William-o the Pirate King in: Water Torture

(An Odyssey Journal)

Rain dripped from the barn’s eaves: plip, plip, plip, plip, and so on. After sixty plips, a fallen maple leaf at the puddle’s edge tipped, trickling the excess in over the floor. Dahlia the cow chewed her cud and digested: fourteen chomps, then a rest, then three, then a rest. She never once batted an eye. Hammy the farmhand dozed leaning back on two legs of a rickety chair. Every four breaths, a greasy lock of hair caught in his nostril and caused him to snore.

William-o the Pirate King, the barnyard cat, lay sprawled out on a wooden beam seven feet up, his legs dangling high in the air. On either side of him the age-dark wood was scored with marks where he’d sharpened his long, black claws. His one good eyelid drooped, then fluttered open, then drooped again. He twitched his scarred and battered tail. He yawned. He watched a spider crawl all the way along the beam from the empty stall at the barn’s southwest corner to the tool cubby on the other side, and begin a new web between the riding mower’s front left bumper and the handle of a hoe.

Outside in the rain, toads frolicked in the puddles. In their dry birdhouse in the crook of the maple tree, the bluebirds warbled unceasingly. Far away in the house, fat mice played shuffleboard with toothpicks and piecrust crumbs across the newly-polished kitchen floor.

And William-o the Pirate King could ruin none of it.

The spider’s new web was nearly finished when a new leak began to form in the roof. A fat water droplet fell on William-o’s battle-scarred left ear. He yowled and twisted, batted at the offensive droplet, lost his balance, and fell from the beam into a pile of musty green hay.

Enough is enough, thought the Pirate King, and bounded out onto the muddy floor.

He leapt straight through the spider’s new web, tearing it to shreds, and smooshed the spider. He stalked into Dahlia’s stall and dug his teeth into her udder. She lowed and stamped and kicked, but he was gone long before her hooves hit. He went over to Hammy’s rickety chair, and knocked its legs from underneath him with one swipe of his paw. Hammy roared and cursed, and grabbed for a switch.

But William-o had disappeared into the rain.

Shark Tale

Due respect to Chris Rock (less to Deniro) but no, that is not what this is about.

Did anybody besides me watch the brief 90’s Next Generation coattail-rider SeaQuest DSV? Stands for Deep-Sea Vehicle, or some such acronymical nonsense. It was a near-future, lower-tech, politically somewhat more realistic Trek set on a big submarine, featuring special effects roughly on the (low) level of the Kevin Sorbo Hercules, and, not surprisingly, an obnoxious boy genius and a grizzled sea captain. Produced by Spielberg, apparently, of which I had not known before looking it up just now. Lasted two seasons.

It is the seaQuest‘s oceanographic boy genius, Lucas Wolenczak, with whom I am concerned here–played by Jonathan Brandis of Neverending Story II fame (don’t follow that link unless you’re prepared to be depressed, especially since I’m about to make fun of him). More accurately, young Lucas is a teen heartthrob boy genius, a credit to the tried and true teen heartthrob boy genius character blueprint, more than capable of filling then Lt. Wesley Crusher’s red stretch-fabric slippers. He was way cuter, for one thing, and his best friend was a talking dolphin (a genius as well, we were to assume).

In concert with said ichthyoid, young Lucas had developed a super high tech submarine shaped like a fish. Super high tech. The show devoted more than one episode to establishing its jawdroppingly awesome water speeds. No sub could catch it, because it worked on principles perfected by nature. He used it at great risk to life and hairstyle to chase down deep sea poachers, cavort boyishly with his dolphin pals, and fend off giant prehistoric alligators and the like. It seemed to make sense at the time.

Now then.

The youthful and really ridiculously good-looking Fabien “Fabio” Cousteau has recently made his way into the news as a result of certain accomplishments in oceanographic exploration. Accomplishments, frankly, that have given me cause to wonder as to young Fabien’s fictionality.

He drives a sub that looks like a shark.

No, not just a big metal tube with teeth and a face and a naked chick painted on it like a WWII fighter. Not even a metal casing shaped like a shark with a propeller and a periscope sticking out at either end a la that of Tintin.

He drives a sub that looks like a shark to sharks.

It flaps its tail. It swims. Somehow it doesn’t even breathe bubbles out of its gills. This allows the oceanographer in the wetsuit inside it to get ‘chummy’ with the sharks (little pun), look mean, practice his geezer stare, and presumably learn something about their behavior or something.

