mithra or Isis, even when some of us outright reject them but continue to ask about the mystery of our lives, and how powerful those symbols are still to us today.

We're so pagan and don't know it.

18 December, 2007

The Castro Story after Castro

It seems that to write about Cuba has become a pastiche these days. It is equally true that for some us, writing about and living the Cuban story has been a fascinating story-- a story often interpreted as the tale of a few romantic radicals and other times as the tale full of tragedy and despair. Romance, like life, is a bittersweet story rarely ending happily.

The facts about the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as always, and the "truth" about it are somewhere in the middle, shaded in half-truths and half-lies.

When Castro and his bearded rebels gained political power that fateful night of December 29, 1959, there was much theatrics similar to the vitriolic sort of political experience Cubans have known since Cuba's independence from Spain in 1896. Cuba's political reality since its independence never matured to the level that it could produce anything other than what it had, sudden spurts of well-intentioned politicians boasting of lofty ideals that never came true and which always, without exception, ended in political corruption. As Ramon Eduardo Ruiz wrote in his now classic book, Cuba: the Making of A Revolution, the revolution, its ideals and aspirations did not represent a radical break with the past; it was a continuance of the past developing to the point where Fidel Castro could, literally, claim himself to be one day dictator for life, Communist or not. And when that happened, it was irrelevant if he believed in his socialism or whether he was just an opportunist.

The fact that Castro played upon the myths and lore of Cuba's realities didn't go unnoticed by many. Some, including members of the Communist party, saw him as bad news. His political maturity and left-wing ideals, fomented after he gained power, was subtle, a test of wills and luck he balanced until, finally, he moved on to the Soviet camp, proclaiming, one night, that he'd be a Communist until the day he died, while a white dove perched quietly on his shoulders. The strange combination of messianic leader turned savior turned daemon has lasted to this very day.

But communism, just as much as capitalism for that matter, was never much a part of Cuba's political reality before or after 1959. What Cuba had, at least politically, was a dependence on US interests as much as it depended later on Marxism until, finally, it sold its soul to Fidelismo, a political movement in need of research as much as the Third Reich has been.

Hence enters into this Shakespearean political scene a man with great appetites, large intellect, and a vision for himself which was as much opportunism as luck, to paraphrase Georgia Anne Geyer in her book Guerrilla Prince; a man none of us have been able to get rid in more than a quarter of a century; a man still on everyone's lips. And, coincidentally, whether you loved him or hated him, this man was also very smart. His intellect drew upon a rich eclecticism that oversaw the construction of a society divided and torn by complexity on all sides, worldwide, wherever there is a Cuban. It was a society built on a legitimized form of Machiavellian strata. The fact that it was a legitimized police state made it worse.

For good or bad, Castro has outlasted eight American and five Russian presidents. It set into a motion a geopolitical change that not only changed the dynamics of present-day Cuba, but South Florida and the world beyond.

Today, each of us has gotten used to the old doddering dictator. What most see in Castro, at most, is an intelligent but decrepit though benevolent head of state. A man hard from being perfect, but someone for whom many don't see him as the devil incarnate as many of my older members of my family saw him. Of course, there's a new generation to whom the post Cold War realities of present-day living is just part of the annals of history. Something interesting, but relegated to the pages of yellowed newspapers, like watching reruns of I Love Lucy.

No one is immortal and just a few days ago Reuters announced that Castro, a man who has not been seen public in 16 months, might have submitted his resignation as head of Cuban government.

My elemental duty is not to hold on to positions and less to obstruct the path of younger people,” the 80-year-old Castro said in a letter read on the Cuban state-run television program, La Mesa Redonda. Castro continued by saying that his duty is “to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional times that I have lived through.”

This comes on the heels of the death of his sister-in-law, Vilma Espin, who passed away of an undisclosed illness on July, 2006. Up until then, there has been no official report of any death in the much tight-lipped Castro family. Espin was married to Raul Castro, to whom Castro ceded power to as head of state in 2006. Castro, though, still holds the posts of president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

But neither were Raul Castro nor Vilma Espin, nor anyone who may replace any of them as head of state, can fill the gap of Fidel Castro himself; even had Castro died and the Raul-Vilma duo could have filled the gap and entered a decade of some sort of centrist socialist country, this posture couldn't have lasted for long since the center of the dynamic that became the Cuban Revolution could have outlasted its "Top Dog", Fidel himself.

Some years ago I wrote a book about returning to Cuba, Rediscovering Cuba: A Personal Memoir. My ideas then, as much as they are now, have changed little. Cuba's present-day reality is complex, too complex. Many people have an interest in Cuba's future, and many have a stake and a moral right, too, at rewriting its history. At the time that I published my book, I sent a copy of the book to one of Castro's sister, Juana Castro, who lives in Southern Florida and who has never seen her brothers since the early 1960's when she left Cuba. In the brief conversation she and I had, what I found in her is the same type of closely-guarded testimony of a Cuban who not only is divided between family love and the divisions all too common for the Cuban people. Juana Castro congratulated me on the publication of my book. I said that I was honored that she'd taken her time to call me. The conversation was polite, but distant. She knew I could have thrashed and demonized the family whose name she bears, the Castro name. I honestly hadn't. But what I found in her was that when it comes to speaking about Cuba, there are no easy answers. I refrained from asking too many indiscreet questions about her brothers, about her family, about her views on Cuba. She herself kept mum about saying anything at all. Hence the intractable silence, the impasse that exists between two countries, two people, and misunderstanding amonng generations subtly divided over an issue that in the past was easy to ascertain as one cause, with one name-- with one common hatred.

24 November, 2007

Evil in modern literature

What do we make of actions stemming from individuals or people that cannot be accounted for; evil, for example, comes to mind.

Evil as a force can be legitimized in only two ways: in a Manichean struggle between good and bad, each battling for dominion in earthly life. Problematic as it may seem, most of our concept of evil is infused with this earthly struggle, which is also cosmic and transcendental in nature, but which posits human freedom and the ability to choose one from the other as the only redemptive way out of this impasse. Hence, we often tend to judge actions according to our inate ability to choose the good over the bad, or vice versa.

In truly heinous acts, we seem to believe in the infallible epistemological verity of goodness when bad is punished, often as compared to some principle or other, and as a society we buy into the reassurance that after all this is the best of all place, after all, to paraphrase Voltaire's Candide, and that justice ultimately is achieved.

There are a few books that have been published lately, each diametrically opposed to each other except by the thematic issue of evil, that bring into the fore of popular discourse the meaning of evil in modern time. Assuredly, in what is recognized as a post-911 society, trying to come to grips with evil is timely. One of these books is a book of fiction titled The Castle in the Forest, written by the darling of American letters, Norman Mailer, (1923-2007).

There are other books on this subject-matter, and they each grapple with what has now become a clique, a terminology that describes evil as banal, something devoid of character. This phrase, coined by Annah Arendt (1906-1975) in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, based on her reporting of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963, has vastly contributed to our present-day discussion on evil in modern political thought, though not without some controversy. Hers was a phrase that didn't seem to settle anything. This is more astonishing by the fact that she liked to think of herself as a political theorist whose overall theories was based on "men, not Man," or "man in the singular."

But her banality of evil phrase outlasted its usage by the manner in which evil has been defined historically. Instead, seeking ways to save human nature from horrendous potentials and acts of genocide, it was better to comprehend the incomprehensible or "inhuman" by distancing each from the other first by distancing it from a moral point of view, and then from an epistemological one.

Regardless, it was the best antidote to that vast plain field of post modern barenness we seem to have fallen trap to, and not inevitably I might add.

Evil, in the presence of Goodness, should not exist, or should it? If it does, can evil be called anything other than human, all too human, fated for defeat if defeated, fated to triumph if it does? Is it something so radical that to call it inhuman would, then, be appropriate? or is it? is it banal to the point that it is both devoid of radicality and then it becomes, ipso facto, not inhuman, but part of us? Hence Hitler's mass movement.

But what gives rise to it in the first place and, when it does in quantifiable ways, how are we to reprehend it for what it is? What drives some people to mastermind acts of genocide that gives rise to our concepts of evilness? And when it does, whence does it come from? And, most alarming, for what purpose?

Mailer, no stranger to controversy if his life and not his fiction is analyzed, sets out to write nothing less that Adolf Hitler's early life as seen through the eyes of devil. This devil is just one invisible and not all powerful demi-evil-god who answers to an even larger devil whom he calls the Maestro. Little is written about goodness, or someone whom we can refer to as a Maestro of goodness. In fact, nothing is written about the opposite of evil and we soon enter into the lives of normal-seeming people, even when we are brought face to face with a kid whose actions, while odd, don't come close to foretelling the acts of genocide he ultimately was responsible for perpetuating.

