Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Return of the King: Part Two

Note: It has been my intent with the five posts on Tolkien to whet your appetite for reading his great trilogy, even if you never do.

Even though I have referred to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as a “trilogy” it technically isn’t. Although it was originally published in three volumes (largely due to paper shortages following World War Two) Tolkien’s masterpiece is, in fact, one novel of six linked sections or books. Still, it remains a “trilogy” in most minds. There are three subtitles, after all.

Of all the many minor characters in the work, Prince Imrahil is my favorite. Imrahil gives some depth to Minas Tirith by representing the strength of Gondor as a nation. He comes with 700 fine cavalry and a strong company of infantry from Dol Amroth, a major fortress far away on the coast of Gondor.

Tolkien also uses Imrahil to tie the different pieces of the narrative together; even including him at the grand feast near the end when he meets Frodo and Sam. But, generally, Imrahil is used to present a portrait of true royalty of the Numenorean line. Though Aragorn is his King, and Imrahil does not question this, it is the Prince of Dol Amroth that holds royal power with hundreds of cavalry and a strong company of infantry under his command. Such power a mere Ranger from somewhere the other side of Rivendell does not yet weld over Men. (Unless they are the Dead, oddly enough.)

Imrahil enters the narrative in regal style with his banner waving. Soon, he leads the cavalry charge that saves the wounded Faramir in his rearguard action covering the retreat from Osgiliath. Imrahil exams the defenses with Gandalf, who has taken command of Minas Tirith due to Denethor’s madness. The Prince drives the great Orc army from the Gate of the City after it was hammered down by Grond. Thereafter he meets Theoden and Eowyn with Merry in the midst of the Battle for the Pelennor Fields.

Tolkien gives the dialog to Imrahil as the Prince laughs at the absurd hopelessness of taking the remains of the army of the Gondor-Rohan alliance and marching it against the Black Gate. This is a significant moment in the narrative. Sauron’s attack on Minas Tirith fails. Though the fate of the Ring is still unknown, there is once again danger here that the narrative will lose momentum. The Bad Guy lost the battle. But, Imrahil is entrusted to maintain momentum by articulating the great military risk Aragorn is taking to draw the Eye outward, away from Mordor where Frodo and Sam, hopefully, are approaching Mount Doom.

It is from behind Imrahil before the Black Gate that Pippin briefly charges the Mouth of Sauron upon the revelation of the mithril coat. Imrahil is given charge of the Houses of Healing and he escorts Eomer there to see his sister, along with Faramir, Pippin, and Merry. In the “last debate”, the Prince discusses strategy with Legolas and Gimli along with Aragorn and others. Imrahil touches every part of the narrative like few other characters in Tolkien’s creation.

It is a technique of Tolkien’s style to assign momentary significance to minor characters to the point that they read as equals to primary characters for hundreds of pages, then they vanish. Imrahil remains through the crowning of Aragorn, of course. But, thinking back, Boromir and Denethor were used in their turn to exert great influence over the narrative. Yet, each is only present for probably 200 pages though mentioned in scattered other places.

Tolkien acknowledges the risky split in his narrative most directly in the mind of Pippin. “Then suddenly like a cold touch on his heart he thought of Frodo and Sam. ‘I am forgetting them!’ he said to himself reproachfully. ‘And yet they are more important than all the rest of us. And I came to help them; but now they must be hundreds of miles away if they are still alive.’ He shivered.” (page 77) Frodo and Sam have yet to appear in the narrative in The Return of the King (ROTK). This is just a reminder that the most vital mission being performed in the story is the one Tolkien isn’t even writing about just now. We won’t meet Sam and Frodo until page 211. But, Pippin’s moment helps Tolkien create some added tension by realizing that, as the complex events surrounding the Siege of Gondor develop, the primary storyline about the Ring is silent.

Tolkien has been criticized for his portrayal of feminine characters. Certainly, his mode of writing is not reflective of the more “liberated” placement of women in contemporary fantasy. Nevertheless, the female characters in the trilogy represent strength, not weakness. Though Arwen has a significant presence throughout LOTR, she remains an enigma to the reader. Tolkien tells us very little about her and gives her very little to say. With the exception of Luthien in The Silmarillion, Eowyn is Tolkien’s deepest exploration into the womanly side of romantic heroism. Her battle with the powerful King of the Nazgul riding a great “winged creature” is one of the most detailed skirmishes in the entire work. Though Merry certainly helps kill the Witch-king with his stab, it is this heroic woman of Rohan, otherwise a royal maiden, who fells the flying beast and then thrusts forward into the Ringwraith.