What the hell? Is it 2018 already? How did this massive leap in technology sneak past me? Are you telling me we got FISH SUBS 13 years ahead of schedule, but I STILL don’t have my CYBORG IMPLANTS? Fabien Cousteau’s got ocean superiority! Why the hell aren’t the Russians and the CIA trying to infiltrate that shit so THEY can get ocean superiority! Why isn’t he out busting up international underwater smuggling rings, fighting the loch-ness monster hand to hand? Those don’t exist? Oh, you’re right.

What am I to expect of this youngest Cousteau? To drown in his pool, as the joke goes. Beyond that I’m not really sure. I was too young to remember the career of the eldest Cousteau, though I have the impression he is a legend in his field. What does that mean about his descendants? Are they Sean Lennon, or are they Christopher Tolkien?

Jean-Michel Cousteau, younger son of Jacques and father of Fabien, is criticized by at least some in the diving community as an industry sell-out. I figure getting called that by divers has a little less credibility than being called it by skaters, boats and diving equipment costing a hell of a lot more than skateboards and the front steps of public buildings. ON the other hand, he’s done pretty well for himself. I might have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, if I hadn’t come across this on Amazon.

It’s a review of Jean-Michel’s critically acclaimed, bestselling, inverse nepotistically-titled Cousteau’s Great White Shark. I’m just going to transcribe it here. It’s short, and it’s worth it.

“For surviving for 400 million years. For refusing to submit yourself to mankind’s aquariums and corporate SeaWorlds. For never allowing your secrets of mating or birth to become known to the prying eyes of man. For not even leaving a skeleton for science to attempt to examine. For being the Master of the Seas, without even using mechanical aids to assist you, like we, the Humans, the Wimps, the Know-Nothings, the Arrogant Pestilence of the World must resort to to even attempt to conquer you. Keep fighting, Terrible, Beautiful Lordly Ones. We offer you humble, unworthy obeisance in the form of this book, under the aegis of your most dutiful admirer, Jacques Cousteau, Poseidon rest his soul. Never has your grace nor your fearful symmetry appeared to such great advantage. Keep cruising. May your fins glide through the oceans long after the peasants have ceased to crawl upon the earth–or dared to trawl upon the waters!”

–“I hail thee, Great White Shark!”, October 5, 1999, by an anonymous reviewer.

“Hello! I am a crazy crazy psycho Gozer/Lamnidae/Azathoth cultist! You, the ‘Peasants’, obviously should care deeply about and be influenced by my sociopathic opinions on the quality of books. Though of course I would rather see you all reduced to chum in the belly of this inhuman eating machine that I worship than read anything at all ever, ever again. Ahem. Read this book! Thank you.”

(That second paragraph is me.)

Research reveals Jean-Michel’s current career to consist of the facilitating of really ridiculously expensive diving expeditions open to anybody with thousands of dollars lying around where they “take you out to feed, pet, touch, ride and otherwise bother and disturb marine wildlife” (CDNN, not exactly an unbiased source).

So it appears Fabien’s genes aren’t doing him any huge favors.

It turns out Fabien Cousteau didn’t actually build the fish sub himself. He commissioned it from a guy who makes concept cars for hollywood. That’s a little bit more realistic. It’s still a damn cool piece of technology, and one on which I am still unclear as to exactly how it works (some kind of pressure manipulation of the gases expelled by Cousteau’s breathing apparatus). But it makes me doubt whether this fiberglass fish can really be the most advanced sub ever made. Alas.

What? It’s not like I really wanted a fish sub anyway.

Cats, Dogs and Monkeys

I recently met a large and incorrigibly joyful german shepherd puppy called Bailey, who because of the wildly exuberant way in which she plowed her massive damp snout into my pliable flesh as well as that of anything else that moved or even did not, I shall forever remember more fondly as the Beast of Bailey Downs. This Beast, like all german shepherds, is very clever. She knows and obeys the commands her beleaguered masters might well have been bludgeoned to death with affectionate nose-rammings had they neglected to teach her. She sits. She shakes. She lies down. She rolls over. She fetches. And when she’s been especially bad, she even goes apologetically into her kennel to await forgiveness.

Yet it isn’t her ability to follow the letter of these limited laws where the problem lies. She simply doesn’t understand the spirit. She can figure out the master-pet heirarchy far enough to obey. It’s the self-control part she just isn’t ever going to get. Oh, she’ll sit, but then four second’s later she’ll knock you sprawling and wonder why you’re yelling at her.

At my work, as I believe I’ve mentioned, there are cats. More cats than I can manage to remember the names of. As a matter of fact my employer herself is rather catlike, in the way that cats in general are considered to be similar to people: she’s capable both of incredible whimsy and impossible demands within the space of seconds.