As problematic as Arendt's banality, Mailer's is no different, and for the same reasons. In Mailer's cosmology, there is a struggle that even reduces the very substance that pits good versus in evil, when evil these devils don't know what it is that makes them follow the order of high-above, low-below, since it seems devoid also of value. The narrator in the Castle in the Forest just follows the directives of his master, rarely mentions God, and just puts ideas into the people he is slated to lead step by step, everyday, until his mission is accomplished: Hitler the baby turned Hitler the genocidal mass murderer.

If Mailer grappling with Arendt's own post-modernism, he fails since in his desire to find meaningful explanations that are not merely descriptive actions, he takes the moral imperative against evil acts by making his characters, in effect, innocent of responsibility. This is at first ironic from a man who once went on record arguing against this same problem: "If Hannah Arendt is correct and evil is banal, then that is vastly worse than the opposed possibility that evil is satanic."

In other words, if the struggle is between something that is banal, not necessarily substantial in nature (definition is mine), then any act termed evil is just a tautological description. What's the same, the 10,000,000 millions who died in World War II is no more an act of indifference and caprice of a strange group of people that liked to be part of the Third Reich under a leader known to be the Fuhrer, than it is for a psychopath mass murderer who goes on a killing spree of women and who, though resposible, is no more accountable for his actions than Hitler himself.

The irony in all of this is that impasse, though intractable, is not at all impossible to imagine.

In our development of western thought, we are all victims to that Platonic division that pits "concept" against "reality"; its implication seems to indicate that we, as finite actors in a worldstage, can understand one's ultimate meaning only by comparing it to some ineffable world of ideas outside the realm of cognition, and the simple act of seeking to find such cosmic mana by which we seem to base, compare and contrast all of our actions, is an act to self-defeat from the first-go.

It reminds me a lot of the strange circular reasonings many philosophers seem to have rebutted their own philosophies by concluding that the conceptual is a fiction, that we should nonetheless seek to believe in it as if it existed in reality. The paradox is at first startling, but that's exactly the sets of ideas which have made us heirs to a culture, and individuals.

Only those who are really wise enough to be members of an elite group of philosophers with knowledge in esoteric mysteries, can understand and guide the rest of us. Therefore, our inability to fully place bad actions in the context of a meaningful dialogue that places both concepts and reality as one and the same and makes, in a plethora examples, all actors accountable for their own actions for to act without ideas is not to act beyond grunts and hunger. To continue to divide and believe in this bipolar existence of the above and below, the cosmic and the human, we fail to undestand that meaning can only be understood without recurring to phantoms that plant the seed of doubt in our heads, but makes each of our actions based on either freedom, or its lack; concepts inately part of our actions; play and act one and the same.

In many ways the pre-Socratic materialists, Epicurus, Democritus and Epitectus we closer to the modern impasse when they described the world as being finite and of one substance, matter, and not as based on two substances, matter and spirit. Perhaps each was defining a truth into itself, matter and spirit may be one, not two, but very few except the bravest at heart have taken on this challenge with any level of persuasiveness. Our canon tends to immediately shut that possibility up twenty-five hundred years ago.

Mailer can't account for Hitler's monstrous acts, but neither can many of his peers. Their attempt to understand something that cannot be acounted for is noble, but only when placed within the context of human, not inhuman, acts. To Arendt that was the major issue. In fact, how can one judge war crimes or heinous acts if those acts are deliberately inhuman. Inhuman? If at issue it was inhumanity, then I'm not sure how one can judge such acts because to separate the human from the context of the acts is to call such, indeed, banal though there is nothing banal about murder, or genocide.

Since Hitler's suicide in 1945, we have yet to understand how someone like him could have driven one of the most liberal-minded cultures in Europe to a culture that accepted crematoriums for human beings. To get to know in-depth the real Hitler would fail at many levels, and current books both fiction and non-fiction are prove to such. Even to those who knew Hitler personally and survived World War II, fail to come to fully describe the monstrosity he created. Of course, it is a monstrous act that he couldn't have done on his own, like most crimes are never committed just by one person.

Of Albert Speer's memoirs which is a whopping 600+ page book, there are no more than five or six pages, at the most, which he describes concentration camps, and only in the most perfunctory manner. Of another survivor of the Hitler gang is that of his personal and faithful secretary, who wrote her memoirs of the last days of her Fuhrer right after World War and her words are just excuses are just ritualizations of her days working as secretary to a killer and her remunerations of his last days, deeply entrenched under group in his bunker.

All these books, and I've only mentioned a four in a vast bibliography of the subject matter, fail to describe murder for what it is: inexecusable acts committed in the daily routine of our lives. Perhaps we fail to analyze whence these acts occur because to dig too deep into the cavernous motives for our actions is to tread of thin ice. Hitler, before becoming the Fuhrer, seems to have been a normal with strange ideas, but not necessarily dangerous. Stalin and Mao, or any other psychopath, before becoming politically powerful looked like you and I. They may have come out of highly dysfunctional families, but many of us do and hardly all of us become mass-murderers.

Is evil, then, something that we can call "banal" in a society long used to allowing evil acts in a non-judgmental manner? Hardly, it was always an untenable though thought-provoking facile way to strip our collective guilt of any culpability. Is evil, then, something for which we as actors in a world stage claim innocence of? Hardly, it never was though we felt better knowing that it was convenient to strip thought from action; concept from reality; life from death.

I would like to develop this line of reasoning later on as I analyze the demarcation between thought and reality in tragedy, especially as it has been defined in works of fiction of both elder and modern times.

30 October, 2007

Amanda, my cat-- on losing a beloved pet

Not that I'm a philosopher or an intellectual savant, but in the past I've written about the meaning of life.  It is a topic that interests me a great deal.  Particularly at life contrasts with death.

I've seen my fair share of deaths-- from family members to coworkers and acquaintances.  Not a day goes by without us being subjected to the topic in the tv or print media. 

Death is unexplainable. It is never an easy thing to explain, to oneself particularly, much less to those affected by its effects.  When this loss is from a loved one, not just from an acquantaince, then the sense of loss is never resolved despite how one can categorize it.  No explanation ever fully satisfies.  Death is final. 

Just recently I experience such an emotion, but not from the death of a person, but from a beloved pet, Amanda, one of four cats I had. 

Amanda was a large, white cat with black spots.  She was high-strung, energetic, vivacious, but elegant and loyal as well. Being an outside cat, one of her habits was to wait for me to open the door to my house so she could sneak in and eat with my two other inside cats.   No matter how many times I admonished her for it, she always did it.  It became a habit, and I ultimately gave up reprimanding her and actually waited for her at the door.  

Just about five days ago, though, she died of what seems to have been a massive intoxication. The vet doesn't know what it was, just that such a strong, healthy and lovely cat died horribly of convulsions I never imagined I could endure. During the night, I'd hold her, giving her my mother's favorite anti-intoxicant, oil mixed with milk, a combination that, she assured me, would force her to vomit whatever Amanda had eaten, and make her return to her normal health again.

She never did. When I held her, she'd give me this glazed look, still loving and warm, but it was a look that seemed from some far away creature blinded to my caresses. She seemed to have been going from this life, faster than I assumed, and had resigned to her fate.

The next day, as I called the vet to find out her fate, he informed me that her body temperature was at the level of an animal who'd given up and was just waiting to breathe her last breath, as she was. Last I saw of her was of Amanda under sheets, still with convulsions, breathing but not for life, breathing in a lifeless way, from her stomach.

And so, I knew that the inevitable couldn't be forestalled. I let it be.

What gets to me about death is not so much that one has to resign one's self to the fact that when one is gone, it seems as if a precious prism of light is gone forever. And it is. One can't replace a dead one, one can only be left with its memory, and even that has a funny way to be replaced by the realities of daily living. Thereafter, what's left?

We're all at the whims of a breeze. We're very little, though we assume that our mere presence in life is sufficient to solidify our worth in a cosmos often devoid of much meaning, if at all. I, you, all of us, are left with such sense of unfairness, disappointed, and anger. Often each of these emotions follow that pattern, often they come and go as easily as our memories bring us back to a particular time in the past when we remember a particular eccentricy or habit about those people and pets we lost and were left behind in that great void called time.

Since the inception of civilization, man has tried to enrich the wonder of life by embillishing it with meeaning. It would be so cruel, so wicked, to realize that despite everything that is given to each of us in the form of life, that in the end it would revert to that same dark, meaningless void from whence we seem to have jumped up from with that cry of pain ro joy, with that whimper of hunger, with that look o hunger we find in a small insignificant kitten we rescued from a parking lot.