Both swords are shattered and the arms holding them paralyzed in killing the Witch-king. Both Eowyn and Merry are wounded and out of the battle that still rages around them. But, the importance of the Nazgul’s demise is subtle in some ways. In early readings of the trilogy I never contextualized the fact that the Witch-king is in command of the attack on Minas Tirith. His demise leads to confusion in the ranks of Sauron’s forces. They attack with unity but soon their organization disintegrates.

Tolkien exhibits some noteworthy writing after Frodo and Sam leave Cirith Ungol. Once again, there is little happening but for the lurking of Gollum, the movement of Orc armies, and the wasteland of Mordor. As with all great tales of literature, the reader must be invested in the characters for the story to have a sustained effect. This is certainly true of this section of the narrative. We care so much about Frodo and Sam and exploring their hopes and fears, their strengths and weaknesses, that we don’t really notice that the action has significantly diminished. Compared with the first half of ROTK, the bumbling toward Mount Doom could be taken as boring. Yet, as with the Dead Marshes in volume two, Tolkien’s presentation of the characters carries the load and maintains our interest.

In ROTK, the hobbits continue to serve as pinpoints holding the narrative together. Three of them are featured in the finest heroic fashion, particularly in combat. Merry helps kill the Witch-king. Pippin vanquishes a giant troll upon the Field of Carmallon. Sam, of course, after having defeated Shelob goes on to take on the entire guard of the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Sam at the Tower is a terrific and entertaining read. He pushes through doubt and fear many times (unlike Sauron - to draw a wild metaphysical comparison) and performs several acts of genuine heroism. But, no act is more heroic than when Sam picks Frodo up and carries him toward the Door of the Sammath Naur at Mount Doom. Sam cannot carry the Ring, but he can carry the one who carries it. The emotional and literary sophistication of this moment rivals any other single event in the narrative for its intimate force and poignant splendor. It is one of the finest examples of great literature I’ve ever read and holds its power through repeat readings.

In Frodo’s case, however, his place in the narrative is the anti-hero, the victim, the controlled. He is fully possessed by the Ring, which is why he cannot destroy it in the end. He chooses it for himself. This is another amazing literary achievement. The Ring-bearer fails in his quest. Yet, the quest is otherwise fulfilled when Gollum bits off Frodo’s ring finger in riveting prose.

And yet this is Tolkien’s greatest risk as a storyteller. Why should we care what happens next? The world has seemingly been saved from evil.

Even after the Ring is destroyed the novel goes on for another 100 plus pages.
This is certainly unusual literature; to extend the narrative, to place so much more story after the main conflict in the plot has been resolved. But, Tolkien pulls it off with the “scouring” of the Shire. Far from being a problem proclaimed by Tolkien’s critics who think he devotes too much time to the Shire at the beginning and end of the trilogy, the return journey and the final (tiny) Battle of Bywater in the Shire is a wonderful examination of how our heroic hobbits have been changed by war, as well as how the Shire itself must pay the wages of war.

While Frodo is drained from his quest and never truly recovers from the weight of it, becoming pacifistic, the other hobbits develop into kick-ass versions of their former selves when they return to the Shire. But, of particular importance to me is what happens with Sam, the true hero of LOTR in my opinion.

The trilogy began with the speech and shocking disappearance of Bilbo under The Party Tree. But, while our four hobbits have been on their adventure, a weakened but still influential Saruman has brought to the Shire mechanization and the need to use trees for lumber and fire. Sam, deeply saddened by the denuding of so many trees from the once pristine beautiful Shire, is most affected by the cutting down of The Party Tree.

In Lorien in volume one, Galadriel had given each of the Company a parting gift. To Sam she gave what seemed at the time an absurdly elegant but out of place box. “Then suddenly one day, for he had been too busy for weeks to give thought to his adventures, he remembered the gift of Galadriel. He brought the box out and showed it to the other Travelers (for so they were now called by everyone), and asked their advice. Inside it was filled with a grey dust, soft and fine, in the middle of which was a seed, like a small nut with a silver shell.