I had not until recently considered myself the cat sort of person. When I was a kid my Beast of choice was in fact a massive, drooly, german shepherd puppy with absolutely no sense of its own girth. I crossed streets to get away from cats. Yet these cats seem to like me, as well as cats can be said to like people, which is to say they don’t claw me in the face. Which is more than I can say for certain other cats I’ve met. Hence, having realized at last that in a manner of speaking I swing both ways, I am very much interested in remaining on my friends the felines’ collective good side. An encounter with a mountain of disgruntled cats whose names you’ve forgotten is not the sort of thing you walk away from.

Thus upon my return from the drool-coated clutches of Bailey “the Blunt Instrument” Jones, I was somewhat apprehensive as to the reaction of the forty thousand felines. Let’s not mince words. I expected it to rain cats like the tenth plague of egypt. I expected it to rain cats like cats and dogs. But it didn’t. They treated me as they always did, with a brush and a snuffle and a bit of tail-fluff in the face.

What the hell was going on here? Cats and dogs, man, cats and dogs! Dog my cats, if the whiff of Bailey the Canine Battering Ram on my coat didn’t scare the crap out of these flighty felines, then all our in-depth conversations on the subject of why the couldn’t have my turkey sandwich and whether they’d please get up off the keyboard must not have meant as much as I thought!

I’ll tell you what’s going on here: and while it might sound like not so much of a revelation at first, I think if you think about it you’ll discover its something we take for granted that we know without ever really stopping to consider it. Something that might just shake our society to its very foundations if we did.

This is where the monkeys come in.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was on last night. This classic film features rather prominently a lovable, traitorous, and ultimately tragic monkey. I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anybody if I reveal that the cute and seemingly harmless monkey who becomes so attached to Miss Ravenwood in the second act is in fact the agent of the shady-looking Arab guy with the moustache, the scimitar and the red pajamas. He gives Indy’s love interest away to the Nazis, nearly gets her killed, and then comes back to Indy all “But I’m so cute and crushed by remorse! Love me!” Of course, ultimately, the monkey is redeemed, and gives unimpeachable proof of having seen the error of his ways and repented by sacrificing his own meager life to protect Indy from the peril of the poisoned dates. Or at least that’s how I’ve read it every time of the dozens I’ve seen it over the past however many years.

So as Erin and I are sitting there watching Miss Ravenwood intrepidly frying-panning her lusty dagger-wielding assailant and scurrying off to take refuge in the glorified laundry basket of her doom, I can’t help but observe, “I’ve never really bought into the monkey’s motivations in this film. His character just isn’t given enough room to develop. Is he a spy? Is he not a spy? Is he a good monkey or a bad monkey?”

And Erin and I debate the subject good-naturedly for a while, but it is she who makes the final, stabbing point. As the monkey lies there sprawled on the crimson persian carpet beneath the whirling blades of the fan with the date still clutched in his tiny opposable-thumbed hand, and Sallah intones, “Bad dates”, Erin cuttingly observes, “Maybe he’s just a monkey.”

All those years I had been committing the fallacy of personification.

I went to the zoo the other day.

(“I went to the animal fair
the birds and the beasts were there
the big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair…”)

At the zoo a gorilla walked right up to me and looked me in the eye, and in spite of the inch of plexiglass between his face and mine I was rather more inclined to cringe away for fear of getting a limb ripped out of its socket than I let on. But I held my ground. Bluffing. False courage. I looked cooly back, and even grinned at him, realizing as I did so that among gorillas the baring of teeth and meeting of gazes is the equivalent of breaking a beer bottle over somebody’s head.
Yet miraculously he didn’t take a swing at me. I judged he knew that glass was there as well as I. So we stood looking back and forth at each other for a span of seconds, and into his rich and glassy brown eyes I wondered what he could possibly be thinking.
And I hate to leave you with this kind of image, but at last do you know what he did? He nonchalantly reached back, stuck a finger in his ass, pulled it out and gave it a taste.
“And that,” said Erin, who was with me again to set me straight, “is why they’re called ‘animals’.”

The Man in the Moon Isn’t Human

Michael respectfully advises me nobody’s ever going to have the stamina to post comments if I keep up these four thousand word posts. Imply, imply, he entreats me. Save your ramblings for retorts!

Ergo, I submit the following, in honor of last night’s glorious moon.

