Agony Aunts, Eschatology & the Nature of the Beast

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Four horsemen, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860. (Image is in the public domain).

The part of theology concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul and humankind.

“Eschatology”

A fourth review on Amazon U.K., another 3-star. Amazon’s overall ratings, as they explain, are not simple averages – they give added weight to ratings coming from those who bought the book on Amazon, for example, which seems like nonsense until you understand that for Amazon, unlike for us readers and authors, reviews and ratings aren’t there to educate folks and rank the pantheon of books but rather to advertise and therefore SELL books. 3-star, then? So be it. Fair enough. It’s not the end of things. It inspires me to keep at it.

Meanwhile, Amazon rankings. The system, in its entirety, is clearly intended to generate sales in many ways – hyper-dimensionally, if you will – by means both practical and psychological, let’s say. It’s been said that Amazon is far more than a shopping experience – people go to Amazon seeking many things besides the purchase of a particular product. Sure, the highly rated books sell more but when you consider all the other books that aren’t highly rated it might appear that such rankings hurt Amazon’s overall sales. Why rate and review and rank things, whey attempt to separate wheat from chaff when it might be more profitable to let folks figure it out on their own? Well, part of what makes Amazon so successful is their go-to nature. Go-to? Yes, how many people look to Amazon reviews and ratings to evaluate something they don’t even intend to buy there? I discussed this in a previous post. And it’s true. Hell, I use them to research the books I intend to borrow from the library. If for nothing else than to get the ISBN.

So, there you have the nature of the business, which is also the nature of the beast. “Beast” because I’m not happy with the ratings trend in the U.K. Trending towards the middle is not the goal. He treads on the tail of the tiger and it does not bite the man. My I Ching oracle. The thing that helps keep me going. Hmm. But I’m starting to see some fangs.

Fangs. Really? That’s not true. Fangs would be nothing but one and two stars. And savage reviews. What does a 3-star rating mean? It can define anything from “mediocre” to “not bad” to “pretty good” to “I liked it.” As compared to “hated it,” “didn’t like it” or “not for me.” What’s a 4-star mean? It used to mean “really liked it.” A 5-star was reserved for “loved it” or “it was amazing.” But these descriptors are no longer clearly implied. We’re encouraged to simply use the stars in any way we choose – they mean something different for just about everyone and you see this moving target type of regard just by reading the reviews (if you get them). I have the 2-star that I think reads more like a 3-star, for instance. That person must have decided that 3-star signified no complaints. Whereas they had them. And there are people who will not deliver a 5-star rating ever because they feel nothing is perfect and five stars means perfect. Or Shakespeare or something. Others of us bestow a 5-star to anything that jazzes us, despite recognizing that it could always be better.

I don’t know. Why write about this stuff? I’d watched the latest episode of Toyah and Bob’s Agony Aunts and they responded to a question regarding how to handle criticism. King Crimson enjoyed very early success with their first album but also a type of criticism against the genre that hasn’t ceased. The music is often difficult, after all. Uncommercial in the sense that it does not very often appeal or intend to appeal to popular let alone current tastes. Toyah’s oeuvre is even more challenging and I’d venture to call most of it unlistenable. Hers is more a performance art stance and you see this in her manner of driving the little music videos she and Bob contrive. All good in terms of that old original MTV granular DIY anything-goes freshness and vitality. But rather challenging in terms of the music. You have to get the aesthetic. It’s all intensely self-aware, enthusiastically transgressive, hinged to the limits of the medium (DIY home video), permeated with tongue-in-cheek humor, fun-loving irony and a transparent, wholehearted love of the culture of rock that their generation is responsible for propagating. They don’t do Little Richard or Bill Haley or even Elvis Presley, for example. They begin with the later 1960s, all good. Although I can envision some potential hilarity if they did reach further back.

Anyway, Bob Fripp could be said to have nurtured an alternative career, an alter-ego and an oeuvre that both completely ignores and fully engages the intense relevance that results from the polarizing nature of his music, always from the stance that the music is primary. His music has been the oftentimes fraught conversation. Toyah is rather a vaudevillian, keen to express herself in contexts beyond music. Hey, she has looks, for one thing. And she’s a singer. These two things alone skew a career into a different emphasis. Having recently studied guitar she admits straight away that her focus is different within that context, implying that her music over the years may have been different had she played guitar then. I’m critiquing but I’m not intending to be critical in the negative sense. Wikipedia provides a helpful description:

Vaudeville is a theatrical genre of variety entertainment born in France at the end of the 19th century. A vaudeville was originally a comedy without psychological or moral intentions, based on a comical situation: a dramatic composition or light poetry, interspersed with songs or ballets. It became popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s, but the idea of vaudeville’s theatre changed radically from its French antecedent.

In some ways analogous to music hall from Victorian Britain, a typical American vaudeville performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts have included popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, ventriloquists, strongmen, female and male impersonators, acrobats, clowns, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies. A vaudeville performer is often referred to as a “vaudevillian”.

Vaudeville developed from many sources, also including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary American burlesque. Called “the heart of American show business”, vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades.