That's how I'd like to think of this death. Amanda was merely a cat, a pet, but a being whose unexpected loss has caused me a great personal void. Writing this I can't even comprehend the intensity of it any more than I can help writing these words hoping that they could bring some closure to my feelings, though I won't fool myself-- trying to understand the incomprehensible never fully satisfies, and, the way I see it I will always try to figure out if things could have happened differently on that fateful day of October 25, 2007, when my cat died. 

My Amanda's dead. That's all I can say.

08 October, 2007

Between Being and Non-Being

At the heart of our fears, the essence of our innate tremors, is the individual's cessation of life, our own death. Fear of such mirrors many of our mores, belief systems, and, of course, personal outlooks, even the quality of our lives. Added to our own personal annihilation, is the ending of life, the world around us, life as we know it.

Each is intrinsically connected to the other; in personal extinction, we can be assured that life will cease to be as we cognitively know it, but we can be reassured that life will continue, without us, unending it seems. This has tragi-comic consequences. How depraved to think, no matter how we become reassured that death is part of life, how cruel to feel that a life that sustained our personal existence, can also sustain our personal non-being. It is a canvas from which our eyes will be blinded to; it is a radiance from which we will excluded, forever. At least when we refer to personal death, our culture has built-in coping mechanism by which our belief systems have lent us the reassurance that our lives, perished from physical unity, will continue to live, somehow, and perhaps, ironically, forever. It is a life that exists beyond our perception, beyond our sight and beyond our cries; but it is a life guaranteed, somehow.

Whether we succeed in blinding ourselves to this belief system, truly believe in it, or truly exists, the facts remain that it is very difficult to predict the moment when death sets in. Life doesn't exist in a vacuum, except as a principle, and what seems to be the ending of a particular form of personal existence, may well be the impetus for a different way of being; a recycled form of energy feeding off from one form of life to another.

This is true, even in death at a general level, such as the end of the world, the end of life as we know it and not just at a personal level. The end of life as it could happen in a catastrophic cosmic collision, a nuclear war, or the inevitable end of life one day.

How will this life be, then? First, we can understand that our way of life will continue, even without us, through the legacy, memories or individual achievements we may have created. What we can never understand, even beyond this personal death, is how a new world will emerge depopulated of humans.

This is an intricate and strange position to analyze for we know that life will cease to exist, with or without us, and a timetable is generated then most likelier than not that it will exist without us. The human animal is not the oldest, nor the smartest. We simply are the most vulnerable, come to think of it. Without any greatness to immortality, without any history of survival in a non-human related catastrophe, we are one of life's weakest of living beings.

Yet, the sordid and morbid thought of death, however it is defined, at a personal or general level, is at the core of most of our daily rituals. It fascinates us, as much as it repels it. One implies the other; and for one to exist, the other must cease to be. Between this being and non-being, existence remains, transmogrified into something else, yet pretty much taking on a different energy.

As far back as any of us took pen and pencil in hand, as far back as anyone thought to express the indescribable into some form of symbolic meaning, we have been more fearful to answer the unanswerable than we care to know. Death is final, or so it seems, from a personal and egocentric point of view. It is not only final, it is annihilation of the self, which is something beyond finality. Finality implies a new form of beginning, (perhaps in an afterlife or in a regenerative energy), annihilation implies nothing beyond it.

But as I wrote, a world that ends in one form can regenerate itself into a new form of life. Energy refuses to die, it simply is channeled into something else, new energy. A world depopulated of the human animal is something which gives even the best science fiction writer room to pause, meander in millions upon millions of possibilities, and, in fact, it is something that has been food for creativity in that literary genre which became very popular in the Victorian age, and which H.G. Wells is most famous for.

H.G Wells grappled with these questions and in his many writings, he seems to have been looking for a way out, a way to integrate death as much as life into a world-view that shunned none, but understood the implications of each, with possible ways out of this mess, though none to his satisfaction. Hence, Wells wrote books about creating utopian societies which reverted, when all was said and done, to its opposite, dystopias. Of this the most fascinating is The Island of Doctor Moreau, an eccentric and amoral scientist who lives in an island surrounded by animals vivisected into human beings. The animals, though odd, act and think like human beings, but up to a point. Ultimately, Doctor Moreau left the island taking some of these half-creatures with him to England. As expected, these animals reverted back to their animal self.

A thematic sub-layer of transmutation and death seems to run in many of Wells's stories. Not only about the essentialist nature of life, which involves that revolving door that is life and death, but its impenetrability; its lack of coherence as well as it creative force. Wells never said when the end of the world would be, but he sure wrote about it in his other more commercially successful novels, many of which have been made into movies.

Some daring souls have attempted to posit a time when the end of the world would be. Among these was Sir Isaac Newton, founder of modern physics. Curiously enough, not too long ago some of his personal documents were discovered and put up for auction in the United Kingdom. One of the most fascinating one of these was a letter he wrote in which he wrote that the earth would end in 2060, or, 1600 years after the founding of the Holy Roman Empire.

A recent book by Alan Weisman titled, "The world without us," dares to go with scientific precision where right up until now only those of a feverish mind have ventured to go. His main thesis is simply, yet alarming: what will happen in a post-human world?

Well, here's what will happen once we're all gone: in 2 days the New York Subway will be filled with water; in another 20 days Lexington Avenue in Washington will be a river and many skyscrapers will come tumbling down; after 60 days or more, all of the world's 411 radioactive nuclear plants will meltdown, not to mention that petrochemical plants will become flaming geysers and its toxins be around for decades.

But there's more, and the next facet is fascinating to observe as it seems that life will contract and revert to what it was, hence it would be a return to nature. Our cities will become wilderness, slowly of course, not all at once. Carbon-dioxide will revert to pre-human levels of 100,000 years ago. Domesticated species, or those which will survive, will also return to a state of nature, wild and free, as these same surviving species will revert the slow track across time to forest grasslands. In a million year thence, whatever species manages to survive and gain a level of consciousness will only be fascinated to know and understand some of the peculiarities about us which may have survived, fossils mixed with Barbie dolls.

Which brings me to this point: why do think that we're any different and somehow special among other species and within the world around us? do we still think in that God of the bible which creates life in a few days, fashions people out of dust and are his mere image? I think it is a comforting idea that what we may have gained in consciousness, and hence being able to understand and feel without the marrows of our bones how we will perish, the tragi-comedy of our lives is more to be pitied than not.

If God exists, then somehow our travails in this sad existence we call "life" perhaps can be put into sort of coherent storyline, not something that could have been wasted. On the other hand, if there is a God upon whose ultimate judgment we base our inherent worth and meaning, then this same God didn't seem to have favored any of us as opposed to other forms of life, non-human life, or whatever. It seems this God fell asleep at the switch, really.

Life and death, both, are part of life and it strikes the rich as much as the poor, the human as much as the non-human, and whatever may reside beyond it has nothing to do with what we may choose to happen; mainly, preserve the personal ego from what it may never be separated from the machinery that controls it: that which will perish as either a personal self, or as a general species. And for that, which is the conclusion of our story, the results are the same, theistically speaking or shunning any allusions to transcendence.

01 October, 2007

A 1965 Interview with Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Everyone once in a while, searching through my many files of research, I come across an interesting document that has significant historical and cultural value and which, I believe, should be brought to everyone's attention once again. And such is the following Playboy interview to an old buddy of mine, the late American Atheist founder, Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

The interview, made by Richard Tregaskis, took place in October 1965. What I find fascinating is not just that this has some personal significance to me, but that once upon a time magazines that today are considered pornography or exploitative could carry interviews such as this one. And this interview was not unique. Playboy Magazine should be proud that it did so many interviews of such cultural significance, with intellectuals saying things that today would be considered outside mainstream or politically incorrect.

This is the thing: these days who knows who Madalyn Murray O'Hair or even Ayn Rand were? What is their historical significance? If you know who they are, good for you. If you don't, and I suspect that's the case, then I'm not surprised since these days the media is more interested to report the insignificance of Dodo birds like Paris Hilton, than report about whereabouts of someone like, say, Osama Bin Laden?

As for this interview, it was done in 1965, and yet how refreshing it seems in 2007.

Something to think about.

Playboy Interview with Madalyn Murray by Richard Tregaskis October 1965

The headline read: "A candid conversation with the most hated woman in America" -- and she may well have been. Madalyn Murray was the tough, uncompromising woman who challenged organized religion, school prayer, and belief in God, and so became the best-known, most detested atheist in the country. At that time Hefner and the magazine were doing their own questioning of religion, particularly as it applied to legal statutes governing private behavior. So it was not inappropriate that Murray be given her first lengthy interview in Playboy.