The man in the moon isn’t human
he must be some thing from the stars
the man in the moon isn’t human
if he is, he his horribly scarred
his eyes aren’t oval or round
their shape seems to bleed
across tranquil seas
as if the moon cried tears of fire

I was driving the high road last evening
the moon traced strange curves through the trees
I don’t know the way to the shadows, I told him
though I think I might know the way back
I watched him go instead of the road
at last I let him lead

The man in the moon isn’t smiling
in fact i think that he cries
he has watched us as long as I’ve known him
looking back is like trying to see from the mirror me’s eyes
if the things that he sees so disturb him
why doesn’t he look somewhere else?

Once the man was a woman who nobody touched
and now he is
a spy for the islands of saturn?
an exile, like napoleon?
or is he a lover of ours that we shun?

The man in the moon is going away
once he was bigger, or seemed so
now he shrinks more every day
I think I can see it happening
though the spacemen tell me I don’t

The man in the moon isn’t human
soon the dead will be buried in his skin
and people will think, but not say
that the man in the moon is a graveyard
they’ll look into his tranquil eyes
and cry

The man in the moon isn’t human
in his heart there is iron and basalt
one day perhaps
when our own hearts are gone
we’ll fly up and dig them out.

On Human Sacrifice

Of late I have come across a lot of hullabaloo on the subject of barbarism and/or its polar opposite in the cultural and religious practices of enforcedly extinct precolombian civilizations:

On Excite News I found an article from the AP discussing the possibility that early colonial historians downplayed the significance of human sacrifice in Mayan and Aztec society in order to settle blame more convincingly on the Conquistadors. Another I read in January’s Smithsonian Magazine heralds a new, enlightened aestheticism in the appreciation of mesoamerican art, with an accompanying show at the Guggenheim. There’s been much to-do of late from archaeologists in Central America about newly discovered and contested burial sites. Apparently the Indiana Jones stolen-artifact black market trade in the region continues to thrive. And that’s not all.

Not that there isn’t a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the subject all the time. After all my own fascination with the subject hardly begins here, but back in my super-impressionable Transcendentalist social-outcast days, also known as Junior High, with a brief but really depressingly earnest belief in the pseudoeastern newagey fuzzified hamstrung spiritual philosophy of the Celestine Prophecy, and short stories about time traveling teens playing basketball with bloodthirsty Aztecs in Boys’ Life magazine.

Still, when my employer, Mariam Massaro, asked me to construct a logo and a web page for her upcoming pilgrimage to the Inca Holy Seat, I began to feel as though a cosmic hint were being dropped. Mariam, her super-impressionable Transcendentalist days having lasted several decades longer than mine, certainly would have agreed.

She handed me a small, black, cast-iron symbol, the negative afterimage of a radiant sun burned into retinas like a brand, and then transmuted from the mold back into iron. “I bought this in Peru,” she said. “I had a vision of it in the flames, one night while I was meditating at Machu Picchu. It’s a powerful symbol. If you create something from it, you’ll be communing with that power–with the creative energy of the sun.”

So I did.

I am not usually one to give the greatest of credence to cosmic hints. Despite what the fantastical digressions elsewhere on this site might lead one to believe, I’ve never had trouble distinguishing between the waking and the dream, the momentary, voluntary entertaining of illusion for pleasure’s sake and the acceptance of it as fact. But this is the most fulfilling paying job I’ve ever had, and frankly the most entertaining. How many places have you worked where the haze of the fantastical hangs round your head like the scent of stewed lavender, while a self-styled sorceress tears through the house hurling mad demands like a spark-spitting, serpentine whirlwind, and the cat in your lap only stretches and looks at you knowingly? Not many, I’d wager. It’s a privilege I’m enjoying thoroughly, and one I’d rather not lose. So i indulge her. After all, if it hurt to speculate, I’d have been dead since at least seventh grade.

So now let me bow, at least in spirit, to these concepts of karmic transference. Let me bend to the energetic flow of fate, delve into this recent slew of hullabaloo, and see if I can’t draw out a lesson or two. Will doing so ignite the creative fires of inspiration in my loins, or at least under my ass? Why not join me on my ramble among the ghastly galleries of popular perception of precolombian thought, and do me the honor of being the judge?

In the course of her search for female representations of the divine both positive and empowering, my enlightened employer also brought to my attention Our Lady of Guadalupe: a virginal figure from significantly post-colombian religious mythology, whose Basilica, not far from the ruinous Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, is only the second-most popular Catholic vacation destination in the world, after the Vatican. Our Lady’s website, www.sancta.org, which is deeply enveloped in the inexorable, iron, limp and clammy grip of His Holiness Pope John Paul the Second, poses newcomers the following lead-and-human-head-weighted question:

“Mesoamerica, the New World, 1521: The capital city of the Aztec empire falls under the Spanish forces. Less than 20 years later, 9 million of the inhabitants of the land, who professed for centuries a polytheistic and human sacrificing religion, are converted to Christianity. What happened in those times that produced such an incredible and historically unprecedented conversion?”

