And all this is not to say that a rover can’t perform the work of an astronaut, or that people can’t identify with machines. (I have in my head a vivid image of a burly EOD tech somewhere in the Middle East, his face snotty with tears and the mangled remains of a bomb disposal robot in his arms, running up to an Army engineer pleading, “You gotta fix ‘im, man, you gotta” — maybe this has happened, maybe not.) But efficiency is obviously not what we want from our space explorers, not when they can sleep and shit and hurt, punch out moon landing deniers, and struggle for the rest of their lives to recapture those moments of profundity out there in the cold, moments when everything everywhere made a giant crushing sense.
For the immediate future it’s not going to be enough for our collective sense of drama to send robots into space, because robots in space don’t come back to be farmers or painters or teachers or, even if briefly, poets:
“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change… it comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.” – Rusty Schweikart
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong
“What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth…. The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…. When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquiose, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.” – Yuri Gagarin
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” – Edgar Mitchell
“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.” – William Anders
We hurl space telescopes millions of miles to show us what exploding nebulae look like light-years away. We deploy robots to analyze soil samples on alien rocks. We send machines into space to look forward, but it’s humans we send for the all-too-human purpose of looking back.
And perhaps all that’s really needed is for us to teach the machines poetry and verse, to develop algorithms for introspection, to invent an engine of grace.
And of course the biggest tragedy of Neil Armstrong is that he didn’t die sooner, because there are few worse things the first man on the moon can experience than living to see the day his giant leap for mankind was out-distanced by a capitulatory nod to budgetary constraints and deficit realities. Sure, he saw us land Curiosity on Mars, but wait out the initial high and nothing’s left but the realization that we sent an SUV to do a living, breathing person’s job.
It’s a lousy time to be a hero when it seems the only requisite is dying in a terrorist bombing. Then again it’s not like ‘hero’ meant much in Armstrong’s day either; in measuring our dicks against the fucking Reds it only mattered that our heroes looked the part: brave and polite and sporting haircuts not out of place on the monorail platform at the Century 21 Exposition, backs ramrod straight with the almighty prick of capitalism and good clean Christian living wedged up their asses.
You can manufacture all the heroes you want, grow em tall and strong as Midwestern corn, but when you strap them to what’s little more than a delayed explosion, light a chemical inferno of fire and math in its guts, and send them screaming off into outer fucking space, you have to consider that investment lost. There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some, and 238,000 miles is a long goddamn journey indeed. Bradbury knew the score: he sent his boys to conquer Mars, but the minute they touched that red narcotic dust he had Mars conquer them. So it goes. We fed the moon a hero and it spat out that rarest of men: a real human being.
Sleep well, Commander. Sorry we fucked it up.
I finally finished watching Jesus Camp last night, sometime in the middle of the night, and after the initial anger at watching the indoctrination of children had worn off, I found myself feeling much of nothing, nothing at all. Which reminded me of my own thankfully limited experience with charismatic churches: at fourteen, I stood in a room surrounded by a hundred people convulsing on the floor, feeling nothing of whatever it was that struck them with frenetic glossolalia, and thus made to feel as though I were the one cut off from the “real” world.
What fascinates (terrifies?) me the most about these child “armies” is the obviation of genuine ecstasy by antithetical rote rhetoric. The enormity of emotion is hopelessly inverted. In charismatic churches, glazed eyes somehow see clearer, see further. The most external and foreign of input becomes a deeply personal covenant with God, and we are left with an impression of the faith of automatons and the automation of faith.
Near the beginning of the film several children are shown performing what I can only describe as a war dance. Clothed in fatigues, masked in grease paint, they stomp and shout and clash sticks in preparation for some unfathomable battle. Their pastor justifies this rather hypocritically by saying the “enemy” (Muslims) do the same with their children. Throughout it all this eagerness for conflict made me think of the concept of courage, and why so many of us are so sure that the end of our own lives will be met with dignity and grace. To be sure it’s easy enough to be courageous, to treat the idea of war with irreverence and a certain glib confidence, when people are convinced to the bone that theirs is the side that can never die.
Only in a fundamental monotheistic religion is there a desire for melodrama so strong that the entirety of human destiny can be boiled down to good versus evil. And yet the Satan of the Old Testament is vastly different from the New. The serpent was only ever meant to be a serpent. Even the Satan of Job’s story was a member of Yahweh’s Divine Council, an “Adversary” who acted as a (forgive me) devil’s advocate and itinerant accuser, afflicting Job with boils only after receiving God’s permission (and after God had already done far worse). In truth, Satan was never viewed as evil until after the Babylonian exile, when the Jews in diaspora modified their religion to closely mimic the dualistic Zoroastrianism of their Persian captors. As the central focus of the Jewish faith shifted to the diametric opposition of good and evil, the depiction of a mainly legislative Yahweh took on aspects of Ahura Mazda — Zoroaster’s deity of light and truth — while Satan, who had previously been little more than a prosecuting attorney in Yahweh’s employ, morphed into the equivalent of Ahriman, Ahura Mazda’s pernicious opposite.
This revisionist history is, I think, a wonderfully subversive cop out. By declaring themselves aligned to the side of “good,” people can be kind to one another without ever doing a kind thing to one another. Feed the hungry without ever being near the hungry. Simpering cowards who would never willingly place themselves in mortal danger can delude themselves and others into thinking they are protectors of the faith and warriors of the light. With God on one’s side, impossible action is bridged by impossible thought. It is the spirit, not the body or mind, that can do everything, be everywhere, exist in every moment. The chasms of your life are not traversed by what you’ve done, but simply by what you’ve willed yourself into believing you can do. And what you’ve willed yourself into believing you can do, of course, is move mountains, slay dragons, cast out demons, and walk on water.
strange to think of Bradbury somewhere on mars, watching earth transit the sun.