Richard Tregaskis, the author of Guadalcanal Diary, was given the assignment, and first encountered Murray in a Honolulu hospital, where she was recovering from what she claimed was a beating delivered by God-fearing police in Baltimore. When the interview was delivered to Chicago, Fisher felt that some added questions were necessary, so he conducted the final portion of the interview himself. "I found her an amiable, plump housewife with a bawdy sense of humor," Fisher said. "She was a woman who took her own liberation for granted."

Indeed, her description of herself as a "militant feminist" came as a surprise to the editors, who thought they were getting an interview about atheism. Her freewheeling, raunchy descriptions of her sex life and her calls for equality at all levels for women may mark this interview -- along with Ayn Rand's in 64 -- as among the earliest such discussions in any mass publication.

The interview drew a near-record response, split predictably between those who thought she was undermining the moral fiber of the country and those delighted to read such radical opinions. But perhaps the most ironic after-the-fact event came in 1979, when Murray's son Bill, whose intellectual curiosity about atheism she credits in the interview with having triggered her own anti-religious crusade, announced he had found God and was joining a fundamentalist church to preach the word against his mother's beliefs.

Until June 17, 1963, she was dismissed by many people as a litigious, belligerent, loudmouthed crank. On that day, however, the Supreme Court upheld her contention that prayer and Bible study should be outlawed in U.S. public schools, and Madalyn Murray became the country's best-known, and most-hated, atheist. She also became the churches' most formidable enemy when, undaunted, she promptly proceeded to launch another broadside at religion: a suit aimed at eliminating from tax exemption the churches' vast nationwide property holdings -- a case which many lawyers concede she will probably win if it gets to the Supreme Court, and which, if she wins it, may be what one attorney has called "the biggest single blow ever suffered by organized religion in this country." Organized religion could hardly have an unlikelier nemesis.

Playboy called the embattled 46-year-old atheist (and onetime socialist) at her home in Honolulu with its request for an exclusive interview. Consenting readily, she invited us to meet her at Honolulu's Tripler Veterans' Hospital, where she was being treated for nerve injuries which she claims were inflicted by the beating she says she sustained at the hands of the police during a melee that precipitated her departure from Baltimore.

Our first two tape sessions took place at her hospital bedside, where she proceeded to hold forth on her various suits, trials and tribulations, on church and state, and on sex and marriage, with a pungent, four-letter vehemence undiminished by her bedridden condition. Our conversations continued some weeks later in the modest frame house which she shares with her mother, her brother and her 11-year-old son Garth on Honolulu's Spencer Street.

No one can predict what the next chapter in the continuing melodrama of Madalyn Murray's life will be; but at this juncture, we feel that an exploration of her intransigent convictions, and of her continuing confrontations with the church, the law and the public, may shed some timely light on the issues involved in her private war on religion.

PLAYBOY: Why are you an atheist, Mrs. Murray?
MURRAY: Because religion is a crutch, and only the crippled need crutches. I can get around perfectly well on my own two feet, and so can everyone else with a backbone and a grain of common sense. One of the things I did during my 17 years as a psychiatric social worker was go around and find people with mental crutches, and every time I found one, I kicked those goddamn crutches until they flew. You know what happened? Every single one of those people has been able to walk without the crutches -- better, in fact. Were they giving up anything intrinsically valuable? Just their irrational reliance upon superstitions and supernatural nonsense. Perhaps this sort of claptrap was good for the Stone Age, when people actually believed that if they prayed for rain they would get it. But we're a grown-up world now, and it's time to put away childish things. But people don't, because most of them don't even know what atheism is. It's not a negation of anything. You don't have to negate what no one can prove exists. No, atheism is a very positive affirmation of man's ability to think for himself, to do for himself, to find answers to his own problems. I'm thrilled to feel that I can rely on myself totally and absolutely; that my children are being brought up so that when they meet a problem they can't cop out by foisting it off on God. Madalyn Murray's going to solve her own problems, and nobody's going to intervene. It's about time the world got up off its knees and looked at itself in the mirror and said: "Well, we are men. Let's start acting like it."

PLAYBOY: What led you to become an atheist?
MURRAY: Well, it started when I was very young. People attain the age of intellectual discretion at different times in their lives -- sometimes a little early and sometimes a little late. I was about 12 or 13 years old when I reached this period. It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn't able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible. Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend -- just as if it were a novel -- very rapidly, and I've never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it -- the whole thing shocked me profoundly. I remember l looked in the kitchen at my mother and father and I thought: Can they really believe in all that? Of course, this was a superficial survey by a very young girl, but it left a traumatic impression. Later, when I started going to church, my first memories are of the minister getting up and accusing us of being full of sin, though he didn't say why; then they would pass the collection plate, and I got it in my mind that this had to do with purification of the soul, that we were being invited to buy expiation from our sins. So I gave it all up. It was too nonsensical.

A few years later, I went off to college, a good, middle-class, very proper college, where I studied with, and under, good, middle-class, very proper people; which is to say, the kind who regard sex as distasteful and religious doubts as unthinkable; the kind to whom it would never occur to scrutinize the mores of society, who absolutely and unquestioningly accept the social system.

PLAYBOY: What school was it?
MURRAY: Ashland College in Ashland, Ohio -- a Brethren institution, where two years of Bible study are required for graduation. One year I studied the Old Testament and one year the New Testament. It was a good, sound, thorough, but completely biased evaluation of the Bible, and I was delighted with it, because it helped to document my doubts; it gave me a framework within which I could be critical. But I can't deny that I was an intellectual prostitute along the way many, many times. I can remember one examination where they said. "Describe the Devil," and in order to get 12 points on that question one had to say that the Devil was red and had a forked tail and cloven hoofs and fangs and horns on his head. So I merrily wrote this answer down and got my 12 points. I always got straight hundreds in Bible study. My independent study continued for 20 years after this. So I do know the Bible very well from a Protestant point of view -- which is what, along with my reason, entitles me to refute it. You can't rationally reject something until you know all about it. But at this time, of course, my convictions hadn't yet crystallized intellectually. I didn't know where my doubts were leading me.

I recall that I had a terrible struggle finding anything antireligious in the school libraries. But many years later, the family returned to Pittsburgh and moved into a house where a woman had left a box of books containing 20 volumes on the history of the Inquisition.

It was then that I found out there was a word for people like me: "heretic." I was kind of delighted to find I had an identity. And then, as I grew a little bit older and got interested in law, I read that Clarence Darrow didn't believe in the Bible either. So I read everything he had ever written, all of his trials, everything -- to search out the philosophy of his disbelief. But I couldn't find it. Then I went into the Army, and one day, in the middle of a bull session, somebody called me an atheist. Believe it or not, it was the first time I'd ever heard the word. It goes to show you how a person can grow up in America and have a college education and still not know a goddamned thing. Anyway, when I learned that there was such a thing as an atheist, I looked it up -- and found out that the definition fitted me to a tee. Finally, at the age of 24, I found out who -- and what -- I was. Better late than never.

PLAYBOY: Do you think everyone should believe as you do -- or rather, disbelieve?
MURRAY: I think this would be the best of all possible worlds if everybody were an atheist or an agnostic or a humanist -- his or her own particular brand -- but as for compelling people to this, absolutely not. That would be just as infamous as their imposing Christianity on me. At no time have I ever said that people should be stripped of their right to the insanity of belief in God. If they want to practice this kind of irrationality, that's their business. It won't get them anywhere; it certainly won't make them happier or more compassionate human beings; but if they want to chew that particular cud. they're welcome to it.

PLAYBOY: Even as an atheist. would you concede that religion, at its best, can be and has been a constructive force, a source of strength and comfort for many people?
MURRAY: If you're talking about Christianity, absolutely not. I don't think the Church has ever contributed anything to anybody, anyplace, at any time.

PLAYBOY: How about the welfare and charity work to which many Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations dedicate themselves?
MURRAY: Oh, they love to point to their hospitals and orphanages -- most of which are restricted, by the way. But what do these "good works" amount to? They're nothing but a sop to the clerical conscience, a crumb thrown to the populace, alleviating some of the miseries which the Church itself -- particularly the Catholic Church -- has helped to instigate and perpetuate. I can't pinpoint a period in history or a place in the universe where religion has actually helped the welfare of man. On the contrary, the history of the Church has been a history of divisiveness, repression and reaction. For almost 2000 years, Christianity has held mankind back in politics, in economics, in industry, in science, in philosophy, in culture. Anyone who has even a surface knowledge of the Middle Ages, when the Church held unchallenged sway, can recognize this. But if any one age could be singled out as the worst in the history of Christendom, it would be the administration of Pope Pius XII, the most reactionary head of the most reactionary single force in the world -- a force that binds men's minds, a force that divides them, a force that chains them so that they are unable to think and act for themselves.