The Lady of Guadalupe happened, or so we are to assume. She appeared to the heathen masses, demonstrated her holy generosity and mercy, and in doing so convinced the ensuing 9 million descendants of the aforementioned masses that cannibalism just wasn’t the way to go. And who can blame them? Who’s not going to argue it was worth twenty-four million deaths by smallpox, influenza, blunderbuss-blast and slave labor to obliterate an evil, murderous, damned culture that sacrifices its own people to its gods? Not Cortez. Certainly not you, humble visitor to lofty religious site. Human sacrifice just doesn’t seem as appealing compared to visions of a pretty girl who can heal people at six hundred paces and cause fields of roses to grow in the desert. Still, I can’t help thinking there’s an oversimplification here.

Admittedly, I’m not exactly the target audience. Not that I’m about to pitch myself off an Andean cliff in the name of the maize god, but in spite of my early, unpleasant experiences with the exploitative writings of Mr. Redfield, I remain quite the fan of precolombian, and indeed, precolonial cultures. If nothing else, they appeal to me as incredibly cool and sadly underused settings for fantasy. I know the names and locations of the Mayan constellations. I have studied enough of the mythology and the math behind the Aztec and Mayan calendars that fools claim predict a 2012 apocalypse to know there will be no such thing, while at the same time hoping against hope that if one of these end-of-the-world myths has to be right, it’s this one. I’ve made some small effort at deciphering the Mayan pictography. I even tried learning some Nahuatl.

In short, I’ve read a lot of books on the subject–most of which I unfortunately have had to return to the library and thus am unable to scathingly quote. Instead, allow me to paraphrase something I read describing the evolution of Vodoun mysticism among the slave population in Haiti. This book presented said evolution as a practical piecing-together of the various African mythologies of its participants with that of their enslavers–namely, christianity. This book, gratifyingly, happens to be biased towards the newly-recognized Vodoun religion as none of the mainstream western sources above could possibly hope to be. (No, not even the Guggenheim. We’ll get to that.) One instance of such piecing-together it describes happens to run unsettlingly parallel to the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the elderly Saint Juan Diego in the cornfields outside Tenochtitlan.

Several generations after the slave revolution that freed Haiti from its colonial masters, a local evangelical bishop learned of a magnificent waterfall somewhere deep in the island’s hot and hotly-contested jungle interior. It seemed this waterfall was revered among the adherents of Vodoun, as sacred to the rainbow goddess Aida Wedo. Enraged at this all-too-obvious evidence of his parishioners’ heretical beliefs, the bishop
stomped about his office for a while ranting about golden cows, and once he was good and tired sat down and conceived the clever notion of co-opting this sacred place to serve his evil evangelical ends.

My apologies for the blatantly self-imposed melodrama. Who knows but the good bishop was not the very most well-intentioned of evangelists?

But whatever the case, at the bishop’s behest, some of his more fervent followers paid a visit to the sacred falls. On reaching the site, and beholding its utterly breathtaking natural glory, they promptly fell into quite convincing convulsions, claiming in between their gasps of ecstasy that they’d seen visions of the Virgin Mary in the mist. The bishop acclaimed the event as a miracle, and promptly proclaimed the falls as sacred to his true religion as it was to the unholy false one of the unwashed indigents.

“Come ON!” he seemed to shout into the forest shadows: “Your religion IS my religion! SEE?”

Hmm. Doesn’t this kind of ‘ole’ switcheroo’ technique of cultural-annihilation-through-straw-man begin to look rather uncomfortably familiar? Doesn’t it make you wonder which other deep-set religious and cultural traditions are based around tacked-on-haloed tackling dummies?

You don’t have to wonder. We can go through them one at a time. Christ wasn’t born on Christmas–the powers that be (that be intoxicated to the point of pink elephants with their own self-righteousness) just needed a convenient excuse to obliterate Yule. Easter is the name of a barbarian goddess. Groundhog Day absorbs a celtic festival of renewal and its christian replacement into a kitschy annual infertility dance weatherpeople perform with a heavily medicated ball of fluff for a maypole. St. Brigid? A Catholic stamp on a pagan goddess. All Saints’ Day? Please. This column has already shined the murky light of half-truth on the theft of the flood myth from Babylon. Look at the proliferation of Hindu and Shinto traditions in the spread of Buddhism. Hell, even Satan his own bad self didn’t grow horns until Caesar invaded Gaul!