“Vaudeville,” wikipedia.org, retrieved 5.4.2021

In the end, these two art-crafters have successfully expressed the vocational destiny that I seek. They have lived it. Who they are is what they do. And they are still on the adventure, clearly. We’ve agreed to make our last ten years a party, says Toyah (I’m lightly paraphrasing). Right on. Lightheartedness is essential to balance the dead seriousness of it all, the inescapable vulnerability bestowed by the art-craft life.

Criticism, then. Negativity. What Toyah and Bob refer to as “toxicity.” Bob Fripp seems nevertheless to feed off it to a significant degree; to be fueled in some sense by the intensity of the controversy, by the vitality of the energy. Toyah volunteers her tools to reflect or help ignore the experience – employing psychological “mirrors” and “veils.” I get both perspectives and neither of these people are intentionally confrontational with their work. They would rather be liked. Nor do I get the impression, like a critic might suggest, that there are certain performers that merely seek attention, that in the Joycean pornographic sense of art they are seeking merely to make us do something in response to it: love it, hate it, buy it, burn it, that kind of thing.

We don’t seek simpering praise, Bob tells us. As I’ve said, we don’t want sugar-coated nonsense. We seek authentic evaluation. Hopefully a welcome. But hope is a beggar, indeed. So that one must be keen to go it alone. As long as one doesn’t become a negativity junky, it works to use the energy from criticism. Negativity is intense. Far more intense and psychologically potent than praise. It’s so intense that many of us find it impossible to withstand. Alternatively, it becomes the only thing that matters. The negativity junky ends up only producing that which is disparaged, that which is not liked or impossible to like because, well, only that seems authentic.

This is how receptivity to criticism becomes distorted – it becomes a drug in the sense of being addicted to perceived authenticity. You like it? You must be patronizing me. Or you have no taste. Or you’re a sucker. It all becomes gamesmanship in this way. The work, the art-craft, is relentlessly off-putting and ugly and harsh and confrontational or so impossibly obscure that it overextends itself, it falls off a cliff, beyond the perilous ambitions of the avant-garde into the bald-faced attention-getting gambit that perhaps the person initially sought to avoid. In short, you become what you hate, which is inauthentic and a seeker merely of a response – any response, at all costs. You begin with the perceived authenticity of the public response, in a sense, instead of beginning with the authenticity of your work, of its expression, which must inevitably be personal. Painfully so if it does not please people.

Is a certain measure of public acceptance, of welcome for your work, required to bestow legitimacy to it? If nobody likes it, can it still be considered at all good or worthy work? I would make the case that the answer is No. In the personal mythological sense, that is. If nobody gets it then you’re not properly on the adventure. Wait a minute, you say, what do I mean by “nobody”? I mean to say that in my experience there will always be somebody in possession of their own legitimacy, that has earned the respect of those in the field, as they say, who can speak on behalf of the genre or niche that you are working within who will, given that little bit of fortunate (and too often elusive) timing, praise or at least accept, hence legitimize, what you’re doing. In professional critic terms. Then again, who cares about that? Critical acceptance and public acceptance – too often, it seems, one arrives and the other doesn’t and damned if it’s the version we don’t get that becomes the one we want most. That said, I ought to be content with so far receiving a measure of the popular vote.

Again, we require so very little. That is, the art-crafter requires such modest returns on their investment to keep going, to keep the art-craft fires burning. But we require something. Sometimes, perhaps most times, your only return is the bit of acknowledgement and the rest has to come from within. It helps, then, when your vision is – I was going to say “secure” but that’s not it. I rather mean unwavering. An unwavering vision can sustain a person. It can serve to keep you grounded and centered. I’m having this experience. I know what I’m doing. I understand the dynamics of trying to integrate mythology into a novel, to make a mythologically self-aware story that works the magic trick of being neither too self-aware and “distracting” for its own good (so that the story is a mere contrivance to promote an agenda) nor to ham-handed, amateurish, unscholarly and bungling.

New mythology is my aspiration. New because Time Crime is not a retelling of a myth. It’s retelling the same ‘ol mythological narrative, yes – the hero round within a hero round – but it’s not aping something that already exists. My intention is reinvention in the sense that mythology is always doing this to itself. Yes, we’re retelling what matters, what has always mattered, but in this time, from this personally universalized (on a good day) perspective.

This is my experience of the collective experience. And I’m intentionally, as an experiment in the form of a series of novels, seeking to concretize the un-concretizable – to reflect the affecting images, the classic, existing mythologies, upon themselves, as it were – so as to arrive at something new. We have Vishnu and Shiva, for instance. Put the two together and you get Hari-hara, an image expressing not the combined power of the gods as much as the transformed, unforeseen Third-Thing power that overcomes existing limitations. It’s not additive but rather chemical, or alchemical. It’s rocket sauce and magic sprinkles.

I may fail at this. Which of course merely deputizes my adventure as at least a legitimate one. For if you cannot fail, and fail spectacularly, you are not on the adventure. The risks must approach unreasonable. Error, I say, on the side of unreasonableness whenever you are attempting to negotiate the dynamics, the energies, the potency of your personal mythology and your deliberate practice. Do not play it safe. Hari-hara is a desperate solution to a desperate predicament. I’ve discussed this myth in other posts. It’s an important aspect of Hindu mythology, hence I’m studying it within the context of TC2 – namely, the ancient Khmer culture of Angkor – so I’ll leave it to the interested reader to pursue this as they see fit.