“So Sam planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful and beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of precious dust in the soil at the root of each. Spring surpassed his wildest hopes. His trees began to sprout and grow, as if time was in a hurry and wished to make one year into twenty. In the Party Field, a beautiful young sapling leaped up: it had silver bark and long leaves and burst into golden flowers in April. It was indeed a mallorn, and it was the wonder of the neighborhood. In after years, as it grew in grace and beauty, it was known far and wide and people would come long journeys to see it: the only mallorn west of the Mountains and east of the Sea; and one of the finest in the world.” (condensed from pages 374-375)

Before the final happenings at the Grey Havens, Sam plants a tree. Nothing could better represent the essence of Tolkien. Tolkien had a special relationship with trees as trumpeters of nature. In the end LOTR comes down to planting trees for the future and letting the past sail freely out of the last elven harbor. A new age, the Fourth, is upon us. What happens then Tolkien leaves to us.

Middle-earth is a rich experience every time I return there. There is so much to discover in Tolkien’s world that several aspects of it are rediscovered anew with each reading. To remain fresh, relative, entertaining, and inspiring is something very few works of literature possess. To feel better because you get to let your mind play in that literary space for a few weeks every so many years is a reward still fewer books can claim.

It makes me realize how lucky I am to be able to appreciate these things, to remember how certain passages affected me when I first experienced them, to stitch together through the passage time all my readings and all my interest in all things Tolkien, and to understand that it is precisely that patchwork of experiences through different places and situations in my life that makes life and literature a touchstone of existential resonance.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Return of the King: Part One


The cover of The Return of the King with all my necessary reading accessories sitting on the bench in my woods as I started rereading it a few weeks ago.

Note: This is part four of an overview to my recent, ninth reading of Tolkien’s classic fantasy. Whereas I have previously finished each volume in one post this time I am running much longer than I anticipated so I am posting it in two separate short essays. I'll finish this up in a few days.

The narrative remains split well into The Return of the King (ROTK). Frodo and Sam do not make an appearance for the first 200-plus pages. The last the reader knows of them is that Frodo has been taken prisoner by Orcs and Sam, heavily fatigued, follows toward the Tower of Cirith Ungol, carrying the Ring.

At this point Tolkien diverts the reader’s attention away from the main task of destroying the Ring by overwhelming us with action-packed details of the multifaceted build-up to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the largest battle of the trilogy and, indeed, of the entire Third Age. All our other characters are busy, in separate groupings, preparing for battle against the forces unleashed by Sauron at Minas Morgul near the end of The Two Towers.

After the battle, Tolkien gives the reader one of the story’s big pay-offs for unconventionally choosing to split the narrative and the resulting loss of contact with Frodo and Sam. To distract Sauron’s attention away from Mordor, our heroes and their little army gather, vastly outnumbered, before the Black Gate; taunting Sauron himself. Sauron can no longer take physical form (see The Silmarillion for why this is the case) so the Dark Lord sends the Mouth of Sauron out of the Gate to greet Gandalf, Aragorn, Pippin, Legolas, Gimli, and the other Captains. The Mouth brings tokens that deeply disturb the reader, because the reader has no idea at this point what has happened to the two hobbits who ventured with the Ring into Cirith Ungol.

I recall this was a powerful moment for me when I first read it, not yet knowing the story in full. I still think it is a fine example of Tolkien’s brilliance as a writer. The Mouth of Sauron proclaims: “’I have tokens that I was bidden to show thee – to thee in especial, if thou shouldst dare to come.’ He signed one of the guards, and he came forward bearing a bundle swathed in black cloths. The Messenger put these aside, and there to the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first a short sword such as Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone.” (page 203) Since we know nothing of the fate of the two hobbits at this point, as readers we can fully relate to the emotional experience of the major characters at this moment.