None of this is new. The ole’ switcheroo is the oldest trick in the victorious-history-rewriting book, and with good reason. It works. Invade region populated by infidels. Absorb religious figures into extended pantheon. Absorb credulous infidels into flock. Obliterate culture. Repeat.

Had this been Mexico three hundred years earlier, we might have expected never to hear another peep from Vodoun. It just so happens the local Haitian evangelical mob wasn’t quite as talented at the necessary accompanying ultra-violence as the Holy See. Or rather, their infidel opponents weren’t quite as unused to it. African culture in the New World was nothing if not survivalist. They’d already pulled off one bloody rebellion. The houngan (the Vodoun clergy), their own religion having been constructed piecemeal out of the fragments of so many others, were eminently unimpressed by the bishop’s noble efforts. They calmly and cooly reviewed the relevant christian beliefs, selected some of the more transmutable attributes of the Virgin, and assigned them to Aida Wedo. Two hundred years later, Vodoun accommodates both figures as aspects of the same divinity.

But again, it isn’t as simple as all that. Yes, the Vodoun religion has survived. It’s accepted now. The Thriller video and Night of the Living Dead notwithstanding, the modern interest in voodoo has pretty much died down. Now go back across the gulf to mainland Mexico, and the massive success of the same tactic three centuries before, as practiced by a far more hostile form of evangelism on a far more advanced, far more heretical culture. Oh, they obliterated that culture, sure enough. They obliterated it good. But how successful were they, really, if we’re still quibbling about it amongst ourselves five hundred years later?

Even the utterest orthodoxy of American History, that which we’re taught at our most impressionable in order to foster the minimum necessary patriotism to keep us from revolution, about Columbus discovering a whole other hemisphere all by himself, hesitates to conceal from us entirely the existence of those incredible civilizations that were already here. Then, as we progress, and they run out of convincing things to tell us about the noble ideas of our forefathers, we begin to grow bored and stop listening. Our thoughts wander back to those poor dead cannibals, and we wonder.

What we’re seeing here is evidence of another well-documented phenomenon of cultural warfare, which oversimplification tempts me to term the apocalypse effect. The most visible example is the Japanese fascination with American culture, and to a broader extent with the idea of apocalypse in general, resulting from the Bomb. It is only thanks to that most horrific moment in human history that we have experienced such fantastical glorifications of destruction incarnate as Godzilla, Akira, and, by extension, Dragonball Z. The Bomb drove the national consciousness of Japan away from tradition and towards science fiction. I am grossly oversimplifying the transition, and I’ve been berated for drawing this conclusion before–but it has often struck me that their current capitalist technological advances couldn’t have been possible without the influence of American economic philosophy.

And they’re right. It isn’t that simple. Because now quite the opposite is happening. American culture, such as it is, has been overrun by spiky-haired heroes with giant heads and little yellow balls of cuteness that shoot bolts of lightning out of their adorable crooked tails. Those of my generation spend a lot of time lamenting the deterioration of Saturday Morning Cartoons, working themselves up into steaming-eared rage over unfavorable comparisons between the original Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their new, anime-influenced clones.

One might call it cultural-conquest backlash. The All-Obliterating Hammer of the Righteous Crusade smashes both ways. What happened when Rome conquered Athens? The same thing that’s happening now.

Archaeologists are currently seeking to prove that the body of Christopher Columbus is buried, not in Spain as that nation’s historians claim, but in the New World. Spain is quite up in arms about it. Yet at the same time, the relevant sites in Central America are being quite hotly defended by the relevant governments against violation by the grubby groping fingers of the relevant archaeologists. I’m not even going to touch that one.

The Smithsonian article treats briefly with this phenomenon. It points to the origin of the postcolombian backlash with the writings of American historian William Prescott on Aztec culture in 1843. “Though fascinated by Cortes’ military and administrative ability”, they claim, Prescott “did not conceal his distaste for politicized Catholicism and in some regards even found the Aztecs superior to his own countrymen”–thus invoking, though not explicitly taking into account, the 19th century imperialist fascination with the “noble savage” as the incarnation of Rousseau’s tabula rasa, the man unsullied by the indulgences of culture. The article goes on to describe the evolution, under the always sobering influence of radical politics, of a blind fascination with the mesoamerican aesthetic in the popular art of the 20th century. I was intrigued and interested to learn of Mexican patriot and communist pop muralist Diego Rivera’s cadre of grave robbers and consequently impressive collection of Mayan artifacts. I was flooded with bitter ennui by the article’s attempts to lay bare the unrecognizable Mesoamerican influences in the unfathomably ugly aesthetic of my personal least favorite architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Clearly, we are to gather, if these iconic artists can be so influenced by precolombian art, there must be something to lament in the lost cultures that produced it. But we’re also strongly cautioned that the aforementioned artists are wacko slaves to aesthetic who do whatever the hell they want without regard for science or objective truth, and thus are no more good to we the impartial scientific crowd than a pack of hooting Shakers would be at proving the existence of God.