And then there is the challenge of perspective. So what if the novels fail? It’s not the end of the world. They’re just novels. Like every other author, I’m just doing my best. If it’s not good enough, so be it. Perhaps I’m supposed to doing something else? Let it go. See what comes back. Don’t strangle the cat. Don’t put all my eggs in one basket. Have some patience. Don’t allow my other vocations to languish. All these exercises in moderation, the pursuit of the middle way in mythological terms. That unfortunately, inevitably perhaps, only arises by way of its opposite. Everything in moderation, including moderation….

I gave my notice at the home improvement. I discovered, to my surprise and chagrin and disappointment in myself, that I was feeling afraid of committing to TC2. Here I was getting bogged down in the physical and psychological burden of having even a part-time job and not only blaming it for slowing down my work on the novel but beginning to use it as an excuse for not getting it done. The other day, with the opportunity to leave the job and devote myself to the writing, I found myself suddenly hesitating. Well, maybe I’d rather keep the job, I started telling myself. I enjoy the money and the social proof that it provides, after all. I enjoy the engagement and the physical exercise, and what have you.

Then I reminded myself that the social proof was something I’d learned to ignore decades ago, the engagement was a distraction and the physical activity had become a vehicle of exhaustion. I’ve been wanting out of the job and the opportunity to re-immerse in the writing ever since I accomplished the original four months of employment I intended to use to pay for the audiobook. That was eight months ago. Meanwhile, apparently, unconsciously, I’ve been sliding precipitously towards art-craft mediocrity, authorpreneurial indifference and cowardly surrender to norms. My writing was in jeopardy of becoming a hobby. Why not work full time, then? Sound the alarm!

What happened? Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of exile, and the single-minded demand that writing novels – writing with any level of authenticity – requires. Also, complacence. And the pernicious undermining of mastery that it is propagated by a mindless, workaday life. What amounts to a life of habit. I’m not suggesting that employment is to be avoided. I’m not adjudicating against a life on the job. Bills have to be paid, I get it. But there are a handful of folks at the home improvement that I can see are fully functioning in the vocational sense – it is their work, they are individuating themselves. The rest are enduring and coping and staying busy, doing their best to find a way through the day. I seek vocational destiny. Not everybody does nor should they. Akin to J.C., who talked of his experiments working in his father’s hosiery business, I always tend to get wrapped up in exploring the experience of the workday. Mine and others. Are you happy here? What made you take this job? Do you want a different job? What do you like about this job? What do you think ought to be different about it? If you could change something about your job or this company, what would it be? Does this job connect at all with your sense of who you are, of what you want out of life? Are you having the experience of being properly alive? Yes? Why? No? Why not?

All this stuff, I’ve learned, though very valuable from my perspective and for my research – for my true work – is worse than useless when it comes to other folks on the workaday job. It instantly becomes its opposite. That is, while I’m keen to analyze and fix it, change it and make it better, the effect is one of disruption, subversion and anarchy. Anarchy from the angle of freeing the individual to explore their true nature, one which rarely can be recognized as having anything to do with one’s current employment. What ought you to be doing? This may be a helpful question on behalf of personal mythology but it does nothing to enhance the efficiencies and psychological wellbeing of the workplace. Instead of building a team, my investigations fracture it. Life is irony….

Returning to Agony Aunts, it strikes me that an episode of their show might be similar to a blog post. How so? In terms of the intensely timebound nature of commitment to a single, risky idea. That is to say, you Toyah and Bob select the song they want to cover (and its attendant imagery) and, like me doing this post, once begun there is no time for backtracking let alone starting over. Forward progress in linear terms is the only thing even if it turns out a disaster. Because disaster in art-craft is rarely such. Disaster can be the most interesting, hence valuable aspect of an undertaking. At least if you’ve acquired some mastery, that is. How bad could an Agony Aunts episode get? Well, they’ve managed to crank one out every week for something over a year. They’ve never posted, “Sorry, we couldn’t get a video done this week.”

Likewise, to a more modest extent, these posts. As I’ve admitted, some journal entries do not make it to posting. The topic precludes it (too personal, mostly) or there’s no properly discernable bloggy theme. I’m not here to whine or cry or merely confess or puke out my thoughts heedlessly. That’s not a blog post. That is rather pure confession. No. I aspire to somehow always universalize what I’m going through, what I’m experiencing; to transform it from rant to realization; from diary to demonstration; from intuition to investigation. To provide an image that does some practical work in psychological and personal mythological terms. Work that helps me in some way and, mostly mysteriously, in ways that I couldn’t possibly pretend to anticipate or even fully understand, also helps a reader. If by way of nothing else than a sense of shared predicament. Hence, participation and communication. Agony Aunts, Eschatology & the Nature of the Beast, indeed. Meanwhile, more properly, on a good day, it’s the aspiration in the form of the inner reader that motivates me and nothing else, come what may.