But, Sauron is being cocky and it is all bluff. In fact, he has been intensely troubled for some time. This, of course, is not revealed until we get to the other half of the narrative. As Frodo and Sam are muddling toward Mount Doom Tolkien writes: “The Dark Power was deep in thought, and the Eye turned inward, pondering tidings of doubt and danger: a bright sword, a stern and kingly face it saw, and for awhile it gave little thought to other things; and all its stronghold, gate on gate, and tower on tower, was wrapped in a brooding gloom.” (page 245)

To me, this is another remarkable literary moment. Sauron is in gloom. The primary adversary in the narrative is actually doubtful and in despair. This is where evil touches goodness and this is where evil can leverage things, according to Tolkien. Tolkien’s sense of evil throughout The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Silmarillion is curiously touchable. Evil is not just blatant terror and wickedness. It seems partly fair and innocent and even pitiable. It is upon these qualities that Tolkien’s harbingers of evil spin their subtle lies. It is all about the marketing spin and Sauron (like Morgoth before him) is great at spinning the facts in his favor.

The instrument of Sauron’s gloom is the same as that of Denethor’s despair. As mentioned in a previous post, the palantri give the story great depth even if they are not fully explained in the narrative. Specifically, they connect LOTR with the greatness that was Númenor in the Second Age and even further back than that to Valinor itself. Through a palantir Sauron has revealed to Denethor the overwhelming strength he has amassed both in Mordor and from allies to the south and east. Sauron poisons the disgruntled mind of Denethor.

Meanwhile, Sauron’s palantir has affected him. The Eye has seen Pippin in it (Sauron knows from torturing Gollum earlier in LOTR that a hobbit has the Ring). Then the Eye beholds Aragorn in a bold test of wills. Seeing these, for the first time in the story, the Eye turns inward. Sauron failed to control either Aragorn or Pippin the way he mastered Denethor (weakened by the death of his first son) and Saruman (weakened by the wizard’s greed for power). Sauron ponders the possibility that Aragorn has taken the Ring. Sauron expects the Ring to be used against him.

There is a second significance to the Eye turning inward. Sauron becomes pensive as the wind changes. This is marvelous minor thread in the narrative is worth noting. In the superb passage that includes the introspective Eye quoted above, Tolkien notes in the previous paragraph: “The wind from the world now blew from the West.” (page 245)

This changing of the wind is announced twice before. Sam acknowledges it to Frodo on page 240. Mordor had belched forth dark clouds over Osgiliath toward Minas Tirith as Sauron attacked. With the change of wind, however, the clouds are being pushed back over Mordor and even there a bit of light starts of defuse into the bleakness of Gorgoroth.

The second mention of the wind comes through the fascinating minor character of Ghân-buri-Ghân, chieftain of the Woses, the so-called “Wild Men of the Drúedain Forest,” who helps to guide the Rohirrim as they ride in mass to the aid of Minas Tirith. Tolkien describes his abrupt parting from the company of King Theoden: “But suddenly he stood looking up like some startled woodland animal snuffling a strange air. A light came to his eyes. ‘Wind is changing!’ he cried, and with that, in a twinkling as it seemed, he and his fellows had vanished into the glooms, never to be seen by any Rider of Rohan again.” (page 133)

The Eye of Sauron turns inward, contemplating (incorrectly as it turns out) what the palantir has told him, before the huge battle actually starts. In fact, Tolkien leads us to believe that it is primarily because of what Sauron sees in the stone that he launches his massive attack. “I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me.” (page 62) “For I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet as he is above fear; nay, doubt gnaws him.’ ‘But he welds great dominion, nonetheless,’ said Gimli; ‘and now he will strike more swiftly.’ ‘The hasty stroke goes oft astray,’ said Aragorn.” (page 63)

Sauron is actually suffering from acute uncertainty and, indeed, fear. While he has vast forces and launches a grand assault, he is nevertheless gloomy and afraid. This is the state of weakness that allows the Ring to slip all the way to Mount Doom unnoticed. First, the Eye is not watchful but reflective. Then, the Eye returns its gaze outward as Aragorn and his strong but small army marches to the Black Gate. Sauron is more concerned with the returning King’s actions than with sensing the Ring in his backdoor. The whole climax of the trilogy depends on this.

Like so much of the trilogy, this is a rather risky and unconventional approach. Traditionally, a writer is supposed to veil their adversary in mystery and strength, yet Tolkien does not choose this path and in not doing so he risks the possibility that the story’s climax will lack punch and fail measure up to the tension created by the great Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Yet, as with everything else, Tolkien maintains the tension precisely because the fate of the Ring itself remains unknown to the reader until some 275 pages or so into ROTK.