The Guggenheim exhibit, we learn, is an attempt to correct this romantical skewing, to return, with rather a more delicate touch than a bull in a black-market artifact shop, to the appreciation of Aztec art for itself, based on what we know it to be. And what do we know it to be? The art of a primitive, savage, cannibalistic culture that killed its ailing children rather than its healthy ones because their screams were more convincing, and then served up their livers with polenta.

Overwhelmingly, the trend of cultural backlash appears to have reversed. We’ve whipped ourselves for a while. Now, the recent press hullabaloo appears to argue, we ought to whip the dead horse just a bit more, to even things out.

It’s not that the modern-day exalters of Our Lady of Guadalupe mean to condone Cortez. In fact, they’re very careful to avoid the subject of the inconceivable number of native lives lost in massacres and plagues as a result of his actions in the interest of spreading the Word of God. But the post-colonial demonization of Cortez and those like him is no longer quite as en vogue as it once was. As the Excite article puts it:

“It has long been a matter of contention: Was the Aztec and Mayan practice of human sacrifice as widespread and horrifying as the history books say? Or did the Spanish conquerors overstate it to make the Indians look primitive? In recent years archaeologists have been uncovering mounting physical evidence that corroborates the Spanish accounts in substance, if not number.”

And isn’t that what it all comes down to? The central aspect of our centuries-old fascination with the incomprehensible spirituality and unsettling art of these dead cultures, is the strange taboo, so deeply ingrained in the distant, dusty history of our own culture, against consuming each other.

“It is really very difficult for us to conceive,” the Excite article apologetically quotes Carmen Pijoan, a forensic anthropologist, with respect to the custom of human sacrifice. “It was almost an honor for them.”‘

Isn’t it this taboo that necessitates all this fetishization? I did so not want Freud involved, but it seems so obvious. Why does Diego Rivera collect all this stuff if not to achieve, to abrogate unto himself, the aspect of mystery, of fascination, that his iconic status demands? Why does James Redfield find the “disappearance” of the Incas, or Carlos Castaneda the Tenochan culture of sorcery, so perfectly structured to fit his cult of fictional mysticism? I am well aware that my own love for the esoteric has its irrationalities, its resemblance to a compulsion–I have often been called on it by intellects more complex than my own. We hate and fear the very prospect of sitting down to a meal of another human’s flesh, no matter what the circumstance–yet we are fascinated with it too, as the Japanese were with us, and now we are with them. Intense, irrational, polarized emotions tend to blur together until we forget which side of the mirror we’re on. Consider the tendency of captives to fall in love with their captors, which tendency Tom Sawyer, that famed-and-faulted racist and imperialist removed from context, so romanticized for his impressionable friend Huck, who in turn imparted it to his poor African friend and servant, Jim. Consider Hannibal Lector, to whom any discussion of the popular consumption (forgive me) of cannibalism must almost necessarily gravitate.

Indeed, consider Lector. Perhaps you were unaware that in the original, literary version of the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, the good doctor convinces Agent Starling to see the world from his point of view. She doesn’t merely allow him to escape. She yields to him. Hatred turns to love, and they run off together to consume human flesh as a romantic antiheroic duo. Hollywood, moral barometer it is so known to be, deemed this conclusion of the tale too sordid or Freudian for popular moviegoing consumption, and elided it from the film version of Hannibal. Instead, the drugged and at-the-murderer’s-mercy Starling consents to share Lector’s meal of chauvenist-asshole-brain sauteed in mushroom sauce, but stops short at partaking of his predator’s philosophy.

“Eating human flesh is one thing,” quoth the movie execs, the self-appointed saints of the post apocalypse. “Murdering humans in order to eat them is entirely another.” But isn’t that the same justification we (certainly in my own cultural context) use to justify the hunting of deer, as a worthy, even nigh heroic, cause? Kill them and don’t eat them and you’re just lusting after destruction. Kill them and use them, use their bones and hide and sinew and eat their flesh, as the Indians do, and you are doing something poetic. You are participating in the natural cycle in the same tradition that convinced the Victorian imperialist to append nobility to the savage’s title–the tradition of the countercultural backlash.

