Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Best. Compliment. Ever.

We made our annual pilgrimage to the Popular Culture Association Conference last weekend. This year it was in San Diego, sometimes mistaken for a suburb of Los Angeles; but after Houston's first stifling signs of spring, it proved a welcome respite. Of course the best part of PCA is seeing lots of friends and we spent a lot of time talking, arguing and chasing flights of imagination in or around DW's Pub. I gave a paper this year in the comics area (yeah, even though I chair the medieval area--call me perverse). Well, not so much a paper, as a performance; I had said last year, when some one suggested an Alan Moore panel, that I would give a ritual performance in the style of Moore's workings. People thought I was kidding. I never kid (it's like that Somerset Maugham story where a woman is known as a great wit, simply because she always tells the truth, but I digress).

So I gave my presentation, "The City as the Body of the Poet: William Blake's London in Alan Moore & Tim Perkins' Angel Passage." I worked on the text, to get the rhythm right, not only of the words but of the PP slides with images of arcane diagrams, an unexpected non sequitur, and of course Blake's art. It was about ritual (one of my obsessions) but it also was ritual. I had said I would invoke the spirit of Moore and of course, eveyone thought I was joking. I wasn't. I savor the picture of Moore's body slumped in a chair somewhere in Northampton Friday afternoon.

I was a bit nervous that day. Not only was I trying something new, something the audience at an academic conference might be resistant to experiencing; but I was also on the panel with our VIP guest, Danny Fingeroth, author of Superman on the Couch and I had to go first.

I plunged into the piece, catching the rhythm and finding the right voice. People laughed in the right places, looked puzzled at the right times, and the room seemed to hum with electricity--or maybe it was just me. The last half of the performance was half Moore and half me, and I felt I had matched his eloquence reasonably well and more importantly, that the piece was rising to its climax, the final words of Moore's narration, "William Blake, amazed and unafraid." For that moment, I felt akin to the image flashed up on the screen, Blake's Red Dragon, wings spread, shoulders thrown back as he towers over the woman clothed in sun. The audience seemed to share the feeling and their applause seemed genuine. I felt the glow of success, raising an academic paper from a piacular rite to -- dare I say it -- art.

You don't get that kind of feedback writing prose alone in the wee hours, or even from one careful reader. It's the spectacle, the crowd, the feeling of response, give and take: performance, drama, ritual. And then it got even better: We turned to Danny who said (and this is burned on my brain) "it's going to be like following Frank Sinatra with 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.'" :-) What can I say? I was lifted far above the fourth floor and had to wait for my feet to again touch solid ground sometime later.

Thanks, Danny (who turns out to be the kind of guy who shares his fries, so you know he's all right).

Monday, March 21, 2005

UHD Dateline: Hunter S. Thompson Remembered

[This appeared in the March 4-24 2005 edition of the Dateline Downtown]

Hunter S. Thompson, R.I.P.
K. A. Laity

This past weekend, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in his Colorado home, which he often referred to as his “well-armed compound,” although he also claimed that his reputation was enough to keep people away. We may never know if it was terminal disgust with the direction of this country or the simple attrition of age. After all, he was 67, had a hip replacement and recently broke a leg. Pain might be the one drug he decided to do without. But as an outspoken critic of the “W” vision of America and the precipitous decline of civil rights, he may at last have given into despair.

Thompson will be remembered best for his self-proclaimed "gonzo" journalism, the notion that not only was objectivity not possible, but it was probably not all that desirable. To inhabit the world you studied—whether it was the Kentucky Derby, the Nixon presidential campaign, or the Hell's Angels—came with risks as well as rewards.

In a culture where paid mouthpieces help push the current administration's agenda in secret, Thompson has long been admired for being up front about his own beliefs and prejudices. While he was lionized by the 60s counterculture for the drug-fueled odyssey of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his own views were distinctly libertarian. A lifetime member of the NRA, he was unabashedly proud of his guns as well as his notorious drug habits. Thompson has said, "I do not advocate the use of dangerous drugs, wild amounts of alcohol and violence and weirdness... but they've always worked for me."

Thompson understood the inevitability of remaining the outsider if you want to tell the truth. Yet it was this outsider status that made many celebrate him. He was immortalized as Uncle Duke in Gary Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury. His thinly veiled alter-ego Raoul Duke has inspired two cinematic portraits; first, in the lamentable Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), a toothless party piece that had a lot more to do with Animal House than with the man himself, starring Bill Murray before he really became an actor. More successfully, the spirit of Fear and Loathing (1998) was captured in the film by Terry Gilliam, himself no slouch in the gonzo approach to creation. Ably supported by a stellar supporting cast including Benicio Del Toro and Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp eerily conjured the spirit of Thompson down to his bow-legged walk, a mimicry that the man himself admired. Gilliam’s film proved successful not just because he captured the drug-fueled chaos, but because he also caught Thompson’s despair at the death of the American Dream.

In more recent times, Thompson spoke out against what he saw as the descent toward fascism taken by the current administration since 9/11. Two years ago, in an interview with Salon, he characterized the Bush government caustically: “I believe the Republicans have seen what they've believed all along, which is that this democracy stuff is bull, and that people don't want to be burdened by political affairs. That people would rather just be taken care of. The oligarchy doesn't need an educated public. And maybe the nation does prefer tyranny. I think that's what worries me. It goes back to Fourth Amendment issues. How much do you value your freedom? Would you trade your freedom for some illusion of security? Freedom is something that dies unless it's used.”

Thompson always sought that freedom, even from his own caricatured fame, refusing to be a hero to those who sought to idolize him. A journalist to the end, information was always the key. "I've found you can deal with the system a lot easier if you use their rules—by understanding their rules, by using their rules against them." He never underestimated the brutality of the system, but he may have finally grown tired of the fight.

See the entire 2003 Salon interview at: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/02/03/thompson/index1.html

Friday, March 18, 2005


When you first get pubished, you feel euphoric -- until you realize the work has just begun. Getting the word out! In this information-bombarding culture, how do you get the word out without getting it lost in the shuffle? Well, blogs are one way. Reviews are another. Here's a review site that has already begun collecting reviews on Sword and Sorceress XXI. Feel free to add yours!


Monday, March 07, 2005

A Tale of the Bodhisattva

An ancient tale (or is it new?) of the Bodhisattva* relates how students once gathered to question the enlightened one. They all wanted to reach enlightenment too, and asked how to do so. The bodhisattva said "Enlightenment is like a thousand petal lotus. It is easy to get caught in one of the petals and dwell forever, but one should seek the center of the bud." Upon hearing this analogy, one student achieved enlightenment.

Another asked "How can one achieve enlightenment?" and the bodhisattva answered, "Enlightenment is like a lamp that always burns, yet ever must we re-light it." That student instantly received enlightenment.

A third student remained stubbornly silent. The bodhisattva picked up a tree limb and whacked the student on the head. The student fell face down in the mud and at once achieved enlightenment.

What is the aim of this story? That some must be hit over the head to achieve enlightenment? Or that a teacher must use all tools available?

*Bodhisattva--an enlightened being who has put off transcendence the better to help others reach enlightenment.