“Around, around the sun we go
The moon goes round the earth
We do not die of death:
We die of vertigo”
and the streets are long and wet. inside the bars we’re still standing in circles raising empty glasses; we broke out the good stuff for the end of the world, son: 18-year-old single malts with bodies like mafia snitches decomposing in a peat bog. our souls have been dead and drunk so long it takes a few minutes for the realization that we’re still whole, still meat, to set in. there’s the clearing of throats; we half-mumble shit-i’ve-got-to-get-to-work-in-the-am’s and edge to the door to avoid the bill. we burned our credit cards when we burned our ties, tossed them in the pyres of flaming suit jackets we stacked atop each other up and down the sidewalks like resignation letters. outside the full moon is a narcotic yellow, an opiate to dull the pain of the actual apocalypse, our actual punishment: a world that will never ever end, where the only real escape for the working class lies in the bottles of the shelves of the bar we just shut down. we get into our sedans and buckle up, aim our cars along the smooth and gradual curves of the carpool lanes heading away from the city. the billboards read like gibberish, the radios speak in nothing but consonants. everything without meaning, everyone is blind and screaming, order maintained only by the most primitive instincts to go home and brace for the eventual fuckmother of all hangovers. a brave new world exactly like the last one. the skyscrapers are lit up faces for god, hitting us with beams of euphoric light like data-rich, colon cleansing douchelasers fired from a satellite way up in the middle of the air, like tractor beams lifting cattle off our shoulders. in the pink pink light we are enlightened and lightened.
blitzed asleep at the wheel, we navigate the sprawl with muscle memory, park outside little boxes. the irons are still plugged in, the pilot lights blown out. we sit in front of giant televisions, put on thai ladyboys pegging german tourists, try to fall asleep to the absence of everything we’ve ever known, half-hard the morning after the end of days.
fuck you private browsing, you are useless here — we’ve got seventy-two inches in 3d and no shame left to hide.
Attention teachers and professors of the disaffected: Don’t teach The Dead. Teach farts, Dublin buggery, and shitlovers. Then they will get Joyce.
We’ll dig soon, I think, and live underground, because there’ll be nothing better to do and it’ll be really really hot outside and we’re obviously not going into space anymore. And then I’ll be looking forward to my robot body visiting the ruins of East Jesus a thousand years from now, farting clouds of nanites to devour whole sections of earth, revealing mile-deep aortas and beehive acropolises. They’ll chew through the sealed bunkers at the bottom of inverted ziggurats where they’ll find the feral, art-mad albino descendants of the last caretakers fucking their own offspring on canvas sheets in another misinformed attempt at reviving dada. They will bay in the total dark like damaged dogs, their milk-white eyes one or two generations away from complete vestigiality.
But at least East Jesus finally won’t be so goddamn hot. Which is important because when daily temperatures hover around 41-42°C, staff priorities tend to boil down to finding shade and living off stored fat. Breathing in feels like blowing a dragon.The only stars are your drugs.
HST and Faulkner made writing shirtless in direct sunlight look cooler than it is.
Got an email from a friend in the Philippines saying he’s into injecting saline into his scrotum now. This makes the macroherpetophiles (Godzilla-fuckers) the only fringe fetishists highlighted in Ellis’ Crooked Little Vein I’ve yet to come across in the real world. I’m pretty sure he made up the detective who solves crimes by sucking off corpses.
Owing to how hard it is to get anything done in this heat, I’ve pared my summer projects list down to three major items:
- A 25-page untitled screenplay for a short film set in East Jesus. Sooner or later some asshole is going to film an incredible movie here and ruin it for everybody else. Might as well be able to say that I wrote a script here before it was cool.
- Collaborating online with my cousin on a “gonzo futurist“/absurdist comic book about “real-life” superheroes, based on his original character concepts. After watching two of my comic book scripts atrophy in limbo because I was unable to find an artist, it feels incredible to be working with one right off the fucking gun.
- Transverse City (aka Downtown East Jesus): which, in all likelihood, is a project that will last into the fall, given the lack of tolerable daylight hours and the sheer area of space I need to fill. (That’s the boundary all the way in the back.) Ostensibly a permanent installation on alternative disposal of un-recyclable materials, otherwise a study of density and scale; an homage to Le Corbusier, Fritz Lang and Eugen Schüfftan, the Kowloon Walled City, Ridley Scott’s “Hong Kong on a very bad day,” Ocasla’s Magnasanti and Métal Hurlant. And Zevon, of course.
Paraphrase: I’m a whole different person when I’m scared.
“The Desert, It Is Sleeping Now”
In the places where you slept
upon handkerchiefs of wings
there are the crashes of falling things
I have built a soundproof house
what I should trade water for sleep
and await the day the desert creatures
see me as their own.
To my youngest son
I say grow, boy
and leave a suit the color of time
that he may go unheeded and unseen
into the world.
My thanks to Heidi Rietsch and @buddyblanc’s late uncle’s journals for furthering this season’s emotional education, viz. their unintentional craft notes on isolation. The horse flies have resumed their bloodlust and the birds are eating all the tomatoes, but the ironwood trees are carpeting the sand with florets and leaflets like flyers for whip-wielding ladyboys up and down the Vegas Strip, and East Jesus is as lonely and lovely as I’ve ever seen it.