How does one–a journalist, let’s say–manage to distance himself from all this concerted self-flagellation long enough to enable himself to look objectively at the available scientific and historical evidence, and decide whether we (because of course it’s the journalist’s job to decide for the rest of us) ought to condemn this long-extinct society for its transgressions or embrace it, in spite of our reservations, for its glorious achievements? The AP and the Smithsonian seem to think themselves quite capable of doing so. My employer, the other gung-ho mysticists, and the papist powers that be would certainly have me think them capable.

But as much as I’d like to throw my towel and my last shred of decency in the muck with the mysticists and praise the fossilized cannibalistic heathens, if only for being something other than the culturally eviscerated, intellectually lobotomized establishment, I’m afraid I have to conclude it can’t be done.

I want to. Boy do I want to. I want to bring forth yet another relic of my credulous youth, yet another nigh-ubiquitous appearance of cannibalism in the popular consciousness–that of a certain simplistic counterexample to the theory of moral relativism dragged out at least once in every Intro to Ethics class in the known universe. I want to cut said counterexample apart with a flippant bit of caustic logical abstraction, and wield the unavoidably anarchic conclusion to the utter destruction of every idiotic argument for this nation’s current imperialistic trend of morally motivated culture-crushing. In fact I want it so bad I may just have to outline for you how it would go, and how helpless you’d be to attack it. But I’m not going to actually do it. And I’ll tell you why.

The argument for moral relativism goes like this. Where do my morals come from, what high unassailable source, that makes me hold them so absolute? Not from god–because if god actually talks to anyone, they are few and far between, and I am certainly not one of them. No. I get my morals from others just like me, others who either interpret the communications of god or who fabricate their morals themselves, most often based on the morals of still others. And those others are just the same, on back into history, getting more and more blurry and assailable all the time. The point is, I can’t hold my morals above anyone else’s.

The simplistic counterexample? You guessed it. Cannibalism. I can hold my morals above someone else’s, as long as that person’s morals allow him to kill, spit, roast, and eat me. Why do I call it simplistic? Because this counterexample only works in a classroom setting, when posed by an intellectually unassailable professor to a bunch of insecure, impressionable students. He knows nobody’s going to disagree. When my professor posed it to me, I thought to myself, “Why the hell should that convince me of anything? Who’s to say the cannibal didn’t speak to god this morning, and who’s to say god didn’t tell him the fate of the universe depends on him eating me for lunch?” But I wasn’t about to say it. Not in front of the whole class.

The anarchic conclusion? Nobody can pass moral judgment on anybody. So long as everybody follows this simple rule, and god doesn’t tell anybody otherwise, nobody gets hurt. Of course that’s never going to happen. If everybody followed the same rules we wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place. But that’s the great part of it–even if someone does kill you and eat you, you don’t have to get angry, because they could just as easily been acting on the word of god as that of their flawed morality.

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Frustratingly so, to those of you who’d rather not die in a terrorist attack, or would rather go on exacting revenge-in-proxy for terrorist attacks that have already occurred. But you’ve already encountered the problem of trying to reason with (read: threaten) someone perfectly willing to die. Looks like you’ll just have to roll over and give up the ghost yourself, doesn’t it? And I’m afraid I must admit I wouldn’t be all too sad to see you go.

Alas, it comes down to the fact that my own morality isn’t nearly that yielding. Unassailable and absolute as I may hold it to be, my morality forces me to admit this elegant solution just isn’t going to work. Because isn’t all I’m doing equating terrorists with cannibals, falling victim to the same cultural backlash, equating oppressor with oppressed? Getting sucked into all this ridiculous taboo/fetishism we’ve inevitably constructed around them seems as much an insult to these cultures as an honor. So I really can’t win either way. I’m forced to back off from the whole idea of judging, of deciding who is right, and try to enjoy the utterly alien ideas of this utterly alien culture for what they are. Maybe that’s what everyone, the journalists and the museum curators and even William Prescott–everyone but the Catholics, anyway–were arguing in the first place.

Were you aware that in the Inca culture people killed themselves out of ecstasy instead of despair, and when they were dead their bodies were honored instead of disgraced? In the abstract, how can that seem anything but cool? And no matter how problematic the same idea might seem considered in practical light, how can it mean anything at all anymore, except in the abstract? It shouldn’t be so hard for us to conceive of death as a sacred thing, of life as a fleeting one, or of faith as an absolute. But it is.