WickedEye's Quotient

3/04/2011 at 22:13

Vulnerability: Freedom, Friendship, Fred Phelps, & Me

For two very different reasons, freedom of speech has been on my mind a lot lately.

The first is that my only study break between Monday and yesterday was to read the Court's Snyder v. Phelps opinions (and bang out an abstract so I could write an essay after the SSB final) over a 20-minute dinner break (before returning to drilling cord lesions—woohoo!).

The second is that yesterday night I got my feelings hurt—really, really hurt—by a comment about me that a friend posted (without my name) on FB.

Here's the abstract:


I am a terrible, terrible person.

Because I hate—really and actively hate—Fred Phelps, one of the most viciously inhumane, destructively cruel human beings I’ve come across in years of studying torture and genocide. The fact that his methods are verbal doesn’t make the atrocities he commits any less atrocious.

And because, even though I hate Fred Phelps, I agree with the Court’s decision.

What kind of person does that make me? To put human feelings and suffering aside for an abstract principle embodied in a case which almost certainly, in this case, violated at least some of the boundaries established by precedent?

I feel guilty. As though I should apologize to Mr. Snyder. Maybe I should.

I can’t stand myself right now. To stand on the same side of a line with Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist? I despise them and everything they represent. If tomorrow I read that Phelps had died, it’d make my entire day.

But I still agree with the Court.

There are times I find it hard to reconcile my sense of integrity with my humanity. This is one of them.


Ironic, in light of what's happened.

Because last night for several reasons I was—as Alito described in the dissent with which I disagree—in “a time of acute emotional vulnerability.” And because of that vulnerability, I got upset enough by my friend's public statement to have to leave a restaurant at which I was dining with several people (an event unprecedented in the past 10-15 years; melodramatically as I may converse, I loathe even the vaguest hint of actual public histrionics) lest I start bawling over the entire matter (crying in public—“death of Bambi's mother” movie moments aside—being the single thing I detest more than public drama).

My friend and I discussed the matter briefly before I left, and I told him—probably prompted in part by the abstract I'd written just the day before—that he shouldn't have to apologize for expressing his opinion, that that wasn't what friendship was supposed to be about.

I came home and slept. Woke late this morning. Didn't get on FB till early evening.

Found that the words which had upset me so badly last night were still posted.

Felt as though I'd been kicked in the stomach.

(Yes, I actually do know how that feels.)

So on top of being inhumane, I'm now a hypocrite.

Because if I'd meant the words I said to my friend last night—and I really and truly did think I meant them when I said them—I wouldn't now be convinced, against my own logic, that my feelings aren't as important to my friend as his opinion of them. Instead I would see that he chose to let his opinion stand, as is his right. That he was merely taking me at my word—as I fully intended him to do when I spoke those words to him. That he shouldn't have to choose between my feelings and his opinion of me.

How tangled up in her ethics does a person have to be in order for her own hurt feelings to offend them?

Whatever level of twistedness is required, I've reached it. (No wonder my other hobbies include quantum chromodynamics. That stuff is so much simpler.)

...Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech...to ensure that we do not stifle public debate...”

Chief Justice Roberts, delivering the opinion of the Court: Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F. 3d 206, affirmed.

at 22:08

Ton Amour et Ta Revanche

Written Monday, February 21, 2011.


It's strange to start an essay on Madonna and Lady Gaga with Christina Aguilera, yes?

But watching “I'm Not Myself Tonight” on YouTube (and seeing inane commentary to the effect that she's “wack fr tryin 2 b Gaga”) finally pushed me into writing something that's been simmering in my brain since the day I saw Gaga's “Bad Romance” video for the first time.

Xtina was merely showing the most sense God's given a diva in a long damn time. (Not to mention great taste in bondage gear—black and white rhinestone chains, no less. Very “Azzaro's Spring Collection Meets Coco de Mer's Paul Seville Collection”...but don't those chafe?) The entire video is a tribute to video vixedivas of yore—and Gaga and Madonna are unmistakably, god-how-dumb-are-you-not-to-see-this, front and center (filtered through Xtina's adorably skanky performance, of course).

As well they should be. Between the two of them Gaga and Madonna have designed some of the best music videos ever created, and between their deeply differing aesthetics and remarkable musical talents they've managed to push three generations far past their visual and psychological comfort zones while staying smack in the center of the musical mainstream. Not bad for two bleach-blonde pop stars.