PLAYBOY: How do you feel about Pope John XXIII? Don't you think his humanitarian views, as enunciated in his Pacem in Terris, testify to the fact that enlightenment can flourish within the confines of the Church?
MURRAY: There are good, humanitarian people everywhere -- occasionally even in the Church. But John was an amoeba of goodness in a sea of waste, mistakenly believing that the Holy See could or would really change in any fundamental way. He was a tragic figure, for he raised a false hope, cast a brief ray of light that was snuffed out when he died. With Pope Paul in the saddle, the Church is firmly back in the hands of arch-conservative reaction.

PLAYBOY: When you say that organized religion has contributed nothing to human welfare, do you include those many clergymen, such as Reverend Reeb, who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives participating in civil rights demonstrations?
MURRAY: Of course not. Reverend Reeb, by the way, was a well-known atheist, a Unitarian, and was not even buried with a religious ceremony. But those priests, nuns and ministers who aren't afraid to stand up and be counted are very much in the minority. They're the exception that proves the rule. Archbishop Toolen of Mobile-Birmingham has forbidden his priests to participate in Alabama civil rights demonstrations, and Cardinal McIntyre of California has punished priests in his diocese for getting involved in civil rights. These are the men who represent the Church mind -- not the poor maverick priest who defies them by marching.
But the most heinous crime of the Church has been perpetrated not against churchmen but against churchgoers. With its poisonous concepts of sin and divine punishment, it's warped and brainwashed countless millions. It would be impossible to calculate the psychic damage this has inflicted on generations of children who might have grown up into healthy, happy. productive, zestful human beings but for the burden of antisexual fear and guilt ingrained in them by the Church. This alone is enough to condemn religion.

PLAYBOY: How do you feel about such Catholic canons as the vow of celibacy for priests, and the spiritual "marriage" of Catholic sisters to Christ?
MURRAY: Sick, sick, sick! You think I've got wild ideas about sex? Think of those poor old dried-up women lying there on their solitary pallets yearning for Christ to come to them in a vision some night and take their maidenheads. By the time they realize he's not coming, it's no longer a maidenhead; it's a poor, sorry tent that nobody would be able to pierce -- even Jesus with his wooden staff. It's such a waste. I don't think anybody should be celibate -- and that goes for priests as well as nuns. I don't even like to alter a cat. We should all live life to the fullest, and sex is a part of life.

PLAYBOY: As an atheist, do you also reject the idea of the virgin birth?
MURRAY: Even if I believed there was a real Jesus, I wouldn't fall for that line of hogwash. The "Virgin" Mary should get a posthumous medal for telling the biggest goddamn lie that was ever told. Anybody who believes that will believe that the moon is made out of green cheese. If she could get away with something like that, maybe I should have tried it myself. I'm sure she played around as much as I have, and certainly was capable of an orgasm. Let's face it: If a son of God was ever born, it was because of this wonderful sex act that Joseph and Mary enjoyed one night.

PLAYBOY: A moment ago, you said, "Even if I believed there was a real Jesus..." Are you saying that you don't believe that there was such a person as Christ, or are you denying his divinity?
MURRAY: I'm saying that there's absolutely no conclusive evidence that he ever really existed, even as a mortal. I don't believe he was a historical figure at all.

PLAYBOY: Do you dismiss all the Biblical records of his life?
MURRAY: Those so-called records were written by devout ecclesiasts who wanted to believe, and wanted others to believe, in the coming of a Messiah. Until someone proves otherwise, therefore, these stories must be considered nothing more than folk tales consisting in equal parts of legend and wish fulfillment. But there's never going to be any way of verifying them one way or the other. Scholars have found that references to Christ in Josephus were deliberately planted in the translation long after it was written, and the Latin references to Christ are not to a person of that name. In the Dead Sea Scrolls there was mention of a particular "teacher of righteousness" who had characteristics somewhat like those attributed to Christ, but it might easily have been someone else. About six years ago, Life magazine ran an article on the historicity of Jesus, and I was floored to find that they conceded the only evidence we have for his existence is in the Gospels. But don't take Life's word for it. In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the most definitive study that's ever been done on the subject, Albert Schweitzer admitted that there isn't a shred of conclusive proof that Christ ever lived, let alone was the son of God. He concludes that one must therefore accept both on faith. I reject both for the same reason.

PLAYBOY: Do you also reject the idea of a life hereafter on the same grounds?
MURRAY: Do you know anybody who's come back with a firsthand report on heaven? If you do, let me know. Until then, you'll pardon me if I don't buy it. If a humanist or an atheist or an agnostic says, "We'll bake you a pie," we can go right into the kitchen and bake it, and you can eat it an hour later. We don't promise you a pie in the sky by and by. It's charlatanry to promise people something that no one can be sure will ever be delivered. But it's even worse to offer people a reward, like children, for being good, and to threaten them with punishment if they're not. I'm reminded of the joke about Saint Peter sitting at the golden gate questioning a new arrival: "Well, my son, what good deeds have you done to get into heaven?" Well, the guy casts about for something to tell him and finally remembers that he gave five cents to a charwoman one night, and once he tipped a bootblack a nickel when he got his shoes shined, and another time he gave a beggar five shiny new pennies. And that's all he can think of that he's ever done for his fellow man. Well, Saint Peter looks at him and says, "Here's your fifteen cents back. You can go to hell."
That guy didn't know how lucky he was. I agree with Mark Twain, who wrote about the hereafter that there's no sex in it; you can't eat anything in it; there is absolutely nothing physical in it. You wouldn't have your brain, you wouldn't have any sensations, you wouldn't be able to enjoy anything -- unless you're queer for hymn singing and harp playing. So who needs it? Speaking for myself, I'd rather go to hell.

PLAYBOY: Because of your success in persuading the Supreme Court to outlaw school prayer in public schools, many outraged Christians seem to feel that's just where you belong. What made you decide to pursue your suit in the face of this predictable indignation?
MURRAY: I was shamed into it by my son, Bill, who came to me in 1960 -- he was 14 then -- and said: "Mother, you've been professing that you're an atheist for a long time now. Well, I don't believe in God either, but every day in school I'm forced to say prayers, and I feel like a hypocrite. Why should I be compelled to betray my beliefs?" I couldn't answer him. He quoted the old parable to me: "It is not by their words, but by their deeds that ye shall know them" -- pointing out that if I was a true atheist, I would not permit the public schools of America to force him to read the Bible and say prayers against his will. He was right. Words divorced from action supporting them are meaningless and hypocritical. So we began the suit. And finally we won it. I knew it wasn't going to make me the most popular woman in Baltimore, but I sure as hell didn't anticipate the tidal wave of virulent, vindictive, murderous hatred that thundered down on top of me and my family in its wake.

PLAYBOY: Tell us about it.
MURRAY: God, where should I begin? Well, it started fairly predictably with economic reprisals. Now, I'd been a psychiatric social worker for 17 years, but within 24 hours after I started the case, I was fired from my job as a supervisor in the city public welfare department. And I was unable to find another one, because the moment I would go in anywhere in town and say that my name was Madalyn Murray no matter what the job opening, I found the job filled; no matter how good my qualifications, they were never quite good enough. So my income was completely cut off. The second kind of reprisal was psychological. The first episode was with our mail, which began to arrive, if at all, slit open and empty -- just empty envelopes. Except for the obscene and abusive letters from good Christians all over the country, calling me a bitch and a Lesbian and a Communist for instituting the school-prayer suit -- they somehow arrived intact, and by the bushel-basketful. Hundreds of them actually threatened our lives; we had to turn a lot of them over to the FBI, because they were obviously written by psychopaths. and you couldn't be sure whether or not they were going to act on their very explicit threats. None did, but it didn't help us sleep any better at night.
Neither did the incredible anonymous phone calls we'd get at every hour of the day and night, which were more or less along the same lines as the letters. One of them was a particular gem. I was in the VA hospital in Baltimore and I had just had a very critical operation; they didn't think I was going to make it. They had just wheeled me back to my bed after two days in the recovery room when this call came in for me, and somebody who wouldn't give his name told me very seriously and sympathetically that my father had just died and that I should be prepared to come home and take care of my mother. Well, I called home in a state of shock, and my mother answered, and I asked her about Father, and she said, "What are you talking about? He's sitting here at this moment eating bacon and eggs." Obviously, that call had been calculated to kill me, because whoever it was knew that I was at a low ebb there in the hospital.
Then they began to take more direct action. My Freethought Society office was broken into; our cars were vandalized repeatedly; every window in the house was broken more times than I can count, every flower in my garden trampled into the ground all my maple trees uprooted; my property looked like a cyclone had hit it. This is the kind of thing that went on constantly, constantly, over a three-year period. But it was just child's play compared to the reprisals visited upon my son Bill. He'd go to school every day and hand in his homework, and a couple of days later many of his teachers would say to him, "You didn't hand in your homework." Or he'd take a test and about a week later many of his teachers would tell him, "You didn't hand in your test paper. You'll have to take the test again this afternoon." This was a dreadful reprisal to take against a 14-year-old boy. It got to the point where he had to make carbon copies of all his homework and all his tests to prove that he had submitted them. But that's nothing to what happened after school, both to him and to his little brother, Garth. I lost count of the times they came home bloodied and beaten up by gangs of teenage punks; five and six of them at a time would gang up on them and beat the living hell out of them. Many's the time I've stood them off myself to protect my sons, and these fine young Christians have spat in my face till spittle dripped down on my dress. Time and again we'd take them into magistrate's court armed with damning evidence and eyewitness testimony, but the little bastards were exonerated every time.
But I haven't told you the worst. The neighborhood children, of course, were forbidden by their parents to play with my little boy, Garth, so I finally got him a little kitten to play with. A couple of weeks later we found it on the porch with its neck wrung. And then late one night our house was attacked with stones and bricks by five or six young Christians, and my father got very upset and frightened. Well, the next day he dropped dead of a heart attack. The community knew very well that he had a heart condition, so I lay a murder to the city of Baltimore.
I decided that we'd have to take our chances with the law and get the hell out of Baltimore. I thought of seeking asylum in Canada or Australia or England, but I didn't want to leave the United States, because for better or worse I'm an American, and this is my land; so I decided to fight it out on home ground, and finally we hit upon Hawaii, because of the liberal atmosphere created by its racial admixture, and because of its relatively large population of Buddhists, who are largely nontheistic, and might therefore be more tolerant of our views. So we packed up all the worldly possessions we could carry with us and took the next flight to Hawaii from Washington.

