Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Great Composer Honored

The greatest living composer in our time is Arvo Part. Last year he turned 70 and appears to be as vital as ever. His studies in silence and iteration have been a source of revelation to me, his choral works a joyful wellspring; a couple weeks ago I was staying with my friends the Dalrymples in Campbell, CA and they had on their shelf Part's Passion, and in listening to it I experienced such a spiritual outgrowth of feeling that I was moved to tears. Arvo Part is able to bring resonance to life that is all at once natural and electric: like voltage grounding itself through the medium of my ear, when I listen to his works I am a conduit for his tremendous creations of sound.I mention Arvo Part now because he has been awarded the $105,938 Sonning Music Prize, Denmarks' foremost music award. The prize will be given at a May 22nd concert in Copenhagen, at which Part will reveal a new work. I wish I could be there!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Jesus Bone Box

This coming Sunday the Discovery Channel is airing a documentary about a discovery certain to set the air on fire. Archaeologists say they have found the burial ossuary for Jesus of Nazareth. They have his bones, they say. Such a find does not jive with Christian doctrine all across the spectrum, from fundamentalists to Unitarians; though divided denominationally, these arms of christianity share common cause when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus. The gospels of Christ tell us that he rose from death the third day after he was executed. If his bones have been found, the wake of such an announcement is sure to raise the ire of Christ's followers everywhere.

From Discovery Channel's website:

On March 28, 1980, a construction crew developing an apartment complex in Talpiot, Jerusalem, uncovered a tomb, which archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority excavated shortly thereafter. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan. Scholar L.Y. Rahmani later published "A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries" that described 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, found in the tomb.

Scholars know that from 30 B.C. to 70 A.D., many people in Jerusalem would first wrap bodies in shrouds after death. The bodies were then placed in carved rock tombs, where they decomposed for a year before the bones were placed in an ossuary.

Five of the 10 discovered boxes in the Talpiot tomb were inscribed with names believed to be associated with key figures in the New Testament: Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Joseph and Mary Magdalene. A sixth inscription, written in Aramaic, translates to "Judah Son of Jesus."

Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period (which occurred from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.). The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied script styles are characteristic of that time."

Intriguing, perhaps. The translation of the inscriptions has not yet been stood up for academic review, thus making its claims spurious at best, maybe even expedient -how convenient to find the bones of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their son so soon after the raging success of Dan Brown's book, The DaVinci Code, in which the author fantasises that the Catholic church has conspired for hundreds of years to hide the fact of Jesus's matrimony and progeny. Ron Howard perpetuated this fantasy with his film, and now James Cameron is jumping aboard with his provocative documentary.

To my untrained eye (I'm one ignorant cuss, believe me), the proof that the bones truly belong to Jesus and crew seems rooted in circumstance and proximity, two factors that here I believe are collaborating to enable fuzzy logic. Again from Discovery:

In addition to the "Judah son of Jesus" inscription, which is written in Aramaic on one of the ossuaries, another limestone burial box is labeled in Aramaic with "Jesus Son of Joseph." Another bears the Hebrew inscription "Maria," a Latin version of "Miriam," or, in English, "Mary." Yet another ossuary inscription, written in Hebrew, reads "Matia," the original Hebrew word for "Matthew." Only one of the inscriptions is written in Greek. It reads, "Mariamene e Mara," which can be translated as, "Mary known as the master."

Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "Mariamene, or Mariamne, probably was the actual name given to Mary Magdalene."

Bovon explained that he and a colleague discovered a fourteenth century copy in Greek of a fourth century text that contains the most complete version of the "Acts of Philip" ever found. Although not included in the Bible, the "Acts of Philip" mentions the apostles and Mariamne, sister of the apostle Philip.

The claim by Bovon that Mariamne is the same person as Mary Magdalene flies in the face of careful process. A document written four hundred years after the life of Jesus is his sole support, and in it she is not connected to Jesus but to one of his disciples. However, the document comes from outside canon; the "Acts of Philip" is considered by scholars to be a fabrication. Some quick investigation reveals another poignant fact. The "Acts of Philip" document was discovered at a Greek monastery by none other than Francois Bovon himself!

What's more, his translation of Mariamne's name does not substantially connect her with Jesus. The woman from the "Acts of Philip" is the powerful leader of a sect of "Miriamnists", but nowhere in the text does it suggest that she is married to Jesus. Bovon takes the base assumption that Magdalene was the wife of Jesus, then builds on that to say she is the sister of Philip, and from there is able to "prove" that he has found her bones and therefore the bones of Jesus. Such whimsy as this is bound to get him into trouble somewhere along the line.

I'd imagine that when the documentary airs, the mediascape will become a conflagration of intolerable heat, as the public relations of each respective church denomination declares its own take on the discovery. These views will be splintered and combative, and will likely serve to be divisive rather than being a point of coming together in faith.

