Monday, August 23, 2010

Lemmiwinks the Gerbil King - a pre-axial age hero

Hopefully you will be familiar with the sublime South Park episode 'The death camp of tolerance'. A plot summary is on Wikipedia. For these purposes, Mr Garrison the children's teacher is trying to behave in an outrageous manner in order to get fired so he can then sue the school. He reaches his denouement by inserting Lemmiwinks the class gerbil into the anus of his lover, Mr Slave.

Once the sphincter closes, Lemmiwinks begins an epic journey through the gay man's digestive tract. He is aided bythe spirits of other animals who have been inserted in a similar manner. These are the Frog Prince, who gives him a magical helmet, the Sparrow Prince who advises him, and the Catata Fish who tests him with a riddle which he must solve. When he finally escapes and is coughed up by Mr Slave, he frees the spirits of the animals and is crowned the Gerbil King. Throughout, a song accompanies his quest. It is sung in a folksy voice and in a quasi-bardic style it outlines his heroic exploits.

Google Lemmiwinks and you will see excellent YouTube videos. The animated journey has Lemmiwinks portrayed as a realistically drawn gerbil, with no human expression on his face. Lemmiwinks has no internal life and undergoes no reflective process. He does not develop as a character, and his story is told entirely from an outside point of view - of the bardic singer and the animal spirits.

When i first saw the episode, i was amused for several reasons, only one of them being a long term love of the scatological. Obviously, Lemmiwinks is cute and innocent and that is juxtaposed with his gory plight. And obviously, he does not show human expression - he's a gerbil, for heaven's sake. But i was surprised how much his story resonated with me, and how i intuitively understood how the story went. Lemmiwinks is of course an archetypal hero in the Joseph Campbell mode. We know his story as intimately and unconsciously as we know that of Luke Skywalker or Herakles. Or Harry Potter.

But let's go back further, to a crucial age in the development of humankind, and because all of our thinking is moderated by the popular media we will consider Lemmiwinks the gerbil king from the points of view of two theories which i believe intersect in interesting ways - Karl Jasper's seminal ideas about the Axial Age, and Julian Jaynes' theories in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Thus we step into the gloriously dodgy field of psycho-history.

Between about 900 and 300 BCE vast and traumatic changes took place in the main civilisations of the world. People travelled and traded more, environmental crises occurred as semi-pastoral societies ran out of resources, and new technologies emerged. Larger units of society such as city states developed. The cultures we think of as our own various heritages were formed then - India, China, the Levant, and Greece.

There is evidence that prior to this Axial Age people did not have the reflective capacity we have now. They experienced their actions as driven by fate or the gods. Individuals had a name, loyalties and ties, and a personal history, but did not see themselves as conscious moral decision makers. Terry Pratchett would say they did not have a psycholology.

Jaynes takes the view that in the days of Homer's heroic age, people literally heard or were commanded by the gods. When early writing talks about this, it is meant literally. For Jaynes, people routinely hallucinated and obeyed their hallucinations. Their brains were 'bicameral', or split in two, and one side talked to the other. During this period of time, peoples' brains physically changed. They learned to mentalise - to talk to themselves inside themselves, and to reflect and choose. They became conscious moral agents. Jaynes sees vestiges of bicameralism in some modern phenomena such as hallacinations in mental illness, and the experience of religion or the psychic world.

Jasper noted the change wrought during the Axial Age in the development of religion. Early Vedic and Biblical scripture is ritualistic, and people become briefly divine by following ritual properly. Over time, ritual becomes more symbolic, and finally it becomes internalised. Instead of sacrificing an animal in fire, people meditate on their own internal fire, or even do away with the symbol altogether and just meditate. Early prophets in the Old Testament describe being driven by God to act, even against their will. Later on, God is less present in the world, but works through the moral doings of his servants. All our great world religions came from this period. All of them came to some sort of view that we must live rightly to understand our spiritual selves, and that we must have compassion for others. This was a revolution, and it happened over a surprisingly short time.

