Sunday, January 24, 2016

A New Thing Under the Moon

I woke at 0525 hrs today, Sunday January 24, 2016. It was dark and cold, sunrise still over an hour hence.  I was groggy, but smiled, examining as art the fragments of the dream I had been living before I awakened. It was very rare for me, cursed to relive in one form or another nightly the many years of battle (regrettably, not in the military), to have a dream that, being as it were a lovely sight, might be the work of an Immortal awake in us while we sleep, to paraphrase the Upanishads (Fifth VallĂ®, verse 8):  An old friend of mine, a guitarist I had played music with over the years, was seated at a table in the kitchen of his family home when his father came in and sat down and smoked a cigar, blissfully. I adjusted a wall mounted grandfather clock near the table which was off-kilter, but the old man said he preferred it that way. I knew he was dead, but it seemed irrelevant. The scene changed and my late wife, Cheri, appeared, young and bright-eyed. I was very happy to see her. My old friend attempted to call to her, being her first husband, but she only had eyes for me. My reverie was interrupted as my eye caught a glimmer of pure white light from a tiny gap in the closed blinds on my western window. I crawled from my bed cautiously, old bones stiff and questionable and opened the blinds. My face was bathed with pure white light from a huge full moon hanging in almost a direct line of sight to my eyes as I stood looking to the western horizon.

I returned to my bed, lying in the moonlight and switched on the tiny Sansa Clip Zip mp3 player Cheri had given me for my birthday in 2013, choosing a song, The Wind, she had written for me almost 40 years ago. I had asked her to sing it for me in 2012 and she had delighted in recording multiple takes in the little indie recording studio I had thrown together with a computer running a digital audio workstation, leaning close to the microphone and holding the headphones close on her ears to monitor her performance in real time. I had added piano, bass and other instruments subsequently, using only an acoustic guitar track as an initial guide for the vocal. Her seductively feminine cabaret voice, the hint of grit conjuring up smoke haze in a crowded Paris bistro in the 1930's, sang to me, "and you come and you go like the wind, and you touch me like a soft breeze, seems like I never want it to end…."

I knew I must follow her song with Reflections, the lyrics written by my old friend (who had appeared in the dream also) shortly after Cheri and I had found each other again in 2009.  He and I had produced and recorded the song in 2010: "Pieces of my life come back to me, Like an interwoven tapestry--Sometimes happy, sometimes so sad; All things considered, the good outweighs the bad..." As the moon continued its descent towards the lower edge of my window I selected one final song, Claude Debussy's hauntingly beautiful 1888 piano piece, Claire de Lune, the title a reference to Paul Verlaine's poem of the same name ("Your soul is a chosen landscape where charming masqueraders...go, playing the lute and dancing and almost sad beneath their fanciful disguises...they do not seem to believe in their happiness and their song mingles with the moonlight, "au claire de lune").

Later in the day I powered up a computer I hadn't used in a while and was pleased to discover a brief novel I had read last year but had misplaced. I was unable to recall the title or the author and no matter what search terms I assembled I could find nothing of the work online or locally. Fortunately, I had apparently left a copy on another computer. The story, The Outcast, was written by William Winwood Reade in 1875, shortly before he died. It was a very unusual work and it had remained a part of my mental landscape (to the extent that mental life can be separated from existence generally). I remembered a strange tale of a man who had lost his mind following the death of a woman he had loved intensely, the man having dreamed that godlike beings had created Earth and ultimately mankind as simply one of a series of works of art presented for the amusement of their kind. The presentation had met with considerable criticism by the demigods, well, I had better quote from the book so as to assure this is not considered evidence of my own mental deterioration (the following is Reade's account of the criticism leveled against one of the demigods for the artistic presentation which is the history of Earth and mankind):

"….though the work is by no means deficient in power, and contains some original ideas, there is….a roughness of style and execution which bear the stamp of inexperience. However….it is chiefly on moral grounds we think this production ought to be condemned.

The work is simple in conception, and modest in design. We have not here as in some ambitious compositions, a number of inhabited worlds contributing each its part to the story. One system only is placed upon the stage, and the action is confined to one planet of that system.

At first the world was presented to our view as a fiery cloud. It became compressed to a Sun, which advanced through Space, rotating on its axis, and cast off certain pieces from itself like tires from a wheel. These cooled into planetary bodies, and one of them, called by its inhabitants The Earth, was the scene of the drama which we shall now endeavor to describe.