I know that sounds pessimistic. What I am pessimistic about is the public relations scandal that will arise from this. If past pokes at Christianity have given us any indication, we can expect religious leaders to once more jump up and rant and rave, in service to nothing other than the argument itself, a lot of sound and fury. To me this seems entirely beside the point. What is really at stake is not an increased share of the popular culture, though it will seem that way; the true stakes are in faith and representing true belief in a manner that does not belittle it or make faith seem like the "cool" thing to do.

By this same token, I also expect a lot of good discussion among friends and relations. There are so many folks that will be emboldened not to default to their base instincts but instead to rational discourse. There will be as much color and brilliance to these discussions, I'm sure, as anything you hear on NPR or Limbaugh.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Are you a 23rdian?

I once counted myself among the 23rdians, that group of skeptical, inquisitive, literate and credulous readers of mystic significance in the mathematical logic of the physical universe. In short, a few years ago I found the number 23 ubiquitously sequestered in the very fabric of things, stalking me, as it were, like a secret god.

I first encountered the cunning wile of 23 in Robert Anton Wilson's Discordian tract, the Illuminatus! trilogy, wherein he quoted Bishop Unger ascribing the birthday of the universe as being on October 23rd; the patent ridiculousness of the Big Bang being fixed to a Gregorian date should have shown me right away that any further pursuit of the subject would beguile at best some precious hours of thought, and at worst would chain me to a silly philosophy. Being just paranoid enough to taste a hint of sugar in the number -if the universe manifested on the 23rd, it must be of profound significance, right?- I took a candystore approach in my further inquiries and began a long period of confection obsession. Finally, a couple years later, after discovering that if you look hard enough for anything you can find it (or believe you have found it), I ate my last sugar scrap, on the very date of October 23rd, in fact.

October 23rd, 1996: picture a stunning autumn afternoon in the old town square of that jewel in the crown of Bohemia, the ancient, yellow-walled town of Prague. I stood there in the shadow of Jan Hus, a local saint and symbol of the Velvet Revolution four years earlier, in which the poet Vaclav Havel led a non-violent overthrow of communist forces. Already ensconced in a flat for ten days in the northern part of the city, I was at stare namesti (in Czech, literally, "old town") to meet a friend and continue on with her to Budapest; it was a magical time in life, perfectly mirrored in the fall splendor of fractal trees shedding their leaves and blue skies arching over castles. The date was of particular importance. By choosing the 23rd of October, I anticipated that it would have an arcane influence over the rest of my life from that day forward; I believed that every step I took from then on would be resolute, purpose-filled, artistically-pungent, etc etc, and not only would I have a better life but I would also point to the answer to all answers to thank for it: the number 23.

Youthful optimism aside, I was full of crap, as I would soon learn in the ensuing time between then and today. Not to say that I was wrong or even wrong-headed. The experience of seeking importance is a fool's errand, perhaps, and humbling at many junctures, but there is nothing inherently destructive about it. As you inch along the way further, even so, the signposts and tollbooths that were obscure, even hidden, as you encountered them, become apparent and obvious in hindsight. 23, then, looks like one of those waystations.

Why bring this up now? For one thing, it's the 23rd of February, and there is synchronicity; for another, the Hollywood version of the 23 affect (for want of a better phrase) is hitting screens today. Yes, you too can experience the vicarious thrills of fixating on a single number by watching grizzle-cheeked, hollow-eyed Jim Carrey in "The Number 23". Wow, I'm all ashiver already (though I really prefer Mr Carrey in the Eternal Sunshine). Really, how silly can Hollywood get?

Friends have asked me if I'll go see the movie, out of deference for my former sweet-toothed addiction. Invariably I answer, No. I had a slight interest when I first heard tell of it, because there was a niggling allegiance to that magical period in which 23 figured so prominently. But now, with further thought, I've concluded that it won't be worth it to go. Honestly, I'd rather go back to Prague, and if saving the cost of the ticket gets me any closer to doing that, it will be money well-pinched.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Emotional Contagion

Dropping some science on you here.

There is a class of brain cells that operate like a kind of neural WiFi. These "mirror neurons" were discovered during a scientific study of how people's brains entrain as they interact with each other. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and possible intentions of the person you are with, and they replicate these sensed states in your own brain in the same areas you perceive to be active in the other person.

This discovery goes a long way toward explaining the phenomena known as "emotional contagion", those feelings of rapport you can experience with someone else. Feeling this way depends on synchronising yourself rapidly to another person's posture, vocal pacing and movements.

In short, mirror neurons, to quote the reporter in yesterday's Science News, allow for the "interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology".

Pretty cool, huh?

Yogic Flying

Have you heard about this? The director David Lynch mentions it in lectures, as he crosses the nation gathering donations for Transcendental Meditation.

In TM, evidently you can be a yogic flyer. It is an advanced technique, but from the sounds of it, worthy of the effort.

Folks meditating sit lotus-style in a circle. Slowly they begin hopping in unison. They begin hopping faster. Still hopping, they begin moving so fast that in fact they begin to hover. Presently the entire circle is mid-air, like a human flying saucer.

That's yogic flying.