Did Tolkien intend the wind changing from east to west to be a result of the Eye turning inward? I don’t know but it is an interesting aspect of the trilogy to discuss. Some Tolkien scholars believe that the changing of the wind is actually the work of Manwë, a Valar who was ever the greatest challenger of Morgoth. Ultimately, Manwë thrust Morgoth into the Void. There is little evidence to support this in LOTR itself, however, as Manwë is never mentioned in ROTK. Yet, some scholars think that the overseeing force of the Valar is implied by Tolkien. And Manwë is “the lord of the air and the wind.”



The smudge of red in the lower left corner is the flame from Mount Doom as seen from Barad-hur on the cover of my 1975 paperback edition, which has survived nine readings and other times of scanning and study. Cover painting is by Tolkien himself.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Immersed in myPad

My daughter is a persistent advocate of whatever cause strikes her fancy. Usually the Cause involves shopping or going to gatherings with friends. But, for my birthday this year she persisted with Jennifer to get me an iPad2. It was a total surprise.

So, for the past several weeks I have been obsessed with my new toy. Life before my iPad, which I have somewhat affectionately dubbed “myPad”, was a comparative mobile technology wasteland. I did not possess an iPhone or an Android or any other fancy mobile device. My cell phone is about ten years old and works fine. It doesn’t text and I don’t even know how to send a text message. I am ancient and antiquated in this regard. As I mentioned previously, I don’t even have a Facebook account. I never had a MySpace account. Maybe I’ll catch the next thing…there’s always a “next” isn’t there?

Suddenly, I have been thrust into a wider technological realm with myPad. As is the way with technology – such as when I first bought my PS3 and HDTV – it can more or less wrap its fingers around your attention span and hold you as a prisoner of sorts. With myPad this is especially true. I spend at least a couple hours a day tinkering with the thing ever since I got it.

The iPad cultural sphere is vaster, of course, than the one for the PS3/HDTV. The later items quickly became mere tools of entertainment, fairly easily explored, evaluated and becoming routine, even mundane and unused. Taken for granted. That will eventually happen with myPad (I think). But, it hasn’t happened so far.

My spare time has become a refuge for venturing out into the magical world of “Apps,” discovering the effervescence of portability, the ability to surf the internet more efficiently and from anywhere, no longer chained to a PC or even a clunky laptop. I can stream music, read news, check the weather, and write emails from my front porch or even my bench in the woods as if I had nothing more than a clipboard in my lap as a sip my gin and tonic.

The iPad operating system and interface (like the iPhone OS I assume) is very intuitive and easy to use. You point, flick, slide, widen or narrow your fingers to make the magic happen on the screen. Placing one icon on top of another automatically creates a new “folder” containing both icons and any others you add later. There’s a handy little “shelf” that remains stationary at the bottom of the screen. You use it to station your “primary” icons and folders while everything else can be spread out as you choose over several screens that move sequentially back and forth, to the left and right, as you drive with your finger tip. To transfer an icon from one section of the desktop to another you simply place it on the shelf then move it onto the desired desktop space as you flick your finger around.

I have arrived in the 21st century. I have become somewhat like my daughter with her iPhone and laptop. I don’t need no stinkin’ life. The seduction of technology permeates until there is little distinction between thinking and feeling and expressing yourself and experiencing all this through the accent (or full-blown domination, as in the case of video games or texting or chat, perhaps) of micro-electronics. I have, upon many occasions, sat around a listened to my friends yack for a half-hour or more about how you can do this and that with iPhones or Droids, as if that were a complete subject of legitimate experience all by itself. It just happens. Nobody seems especially bothered by it, all this conversation about how things that are things work as things to create more thingness. In simple terms, the tool becomes a part of who you are instead of just a way of getting things done. Behavior for the sake of the tool instead of the tool as a means of use.

