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The legacy of Ra's Al Ghul
The Batman, as a new tack on that old mack is a pleasant diversion. I was thoroughly entertained at the dark film with its dark hero in his dark eye makeup. Unlike other members of my family, the name of the star had no impact on any prejudice I might have had, but in one particular scene I wanted to smack him and pull the hair out of his eyes.
I believe it was the first Dark Knight that introduced me to an offstage presence known as Ra’s al Ghul. This character played the role of the surrogate father to the lost angry boy, as in so many Western dramas. Think of Seven Years in Tibet and the more recent Doctor Strange. Some people want to go to Paris to find themselves, others want to go to some kind of hell. I forget exactly which story by W. Somerset Maugham rolled its protagonist through the same funky blankets. The point of all of this estrangement is exposure to one’s greatest fears which gives way at long last to a transcendent rebirth and newly fired-up sense of purpose. Better than bungie jumping, I’d say.
Ra’s al Ghul was more of a dark and heartless version of Louis Gossett’s Sgt Foley. His message to the tortured Bruce Wayne was to fight the criminal you had to become the criminal - you had to be willing to burn down the evil in the world. The fire was not in the soul, but an actual firestorm against all of the corruption that had filled all of the hearts of men. Only those purified by the extreme discipline and suffering handed out by the great mentor would be indemnified from the great purge that must inevitably come and save mankind.
Does that idea sound familiar? Isn’t that justice? Isn’t justice a bitch goddess whose flaming sword is our only hope? Well, that is the philosophical question of the day.
Sometime in the Spring of 2020 I reached that moment of realization. I was symbolically in the same position as candidate Mayo. Everything I was doing, specifically in my work life was leading to nothing but great disappointment and arbitrary results. The insanity of chasing down toilet paper and watching people run out of supermarkets with carts of stolen goods, whether in the name of COVID or George Floyd reminded me how much I studiously avoid crowds. Something about my own sheepdoggery reminded me not to be around stupid people in stupid places doing stupid things. The common neologism of the day was ‘zero fucks given’. A clock that runs backwards at twice normal speed is right more than twice a day. So there actually was some applicable profundity to be found.
So in addition to a Stoic approach, not necessarily a component of it, I determined that there was a way to stop trying so damned hard. The best way to describe my perspective on that is something I think has deeper roots in my Peasant Theory, which bears repeating in this context. There is a coherent kind of upbeat abstention from that which is FUBAR. Let their two axioms be:
You cannot cheat an honest man.
Beware of serving the King.
The Honest Man
The full extended meditation on this aspect of my Stoicism is found here in The Economies of Seduction. Ultimately it is ambition that makes us embrace the edges of our comfort levels, or as my new boss says “He’s leaning too far over his skis.”
If we think that an honest man cannot win in this corrupt world, we get a misshapen idea of what success looks like and feels like. We idolize the trappings without dedication to the path up the mountain that strengthens our thighs. Or we subjugate ourselves to torture, thinking we deserve it for being so weak. Just recently I wasted some money on a game I thought would be fun but I quickly tired of. I think this tweet today identifies it perfectly:
You fulfill the role that says '“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” All the while you know that there is something soul-crushing and poisoning about the game and start excising your soul and gaining Mithradatic immunity to its poison. I think the appropriate comic book character in this case would be Watchmen’s Adrian Veidt. Everybody wants to rule the world.
The honest man, on the other hand, has a grip on his modesty. As my commenter said last week, “If you have to associate with that kind of filth in order to get published or get attention, then that's attention that's not worth having.” The converse corollary to that is what Prince said. “You eventually get the audience you deserve.” So the point here is to make the best music you can make. And for me that meant being honest about what I know and not trying to play ambitious games with it. It’s about being organic to an extent that is rare. It’s about wanting $50 a year from 1,000 honest subscribers rather than $5 a year from 10,000 mindless fanboys. It means you have to work that much harder to deserve the higher price. It means writing 20 years for free to become the writer you wish to become. Or as Doc put it to me this morning, it’s about playing for the love of the music, not the applause. Thanks Doc for turning me on to Fazil Say.
But I think the metaphor that works best for me in the honest man department has to do with the Old West. The film is Winchester 73. Get it while it’s for sale. Who knows where the Dainty Protectors will strike next? Yes, it’s Jimmy Stewart. Yes it’s about managing ambition and the honest common touch among a pit of vipers. That is the challenge of the honest man. To remain honest for honesty’s sake. To not give a flying fart about what the ruffians are doing these days.