[Reade's narrator describes the evolution of geology and life on Earth then continues with the increasing evolution of man.] At first wealth, culture, and power belonged exclusively to the dominant caste, while the masses labored in subjection. But by means of useful inventions knowledge was widely diffused, and the passion for liberty entered the bosom of the people. One nation after another shook itself free from the tyranny of kings and the tyranny of priests. When class restrictions were removed, all could hope by honest labor to better their condition, and all striving for their own ends assisted the onward movement of the world. At a later period the social equality of men extinguished personal ambition, and the Welfare of the Race was the aim of those who labored for distinction. Fame could only be obtained by adding something to the knowledge or the happiness of men. Finally war ceased ; the malignant forces of Nature were subdued, vice and disease were eradicated, the earth became a pleasure garden, and men learnt to bear without repining a painless death in extreme old age.

We suppose that the moral purpose of this drama is to teach the doctrine of Improvement, and to illustrate that tendency to Progress which pervades the universe. The evolution of mind from matter, by means of natural law, shows the innate power of that tendency or force, and the efforts by which Man achieves his own comparative perfection, are no doubt intended as a protest against that habit of quiescence and content which is perhaps the natural failing of Immortals. We think that the satire on theology is wholesome and just. Nothing could be more ludicrous than to see these ephemeral beings, these creatures of a moment, building little houses in honor of the First Cause, and glibly explaining mysteries which we do not profess to understand. This may serve as a warning to certain presumptuous philosophers who fabricate theories respecting the Supreme; for how can we know that we are not in the same relative position to beings of a higher race as those pigmies we create to ourselves? At least it is certain that our intellects, great as they are, or great as we think them to be, are unable to explain primary phenomena, or to solve the problems of Cause, Existence, and Futurity. So far then we go with our author ; and in numberless ways he has justly derided the follies of our race.

[However] ... it is most degrading that these men who are made in our image, who in their exterior form and mental faculties partly resemble ourselves, should be suffered to retain both in body and mind so much of the lower animals. ...Secondly, the development of matter to mind, of quadruped to man, of savage to civilized nations, is laudable enough as an idea; but how has it been carried out? As regards the first stage of the progress, we have only to praise and admire; but how has progress been produced in the animated world ? We are almost ashamed to explain a law, which, in its recklessness of life and prodigality of pain almost amounts to a crime. In cold forethought, the Creator so disposed the forces of nature that more animated beings were born than could possibly obtain subsistence on the earth. This caused a struggle for existence, a desperate and universal war; the best and improved animals were alone able to survive, and so in time, Evolution was produced. We shall not  deny that there is a kind of perverted ingenuity in the composition of this law; but the waste of life is not less clumsy than it is cruel. By means of this same struggle for existence, man was raised from the bestial state, and his early discoveries were made.  Afterwards, ambition of fame, and later still more noble motives came into force, but that was towards the conclusion of the drama. At first, every step in the human progress was won by conflict, and every invention resulted from calamity. The most odious vices and crimes were at one time useful to humanity, while war, tyranny, and superstition assisted the development of man. we do condemn this confusion of evil and good, and maintain that nothing can be more immoral than to make crime the assistant of progress, and vice the seed of which virtue is the fruit.

Again, Death is a useful and perhaps indispensable appliance in works of this kind, but so potent a means of exciting sympathy should be employed with moderation. Now what do we find here ? The law of evolution is the law of death. Massacre is incessant; flowers, animals, and men die at every moment; the earth is a vast slaughter-house, and the ocean reddened with blood. Nor, incredible as it may seem, is that the worst. With a talent for torture which rouses our wonder only next to our disgust, the Creator has smitten the animated world, even to the insects, with numerous painful and lingering diseases, while the intellect is also afflicted with maladies peculiar to itself...What can be said for such a world? What kind of defense or excuse can there be for its Creator? It is true that he made men himself, but that does not justify his cruelty. The Supreme has endowed us with the power of producing and destroying animated forms, but so terrible a gift should not be abused. We should never forget that though these little creatures live only for a moment, they are yet sentient beings, and their torments while they last are real and intense."

At any rate, I was struck by the odd coincidence (I am always pointing out instances of synchronicity to others, that being one of the means by which humans can see that there appears to be a mystical or dreamlike connection among the events that comprise human existence---waking or dreaming) that the title that Reade's madman gave the excerpt I quoted above (something I did not recall previously) was, A New Thing under the Moon. The madman tells his doctor about the thesis he has written, saying, "I merely assert that my theory of Cause and Creation is the best that has ever been propounded. It explains all the facts of history and nature, is in harmony with science, and is supported by analogy. Above all, it is quite original; nothing like it has ever been imagined before; and though Solomon wisely observes that there is no new thing under the Sun, there may be a new thing under the Moon."