PLAYBOY: How many were in your party?
MURRAY: Six of us -- my mother, my brother, my two sons, Bill's wife and me. And I can tell you, it took just about every cent we had to our name just to pay the plane fare. When we arrived, we had about $15 left among us. We were really in pitiful shape. But we were together, and we were alive, and this was all that mattered.

PLAYBOY: How did you find a place to stay?
MURRAY: Well, we were just floored by the kindness of the people here. The minister of the Unitarian Church in Honolulu invited US over to his office the day we arrived and told us to make it our headquarters while we looked for a permanent residence. When we couldn't find a place for about a week, he let us live in the church; that's ironic, isn't it? But it points up the vastly different intellectual atmosphere that prevails here in Hawaii. Anyway, we rustled up some mattresses and put them on the floor and slept there, cooked there and ate there until we found a home. I was overwhelmed by the number of calls we got from people offering to rent us houses, to take us out to dinner, to drive us around house hunting. Everyone was just indescribably kind. Finally we moved into a house offered to us for an incredible $125 a month by a man who feels that the separation of church and state is a valid constitutional issue which should be fought for.

PLAYBOY: Considering the repercussions of the school-prayer case, why did you decide to take on the tax-the-churches suit?
MURRAY: Once involved in the school-prayer fight, I rapidly became aware of, and appalled by, the political and economic power of the Church in America -- all based on the violation of one of our nation's canon laws: the separation of church and state. The churches rose to power on the income from tax-free property. What earthly -- or heavenly -- right have they got to enjoy a privilege denied to everyone else, even including nonprofit organizations? None! My contention is that with the churches exempted from property taxation, you and I have to pay that much more in taxes -- about $140 a year per family, according to a recent survey -- to make up for what they're not contributing. If this exemption were rescinded, our property taxes would be substantially lowered, and those who rent houses and apartments would consequently be able to pass along this savings in the form of lowered rents. It could have a profoundly salubrious effect on the entire economy. I decided that if nobody else was going to do anything to rectify this colossal inequity, I'd have to do it myself. So I instituted a suit against the city of Baltimore demanding that the city assessor be specifically ordered to assess the Church for its vast property holdings in the city, and that the city tax collector then be instructed to collect the taxes once the assessment has been made.

PLAYBOY: Have you made any estimate of approximately how many annual tax dollars the churches will have to pay if you win your suit?
MURRAY: On a nationwide basis, I would guess that the various churches would have to pay annually an amount at least equal to the national debt. But it's impossible for me to make an exact estimate, because the churches hide their wealth in every way they can -- deliberate falsification as to the value of property, registering it under phony names in order to obscure the fact that the Church owns the property. In Baltimore alone, I know that the Roman Catholic Church alone would have to pay taxes of almost $3,000,000 a year. This is why the Roman Catholic Church has become a codefendant with the city in the suit -- an unprecedented occurrence in a case of this nature. I'm going after them where they live -- in their pocketbooks -- and they're fighting for their lives. They have a tremendous amount at stake -- more than any other church, because they're the biggest property owners and they've dabbled in business more than any other church. More than any other church, they've been greedy about grabbing up land and property -- not just in Baltimore, but all over the country. According to a Catholic priest writing in The Wail Street Journal, the assets and real-estate holdings of the Church "exceed those of Standard Oil, A.T.&T. and U. S. Steel combined." I'd make an educated guess that 20 to 25 percent of the taxable property in the U.S. is Church-owned. In a recent book, Church Wealth and Business Income, it was estimated that this property -- all of it tax-exempt -- is worth upwards of 80 billion dollars. I know that's a fantastic, unbelievable figure, but there's every reason to believe that it's on the conservative side; and this amount is increasing yearly at a geometric rate. They're moving into everything -- gas stations, banks, television stations, supermarket chains, hotels, steel mills, resort areas, farms, wine factories, warehouses, bottling works, printing plants, schools, theaters -- everything you could conceivably think of that has nothing to do with religion, they are moving into big. They're even coming in as stockholders in the big oil companies, and the Bank of America is almost entirely owned by the Catholic Church. And mind you -- they don't pay a penny in taxes on any of it, even on the income from rentals. The Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus, for example, pays no income tax on any of its vast rental revenue -- which comes from such sources as the land on which Yankee Stadium stands. Almost every constitutional authority has spoken on this issue, and the overwhelming consensus is that we will win if we can get it to the U.S. Supreme Court. But we won't unless thousands of people help me raise the money to pay the legal fees -- at least $40,000.

PLAYBOY: You've been quoted as saying that the Catholic Church in Baltimore was behind a conspiracy to have you and your family jailed on some pretext so that you would be unable to pursue this suit, and that this is why you were subjected to a "campaign of extralegal harassment" by the police, the courts and the citizens of Baltimore. Do you really believe that?
MURRAY: I can't think of any other plausible explanation for this vendetta. But quite apart from the Church's financial self-interest in getting me out of the way, Baltimore is an overwhelmingly Catholic city and like most good Christians, they felt we ought to be punished for our unorthodox views. Intolerance has always been one of the cornerstones of Christianity -- the glorious heritage of the Inquisition. It's no coincidence that most of my abusive mail -- sentencing me to exquisite Oriental tortures and relegating me to hell-fire and damnation -- comes from self-admitted Catholics.

PLAYBOY: Are you still receiving that kind of mail here in Hawaii?
MURRAY: For some reason. the letters we've been getting here have been just a little bit more rational; I wonder what's happened to our lunatic fringe. I kind of miss them.

PLAYBOY: Is it true that you received a letter in Baltimore composed only of the word "Kill" clipped from dozens of magazines and newspapers, and pasted onto a sheet of paper in the style of a blackmail note?
MURRAY: Absolutely. It was from a man who had written to me over a period of about two years. He started out in his first letter with something innocuous like: "You're a damn fool!" But each successive letter got more and more violent, until he came to the point where he was very explicit in his threats. We turned that whole series of letters over to the FBI. One of the things this guy said he was going to do to me was put a gun up my ass and blow the crap out between my eyes. Nice? But that's mild compared to some of them. I've gotten literally thousands in the same vein. Someday I'd like to publish a book of these mash notes. It would be an extraordinary document. I'd call it Letters from Christians.

PLAYBOY: Would you include the photograph of yourself which you received smeared with feces?
MURRAY: That would be the frontispiece. This was a picture of my mother and me coming out of the United States Supreme Court, with fecal matter smeared across our faces. They wrapped it in wax paper so that when I received it I'd get the full impact of the message. Though I haven't gotten anything quite that original lately, there's still never a dull moment in my mailbox. Shall I read you excerpts from a random sampling?