Hopefully, I can keep my life between the ditches of technological encapsulation. That has yet to be seen. Right now, I’m reading a great deal, but little of it is printed books. I am sampling plenty of electronic books, however. The shelves of myPad are filled with the complete six-volumes of Edward Gibbon's classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (I read the abridged version in college). I have most of the novels and principle histories of H.G. Wells, the works of Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, among other classic authors. I even have several major works by H.P. Lovecraft all sitting there in the myPad library, all for free. Various pages are already bookmarked and highlighted, as is my tradition. It is pretty cool even if it still feels a bit weird not to hold printed material in my hands. I should get used to this, I suppose, now that I have the capability. Amazon.com recently reported that eBook sells now surpass “print” books on their popular website. Besides, I’m kinda low on physical shelf space. But, I’m not shelling out any cash for an ebook until I get more comfortable with the reading experience on myPad.

I have access to all the major news and society television networks and periodicals. Each morning and afternoon I read or watch USA Today, CNN, ABC News, Fox News, CBS News, NBC News, BBC News, PBS programming, CNBC, Bloomberg and so on. In my first couple of weeks with myPad I read The New York Times, The Times of London, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. But, as soon as my free subscription plays out I will become limited to just scanning the headlines of these newspaper offerings.

It seems to me that subscription-based information models are even more out of place on myPad than they are on my PC. Why pay for anything when there is more information than you can possibly digest available from so many excellent free sources?

Among the Apps that came with myPad is something nifty called Pulse. The Pulse App is an amalgamation of several news outlets and periodicals covering all the top stories from economics to politics to sports to food to fashion. And so on...seemingly forever. All for free. I cannot seem to find the “bottom” of myPad. In this regard it is vastly different from buying a PS3 and HDTV. And it is the very urge to discover more and more ever anew, frankly, that makes myPad so addictive. In addition to my freebie ebooks, for example, I have found a couple of moderately challenging chess Apps that free. There’s more, always more. Technology is a drug this way.

To date I have only paid for two Apps. One is Star Chart which is a terrific companion for checking out the night sky. The portability of the iPad comes in very handy in such instances and I have used it on several occasions to sky-watch and explore outside of my previously “normal” Starry Night and telescope experiences. It is a definite shift in behavior.

You can press your finger tip to any point of light and instantly get a pop up for that star, planet or deep space object, identifying it and providinging such useful basic information as distance, and both apparent and absolute magnitude. You can zoom into the star chart by the common widening of finger and thumb upon the screen. At sufficient magnification the Messier Catalog and many NGC objects of nebula, clusters, and universes are revealed in a thumbnail size image of the thing. Just large enough to appreciate in terms of shape or color or brightness. Good stuff.

Even cooler, you can switch Star Chart from what I call “reference mode” in to GPS-driven “live” mode and point the iPad at any location in the sky to identify anything that happens to be there at that moment. You can even point the iPad down to your feet and see what the sky would look like in the southern hemisphere – the Magellanic Clouds, for example. While this makes jumping around the sky much easier and interactive it has its limitations. It is much more difficult to zoom-in on an object, for example, while you are holding the iPad over your head with one hand and trying to use your other hand to set you magnification. So, the ability to use Star Chart in “live” mode is more of a novelty than anything else.

The other App I have purchased so far is called GarageBand which is expensive as Apps go, costing me all of five bucks. Cheap add-ons (after the somewhat pricey cost of the iPad2 itself, of course) help feed the fires of addiction. With GarageBand I can express my rather mediocre musical talents. I am self-taught on an acoustic guitar and am very second-rate but making music is still fun.

Well, no need for tuning the guitar anymore. Now I can load up the myPad App and enter a world of various guitars both acoustic and electric, of drums and other percussion instruments, of different styles of keyboards. At first, I was totally immersed in tinkering with the pianos. I play around with a 66-key Casio electric keyboard in my study on occasion. I never took any lessons but I enjoy making simple chord progressions and pecking out Christmas Carol tunes now and then. It seems like a cumbersome, bulky luxury now, however. GarageBand has renewed my interest with a wider assortment of pianos, synthesizers and other keyboard instruments.

Beyond fiddling around with individual instruments, however, the App goes much deeper. It has its own recording studio where you can record chord progressions and even vocals (using the built-in myPad mic) and then delve into a surprisingly sophisticated mixing system where you can layer various other instruments and sounds onto your basic guitar, bass, or keyboard performance to create a full-fledged studio sound.

