Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cymbal #35:: Repentance

Evil comes to all of us. Petty evil, shrinking in its gown, preceded by its defenses. Reasons of state, fictions of law, the bogeyman of subjectivity. Like crafty accountants, we write these sins off; this one deductible, that one set-off against some plausible good. We even abuse the terms of the moral universe - sin is associated more firmly now with chocolate than murder in the common vocabulary.

They are peccadilloes in the grand scheme of things, misdemeanors, breaches of trust, victimless crimes, more indiscipline than evil. It's tempting to imagine that we are good people, that we are mislead. And if we were mislead, surely we are entitled to raise our hands and plead innocence?

In 1957, the Soviet Union put the first living being in space. She came from no home, and she went where there will never be homes. Laika was a mongrel, picked off the streets of Moscow, put into a tin can, and shot into space. First amongst all of Earth's creatures, Laika saw her planet turning before her eyes like an orange. She made four orbits, and on the fourth day, she died of overheating when the temperature controls failed. 

For almost forty years, the Soviets lied about Laika's death. They claimed she had been euthanized painlessly with poisoned food. Even the Soviets, who denied millions of people every conceivable right and liberty, could not fairly justify sending a dog to die in space. But they did it.

Mecano - Laika - 1989

Now, I'm no expert on Spanish pop or the theory of tragedy, but this surely can't be a fitting response. 

History will judge us for Laika. And we know it. Even before the jets ignited, the scientists on the launchpad knew they were taking on a moral burden both substantial and indescribable. They gave her names, they took her home, they took pictures. Forty years later, they still felt the need to admit that she broiled to death. Since that day, Laika has given her name to bands and TV studios. They have statues of her at Star City.

Kylesa - Distance Closing In - 2010

But why this much guilt? Why is there so much more guilt than for all the rabbits that the cosmetics companies have killed, or the frogs dissected by biologists, or for that matter, every scrap of lamb you have ever eaten? Street dogs die everyday. Probability indicates that she would have died sooner on the streets of Moscow than in the space program.

The most pernicious class of sins are those not based on dogma or desire, but on expediency. These are sins we commit because they are cheap, because we could avoid risk or expense. They are considered sins; sins of moral economy. When humanity was invited on its greatest adventure yet, the first steps were taken by a street dog. From the seed of that pusillanimity springs the tree of guilt, the hand enclosing on your throat. However much is accomplished in space is built on the sacrifice of Laika.

Ryan Bingham - The Weary Kind - 2009

Tonight, do yourself a favor. When you take your last drink or cup of tea, step out and look up at the night sky and see what I see, the endless universe expanding infinitely, like the mind of God the administrator. Think of the ghost of Laika, orbiting Earth in kaleidoscope circles. We are only redeemed by how much love we give back to the world, how far we venture when we are uncertain, how we treat boundaries. 

Be good. If you can't be good, at least be kind.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cymbal #34:: The Chinese Philosopher Conundrum

The honeyed trope goes as follows:

Once, the celebrated Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt in a silvered dream that he was a butterfly. He floated into the wind and drifted with it. He beat his  wings and fought against it. He settled on a multitude of sweet flowers and, putting forth his questing proboscis, was rewarded with their nectar. Drunk on the soma of the flowers, he rested...

...and awoke, Zhuangzi, the celebrated philosopher. He rubbed his eyes, scratched his head. Between his fingers he tested the tensility of his silken robe, the polish on the wooden floor, the alarming shortness of his tongue. He stepped out of his chamber and into the pavilion. At the heart of the gravel and benches, drifting above the pond full of carp, was the plum tree. On its furthest branch, a butterfly rested, its wings shut like parentheses.

Built to Spill - Carry the Zero - 2006

From that day on, until the end of his long and celebrated life, Zhuangzi was unsure of his life, which seemed tenuous and predicated on mysteries. He was never sure whether he was Zhuangzi, who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether he was  a butterfly, who was resting on a branch, dreaming he was Zhuangzi.

If David Hume were to walk through his pavilion at dusk, the elegant, bewigged Scotsman, and to take a pinch of snuff below the drifting plum tree, it could pass that Zhuangzi would motion him aside, and call him to the corner.

"Beware, Mr Hume", he might say, since all these things are possible, "that you do not disturb the butterfly."
Hume, frowning at the inscrutable mores of the orientals, might reply, "Why, pray, must we so be so solicitous of the convenience of this single butterfly?"
"It is entirely possible, Sir, that if this butterfly were to awake, we would disappear."
David Hume, who ideally would have preferred to have consented to such an arrangement, might dispute it thus:
"Preposterous, Sir! Surely this is impossible, for your mind is capable of conceiving of such a thing as a butterfly, whereas no part of the butterfly could conceive of you and I."

Zhuangzi peered at him closely. "Forgive me. You must be very wise indeed, Sir, to know so intimately the dreams of butterflies".

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cymbal #33: A Cry for Domestic Help

Neil Young is kidding. This is not actually the most intense song ever recorded about domestic help. No one needs a maid this badly. Well, I can think of some single male friends of mine, who speak this passionately about having someone come in and empty out the ashtrays, slay the vermin, find bedsheets and remove the melted cheese from the rice cooker. In my estimation, the point is moot, because a maid would would be far out of her depth; what is actually needed is a crack squad of exorcists, fumigators and arsonists.

Neil Young - A Man Needs a Maid - 1971

But, because we know he's kidding, it is incumbent also to ask what he really means. Why is he so lonely, in this ocean of swelling strings? Why is his heart breaking when women he has never met swim across the dotted screen?

In fact, he's not kidding.

On some nights, when your head is not full of poisons or fictions, and you step out of your house and walk down the street, the familiar terrifies you. How many of these people do you know? How many of the names on these houses do you remember? What kind of dog barks behind the white gate? If you were to turn around, right now, is it possible there is somebody right behind you- someone who might do you harm?

You don't turn around. You never do. You could not bear to know you're right.

Maybe love is a kind of domestic help. A guarantee that, at least in the nutshell of your own home, the only other sentient being does not want to put a kitchen knife in your back. A sense of safety when you put your headphones on and close your eyes. Someone else checking that the doors are locked, the gas is off. In the spiraling dark, one more fixed point; enough to draw a line.

Maybe you're lying to yourself, like Neil Young is. Maybe the fear is not that you might die tonight and not have left behind a single coherent thing. Maybe the fear that keeps you lonely is that you might live till you are very, very old, but because you were worried about dying young, you screwed everything up. No one wants to live with an eternity of regrets. 

Your candle is burning and the clock is ticking. In your lonely house, the silence is unbearable. You must bet now, but a bony hand holds the dice.