PLAYBOY: Please.
MURRAY: You asked for it. Here goes: "You should be shot!" ... "Why don't you go peddle your slop in Russia?" ... "YOU WICKID ANAMAL" ... "I will KILL you!" ... "Commie, Commie, Commie!" ... "Somebody is going to put a bullet through your fat ass, you scum, you masculine Lesbian bitch!" ... "You will be killed before too long. Or maybe your pretty little baby boy. The queer-looking bastard. You are a bitch and your son is a bastard" ... "Slut! Slut! Slut! Bitch slut from the Devil!" That'll give you the general idea. Oh -- just one more; I love this one: "May Jesus, who you so vigorously deny, change you into a Paul."
Isn't that lovely? Christine Jorgensen had to go to Sweden for an operation, but me they'll fix with faith -- painlessly and for nothing. I hate to disappoint them, but I'm not the least bit interested in being a man. I'm perfectly satisfied with the female role.

PLAYBOY: What is the proper female role, in your opinion?
MURRAY: Well, as a militant feminist, I believe in complete equality with men: intellectual, professional, economic, social and sexual; they're all equally essential, and they're all equally lacking in American society today.

PLAYBOY: According to many sociologists, American women have never enjoyed greater freedom and equality, sexually and otherwise, than they do today.
MURRAY: Let's distinguish between freedom and equality. The modern American woman may be more liberated sexually than her mother was, but I don't think she enjoys a bit more sexual equality. The American male continues to use her sexually for one thing: a means to the end of his own ejaculation. It doesn't seem to occur to him that she might be a worthwhile end in herself, or to see to it that she has a proper sexual release. And, to him, sex appeal is directly proportional to the immensity of a woman's tits. I'm not saying that all American men are this way, but nine out of ten are breast-fixated, wham-bam-thank-you-rna'am cretins who just don't give a damn about anyone's gratification but their own.
If you're talking about intellectual and social equality for women, we're not much better off. We're just beginning to break the ice. America is still very much a male-dominated society. Most American men feel threatened sexually unless they're taller than the female, more intellectual, better educated, better paid and higher placed statuswise in the business world. They've got to be the authority, the final word. They say they're looking for a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad, but what they really want, and usually get, is an empty-headed little chick who's very young and very physical -- and very submissive. Well, I just can't see either a man or a woman in a dependency position, because from this sort of relationship flows a feeling of superiority on one side and inferiority on the other, and that's a form of slow poison. As I see it, men wouldn't want somebody inferior to them unless they felt inadequate themselves. They're intimidated by a mature woman.

PLAYBOY: Like yourself?
MURRAY: Yes, as a matter of fact. I think I actually frighten men. I think I scare the hell out of them time after time. It's going to take a pretty big man to tame this shrew. I need somebody who can at least stand up to me and slug it out, toe to toe. I don't mean a physical battle. I mean a man who would lay me, and when he was done, I'd say: "Oh, brother, I've been laid." Or if we had an argument, he would stand up and engage in intellectual combat and not go off and mope in the corner, or take reprisals, or go to drink. I want somebody who's whole and wholesome and has as much zest for living as I have. But I haven't found one who fills the bill; you can't hardly find them kind no more. And I know many women my size, psychologically and intellectually, who have the same problem.
PLAYBOY: How many lovers have you had, if you don't mind our asking?
MURRAY: You've got a hell of a nerve, but I don't really mind. I've had -- if you count my marriage as an affair, which I would like to do rather than count it as a marriage, because I'm not proud of having been married -- I've had five affairs, all of them real wingdings. I've enjoyed every goddamned minute of them, but sooner or later I've outgrown every one of them, and when I did I got fed up and threw them out. If they can't keep up with me, the hell with them.

PLAYBOY: Suppose a man were to get fed up with you first. What then?
MURRAY: Well, then he should be the one to pick up and leave. No hard feelings. I don't feel that people should glom onto other people. I feel that relationships should be nice and easy and convenient and happy and not strictured with legality or jealousy.

PLAYBOY: When you say "not strictured with legality," are you saying that you don't think people ought to get married?
MURRAY: Well, I've found that most people who are bound together legally would be a damn sight happier together -- or apart -- if they were released from the contract. A man-woman relationship is physical and emotional, not legal. Legality can't create love if it isn't there, or preserve it if it's dying, but it can destroy love by making it compulsory. You don't need a marriage license to live with someone, to have the security of a home, to rear any number of children, to have years of companionship; it's not illegal, but the moment you want to screw somebody, you have to get a license from the state to use your genital organs -- or run the risk of being charged with any number of crimes carrying sentences up to and including death. So sex is really the only sensible reason for getting married. But I'd suggest pulling down the shades instead. In the long run, it's cheaper -- and more fun.

PLAYBOY: How do you feel about the heritage of puritanical sexual guilt which many social scientists assert precipitates early marriages in this country?
MURRAY: It's shit for the birds. When will we grow up? Sex is where you find it. I say take it and enjoy it. Give and receive freely, without fear, without guilt and without contractual obligations.

PLAYBOY: Starting at what age?
MURRAY: Let nature decide. When a cow is biologically ready to have sex relations, she mates with the nearest well-hung bull. When a flower is ready to scatter its seed, it pollinates. It's the same way throughout nature -- except with man, who tries to postpone consummation of his sex drive, unsuccessfully for the most part, for six or eight years after he reaches puberty. By the time it's considered socially acceptable to start screwing, most of us are sexually constipated, and this is often an incurable condition. I think young people should be able to have their first sexual love affair whenever they feel like it. In the case of most girls, this would be around 13 or 14; with most boys, around 15 or 16.

PLAYBOY: What about VD and pregnancy?
MURRAY: They should be taught about sex, sex hygiene and contraceptive methods starting in the sixth grade, and whenever they want to try it, they should be allowed to go at it without supervision or restriction -- in their parents' bedroom, on the grass in a park, in a motel; it doesn't matter, as long as the setting is private and pleasant. If we did all this, our kids would grow up into happier, healthier human beings. But we won't, of course. It would make too much sense.

PLAYBOY: Would you call yourself an advocate of free love?
MURRAY: I'd describe myself as a sexual libertarian -- but I'm not a libertine. "To each his own" is my motto. If anybody wants to engage in any kind of sexual activity with any consenting partner, that is their business. I don't feel that I can sit in judgment on them, or that society can sit in judgment on them. Anybody can do anything they damn well please, as long as the relationship isn't exploitive. And I don't feel that legality should have anything to do with it. There are certain bodily functions of mine which I will not allow to be supervised. One of these is eating. Nobody's going to license me to do this. Another one is bodily disposals. I will defecate and urinate when I damn well please and as the spirit -- and the physical necessity -- moves me. And my sex life is peculiarly my own. I will engage in sexual activity with a consenting male any time and any place I damn well please.

PLAYBOY: Do you have any immediate plans along these lines?
MURRAY: It's none of your business, but as a matter of fact, I do. I've been completely without a sex life for about five years now -- ever since I began the school-prayer suit -- and if you don't think that's a hardship for a hot-blooded woman in her prime, just try it. I'm taking applications for stud service at this address -- care of Good and Haffner, Attorneys, 1010 Standard Building, Cleveland 13, Ohio -- as well as contributions for our tax-the-churches suit. Please enclose photograph, vital statistics, and a check for the lawsuit.

PLAYBOY: Are there any particular qualifications you're looking for?
MURRAY: No, I just want a man -- a real, two-balled masculine guy -- and there aren't many of them around, believe me. But I do want somebody my own age, and somebody who has brains enough to keep me interested and to earn enough money to support me in the style to which I've become accustomed. And I want a big man physically as well as intellectually. l want a man with the thigh muscles to give me a good frolic in the sack, the kind who'll tear hell out of a thick steak, and yet who can go to the ballet with me and discuss Hegelian dialectic and know what the hell he's talking about. I want a strong man, but a gentle one. And, most unlikely of all, but most essential, I want a man with a capacity for love -- to give it generously and accept it joyously. I also want somebody who, when I say, "Let's call it quits," won't hang on; who'll say, "All right, it was fun while it lasted. So long and good luck."

PLAYBOY: Have you ever known a man like that?
MURRAY: No, but there was one who came close, and I loved him madly for some time. I don't think anybody in the world thought he was gentle, but he was gentle with me. And he treated me like a woman, which is all I really ask or want. I felt handled by him, and this is a good feeling. But, unfortunately, he never outgrew his particular intellectual commitment, so I outgrew him. He was an engineer and he was almost totally involved in his work, engineers have a very limited education and background, I think You need to move into the broader humanities in order to become a total person. But I loved him very much.

PLAYBOY: Was he the one you loved most?
MURRAY: I think so. He's a damned Dago. That's a term of affection.