So far, I have created various short pieces of different styles, most lasting 32 bars which equates to about one minute, ten seconds at my standard tempo. After I’ve completed a mix, however, I can torture my friends by emailing it to them or transfer it to my PC for further editing with some software I have loaded on that. Then I can upload it to the internet and wait for the recording contract offers to pour in. If you are curious I have uploaded some samples to share. They are all basically variations on a simple six-chord progression. Here’s a blues/rock mix, an acoustic mix, an extended bass-heavy mix, a piano mix, and something I call a JiveJam mix. Again, all mediocre but still my kind of fun.

In recent days I have found myself resurfacing into physical reality after about a month of heavy exploration in the myPad reality. There are other ideas and interests to explore, after all. Hopefully, myPad will become assimilated with the rest of my life and be just another tool in my way of Being. Hopefully, it won’t become some indispensible part of me like the cell phone is for most people. With technology, who will serve who is always an iffy proposition, however. There’s always a cool new App to download, right?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Anthropocene Dreams

Last weekend, as we experienced one of the hottest Memorial Day holidays in recent memory, I found a little time to read a fascinating issue of The Economist that featured a cover story entitled “Welcome to the Anthropocene.” It was the first time I have encountered this term though it has apparently been batted around within the scientific community (particularly in geology) since 2000.

In brief,
a growing body of scientists both within geology and in other disciplines are coming to the conclusion that we are no longer living in the Holocene geologic period. Instead, we have entered a new period with amazing swiftness where human beings are no longer the passive victims and observers of environmental processes. Due primarily to our active participation in the carbon-cycle and the nitrogen-cycle, humanity now shapes the workings of vast ecological systems. The Gaia Principle is now married to (or perhaps in contention with) the human footprint upon the earthly engine of creation itself.

The article contributed to the recipe of an idea I have noodled on for awhile. That recipe includes the
“note to self” post last month regarding the pace of technological change and equating that with a book I have queued up to read in the near future entitled The 10,000 Year Explosion along with other books and articles in my collection on the topic of the acceleration of human evolution. Another ingredient is the recent publication of Rush, which sings widely-accepted praises to the competitive forces driving the process of acceleration. I see this whole debate on the Anthropocene as part of a multi-faceted puzzle, still disjoined, that appears to form the image of a great and turbulent spiritual landscape.

As I attempt to muddle through the meaning of these scattered fragments, I find myself conflicted about the possibilities of such deliberations. On the one hand, I’ve been interested in
Transhumanism for many years. The Transhuman reality certainly has much in common with the Anthropocene mentality. It is the death of the gods and the rising of humankind to its rightful place as controller of its own destiny, as master of self and nature.

But, there is a disquieting side to all this too. Human control over traditionally natural processes (there are more trees growing in tree farms on the planet today than there are growing in the wilderness, for example), the pace of technology out-stripping the means by which human beings can relate to and find meaning in technology and its impact upon the pace of human evolution itself – all of these things I find provocative. Of course, if the future is
Transhuman then it is inherently provocative, so what do I expect when new ideas such as the cover story in the latest Economist slap me in the face?

The simple fact is how I personally feel about these processes and forces acting within and upon the human realm is largely inconsequential. I have to admit that there are powerful arguments supporting such a state of affairs. My private heroes such as Thoreau and Tolkien and many others would find all this ominous and, perhaps, even evil. I try not to reduce what I consider to be clear metaphysical forces to a simple flatland of darkness and light. I try to objectively understand what is happening and why without regard to how I feel about it because that seems truly meaningless in terms of what is happening in the Now. I get no vote. I didn’t even know
the Arthropocene was a concept until a few days ago.

It all makes
perfect sense, however – to quote a bit of Roger Waters cynicism and sarcasm. According to The Economist there is “no turning back” to some pristine Eden. What we have here is truly a “revolution” in the way of looking at things and acting as humans. A few quotes from the main article: “The Anthropocene is different. It is one of those moments where a scientific realisation, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes round the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science. It means more than rewriting some textbooks. It means thinking afresh about the relationship between people and their world and acting accordingly.”