Gaga is indeed the Heir Apparent to Our Lady (rarely has a baptismal name been so appropriate). Madonna, being the most successful female recording artist of all time, is the standard by which success is measured for all female pop artists, and so Gaga’s been compared to Madonna for several years now.

There've been others who aspired to the title of Heir to Our Lady of the Garter (Britney most openly, or perhaps only most pathetically). But two things have always stopped the starlets: the first is the nature of their attempts at heirdom (imitation does not, after all, a Blazing Original make), the second their exclusionary approach to visual and musical artistry.

That kind of exclusion is utterly incompatible with either the personas or the music of Gaga and Madonna. A hallmark of both women’s performances is that it's impossible to draw a meaningful distinction between visual presentation and musical substance when watching them—and it’s that lack of boundary between the auditory and visual aspects of their art that helps set both women apart from those aspiring to heirdom. The marriage of visual to auditory art is at the center of both Madonna’s and Gaga’s musicality.

Hollywood’s never been known for economy of scale; its record companies know how to put on a show on behalf of any number of stars. But Gaga and Madonna have something different than the general run of flash and spark that passes for “image-building” amongst musical stars: a unique and constant self-reinvention resulting not only from their incredibly strong grasp of the word spectacle (and hence spectacular), but more importantly from genuine and highly individualistic visual aesthetics.

Madonna modeled for Basquiat at the start of her career; Gaga created her own production company from the band of visual artists and designers she befriended while living in New York. Because both are musicians, their personal visual aesthetics are filtered through the lens of their music...but neither woman relies on her music to justify her aesthetic. Visual and auditory aesthetics are, for both, part of a larger identity as an artist—a whole which neither feels a need to define or divide.

Because of that holistic approach—and their enormous talent as visual as well as musical artists—both Madonna and Gaga have created visual art (spectacle) which can stand independently of their music, art that is both visually overwhelming while remaining (you'll pardon the pun) in concert with the feel of the song for which it's created. Other musicians pawn off this aspect of their image or artform onto producers and stage directors; their visual and musical representations aren’t different faces of the same polished structure but a piecemeal, jagged collage. The difference, literally, shows.

Madonna's Fritz-Lang-inspired “Express Yourself” video is a case in point. No-one else would have conceived the visual interpretation of a song about female empowerment in sex and romance as an erotic reinterpretation of 1920's German expressionist anti-capitalism cinema. With a cat.

She wrote the script. Chose the costumes. Chose the cat. Oversaw the set. In other words, Madonna ran the show—the director took her lead on nearly everything, wise man that he is. (His name? David Fincher. Yeah—that Fincher.)

Gaga's artistic vision is, if possible, even more exacting. Her “Haus of Gaga” is a group of artists she chose and nurtured herself; her creative control over every aspect of her production is as near absolute as a group of artists working collaboratively allows. Her visuals are both rendered and timed with enviable rigor—her most distinctive video, “Bad Romance” (a tale of kidnapping and prostitution at the hands of the Russian mob) contains sequences designed to be spliced to millisecond precision (the less-than-a-second series of gestures she makes about 2 ½ minutes into the song is both meticulous and potent).

So. Visual artistry and creative control are the first area in which Gaga—and no other female pop artist—is Madonna's equal.

The second thing, the one that makes Gaga the true Heir to Our Lady, is the (pardon the buzzword) transgressiveness of her persona.

Many, many female artists transgress boundaries. (Most good art, in fact, does.) But all the Heir-Aspirants to Madonna attempted to transgress the same boundaries that Madonna did—boundaries she'd already trampled so thoroughly that her followers' attempts were meaningless.

Madonna's persona was original in the world of pop music. One does not become heir to the truly original—whether persona or idea—by imitation.

And Madonna personified Sex.

Sex in all its forms. Open, covert, digressive, transgressive—Madonna was the first female pop artist who flaunted her sexuality openly regardless of criticism or consequence. Desire, power, the language of deviance—she took them all on, subverted both the imago and imagery of sex for nearly three decades. (It still astonishes me that anyone mentions Britney or Xtina in the same breath as Madonna. “I'm a Slave 4 U” or “Dirrty” versus “Justify My Love”: the latter visually and lyrically redefining gender roles and acceptable sexual norms; both of the former individual statements of sexuality. Not transgressive—or even relevant on a larger scale.)

So. Madonna = Sex.

And in a time where openness about one's sexuality adulterated that which made one a desirable woman—violated the idea of female sexuality—being openly sexually desirable and openly sexually voracious made Madonna the Transgressor.

And now? Post-Madonna? In a world where female pop stars appear sexually voracious as a baseline—in an attempt to establish sexuality? Now we have Gaga.

And Gaga = Fear.

Oh, the sex is in there. No question. Gaga is as or more sexually brash than other Heirs-Aspirant (check the bench scenario in the “Lovegame” video in the unlikely event that you need confirmation of this). But the thing which sets her apart is a sensibility that is both obvious and coequal to sex in her visuals: a fascination with the grim and grotesque. That fascination lends a razor edge, a subtle and vicious backhand, to most of her sexuality. Her sex appeal almost always contains a taunt, a threat, a grimace.

Gaga's persona, and her biggest transgression, is based on fear—of the threat of violence, of the grotesque, of the monstrous—and its disturbing mixture with sex.

“Paparazzi”, “Telephone”, and “Bad Romance” are the videos which display her fascination with fear most clearly. It's a toss-up as to whether her Mickey-Mouse makeup as she murders her boyfriend, her dance in the middle of a diner full of corpses, or the hat fashioned from a dead, fanged piglet is the most telling of her visual grotequeries thus far; but the touches are there in nearly everything she's done. The performance of "Paparazzi" in which she ended up on a meathook. The Grammy performance of “Born This Way” in which she's visibly deformed (this is actually a theme in several of her videos, including “Bad Romance”).

Madonna transgressed societal boundaries with sex. Gaga transgresses psychological boundaries with the interplay between sex and fear. (Or sex and death.)

Madonna and Lady Gaga. Both mega-stars. Both brilliant visual and musical artists. Both transgressive.

One aggressively sexual. The other sexually grotesque.

Both captivating. Both seductive.

Like Love. Like Revenge.

at 22:04

[Who looks inside, awakens:] Wind and Rain

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.

-Carl Jung


My dreams this morning were--perhaps predictably--horrific.

The one-month anniversary, added to a late-night notice of my sibling having had a car wreck, combined with the upcoming neurology exam to produce a long dream about me having developed a (hopefully imaginary) form of cancer that caused systemic arteriovenous fistulas. Despite me waking myself from it several times, the dream--set in the grim green basement corridor of some dark, dreary building in which I was administered bouts of radiation therapy which left me writhing in pain and vomiting behind the rusting metal fire doors on the climb out, while my stricken mother looked on helplessly--would not let me escape. I endured it until I staggered shaking into my kitchen this morning.

Time was when I'd have set the whole thing to paper. Time was, not so very long ago. But time moves on, and people go to medical school, and nowadays my dreams stay in my head.

But I was reading through my dream journal with this morning's coffee, trying for perspective, and came across one that I set to paper three or four years ago. One that was somewhat frightening in the beginning, but gentled towards the end, and beautiful, start to finish. Its memory gave me comfort.

So I decided to share it. I hope that it adds something good to your day. (Note that the "you" I address is a person years in my past, with whom I'm not even "friends" on Facebook.)



Wind and Rain

I kneel in the middle of a wide lawn stretching to the edges of the marble paths which enclose it on all four sides, a square of living green bounded by the still cold white of the stones.

I am in the center alone, my hair unbound, falling down my back and across my white shift, blowing across my face in the rising wind. Above me the sky seethes, the roiling, predacious darkened grey moving swiftly over my head in a flight from the larger teeth of the storm stalking behind it.

The wind quickens, and now the paths are crowded with people, speaking to each other as they walk two by two along the dully glinting marble. None look at each other, none raise their voices above a murmur. None tread on even a single inch of the greensward.

I watch them, their measured steps and mellifluous murmurs forming a soothing pattern which underpins the thrumming rush of the wind, rising now as if in counterpoint to the rich susurrus beneath. The gale is whistling now: a high, rising whine which whips my hair aloft like a banner, stinging my eyes and flailing my skin, though the perfect silken green beneath my knees bends not so much as a single blade. The clothing of those on the paths around me is untouched.

I look up at the sky, and the black, ravening mouth of the storm is raging down upon me, the roar of the water growing as the drops fall nearer and nearer.

And then it is upon me, and as the raindrops hit the people on the paths they waver, like a refraction when some shadow passes through it, each globe interrupting my line of vision until the people still walking along the paths are nothing more than a flickering suggestion, flashing hints glimmering above the white marble like errant rainbows and nothing more.

When first it comes it is as though I have never seen lightening before, a tearing stutter of light that seems to have ripped through into some radiantly pitiless sun, and in a white-blind world I hear the pursuing thunder, howling into the backflash: a deafening, abyssal scream that shakes my body from top to bottom.

When I can see again, you are there.

My ears still resounding to the knell of the thunder, I blink across at you standing on the far side of the path, facing me. The faint, iridescent glint of the others on the walkway fade as they pass before you, and resume on the other side; the rain still falls in a shrieking torrent. I can see you, can see your lips moving.

But I can’t hear you.

You step onto the path, easily, as though it were no barrier, and instantly the glints of movement on it fade to stillness. You and I and the storm are abruptly alone.

Then you step onto the grass of the square. You stand there, on the near edge of the virid green, and the raindrops threshing against me lighten, strumming more kindly on my scoured skin.

You walk towards me, and at your every step the rain lightens, dropping with an ever-gentling touch until, when you stand five paces away, it is the merest suggestion of a fine mist clinging to my lashes. I look up at you in the increasing light, and my ears pick up a scant whisper of human tones as you smile at me.

It might be my name.

at 22:01

Teatro di Roma, Prima Lettera--Appendice Fotografico

Written Monday, December 27, 2010.


I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian for some time last night about Europe, and my experiences in Italy. Upon looking over mementos of it today, I was seized with remorse for never having posted my photographs from there (I have literally thousands through which I've never sorted).

I had, however, managed to crop and post a few of mine from Rome. I'll be spending a lot of today going through the rest; but in the meantime, here's the link to my set from Rome on Flickr. (Only 31 shots at this moment, and leaning heavily toward the Castel Sant'Angelo, but worth a look nonetheless. It'll be augmented thoughout the day.)

Sumi's Rome Photos

The rest of my photos from Europe--sadly only from Munich, right now--are up on this Flickr account too. You can reach them by clicking "Ninane Emrys' Photostream". (The name isn't a reference to my proficiency with a camera...yet.)

at 21:57

Starlight and Eternity

Written Monday December 20, 2010.


Sandra texted me last night as I was driving; called me this morning. When I saw her text I knew.

I spent the drive up from Martin thinking about your nickname.

Before this fall I'd never had a nickname for you. We joked about it a couple of times—really, four letters is just about as short as a name gets.

But soon or late, I give most people who are important to me a name—most often one that's arcane. One that names them—names that which makes them who they are. Becky the Pirate [Seanachaidh, Storyteller] and Marie [Suryakanta, Beloved of the Sun], amongst others, can testify to that.

Your name, though—it eluded me. Eluded me for more than 20 years. Should it be based on your acting, or your art, or your music...?

Then you told me about why you'd been sick.

And suddenly naming you was simple.

Nakshatra, I told you. Nakshatra, the light of the eternal stars: The light which shall not fade.

Of course it was an attempt at magic, magic of the only kind I know. Of course it was. Of course I did it to keep you. To hold you here. To tie you so firmly to this earth you blessed that nothing and no one, no force extant or imagined or invented, could ever rip you away.

But my magic, like Schmendrick the Magician's, seldom tames itself to my hand. And like Schmendrick, I am a fool. Foolish. Grasping and foolish and hopeless.

How can any magic tie down the wind?

Because that's what I sought to do. Like noosing the wind, like reining a storm of light—like a normal mortal seeking to lasso Pegasus. Pegasus, creator of the fountain of the Muses—or Bucephalus, destined only to be ridden by the King of the World—magnificent steeds, untrammeled and untameable.

You, like the legends, owned a grace and power and surety—in acting, in music, in writing, in art— that never missed a stride...and, like Secretariat in the Derby, a swiftness that ensured that you ran your own race far, far ahead of the rest of the field.

But you worked your truest magic on those of us who ran with you.

You shed luminance as you ran, like a silver sparkler: coruscating, incandescent, the point of your ignition blinding. But no thoroughbred, no cascade of sparks could have created the torrent of light through air that your every stride did. It surrounded you, pouring from you, swirling from you as color from ink blooms through water: Luminance, fierce and passionate and exultant. Light made visible in naked air.

How could it be otherwise, when you burned so very bright?

And what that liquid flame touched kindled into clarity. Became easier to see, to understand. Became more lucid, more recognizable, more truly itself. Became more.

Including us.

That was your magic. The surging whorls of light which poured off you quickened the field. Quickened all of us running behind you. We saw it, bathed in it, felt it lift us—felt ourselves become more intent, more fleet, more graceful. More beautiful. More exalted.

Felt your radiance make us more.

So my enduring foolishness cannot possibly be your fault.

Nakshatra, I told you. The light of the eternal stars.

As if starlight or eternity could ever have been adequate to capture or hold one such as you.

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