Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bruce Sterling on 'prepper graveyards', death and a 'poetic priest-warrior gangster chieftain'

At the Well, Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky engage in this year's version of their now-traditional 'State of the World conversation/rantfest'.

It's a lengthy conversation (to which more than the two named hosts contribute), but, as in previous years, I find it one of the more readable contributions to the inevitable round of year-end musings.

Sterling, for example, cites a few of the groups that he sees as having had -- all in all -- a good year. You might be surprised (given other verdicts) to find that he includes the Tea Party among these.

I'm not sure that he's right, but I find his reasoning worth considering:

It's always "the worse, the better" with these Trotsky-style fanatics. Every failure, rejection and common-sense setback galvanizes them to new extremes of faith-based ideological weirdness. As someone who hangs out in Europe, I'm used to bizarre political movements, but the Tea Party is truly impressively strange by anybody's standards. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire market fundie people. They lost the American election, but winning one and governing a superpower never seemed to be on their agenda. That hasn't discouraged them, though. They've got ladder notches and fallback positions all the way to the prepper graveyard.

Sterling, who lives in Belgrade, also raises some thoughtful points about what he sees as the differences between 'civil society' and 'social capital':

The Balkans has always been pretty low on "civil society," because most political decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by angry drunk guys. But in terms of "social capital" they're quite keen on looking after one another. The populace is very polite and considerate, by American standards. Hold-ups, muggings, drive-bys, gang rapes, maniacal outbursts by guys with automatic weapons, they're all practically unheard-of.

The feeling on the streets of Belgrade is vastly calmer and cozier than, say, Los Angeles. By the standards of Belgrade, you'd think that LA was a para-militarized civil war zone, even though LA has got "civil society" like nobody's business.

He also makes some interesting points about death:

I lost a favorite uncle this holiday season. He was elderly and frail, and he had a good life -- a remarkably jolly character, really, the life of many a party -- so it's not a tragic loss, but I find that the grief touches everything I see.

Grief is a worldview all its own. Grief gives reality a lunar glow. It's healthy to be placed in touch with the tragic side of life, the losses that make life's value so clear. It's like winter daylight.

My uncle wouldn't want me to be all upset about his passing, and to tell the truth I'm not "upset," but I am diminished. Changes in the state of the world are marked by absences as well as by novelties. The year 2013 will be the first year of my life that does not contain my uncle.

It'll be different.

Finally, in the course of the discussion, someone brings up the idea of art as a (socially) transformative activity; Sterling admits admiring the 'very bohemian approach' and 'cool notion' of the artist as this 'the mental-liberationist Greek trickster figure who steals most of his material', but he sees it nevertheless as limiting, which inspires some thoughts on Montenegrin literature:

That's why I enjoy art such as Petar Njegos' epic of early Montenegrin literature, "The Mountain Wreath."

Here we've got this very intelligent and determined hillbilly aristocrat, a poetic priest-warrior gangster chieftain, out of a half-forgotten province of the Ottoman Empire. His people are pre-literate; he's one of the first to read and write his own language.

This poem, the "Mountain Wreath," is mostly about tribal patriarchs flying into a righteous rage and cutting each other's heads off. It's very like the Iliad in that way; it's full of noble perorations that are mostly along the line of, "Rascal, you've done something unbearable for years now, and I was constrained to get involved in this awful mess you've created; but this time it's personal. So, prepare yourself: I'm taking your head, your pistols, your horses and all your women, and I may even burn your farm." In the context of this artwork, it's certainly the right thing to do. It's the definitive thing to do; it's how you know you're alive.

Then you compare that artwork -- written by an aristocrat, an authority figure in deadly moral earnest -- to this kind of ontological-trickster writing, this kind of "What is Reality, Mr Njegos," postmodern gendankenexperiment, of which me and my sci-fi colleagues are so enduringly fond... Well, keen as I am to write that stuff, it can seem like pretty thin soup.'


Brian Aldiss once told me that science fiction was full of guys who would write about Martians without ever visiting Indonesia. But visiting Indonesia is one thing -- if you actually *hang out* within Indonesia, you *become* Indonesian. You don't visit it, or steal it, you are it.

You have to get past the stark fact that Njegos is an Ottoman Christian-sect hillbilly on horseback who knocks people down with spiked clubs and cuts their heads off as trophies. He is, but he's also a great poet. Njegos even has a wry sense of humor; it's just not what Americans would consider "wry" or even "humor." When you understand his jokes, when you know they're genuinely funny, that's a bigger mental yoga-stretch than we're supposed to allow ourselves within the USA; it makes a "galaxy far far away" look like a Hollywood backlot in Southern California. Which is what it is, pretty much.

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