“Almost 90% of the world’s plant activity, by some estimates, is to be found in ecosystems where humans play a significant role. Although farms have changed the world for millennia,
the Anthropocene advent of fossil fuels, scientific breeding and, most of all, artificial nitrogen fertiliser has vastly increased agriculture’s power. The relevance of wilderness to our world has shrunk in the face of this onslaught.”

“A planet that could soon be supporting as many as 10 billion human beings has to work differently from the one that held 1 billion people, mostly peasants, 200 years ago. The challenge of
the Anthropocene is to use human ingenuity to set things up so that the planet can accomplish its 21st-century task.”

“Increasing the planet’s resilience will probably involve a few dramatic changes and a lot of fiddling. An example of the former could be geoengineering. Human interference in the nitrogen cycle has made far more nitrogen available to plants and animals; it has done much less to help the planet deal with all that nitrogen when they have finished with it. Instead we suffer ever more coastal “dead zones” overrun by nitrogen-fed algal blooms.”

“For many of those promoting the idea of
the Anthropocene, further geoengineering may now be in order, this time on the carbon front. Left to themselves, carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are expected to remain high for 1,000 years—more, if emissions continue to go up through this century. It is increasingly common to hear climate scientists arguing that this means things should not be left to themselves—that the goal of the 21st century should be not just to stop the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increasing, but to start actively decreasing it. This might be done in part by growing forests and enriching soils, but it might also need more high-tech interventions, such as burning newly grown plant matter in power stations and pumping the resulting carbon dioxide into aquifers below the surface, or scrubbing the air with newly contrived chemical-engineering plants, or intervening in ocean chemistry in ways that would increase the sea’s appetite for the air’s carbon.”

The carbon and nitrogen cycles are not the limits of human participation. In fact, given that technology is largely moving on while dropping plenty of humanity to the wayside, there may well be no limits on what humanity and technology will do to the planet. It seems to me that the greatest casualty in any of this is going to be the original, pristine concept of Gaia itself. Are we witness to the raping and pillaging of Gaia? Are we watching the marriage of Gaia and humanity? Questions of this type are presently unanswerable though worthy of consideration.

For me, however, one thing is certain. This is
the workings of karma on a vast scale, far beyond anything I’ve heretofore considered. So, I add this to the mix of musings that are currently in play in my thoughts and emotions. I find the whole Anthropocene debate simultaneously fascinating and menacing, which I suppose is the essence of our postmodern condition. The future is already here, we make critical choices without even understanding all our options, and we pass along a heritage of occurrences without decision. Karma drives inexorably on, changeable perhaps in myself and others, but unrelenting in its consequences on the geologic scale.

The possibilities, however, are not reducible to a competitive dialectic. As The Economist sums it all up as: “…the most fundamental change in Earth history that
the Anthropocene marks: the emergence of a form of intelligence that allows new ways of being to be imagined and, through co-operation and innovation, to be achieved. The lessons of science, from Copernicus to Darwin, encourage people to dismiss such special pleading. So do all manner of cultural warnings, from the hubris around which Greek tragedies are built to the lamentation of King David’s preacher: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…the Earth abideth for ever…and there is no new thing under the sun.’ But the lamentation of vanity can be false modesty. On a planetary scale, intelligence is something genuinely new and powerful. Through the domestication of plants and animals intelligence has remade the living environment. Through industry it has disrupted the key biogeochemical cycles. For good or ill, it will do yet more.”

Nevertheless, the quote speaks of "cooperation" and "innovation," the possibility that "new ways of being" are "imagined and achieved." Those certainly aren't threatening terms. Could it really be that childlike? That we all see things clearly and we all get along? Might be a bit of a stretch, but it feels good to think of the change in this way.

There’s an old song by
R.E.M., one of my favorite contemporary bands, entitled “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” That’s the proper perspective, as tricky as it might be for me to adopt as of this posting. I am unsure if Nietzsche would have seen the Anthropocene as part of the birth of the Ubermensch. But, he might. It is not only a question worth pondering but a rather exciting existential moment as well. Perhaps this is another step on the path toward the Transhuman, which in itself is partly influenced by Nietzsche’s lifework. Regardless, it increasingly looks like the top monkeys are running the weather report. The forecast is partly sunny with a chance of late-afternoon techno-intercession.

More musings on
the Anthropocene as I incorporate it with other things simmering for future posts.