PLAYBOY: Of the men you've had affairs with, how many others were foreigners?
MURRAY: None of them. But they were of different extractions. This particular guy was of Italian parentage; another had English blood; one was a real upper-class Bostonian; one had a Russian background, and one was Irish; he was the one that was best in bed. Did you know that we ladies have bull sessions like this among ourselves, and we talk about which of you fellows are good stud service and which ones aren't? If you boys knew what you sound like when you and your bedroom manners are dissected by a bunch of WACs, it would curl your hair, because we talk about exactly the same things you do among yourselves -- and just as graphically.
Say, I wonder why I'm telling you all this. I know I'm being indiscreet, because this kind of thing could be used against me nationwide; it'll just add fuel to the fire, which is already hot enough for me. But you know something? It just so happens that I don't give a damn. I'm going to be damned anyway. If they haven't destroyed me yet, I'd say I'm indestructible.
Five years ago, before I opened Pandora's box by starting the school-prayer case, I was doing all right financially; I had my health, a good job, a nice brick Colonial home, beautiful furniture, three cars; we were a happy close-knit, well-adjusted family. Well, brother, look at me now, as the saying goes: Here I am in a termite-ridden bungalow in Hawaii; my savings are gone; my job is gone; my health is gone -- thanks to the beating I got in Baltimore, which has lost me almost all the use of two fingers in my right hand. I'm bothered by a continuous low-grade pain in that same hand and arm, which distracts me from my work and keeps me awake nights. My Baltimore home is in jeopardy; I may lose it. I've lost my furniture and my cars. My brother can't find a job, though he's been looking for work ever since we arrived here; so he's just a nice, educated bum at this point. I've lost my father by a heart attack, and my son Bill has broken down emotionally to the extent that he's under psychiatric care. My aged mother is with me, and she can't even be buried next to Dad, whose grave is back in Baltimore. And my son and I are living under the Damoclean sword of imminent extradition back to Maryland, where we are certain to be convicted and sentenced to several years in the state penitentiary for assault -- a crime which we not only didn't commit, but which was perpetrated against us. So my life and the life of my family has been completely disrupted in absolutely every way. But it's been worth it. It's uncovered a vast cesspool of illegitimate economic and political power in which the Church is immersed right up to its ears, and I intend to dive in headfirst and pull it out of there dripping wet for all the world to see -- no matter how long it takes, no matter whose feet get stepped on in the process, no matter how much it costs, no matter how great the personal sacrifice.

PLAYBOY: It sounds as if you intend to make this cause your raison d'être.
MURRAY: No, this crusade to separate church and state is only one expression of my raison d'être. I'm an atheist, but I'm also an anarchist, and a feminist, and an integrationist. and an internationalist -- and all the other "ists" that people seem to find so horrible these days. I embrace all of them.
Long ago, when I was a very young girl, I said that I wanted to go everywhere, see everything, taste everything. hear everything, touch everything, try everything before I died. Well, I've been a model, I've been a waitress, I've been a hairdresser, I've been a stenographer, I've been a lawyer, I've been an aerodynamics engineer, I've been a social worker, I've been an advertising manager, I've been a WAC. There isn't anything you can name that a woman can do that I haven't done. Before they put me under, I'm going to get involved in everything there is to get involved in. That's what I want from life. I don't intend to stand by and be a spectator. I want to be right in there in the midst of it, right up to my nose -- totally involved in the community, in the world, in the stream of history, in the human image. I want to drink life to the dregs, to enlarge myself to the absolute limits of my being -- and to strive for a society in which everyone -- regardless of race, creed, color and especially religious conviction -- has the same exhilarating raison d'être, and the same opportunity to fulfill it. In other words, to paraphrase Jack Kennedy and John Paul Jones, from this day forward, let the word go forth, to friend and foe alike: I have not yet begun to fight.

23 September, 2007

The Paintings of David Martinez

by Jorge Reyes

David Martinez (b. 1980- ), a Cuban-born artist, paints the urban landscapes of his native land, Cuba, with its magnificent architectural ruins, symbols of both metaphor and protest, death and regeneration. From an early age, David's inclination for the arts was obvious. At the age six, his first gallery show was presented at the Biblioteca Nacional, Cuba, as part of a collective gallery exhibition of elementary-age children.

A graduate of the prestigious Academy of San Alejandro, citadel to some of the most respected Cuban artists (both past and present) like masters Wilfredo Lam and Amelia Pelaez, and the exiled Gustavo Acosta, among many others. Like them, his paintings reflect a certain essential striving to understand the rich cultural history emblematic in his paintings, while at the same time the images of destruction, rotted wood, and cross-shaped cities erected against the backdrop of the sky incorporates the paradox of religious hope, and desperation.

David Martinez aesthetics is not, ironically, overtly political though his iconography is highly circumspect by the politics from whence it emanates. This is not surprising. In a country that regulates freedom of expresion, often expression is known for its lack of overt political criticism as for its subtle covert symbols, hence the bandages that seem to hold together the buildings Martinez recreates.

Martinez's pieces, especially his earlier works, are a cornucopia of life as is. It is a portrait of a society haunted by its timeless disharmoney from the rest of the world and a portray of a dynamic, personal, and often quiet inner vista into a constantly reinterpreted, often kaleidoscopic, grim realism that upholds as much as it uplifts the surreal, the grotesque, and the marginal. It is not, surprisingly, a portrait of nostalgia though.

Martinez's overall theme seem to mediate between the basic human striving to understand the almost perennial existential despair of being uprooted, exiled, and the subtle ways we express that same sense of displacement. Perhaps political statements, though not necessarily since the mediation between the political and the symbolic merge into a paradigm that, yes, embraces particular forms of repression, political or otherwise) while at the same time it liberates the ego from the context of history beyond the quotidian.

Surprisingly, the artist says very little about himself, who he is, or what he truly believes. He steps back, contemplates, allowing us to observe the eeriness of an empty sea enclosed by bandaged-like crumbling buildings, androgynous-like females in a quiet, meditative moment of masturbation, like in El Tiempo de los Amantes.

In this particular painting, unusual in Martinez's oeuvre by both subject matter and symbolism, the fine line between the enclosing of self-space is pointedly underscored by our own complicity watching two females lying at different ends of a sofa, (close enough to each other though not too close to fully enjoy themselves), and by the guilt that it causes by both voyeur and performers.

No less eerie and is another unusual painting which somehow falls outside the context of his other paintings, El gallo y yo, an unsettling painting. Again, the painting depicts another androgynous-looking, middle-aged woman with dark unkempt hair dressed no less than in what looks like military garb from another century. She holds in her hand like a priced collection the neck of dead rooster.

Her outfit, the symbolism of the dead rooster, and the entire belle epoque surreal setting gives this painting an enigmatic, almost awkward discomfort. After all, what is the significance of the rooster? why is she dressed in something which seems, at best, out of place? could the rooster be nothing more than a statement of economic problems of present-day Cuba? the struggle, almost pedestrian subsistence of Castro's Cuba? I doubt it. Who is she, after all? Bored as she may seem, she's out of place and she doesn't care. The habitual has overtaken the identity of the individual to the culture to the extent that she could very well be naked and still be holding the rooster, and still have the same look of resignation and boredom as she expressed in this painting.

Artists from any generation have sought to understand their times in similar fashion as David Martinez has tried to do in such short and prolific artistic career.

The problem is that the past is, at best, illusory and often deceptive, particularly to the young; and the present of course does not lend itself to answers, especially under a dictatorship. Hence, the very reason that the paintings often produced under these circumstances become a reverberation of a-temporality, enigmatic self-expression of an overarching horizon laden with ambiguity, anger, or subtleties. How this is expressed in art often varies, though not radically different. After all, the enigma becomes manifested thematically by the repetition of seemingly dissimilar symbols, like spiraling multi-dimensional buildings aesthetically being held together by an almost easily pliable string, easily breakable, or reflections of light that seem to swirl in dream-like sequence like a kaleidoscope, like Luces (above), what I consider to be his masterpiece thus far.

In the end, what is being translated into the language of art are variants of the same enigmathe problem of the Idea as one and otherness, individual and collective, or whats more important, the self and the political. Interestingly enough, in what seems the representational understanding of artists trying to understand the present, Martinez seems to have done exactly like most painters in Cuba's past have done: forge an artistic category based exclusively to a continuing evolution of what it means to have Cuban identity. But to name two, Lam and Pelaez. There are others for sure, and there will continue to be many more.

No doubt, David Martinez has already recreated in his canvases a nuanced understanding and sensibility of an emerging and evolving art-form, the result of artists influencing each other both from inside Cuba and those in exile or living abroad.

This is not so different from a rich history of art in Cuba, especially one that began around the 1930's and culminated in the late 1950's. These were a group of painters known as la vanguardia, and their European influence of surrealism had an overt application to Cuba's. To these, it was the poor rural that created that intrinsically affinity to the Cuban identity. And what a wonderfully diverse collection they left us!

Perhaps in the future, David Martinez's paintings may shift to other areas of interest, though the parameters of his own personal style has already been defined.