And people wonder where David Lynch gets his ideas from

Monday, February 19, 2007

I'll be your Captain America

I am glad I never stopped reading comics. My enthusiasm for the sequential art form has many times opened unexpected doors of perception -like the time I was reading Spider Man and I realised that maintaining a secret identity is hard work if you want to have a girlfriend too. Recently another of these doors opened.

It didn't happen while I was reading a comic precisely, rather it came as a result of thinking about the structure of a superhero team. Admittedly I devote scarce mental energies to the problem of how best to form a superhero team. Being expert at that doesn't lead to many realtime applications. But the other day I was wrestling with a question and the idea of the superhero team popped up, specifically the makeup of such a team and who would be the member of one.

I've been struggling with how to define characters in my book. As I write, I'm always looking for ways to distinguish individuals as the story progresses, to separate one from another in stark, easy to comprehend characteristics. It is hard to do! Usually, when composing dialogue, the speakers end up sounding like the flip sides of the same coin. They sound like the way we're supposed to think of the perfect married couple, where she starts the sentence and he ends it. While that ideal suits a marriage (maybe), on the page it sounds all wet.

So I started thinking about character types (an activity impossible to avoid, I think, while writing a conventional novel) and this brought me to the superhero team. In a team like this you see assembled representatives of each stereotype running around in tights. Put together a team and you're going to have a hero with brute strength, like Superman as a for instance. You also need Captain America, a soldier-type, plus about five others: a witch-type magic user, somebody with a ranged weapon, a brainiac, a buffoon and a belle of the ball. The last is like Jean Grey from the Xmen, beautiful and commanding fearsome energies, the ultimate alpha female (the witch, on the other claw, is more feline, cunning and secretive).

Cobble these types and you have yourself one mother-loving crew that leaves their bootprints on the jawbones of some serious perpetrators.

Believe it or not, coming to grips with the chemistry of a superteam has amounted to a kind of breakthrough in my writing. Since setting down these terms of definition, my dialogue has nearly begun writing itself... nearly, but not quite.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Second Wind

Children of Men is an extraordinary film. Not only does it have its cake, it gets to gobble it too. On the surface a kind of nativity fable redux, broiling just under the skin is a protest film. Fortunately it is not an opposition tract; in similar fashion as Fight Club did a few years back, this film is decidedly protesting in support of something, a rant of positivity rather than simply a rant.

The radicals this time around are the Fishes, a pro-immigrant militia. We've seen them in many movies before, most recently in the Fight Club's vacuous clatch of Space Monkeys, and in like vein they take themselves far too seriously. When, in Children of Men, the pregnant girl asks protagonist Thelonious Faron if somebody performing tai chi is "wobbly or gawky", his answer could describe the Fishes: "Earnest." In this context, earnestness is a bit narrow, a worldview that excludes beauty. The creators of the film are blessedly not so blindered. Theo himself is a former activist, but he's "more successful now." His success, however, makes him feel like shit. Not until he has entered the allegorical landscape of Bexhill Refugee Camp does Theo truly feel the old passions stirring. But i do not believe he is called to resume his activist routine; instead of feeling drawn back toward a group like the Fishes, he sees an alternative. Just how that alternative takes shape is for Theo to decide, and we see as the film progresses where that decision takes him.

The 'fugee camp is Abu Ghraib, it is Gaza Strip, Grozny, Beirut, Darfur; most keenly, it is Guantanamo Bay. The references, I presume, are intentional. The temptation is to accuse the filmmakers of vandalising the headlines. I believe something far more sinister is at work. The director and co are bringing us a work of art, in other words, a dangerous mirror in which the reflected rather than the reflection is the thing.

What kind of world is reflected in the glassy water of the story? I do not think there is a single answer. Each viewer needs to decide what they see. The possibilities offered are tremendous. I see an incarnation of grace amidst a time of terror, a manifest explosion of grace in the form of an infant that is nothing in itself, but serves as a tiny mirror of the human soul.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A rare encounter with... BEAUTY!!!

I implore one and all to see this film in the theatre while you still can. My sister Rachel and I saw it just yesterday and already I am itching to go back. This is the most profoundly moving experience I've had at the movies in a long time. It needs to be seen on the big screen, because there are so many juicy details that pack every frame. This is definitely one of those films that will be greatly diminished by waiting to see it on your home entertainment pod.
Not only is it visually satisfying, Children of Men is also a tremendous story about the world we live in. Seriously. So many movies attempt to capture reality as we know it, and fall miserably short because they are so obvious, so condescending or simply have got the picture wrong. Many movies are so particular that they do not achieve any kind of universal appeal. With this film the experience is entirely the opposite.
But, you might ask, why do I want to see a film about the world when it so much better to simply go out and experience the world for ourselves? Far be it from me to suggest that entertainment trumps direct experience. By all means, get on out there! I'd rather ride a motorcycle than watch a movie about it.
Even so, Children of Men is a work of art. There are breathtaking moments of beauty to be discovered in the film that is nothing you have seen before. This quality alone endears the film. There is so much to recommend it besides, but suffice to say, this is the film of the decade, in my book (a position it shares with Terence Malick's The New World, which came out a couple years ago and is available to be seen on dvd).