Serving The King
The most mind-rattling film I encountered in the past 20 years is Julie Taymor’s Titus. It finally beat out Kurosawa’s Ran as my favorite film of all time. I haven’t thought about answering that question lately - as my expectations of film have more to do with production value than message. At long last I guess I’m something of a ‘true’ Angeleno. I was not familiar with the original Shakespeare but I was reckoning with ambition. So I took home several vivid lessons most of which I should speak to now since I’m unlikely to have another opportunity to talk and think about Titus with as much charge as I have in this context.
The first has to do with the rambunctious and dangerous beautiful sons of the wretched queen. Whenever I look the the glistening steel towers of downtown LA and the beautiful young people who occupy them, I remind myself that this is an international city and those are the offspring of the wealthiest people on the planet. Their mothers want them to live in luxurious comfort. Los Angeles is a safe haven for both new and old money. Of course they get away with murder.
The second has to do with the dark subversion of Aaron the Moor who plays the power game with the darkest subterfuge and the most mercenary motives. He never had any hope of having skis much less leaning too far over them. He expected to lean out over his own feet alone and would deliver treacherous lethality to any fool who would cross his purposes. What satisfaction is there to that? The satisfaction of being an agent of chaos in a world he despises, of causing pain for the sake of causing it.
Ahh but in the end this is what we suffer because are we not all peasants? Is it not enough of a task for us to feed ourselves and be honest about our work and family? It surely is the only burden kings and queens would love to bear were that all that was required of them. Alas rulers must rule in the void. The world can be devoid of honor or truth. In such a world, revenge is a meal of a son served hot to an enemy. This is the lesson of Titus. When you are above the law, you are still surrounded by the unchecked monsters of human vice. The wrath of mad kings, the revenge of wicked queens are the horrors that destroy civilizations.
Rulers rule by breaking the rules and by handing out honors and treasures which we otherwise could never attain. Stepping onto their stages and following their directions embodies us into truths that are stranger and crueler than any fictions we might imagine. Such are the hard moral edges of the realm of ambition. What skills then should we attempt if we don’t want to be leaderless ronin in the world of meritocracy? I have some comfort to learn of a man named Chris Papasadero whose interests remind me of mine when it comes to living in this void. We might learn how to build our own houses and run them well as did the Dickens character of Mr. Jarndyce in Bleak House.
Today’s punk masquerades as mainstream. He is enabled by his shared assumption that the world is horrible and we’re all faking it until we make it. He is hungry for status, for acceptance, for a general purpose failsafe that excuses him and everyone else for every kind of responsibility. These are the postmodern punks of our society. They feed on hope and wishful thinking. The success and failure of hope and wishful thinking is the whole of their analytic reality. It is their only truth. For them, nothing is certain and everything is fair game to be bartered in their game. They are always trying to be clever, but only enough to get through whatever encounter is immediately ahead. They are happy to offer an apology for their misdeeds, but you know their sole bottom line is ‘whatever, just saying’.
They don’t give a fuck because they are trapped in unfathomable consequences that seem to be a function of passion. Like everyone who cares or tries or has any ambition, they fail. Having mustered all the passion they possess, failure is devastating. How can this be? How can God let me fail? Why should I try? Why should anyone? Nothing is fair for me! Why should I give a fuck? I understand this state of mind, because I accepted that COVID might kill me. So why give a fuck about anything?
The acceptance of one’s fallibility and mortality is a dangerous maturity. It gives one precisely the kind of care, or at least it should, that Ra’s al Ghul and his punk minions all lack. It is the care for the laws of the universe against which many fools attempt to subvert. It is the care that lies beyond the shallow realities of passions and desires to a more thorough understanding of what complex adoptive systems are capable of sustaining. While that sounds like a mouthful, it’s simply understanding that inertia and thermodynamic equilibria exist. Well that’s a mouthful too. Sooner or later the crazy train will wreck. The energy of human emotion may seem limitless to those in its thrall, but buildings don’t remain erect on a whim. Electricity doesn’t flow because of human desire. One must think one’s way through life, not mistaking the map of whimsy for the territory.
Take it for granted that adolescents can understand all adult emotes, virtues and vices. So be wary of all solicitations that operate at the adolescent level because in order for them to work there must be gears and mechanisms. It’s not simply enough to adopt the aphorism, or the euphemism or the lyrics to John Lennon songs. There is plenty for an honest man, not employed by kings to ignore along the path towards wisdom.
I hope that disambiguates the Stoic’s disdain for utopian wishes and elementary explanations from the purposeful ignorance and rejection of the value about how everything works.
My new discovery. Sometimes you think you know how things are supposed to go, and then a genius plays without destruction.