Lemmiwinks is a bicameral, pre-axial hero. He is guided directly by spirit animals, not by his conscience or by entering a higher state. In other words, he hallucinates his way through the gay man's digestive tract. He does not reflect on his actions, nor is he a free moral agent. His only choice is keep going or die. Despite having a deeply chthonic experience that harks back mythically to the time of Chronos, he is not aware of this. He frees the animal spirits incidentally, not because of any conscious compassion or belief about the value of life. If he has a soul, and there is an afterlife, he does not know about it.

He's a gerbil, for heaven's sake!

Recommended reading:
Daniel Smith 'Muses Madmen and Prophets' on hallucinations and bicameralism
Karen Armstrong 'The Great Transformation' on the Axial Age.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Two notes may help this poem.

1. i express the idea 'necessary but not sufficient', which is often used in academic philosophy. i can think of many situations in real life where something is necessary but not sufficient.

2. i hold a negative view of evil. i share this with some important thinkers such as Augustine. Evil is the absence of good - it is what happens when good people do nothing. Evil is not a positive force or a person. Evil is in stupidity, ignorance and laziness. Evil is easy. It is what we sink to without education or hope or exposure to virtue. It is not a metaphysical concept. Major evil is probably rare.
i think when we die we take only virtue into the next life. This means if we have not developed virtue, we do not do well in the next life, because we lack the tools. A baby in the womb develops limbs and lungs for which it has imperfect or no use. Only when it is born does it find the use for what it has developed. We develop virtues in this way - but in this world we have the choice to do so consciously.

Here, then, is the poem.


No one kills themselves on my watch.
i won't allow it.
But you did.

You were loved.
You were the most loved of men.
Love is necessary but not sufficient.

You were good.
You weere known for it.
Goodness is necessary.
Goodness is still necessary.
You take it with you
and you leave it behind.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Wilie and the Poor Boys

i mentioned more on Willy Apiata and it is timely given that New Zealand/Aotearoa has had its first military fatality in Afghanistan. It rattles the teeth a bit. i have a nephew-in-law over there. We are still a small enough society to know someone who ...

On heroism. When i talked to my husband the Archduke Piccolo about Willy's VC he was scornful. In his view, New Zealand is an invading power and the true heroisim lies with the 'insurgents' who have been invaded, and who are fighting back with everything at stake. Yeah, i agree it is still the wrong war, even if Iraq was wronger. And i agree it is good to look at our ideas of heroism and take them beyond the military purview. To ask what are the medals for and what do they show us. And who gets them.

i wondered about the George Cross, which can be given to civilians. i noted that its recpients tended to be in uniform, if not in the miliatary itself. The only female recipient outside the British secret security forces in World War Two, (and unless you count half the population of Malta) was Barbara Harrison, a (uniformed) airline stewardess who saved passengers from a plane on fire, and gave her life doing it. New Zealand's most recent GC came out of the Aramoana shootout ( a quasi-military exercise, if you will). So the sort of heroism for which you get medals could be characterised by a sort of uniformed mentality. Nothing wrong with that. Short bursts of extreme action. Giving it up for your mates. Pragmatism. Knowing who you are. Task focused. Wily, quick, strong. Punching above your weight. Unity. But then of course there are other sorts of heroism - like the residents of Gaza, who require acts of uncommon bravery just to get through the day. Or those already-poor people of New Orleans who saved others during Hurrican Katrina - young people who kept others safe, and who are now battling poverty and gang violence in forgotten communities. There are also many people who are simply heroes of their own lives, survivors of the usual soul-crippling muck our kids often get dished out like sexual abuse and impoverishment and ignorance and stupidity.

i still think Willy Apiata is a hero. He also portrays dignity and humility and courtesy in all his public dealings. i hope he lives. i hope he continues to exude mana and provide a true role model to young men. Moreover, i hope noone tries to deconstruct him, or do a revisionsist hatchet job on him.

i also nominate for my own personal GC list Nicola Inchmarch, of Viva Palestina, who i understand is heading back again to run the Gaza blockade. Kia Ora Gaza!

Monday, August 2, 2010

in the style of Ogden Nash

Here is a very short poem about teenage boys: