Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wilfred Owen: "In poetry we call them the most glorious."

Wilfred Owen was a poet who was killed in the First World War, at the age of 25.  If you're familiar with his poems I don't need to tell you about them. If you're not, I don't know what to say.  I suppose his most famous poem is "Dulce et Decorum Est."

Recently I came across a collection of his letters, edited by John Bell (who published Owen's complete letters in 1967, and these selected letters thirty years later.)  Owen's war poetry is so bitter, sharp as bayonets, shaking with rage, that I was surprised to find another side to him in his letters:  light-hearted, enthusiastic, and frequently funny.  Most of them were written to his mother.

When war broke out in 1914, Owen was living in France, working as an English tutor.  He did not want to do this for the rest of his life; in fact, he had no clear plan for his life at all.  He wrote poetry but barely allowed himself to dream of making it his career.  He did not enlist until 1915, and spent over a year in officers' training.  Although he had been in no hurry to join up, military life seems to have suited him well.  His letters home are invariably cheerful.

On his first day in France (before reaching the front lines), he cut his thumb and joked about it being his first war wound: "I could only squeeze out a single drop of blood."  Once he arrived at the Somme, the tone of his letters changes completely:
16 Jan. 1917

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days.  I have suffered seventh hell.
I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.
I held an advanced post, that is a "dug-out" in the middle of No Man's Land.

We had a march of 3 miles over shelled road then nearly 3 along a flooded trench.  After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top.  It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water.  Men have been known to drown in them.  Many stuck in the mud & only got out by leaving their waders, equipment and in some cases their clothes.

High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. But it was so dark that even the German flares did not reveal us.

My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air.
One entrance had been blown in & blocked.
So far, the other remained.
The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn't.
Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life.
I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.

In the Platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing.  One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected.  If I had kept him he would have lived, for [officers'] servants don't do Sentry Duty.
The short, choppy sentences are also atypical for him.  About a month later he wrote:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Infighting, Part 1: Transsexual vs. Transgender

Visitors to my blog may notice that it's described as "a transgender blog." You may also notice that I often don't write about trans-related stuff. There are two or three reasons for this:
  1. I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender. But my thoughts and feelings have not yet been organized into words.
  2. I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender, but I almost wish I didn't have to. I wish I could take it for granted. Non-trans people don't have to constantly interrogate their gender.
  3. I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender, but I recognize that it is more interesting to me than it is to anyone else. And since this blog is a public document, I do try to write about things that other people might possibly be interested in.
Now that I have finally come out as trans, I want to be out. But I know that doesn't mean I have to only talk about trans stuff. I'm still working this all out.

Nonetheless, there are times when I have something to say about transgender. And reading this article generated one of those times.  The basis of the article is the question, "What is the difference between 'transgender' and 'transsexual'?"  (Incidentally, the word "transsexual" was originally spelled wrong in the headline.  Kind of a bad sign.)

Obviously there is a difference between "transgender" and "transsexual."  But the definitions given in this article do not sit well with me at all.  Basically we are told that "transsexual" denotes real trans people (except when they're not - more on this below) and "transgender" denotes people who are faking it, who aren't serious, who are just playing dress-up games and don't deserve any respect.  This is where I have a problem.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Why I'm Not an Atheist

Recently a friend caused me to watch an episode of Bill Moyers' show on PBS, Faith and Reason.  It was an interview with Dutch writer Anne Provoost, whom I had never heard of before, but she brought up some thought-provoking stuff.  The specific topic of this interview was her retelling of the Noah's Ark story.  She wants to know why God would destroy almost all life on earth, just because he didn't like the way people were behaving.  Didn't he create all these humans and animals?  If they don't function according to spec, isn't that a flaw in the original design?

At one point Moyers asks, "can you trust a God who doesn't get it right?" and Provoost replies:
Why would you trust a God that at this moment, doesn't come back to give us the right book. You know, through history, he's given the Jewish people a book. And he's given the Christians a book. And he's given the Muslim books, and so there's big similarities between these books, but there's also contradictions.  I would think that, you know, he needs to come back and create clarity and not let... he shouldn't let us fight over who's right. He should make it clear. So, my personal answer to your question, "Should we trust," I wouldn't.
She has a good point.  All the same, I'm not an atheist.  (Incidentally, Provoost is not an atheist either.)  Nor am I Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  I don't have to believe in that god (and yes, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god is pretty much all the same god.)  Some people say, if he doesn't come back and tell us which of those religions has his personal seal of approval, that proves there is no god.  I say, maybe it's not "his" job to provide a book with all the answers.

The other point that people use to disprove the existence of god is the question, why does he let good people suffer?  I actually think that this is an example of anthropomorphism.  God is not human.  God is not a person.  We don't ask, "why does god allow trees to be cut down?"  "Why does god allow our pets to run away and get hit by cars?"  "Why does god allow factory farming?"  Most of us accept those as valid forms of destruction . . . and even if we don't, there still seems to be an assumption that god is supposed to look out for people first.  If god were a tree, or a cat, or a cow (and god has been all of those things), wouldn't it have to protect those above all?

We think of ourselves as the Chosen People, or rather the Chosen Species.  Which brings up another comment by Provoost:
Now what strikes me is that never ever in history do you have a group of people that says well here's us, but that group there, these other people, they are chosen. So, whenever you have a proclamation of being chosen, it's always a self-defining process. It's always the people who are chosen who say they are chosen. They never say that about the other. They always say that about themselves.
I find that very interesting because in my experience, we as individuals do often feel that other people are better than us, other people are special and we are sinners, we are the bad ones.  And yet she's right that no group of people, as far as I know, have defined themselves as the un-Chosen.  It's as if we can only be rejected by God individually.  (Now, in the recent Rapture-that-didn't-happen many of us identified with those who would not be saved.  But if we really believed in that stuff we wouldn't say that, I don't think.)

I'm actually a Daoist.  The Dao fulfills many of the same functions as what people call "God," but it's not a person.  It's not an old white man with a long beard who lives up in the sky.  It doesn't talk.  There is an official book of Daoism - the Dao De Jing, which means "Book of the Way (Dao) and the Power (De)" - but it doesn't feel right to call it a "Bible."  And although Daoists are just as attached to their own religion as everybody else, I don't think any Daoist would say that the Dao De Jing contains The One and Only Truth.  In fact the very first line of the book says "the Dao that can be put into words is not the real Dao," thereby casting doubt on its own validity as a sacred text.

Like all religions, Daoism clearly defines right and wrong.  But one thing it's lacking is punishment.  The Dao (being neither a vengeful nor a jealous god) never sets out to punish anybody.  Perhaps the best Daoist metaphor for evil is "swimming against the current."  If you're out of harmony with the Dao, that's bad.  If you're out of harmony with the Dao, bad things are more likely to happen to you - but not because you are bad, just because you're not behaving the right way.  Here's another good analogy:  if you drop a rock on your foot, it hurts.  That's not a punishment.  It's just gravity.

So.  I'm not an atheist because I believe that there is something out there, a guiding force in the universe.  A power that is the universe.  It's not all random.  But it's not focused on humanity either - neither to exalt us nor to punish us.  It's bigger than that.

Here are the video and transcript of the Provoost interview.